Hey everyone! Sorry for the hiatus after such a short-lived return, but I am back (and unfortunately in America). I’ve been using my quarantine time on a number of things: a new creative project, remote work, cleaning, exercise, and so on. After settling down a bit and seeing that this situation will probably not change for a while, I figured I should throw myself into my work. I think this blog isn’t something I consider to be work, so I haven’t been keeping to it (perhaps as much as I should). That being said, I still have lots I want to write about and I want to be more consistent with posting. We’ll see what happens. For now, please enjoy this article about the independent films of the great Osamu Tezuka!
For those who have not heard his or one of his many names, Osamu Tezuka is a genius. God of Manga. God of Anime. The Japanese Walt Disney. Osamu Tezuka is likely the greatest reason for why anime and manga exists today. You might know him for Astro Boy, Black Jack, and Metropolis, but it’s a lot less likely that you’ve heard of his self-funded short films like Jumping, Mermaid, and Push. So, in order spread some awareness, I thought I’d publish a handful of my short reviews alongside the videos that anyone can watch for free on YouTube! I urge anyone interested in anime and animation to take a look at what started the medium we know today!
Osamu Tezuka’s Jumping (1984) is a first-person animated short film where the protagonist is not explicitly identified. Through several clues, we can begin to vaguely discern the character. The film starts with the character hopping down a suburban street, the small jumps barely lifting the camera off the ground. Already we can tell from the camera positioning and corresponding perspective that the character is low to the ground, likely a child. That theory is further corroborated once a car comes speeding toward the camera and the character let’s out a boyish grunt as he jumps over the vehicle.
What’s established here is that the character we’re following is a small boy starting out in a small suburban street (likely where he lives). From here, his leaps become exponentially larger as he moves on through the forestry and surrounding agriculture. Each time he lands we catch a glimpse of what’s happening on the ground—on an individual basis/smaller scale. Sometimes it’s a man on a hike in the woods, other times it’s a naked woman enjoying her privacy on a skyscraper balcony. Physically rising and falling symbolizes the changing perspectives of the world, increasing in size with every bound but always returning to a more focused image of what’s happening in the lives of people.
These people all live in varying environments, characterized not only by the visuals but also within the increasingly detailed sound design. The film starts quietly, with the only noise to be heard being the landing of every jump. Cars passing by, tree branches being rustled, birds chirping, and so on. The limited sounds describe a more peaceful countryside and changes into a more constant buzz and chatter once the boy has entered the city.
The ending of the film takes us through a warzone (giving us a brief moment with ground soldiers on the characters landing) before jumping straight into the Atomic Bomb. A scream is let out, presumed to be the child, and then we land in a fiery scene with cartoon devils stirring a pot. After being sent to hell, the devils push the kid back up and return back to the place he started—indicating that this jumping journey wasn’t a mere venture from point A to point B. It’s a cycle of human life, a repeated destiny to explore the world and everything humanity has to offer, until one finds the thing that will bring their journey to an end.
Osamu Tezuka’s Ningyo can be summarized into three main acts: The first act consists of the boy playing by the sea, staring at a common fish until it becomes a mermaid. They dance around whimsically and the world around them becomes more abstract as joyful music plays out. Once the opening act ends, we witness the boy return home with his mermaid friend and soon after becoming institutionalized for claiming to see the fish as anything other than that. After a dreadful montage of a kind of conformative therapy, the boy returns home once again—this time, however, unable to see the mermaid. Thus, starts act three, where the somewhat lost memories of the mermaid eventually urge the boy to run back to the sea. The mermaid then reappears, and they escape from the shore out into the horizon.
A more succinct way of describing this animated short would be to say that it is a story of society suppressing creativity. The film starts with a boy dreaming of a world where he can frolic with a mermaid, his creativity being most clearly illustrated in the moment where he and his mermaid friend create music by playing a cloud as a flute and the ocean as a piano. Once the boy tries to share the products of his imagination, however, his parents do not become similarly enamored. The moment he reached home, the colors of the film swap from a whimsical ocean blue palette to dreary grayish-browns, blacks, and whites—emphasizing what is in this sense, the ordinary. From there the boy is put through therapy to eliminate these perceived delusions, and in this montage, there are cuts to shots of synchronized marching and shots of large stacks of books being pushed upon the boy—symbolizing conformity and a forceful push towards a certain type of higher learning. After his therapy is complete, the boy can barely remember the mermaid, but a vague urge still exists that drives him out to sea. His reunion with the mermaid is peculiar because of what is happening around him: All the townsfolk stand at the shore and gaze out at the boy heading into the horizon. This cryptic imagery is meant to symbolize society itself, and how all eyes tend to point toward the things that stick out: the people that go against the flow—in this case, the boy swimming away from land and against the waves.
