Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu: Yeah, that's an apt title


The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu



This new DVD collection of Osamu Tezuka's short animated films from Kino Video certainly lives up to its title; it turns out that Tezuka's endless creativity and drive to keep creating stretched well beyond the world of comics. His crazy energy is quite apparent in these shorts, which range from a few minutes to over half an hour, sometimes spotlighting a small bit of action or a goofy joke, and other times delivering epic stories of human nature, man vs. the environment, and war. Yes, it always comes back to war; World War II definitely had an impact on Tezuka's work.


The shorts here are full of experimental ideas and unique bits of animation, and they're all fun and fascinating, often mixing beautiful background drawings and bits of surrealistic expressionism with Tezuka's signature cartoony figures and silly jokes. Of the included cartoons, three of them are pretty lengthy, with the others seeming like smaller one-offs rather than extended meditations on a theme. The first one, "Tales of a Street Corner", made in 1962, depicts moments in the life of the denizens of its eponymous location, including a little girl, a little mouse, a moth, a streetlamp, a tree, and a series of advertising posters. The latter provide some of the most interesting parts, as the characters on the posters all move in choppy animation limited to just two or three frames and dance together. It's highly enjoyable, and there's even a sort of story in which a violinist is in love with a piano player, raising the ire of a sexy model. We also see the tree try to find purchase for its seeds, the little girl get upset because she dropped her teddy bear out of her window onto the roof of her building, and the mouse run around causing trouble with his siblings. It's mostly a series of scenes about these various characters, until the poster all get ripped down and replaced with a bunch of images of a Mussolini-esque military leader, and war comes to tear apart everything. It's pretty horrific to see all these innocent characters get mowed down by bombs, and one amazing, heartbreaking bit sees the violinist and pianist's posters both get blown around above the flames as if they are dancing, eventually burning up together. At the end, the little girl survives and wanders off through the wreckage, and the tree's seeds find purchase, sprouting to begin live anew in the rubble. Striking stuff, and it's all scored to some excellent classical music that I would probably recognize if I was more artistically literate.

The next long bit is "Pictures at an Exhibition" from 1966, and it's actually more of a series of shorts linked by a framing sequence that sees the camera pan across a gallery of paintings before zooming in on one or the other for a short sequence, each in a different style. Most of them are pretty goofy, including one about a cosmetic surgeon that's a series of Tezuka gags done in a scribbly, child's-drawing style and a scene of a starlet who gets fawned over by fans, directors, makeup artists, costumers, and the like before shooting what turns out to be a foot medicine commercial. But then things get serious for a short about soldiers, which tries to capture the experience of war in a burst of abstract images like splotches of color and swooping shapes that zoom around the screen to pounding, intense music, seeming to take the shape of tanks, planes, bullets, explosions, and the like. Things get more representational for a bit, with limited-animation pencil drawings of soldiers getting in a fight over a wounded girl in the midst of a jungle setting (Vietnam was in full swing) before getting bombed and turning back into abstract chaos. It's amazing. And then the final bit sees an arch carved with Greek-style images of godly beings, under which all the characters from the previous shorts pass and enter some heavenly gates. The carved musclemen holding up the arch start to wander after the characters, but the arch starts to collapse, so they have to rush back and hold it up again. It's like Tezuka is urging viewers not to pay too much attention to his silliness and neglect the work that keeps the world running, a feeling emphasized by a final scene of an orchestra of doofuses playing the final bits of music as their instruments all explode or fall apart. Don't say he wasn't self-deprecating.


The final long piece is "Legend of the Forest", which was apparently only the first part of a story that Tezuka never finished. It came out in 1987, and Tezuka died in 1989. It's the tale of a peaceful wood that gets disrupted by man, who comes to cut down the trees. Yes, it's a fairly obnoxious environmental story, but it's worth watching for the exquisite animation, which starts as a series of still images featuring realistic-yet-cartoony scenes of a squirrel father rushing to save his tiny children from perishing in a tree that is being chopped down. He drops one, and the animation switches to a sort of white-on-black vector graphics style, before becoming more of a simple, stark line, focusing on the lost squirrel child. As he grows up and learns to glide (he's a flying squirrel), he gets in fights with birds and becomes a troublemaker, transitioning to a very Disney-esque style of animation. Then he decides to make war on the lumberjack and gains a girlfriend, which leads to a more realistic style while still retaining some cartoony expressiveness in the characters. And it all ends in fighting and destruction, of course, leading to a second piece about mystical woodland creatures trying to make peace with construction workers who want to level the forest. This second part isn't as effective as the first, but it's interesting to see a group of dwarves who seem stolen from a more famous movie, all the fairies and nymphs that Tezuka can dream up, and a very Hitler-esque foreman who rejects the offer of peace. It's a strange film, and not entirely successful, but it's still pretty fascinating.




The shorter films aren't all as interesting or gripping as the long ones, but some of them are very effective in what the do, especially 1984's "Jumping", which gives viewers a first-person experience of a character doing exactly what the title says. We start out hopping down a neighborhood street, but the jumps get bigger and bigger, as we spring across forests and rivers and eventually into a city, over skyscrapers, and across oceans, eventually ending up in a war zone and jumping into an atomic explosion. There's that war theme again; Tezuka couldn't get away from it. The thing about this one is the way Tezuka and his animators put the viewer right into the action, adding a real sense of height and movement, and even inducing vertigo in one bit that sees us rise high above a city and perform a triple somersault. A bit in which a bird starts attacking leads to real irritation; it's amazing how well the viewer is put right into the mind of the jumper, even though we know nothing about them. That's what Tezuka did so well, always coming up with new ways to tell a story, never sitting back, always moving forward.


"Broken Down Film" (1985) is another great bit of goofy experimentation, seeming like a degraded bit of old-timey film that's covered with scratches and constantly slipping out of frame. Our cowboy hero, who looks like one of the characters in one of those old cartoons from the early 20th century, is constantly getting rattled by the jerkiness of the film and sneezing from all the dust and scratches on the print. He ends up rescuing a girl who is tied to railroad tracks by grabbing her "HELP!" word balloon and throwing it at the train, then he fights the burly bad guy by climbing in and out of the frame. It's tons of fun, similar to the fourth-wall-breaking antics of many of Tezuka's comics.


Finally (out of the ones I'll mention) is "Muramasa", from 1987, a samurai story about a man who discovers a sword, imagines the awesomeness of killing, practices on straw dummies, then goes crazy, seeing everybody as dummies and slaughtering anyone who comes across his path. It's not quite the same war theme, but it's still about violence and death, so it certainly fits into Tezuka's obsessions. The animation is fairly limited, although the backgrounds are gorgeous tableaux of green bamboo, and everything is propelled along by some incredible music in the old Japanese style. Really cool.

So yeah, it's a pretty amazing collection, and a must-watch for Tezuka fans. There's also a fairly lengthy interview with the man himself, mostly about "Jumping", so don't miss out on the chance to hear the master speak. I'm very glad I got to watch this artifact of artistic excellence that spotlighted a side of Tezuka's career that I hadn't considered before. If you're interested, you can watch some of the included shorts online, including "Jumping", "Broken Down Film", "Memory", "The Drop", "Mermaid", "Push", "Self-portrait" (I didn't mention those last five, but they're worth watching), and a short portion of "Legend of the Forest" (UPDATE: there's also this kind of annoying videoblog review of the collection, with clips from every short). Good stuff; Tezuka is awesome, isn't he?