AKA: The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu
Year Released: 1962-1988
Running Time: Anthology, 13 short films, 13 seconds-39 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Art of the Short Film, Fantasia, The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer
-The title was changed to reflect the creator’s first name and surname in order.
-Osamu Tezuka is responsible for many firsts in anime. He created Astro Boy which is the first anime TV series ever in 1963 and Kimba the White Lion which is the first anime series created in color in 1965.
-There’s a graphic novel award named after him and he even has a museum in his honor that’s in Takarazuka, Japan.
-Osamu Tezuka had met Walt Disney in real life at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He was inspired by Disney’s works and even made an authorized manga adaptation of Bambi. Interestingly enough, Walt wanted to do an American remake of Astro Boy although he never had the chance to.
-Want to know some anime/manga personalities inspired by Osamu Tezuka?
Go Nagai (Mazinger Z, Devilman, Cutey Honey), Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kikaider, Super Sentai/Power Rangers), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball series, Dr. Slump, Chrono Trigger),
Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle)
-Stanley Kubrick personally invited Osamu Tezuka to be an art director for a little movie he’d make called 2001: A Space Odyssey. He politely declined because he couldn’t afford to leave Japan at the time. Yes, that actually happened. I could only imagine what the movie would look like with him working on the art elements…
I needed to check out some anthologies with short films, so I figured that reviewing the experimental works of Osamu Tezuka would be a good addition to Iridium Eye. I never considered myself a Tezuka fan compared to the works of animators that came out decades after his heyday. He’s more of an animation figure that I respect more than I like though. I’m not going to deny his influence on animation (especially Japanese animation) even though he’s not that well-known besides Astro Boy here stateside. Sure, I’ve reviewed Kimba the White Lion and the 90s sequel/remake Jungle Emperor Leo even though Tezuka was already dead for eight years when that film was released.
Let’s check out The Astonishing Work of the godfather of manga, shall we?
The DVD kicks off this animated compilation with Tales of a Street Corner. This short film from 1962 (that’s a year before Astro Boy was animated!) is one of several pieces with no dialog. There’s this city with modernistic art aesthetics with several characters including a girl losing her teddy bear, a mouse who resides in the housing complex where the girl is, a moth who’s rebellious in the city streets, and a wide variety of sentient posters lined up on the city walls. I’m not making any of this up. This is like an assemblage of cut paper animation and the action is guided or at the very least accentuated by an orchestra in creative ways. The posters react to the sound as they are all clapping, dancing, moving, and everything. The main posters that get focused on are one containing a male violinist while the other one is a female pianist. They are looking at each other, but they are separated as some faceless jackbooted individual installs one poster of a mustachioed figure adorned with medals while raising his hand as a salute. The city begins to decay and more of those dictator posters get posted around in a surreal marching sequence that’s like a villainous version of the cards marching in Alice in Wonderland. The city is eventually facing bombardment as things get burned and destroyed. This was a creative short film that conveys a story despite no words being spoken. The final images are heartbreaking, yet surprisingly hopeful. I did have an issue with a couple of the posters resorting to Sambo caricatures for black people, but they are thankfully brief even though they shouldn’t have been there, to begin with. It did get a bit confusing at times with the presentation, but the whole of the story works well.
Next, we have the three-minute short called Male. This is a minimalistic piece that involves lots of bubbles and split screens between a man with a crazy alfalfa hairdo that would make a certain Little Rascal facepalm while on the other side of the screen are his pet cats. The tomcat is the one doing all the talking in this high-pitched voice asking why humans can’t be more like cats. It’s very strange how the monologue goes until the sound of sirens appears in the background while also revealing a major twist ending I didn’t see coming. This was some good dark comedy with that plot twist that M. Night Shymalan could only dream of.