Tezuka Osamu’s Push begins with a man driving through a barren landscape, a large dust cloud trailing him throughout the movie. On his journey he makes several stops to replace his earthly belongings—canteen, clothes, car, pets—with shiny, newly upgraded versions. These storefronts turn out to be merely vending machines, used with the quickest of interactions—the push of a button. At the end of his journey, the man meets god and asks for a new Earth. God responds that it is impossible, then disappears, leaving the man alone to gaze out at the vast, crater-filled scenery.
This is a very lonely films, made apparent by aspects such as its empty backgrounds and solo character. Every stop the man makes we see rundown shops and stations, and in those places, the only things that are left are automated sales machines. Those machines add to the lifeless feeling of the world, giving us the only voice we can hear up until the brief conflict between man and God. These bits of automated dialogue are a remnant of human interaction, something that wouldn’t be necessary to program into a sales machine, but nonetheless exists as a reminder of how humanity once functioned. Much like the vending machines offering upgrades of the man’s possessions, the automated machine labor itself is an upgrade from its previous model: human labor. It can talk just like a human, but ultimately requires a lot less maintenance, and so was likely the cause of what the planet has now become.
Osamu Tezuka’s The Drop (1965) is a simple story with even simpler animation, in comparison with a handful of his other work. There is a castaway man, trapped on a raft and thirsting for water. This scenario makes use of the dramatic irony that is dying of dehydrating in the middle of the sea—because ocean water is undrinkable, despite also being approximately 96.5% of Earth’s entire water supply. The man frantically struggles to obtain a drop, killing a bird in the process, and eventually gives up. After a cartoonish depiction of the man hanging himself, two other sailing travelers appear to deliver the punchline of the film—that the man was in the river the whole time, and therefore could have easily drank from the bountiful supply around him.
As for the animation aspects of the film, The Drop is quite rudimentary, utilizing mostly the mere basic techniques and principles in animation—things like 2-3 frame loops and a revolving background. Add to that a lack of filling between the key frames—the man jumping from pose to pose rather than showing physical movement—throughout most of its length make the film come off as rather stiff. Still, the short was entertaining, and adhered to a very important principle of animation—there should also be movement, unless its lack thereof is intentional. So even when the character itself is not animating or emoting very much, there is still movement in the background to keep the viewer visually stimulated—in this case, it was the waves of the river that maintained the flow of the film. Though it is peculiar that the raft itself did not bob along with the waves it floated on.
Broken Down Film
Broken Down Film (1985) is a very clever title for an animated short that not only resembles the look and feel of a broken film reel, but also aware of its own broken state—breaking the 4th wall and hence “breaking” down the aspects of film itself. There are many ways this film shows its understanding of itself, starting with the cowboy physically lifting up the misaligned film reel he exists in. Film grain has a bit of an overbearing presence, and so when the cowboy comes across a damsel tied to a railway, he takes a towel and wipes away a circle of film grain to more clearly see her face. Later in the film, he opens an umbrella to shield himself and the woman from the film grain as if it were rain. This is amusing because film grain is a mere biproduct of film itself, meant to be ignored and not treated like it exists within the world of the film.
There are plenty of other visual gags throughout the movie relying on this understanding of the classic film medium, though film grain and reel clipping are the two main aspects of film being utilized.
Nearing the end of the film, there is a moment that breaks away from the classic film motif, turning into a more refined animation of a ballroom dance that looks like it could have inspired Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which came out years after the release of this movie. After the grand, romantic dance sequence, the scene returns to the cowboy and the woman laying on a pile of hay—perhaps meant to be a comedic contrast between worlds.
Tezuka Osamu’s Muramasa (1987) is a retelling of the classic Japanese folklore known as the “cursed blade”. The film starts with a man wandering in the forest, the entire scene colored in a distinctive red. He happens upon a straw puppet, laying at the base of a tree with a sword conspicuously left stabbed into its mid-torso. The man pulls out the sword, and already we are keyed into the sense that there is something mysterious about this blade—the close-up on his wide-eyed face staring at the blade in front of him arguably being the most ominous shot in the sequence.
Immediately after that fateful encounter in the woods, the scene jumps to the man alone in a room, still gazing his new, unsheathed sword. The scene feels unsettling due to the framing and minimalistic composition. There is no background, nor even literal ground to be seen—there is only the torchlight, the man, and the sword. The next day, the man trains with his new sword, much to the disapproval of a wise man figure. After seeing wise man shake his head, the swordsman unsheathes his blade and runs forward—but the scene cuts to his slashing just another straw puppet. This use of eyeline matching sneakily represents what the swordsman himself is seeing, rather than what we would see if we were a physical audience in the world of the film.
What really is happening is that the man is on an uncontrollable killing spree, only seeing his victims as human-shaped bundles of straw. Eventually his spree comes to an end when he realizes he’s about to strike down a child. After running away, the cursed sword turns him into a straw puppet the likes of which we saw in the beginning of the film: the scene where the sword was found in the first place. We then cut to the now blue-colored landscape imagery, just as a new traveler wanders up to the sword, and red takes over the scene once again.
Tales of a Street Corner
It is somewhat difficult to summarize Tales of a Street Corner due to the film’s many narrative threads and robust cast of characters. As the title suggests, this Osamu Tezuka film takes place on a street corner. A building wall is decorated from side to side with poster advertisements, and these advertisements serve the story as part of its cast. The posters showcase a wide variety of lifestyles involving things such as religion, art, ethnicity, and occupation. Prominent posters have their own storylines including an old drink server’s tragic death (when he’s ripped from the wall), the distanced love between a pianist and violinist, and a dancer brewing in envious rage because of it. Aside from the poster’s tales, there are also narratives following a little girl losing her teddy bear in a gutter, a colony of rats living of the girl’s food offerings to her unreachable bear, and a moth contending with a streetlamp.
In the very beginning, Tezuka showcases his astonishing layering techniques as soon as the balloon salesman enters the scene. The camera pulls out from a panning shot going down the row of posters to reveal a man walking down the street with a cart of balloons. Then the film cuts to a top-down shot of the balloon cart as one pink balloon releases toward the sky. Using one of the most basic principles of drawing perspective, the balloon becomes larger as it come toward the camera and farther from the cart. An impressive detail here is the rendering of the buildings in the reflection of the balloon, morphing as the balloon comes closer to give off a sense of photorealism.
One more interesting moment in the film worth highlighting is the moment the dictator is introduced. Leading up to that point, the film is merely a playful musical with every poster clapping along to the rhythm. Everything comes together in harmony, and so it is no coincidence that when the dictator’s propaganda poster is slapped onto the wall, the music comes to a complete stop. This is the dictator physically disrupting the harmony of this street corner—and foreshadowing what’s to come in the final act.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Tezuka’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1966) starts with a live action shot of the outside of a museum building overlaid with basic opening credits. From here the film cuts to a wall with paintings stretched to both sides. The camera pans down the wall to stop at key paintings, or characters, and zoom in to explore their backstories. Each story varies dramatically, with no connecting narratives between them. Along with each story, the art style rapidly changes as well. The film ends in a climax of all the paintings coming together and passing through heaven’s gate.
As for the meaning behind this ending, and the individual vignettes leading up to it, it is very hard to tell. Each story comes with a classic Tezuka punchline, his humor revolving mostly around absurdity and irony. There’s a factory proprietor that becomes subject to the automation that he implemented to put all his workers out of jobs, a contemporary artist beautifying a nature garden by killing it with artificiality, and a Zen priest that doesn’t move an inch in while meditating through rain and snow…but then is caught yawning after his intense session.
The one thing the film lacks is a sense of community that can be found in a similar Tezuka work, Tales of a Street Corner. Aside from walking together in the “Allegorical Conclusion”, there’s no interaction between the paintings, and instead seem to all live in their own separate worlds. The allegory in the “Allegorical Conclusion” is not made clear, because all the individual pictures and their satirical stories behind them do not tie together in any meaningful way for the final scene.
Memory is a humorous short film with a video essay-like format that takes us through the ideas of various types of memories. In its introduction, the film establishes a comedic tone with its intentionally cheap-looking paper-cutout animation accompanying classic commercial narration and music. The film opens with the narrator talking about the film’s subject matter and goes on to define memory as “times when you want to forget but can’t”—an amusing and slyly pessimistic description. From here we move on to the different kinds of memories, starting with first love. As the film says, it starts with the fluttering of the heart and leads to the disappearance of every other girl around you, until in the end when all the blissful memories are destroyed in the wake of a nasty breakup. Each experience ends with a similar kind of punchline.
This film is about finding humor in the peculiarity of certain types of memories. The journey from first love to first breakup is funny because it reminds us of how far one can fall from a euphoric high. Nostalgia can too be perceived humorously through the idea of things never changing in one’s mind. A schoolyard bully always being that, even when they’ve matured into a respectable adult, or the prettiest girl in town still holding that title in even her late 60’s—thoughts like these express the absurdity of memories’ inability to grow or move on. Then there’s war recollections, and the inevitability of tragedy eventually becoming yet another thing to look back upon amusingly. Even the atomic-bomb isn’t immune to humorous depiction, which is a particularly astonishing revelation coming from a person like Tezuka, who lived through the Showa Era. So, in many regards, memory can be a very droll thing indeed.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading! To see more of the works of Osamu Tezuka, I suggest checking out this site: https://tezukaosamu.net/en/