Memory is a short film of almost six minutes long. It uses cut paper animation in a much cruder way as opposed to Tales of a Street Corner. It uses photographs of real-life faces attached to some animated bodies sort of like what would be done in the Angela Anaconda cartoon if anyone remembers that show. The narration is like an educational film from the 60s with the delivery, but the subject deals with memories of relationships, bad experiences with bosses, and even a theory about what the world would be like without humans. Yes, it certainly does escalate quickly in the words of Ron Burgundy of Anchorman fame. The subject was quite strange with the last one because it shows these bizarre-looking aliens who guess what human culture was like. One of them holds up a toilet and makes a grand hypothesis that humans lived in them and built civilizations that emulated the design of those commodes. I’m not making any of this up. I almost thought Tezuka was stoned when he made this.
Mermaid is another quaint short film. The character designs are very simplistic with them being line drawings among minimalist backgrounds. The simplicity works here and I could see the artistic merit here. Mermaid deals with a boy who imagines a fish on the beach to be what the title states. He dreams of going on adventures with her. However, in this world, imagination is illegal. The boy is put in an electric chair and constantly tickled to prevent him from thinking about mermaids. However, he can’t forget about the mermaids in his subconscious, so he’s forced to go back to the beach to return his fish, but the ending gets ambiguous. It wasn’t clear if it was insanity on the boy’s part or just having a big imagination. I’m leaning towards the latter since free-thinking wasn’t allowed in society. My biggest gripe with Mermaid was the horribly delayed subtitles on the DVD. That was some bush-league stuff especially since the other ones didn’t have that issue. I think the subtitles came up ten seconds after the original Japanese text appeared which was infuriating. I’m not docking the short film because of that DVD issue, but it really didn’t help. This short film deserved better.
There’s The Drop which was a quirky short that was darkly comedic. It involves a roughed-up sailor on a ramshackle raft who’s dying of thirst. All he wanted was some clean water but the elements prevent that. There’s the ocean which doesn’t count for obvious reasons, but there are drops of water that just won’t enter the sailor’s mouth. It even gets surreal as he pukes his insides out and hangs himself although he’s still alive. The animation was cartoony, but I really liked the backgrounds. There’s a static sky above and a slate sea below in this light chiaroscuro coloration. It was a fun exercise in his futility and you do feel bad for the sailor. With that being said, it was really distracting that the silent title cards had poor English grammar in them. No, just no. The story was funny, but that issue was on Tezuka Productions for this one.
The next one is Pictures at an Exhibition which is his other big short film from the 60s (1966, to be exact). It starts out with a live-action shot of a museum before it switches to an animated hallway loaded with various paintings. The music is based on a piece where the title of the short film comes from and the composition duties were handled by avant-garde musician Isao Tomita who worked on the scoring for several iterations of the Kimba series even after Tezuka’s death. It started off a bit dull until each painting got its time when Tezuka would make these short animations that revolve around whatever painting was there. The first one is a picture of a journalist. Tezuka re-imagines him as some purple-skinned vampire figure who bashes a bunch of stories unless they involve scantily-clad women. There are other ones with different animation styles, but my favorite one hands-down was the Gardener of the Official landscape. I loved the film noir setting and the extremely fluid animation that looks like it came out years if not decades later. There’s a dark urban environment that looks like Fritz Lang and Tsutomu Nihei (Blame!, Knights of Sidonia) made Gotham City. Speaking of Batman, I’d be shocked if Bruce Timm didn’t watch this and came up with the aesthetics and animation style for Batman: The Animated Series. That scene in this short film alone was phenomenal. There’s a funny one with a beatnik picture where the animation involves newly born chicks of different colors snapping their fingers before beating each other up in this clever parody of West Side Story. The TV Talent one had some hilarious elements like how she shows her legs at a stoplight for it to go green before speeding off to the studio. She gets all dolled up for a commercial, but there’s a great punchline as to what commercial it is in contrast to how she’s pampered backstage. I liked the different mix of animation styles and the conclusion of Pictures at an Exhibition which ties all the animated pictures together. It’s not perfect though. The credits list the creator as “Osam Tezka” which was just laughable romaji at its crappiest. Also, a couple of the pictures were offensive like the minstrel show jazz musician and the stereotypical luchador. Trust me, I’ve seen and read some old-school Tezuka stuff and some of it can be REALLY awkward to experience just like watching those old Looney Tunes episodes, Tom & Jerry episodes, and even some of Disney’s earlier movies. The concept is still fine, but those tiny elements prevented me from fully enjoying it.
The Genesis is a black and white short film from 1968. It was surreal seeing a Tezuka film doing this intentionally after the existence of color animes like his own creation Kimba and Tatsunoko’s Speed Racer where the latter predates this short by a year. The premise involves an alternate creation story as the narrator flips around the Adam and Eve story to suit the characters and world. In this version of the tale, Eve was created first. It’s not a human though. Eve is a truly alien creature. She then has one of her breasts removed to create Adam who is a short and stumpy figure that looks just like the main ingredient of his creation. I wished I was making that up. In The Genesis, the narrator says that a man’s role is to be squeezed and to be whipped by his wife. He then finds the forbidden fruit and, oh, you know the rest. I wasn’t a fan of this short film. Not because of its inversion of Genesis, but for the sexist implications in trying to reverse the story. Not only that, but the ending resets the situation by wiping out humanity and restarting the real Adam and Eve story. This was just bad storytelling and quite bizarre. The only good thing was the brief Astro Boy cameo, but that was it.
We then jump a couple of decades to the 1984 piece called Jumping. It’s exactly what the title says. The viewer is watching from the perspective of a girl jumping around the neighborhood until she’s jumping past blocks, cities, countries, oceans, and faraway lands. The backgrounds and scenery are vivid with their usages of greens, blues, and beiges with some rough lines in the trees and buildings. It reminded me of some of those Robert Munch cartoon adaptations of his stories which I remember watching a few of them as a kid. It does escalate quickly with some random dangerous things, but I felt underwhelmed despite the animation looking competent.
There’s Broken Down Film which I thought was the funniest of all the shorts. The film claims to have been made in 1885 instead of a whole century later. The plot is your typical Western with the girl-on-the-railroad-track scenario, but it’s loaded with fourth wall humor. The whole film uses extreme film grain, aging colors, redlined elements, and even 8mm film shakiness in hilarious ways. There’s even a brief scene where the cowboy and the damsel are in full technicolor and dance around in a huge ballroom. It looked like the iconic slow dance sequence from Beauty and the Beast except this short film is six years older than it. Just sayin’. All the fourth wall jokes were well-executed and this really looked like a film that was much older than it really was. Good work.
Next up is Push. This involves a man driving around in a post-apocalyptic desert in a world that looks as if Ralph Bakshi did an animated remake of Mad Max or Fist of the North Star. There are several machines where this man pushes a button to get what he wants such as clothes, food, and even a new hovercar. Each time, a female computerized voice would thank him. One thing that was a bit disturbing was him putting a bag of dead animals in a valve and with a push of a button, he gets brand new robotized pets. Keep in mind that this came out before Sonic the Hedgehog, so that brief scene should be much harsher in hindsight with those who’ve played the old games, watched SatAM, or read the Archie Sonic comics. The man eventually meets God in a bar loaded with pearly machines playing heavenly music. He asks God if there’s a button to push for a new earth. God tells him there isn’t and the man isn’t having it. The ending gets very dark by realizing what the rest of the world really looks like. The animation was quite good here. I did think the God aspect was confusing to me at first, but then I got it with the message Tezuka was trying to tell with Push.
Muramasa is the eleventh film on this list, and I’ll say that this was my favorite one. It involves the Japanese swordsman of the same name who becomes an adept killer. He practices with those straw dummies, but he has delusions by slicing open the targets until he realizes that he killed people instead of as he becomes a puppet for assassination. The art style was phenomenal. It uses watercolor backgrounds while using rough, yet realistic character designs. It didn’t even look like anything Tezuka normally does. My biggest issue with him is that some of his character designs can either be too cartoony or old-school for modern audiences. This certainly wasn’t the case there. Without a word of spoken dialog, it portrays the cycle of violence in a poetic way all the way until the end of the film as he faces his comeuppance with the most appropriate imagery used as the screen fades to red. This is one of my favorite things that Tezuka has done anime-wise.
The next one is the hyped-up 1987 short film Legend of the Forest. This was the only short film I’d heard of prior to watching this DVD even though it was in passing. It uses Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony as the soundtrack played by a major symphony in Japan. There’s an opening shot of trees which I thought was impressive. The film really kicks in with a 19th-century art style as this family of flying squirrels is being terrorized by a lumberjack as he is cutting down a tree. One of the babies falls down but is saved by a leaf. The animation then evolves into a black-and-white world resembling the early works of Max Fleisher and Walt Disney. The squirrel himself even has an old-school Oswald the Lucky Rabbit-type face in this segment. He becomes a nuisance to the other animals while he’s flying around to the detriment of others. The animation changes up again to resemble 40s animation, particularly the works of Bambi which had to have been intentional on so many levels. There’s technicolor flowing in these segments and the squirrel looks like a mix between Chip, Dale, and a pallet swapped Thumper. There’s even a female squirrel who flirts around much like the “mating season” scene in Bambi where that girl rabbit is macking on Thumper. Oh yeah, spoiler alert…the lumberjack gets his gun and shoots said potential girlfriend like she was Bambi’s mom. I know Legend of the Forest is supposed to be a Disney/Fleischer homage, but the imagery got way too into Disney fanboy territory for me. Props for him acknowledging inspiration, but that was getting to be overkill. The last quarter of the film is supposed to reflect modern animation at the time. After the squirrels come a ton of nude fairies, sprites, and woodland creatures congregating on how they can save the forest from the lumberjack conglomerates led by a CEO who looks like Adolf Hitler (how subtle). Legend of the Forest has gotten a ton of praise, but I wasn’t feeling it. Sure, the evolving animation was great with how it references different periods of animation, but it is so reliant on a green aesop that rivals Fern Gully in terms of environmental preaching. I wasn’t a fan of the overt Disney fanboying homages as it tried too hard. I feel that fans of that media company will bash this as a Fantasia-lite or a Bambi rip-off which has some truths to the latter especially the storyline with the squirrel’s relationship. However, if you’re a fan of that media company and you call this a shameless copy, yet you like a certain movie involving feline monarchs, then you’re a hypocrite if you factor in Kimba the White Lion, so let’s not point fingers here. With that being said, I found Legend of the Forest to be criminally overrated despite the high production quality.
There’s also a brief self-portrait short that’s only thirteen seconds. It was cool and innocuous, but nothing too noteworthy.
The Astonishing Work of Osamu Tezuka was a mixed batch of short films, but it’s good to know more about that animator’s more experimental works. I did like more of the shorts than I didn’t, so that counts for something. I enjoyed the production used in many of these films. Some were incredibly good like Muramasa and Broken Down Film. Some I found to be meh such as Genesis and the overrated Legend of the Forest. This was an interesting watch. I do wish that certain things wouldn’t be there like some offensive portrayals of different ethnic groups or the random pieces of nudity which served no purpose to the stories.
Here’s how I’d rank each one:
Tales of the Street Corner: 7/10 points
Male: 8/10 points
Memory: 5/10 points
Mermaid: 9/10 points
The Drop: 7/10 points
Pictures at an Exhibition: 7/10 points
The Genesis: 3/10 points
Jumping: 5/10 points
Broken Down Film: 9/10 points
Push: 8/10 points
Muramasa: 10/10 points
Legend of the Forest: 4/10 points
Self Portrait: 6/10 points
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you’re an Osamu Tezuka fan
Add 1 point if you like experimental animation
Subtract 2 points if you like more conventional forms of animation
-Quality visuals and production
-Creative art styles
-Offensive portrayals of minority groups in some shorts
-Disney homage going too far in Legend of the Forest
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warning: I’d say teens and up. There is some nudity in multiple short films. Muramasa gets violent with the main character’s killing spree. There’s also some innuendo in Male as the cat makes comments about how his owner makes love to his wife. Some of the imagery can be disturbing like soldiers missing limbs in Pictures at an Exhibition or the main character trying to hang himself in The Drop or a guy lying down on railroad tracks in Jumping.
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