Tezuka’s Secrets of Creation


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Helen McCarthy’s book The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga (Abrams) comes packaged with the NHK TV documentary Secrets of Creation shot in 1985, four years before Tezuka’s death. It’s one of the best cartoonist documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Most of it takes place in Tezuka’s “secret room,” an apartment behind a door with no name plate, where he does all of his comics drawing. Nobody except his wife is allowed past the hallway. His manager’s role is to bring three meals and a newspaper every day. The NHK reporters install a Big Brother-like camera system to record Tezuka working in his little, cubicle-like space. It looks like he hasn’t moved in yet, but he’s been drawing there for years. We watch him yawn, scratch his elbow, erase pencil marks, watch television, put on a record, nap on the floor, stretch, stand on his head and draw twenty pages a day. The NHK reporter narrates all of this with lines like “he moves his pencil with incredible speed” and “alone in his secret room, he draws each page through his own pain and forbearance” and “the Manga God is also a human being.”

It’s incredible—possibly the best documentation of the hard work of cartooning. It doesn’t hurt that Tezuka is very likely the hardest working cartoonist of all time. We see him draw two pages in the car on the way to an airport and three pages on the plane ride. He travels to an animation festival in Hiroshima and has to alternate between drawing comics pages in his hotel room and the party downstairs: Draw two pages in his room, go across the hall to fax them to Tokyo, then downstairs to party a bit and then back up to his room, repeat. He turns to the camera and says “It’s a miserable life.”

Of course, Tezuka had assistants, but the truth is, as the documentary shows, he really did draw a lot. It’s not like he just penciled the pages and handed them to his staff. He agonizes over his drawings. He’s an artist, not a factory-runner. He tells the reporters that as he’s gotten older it’s harder for him to draw circles. “This is a dilemma.” Many of his characters, like Astro Boy, are designed on circle shapes. We see him draw a word balloon shape with his crow quill pen—his assistants don’t even do that! The reporters explain that Tezuka draws all of the character movements and expressions. Obviously, he wants to be in control of the psychology of the character performances. Maybe only the backgrounds for the comics are finished by his assistants from pencil guides that he draws. He blocks in shapes of the different marks, hatching shapes, and the assistants execute that and he approves it.

But for a famously “humanist” artist, he runs one hell of a sweatshop! One staff member can’t remember how many nights he’s been sleeping at the office. It’s not like what I think of as the American animation production idea of casting artists like casting actors. You expect and want the individual artists to bring their own sensibilities to the cartoon. You see that methodology in everything from Disney to Ralph Bakshi. From this doc, it seems like Tezuka sees the animation more like his comics- all drawn like his drawings. The assistants are there to draw in his style and produce a Tezuka effort, not a team effort.

I don’t exactly know what created this super-human drive, but I have a little theory: Fred Patten, (a close friend of Tezuka’s) in his book Watching Anime, Reading Manga says that Tezuka was really into Floyd Gottfredson. Those Mickey Mouse comics, to my eyes, look the most Tezuka-like of anything pre-Tezuka. I brought this up with Gary Groth, who’s publishing the forthcoming Gottfredson Mouse book, and he said “yeah, it’s sorta like proto-manga.” Maybe when Tezuka saw those comics they were credited to Disney and he thought Disney actually drew everything the way that he’d (later) draw everything. And so he created that path in his mind, and then only later found out that Disney runs a completely different operation. That’s just my little theory of a contributing factor. Obviously, it’d take more than that misunderstanding.

This documentary really shows the fantastic complexity of Tezuka’s character—something that’s present in the writing on him, but hard to imagine in words. It’s different to see actual video footage of him driving everyone around him crazy. One editor hilariously explains that, due to the stress of the job, “lots of editors suffer from hemorrhoids.” Tezuka’s constantly racing against deadlines. He sees his wife and home only sixty days out of a year. I want to go back in time and talk to him: “Hey, listen: you don’t have to do Unico and these thirty other things. Finish Phoenix. Spend some time with your lady.” But it’s strange and I’ve thought about him a lot since seeing this DVD earlier this year. While manga is a huge business, one that he basically created, he wasn’t doing it for the money. I’ve read everywhere that he was a terrible business person. He did nothing but lose money on animation for years and years. He’d get paid from some comics and blow it all off on personal projects like his experimental cartoons (Memory, below) and his experimental film company Mushi Productions went bankrupt. When thirty (!!) debt collectors came to his house, Tezuka told them to wait outside while he finished drawing a comic page! What a story! I love it!

You can see that Tezuka’s exorcising his demons on the page. He can’t bear to look at drawings from his “dismal, dark period.” He tells the reporters about consciously trying to change his drawings, to draw more realistically, and how the readers are always confused by the changes. On his cartooning life, he says “you’d have to be stupid to do this.” Like many cartoonists, it appears very connected to his childhood. His mother made him flipbooks in the margins of his comics. He collected and drew insects, which now populate many of his comics. He is a super-human idea-generating machine. He says it takes him ten minutes to come up with a good idea. He explains that many of his ideas come from combining disparate elements. Adolf came from combining Hitler with Richard Sorge, he says. Ideas being born from a mating of disparate sources, sort of a fusion way of looking at things, is also what a large part of what Steven Johnson’s recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is about. Tezuka credits Rakugo traditional Japanese comedy, which he says often “brings three random concepts together.” Anyway, in one part of the doc, when he finishes a story, he looks genuinely happy, giddy, grinning and hopping up and down, until he realizes he has to draw 32 pages of a different story by tomorrow morning.

This documentary is an insane, fascinating portrait. Of course, it’s sad too, knowing that his death came so shortly after it was filmed. The doc will haunt you for a long time. Everyone interested in comics should see it.

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21 Responses to “Tezuka’s Secrets of Creation”
  1. Yeah, this film is necessary viewing for any cartoonist out there, and is worth the price of the book it’s packaged in.

  2. kevinczap says:

    I remember being totally blown away by this DVD as well when I saw it, particularly the scenes you mention. Rushing to finish pages as he rushes to catch a flight.

    What was really interesting to me was how quickly he seemed to be able to draw. It makes sense, considering how long he had been working. But it was still fascinating to see how, it was almost like he was writing, he had that much command over his hand. For anyone who loves his style, it’s exciting to see.

  3. I love this documentary! I’ve watched it at least five times, and whenever I do I’m inspired.

    One of my favorite aspects of watching Tezuka work in the film is seeing how “careless” he is with the paper he draws. He bends and folds pages like they weren’t anything, and I guess they’re not; when you’ve made 1000s of pages you can’t be precious. When he’s eating that rice ball, I half expect him to take his page and clean the corners of his mouth with it!

    Fascinating portrait of the ultimate cartoonist. And yes, he appears to run a sweat shop, I always feel bad for the guy he tells to grab a book from the shelf, he looks like he’s about to crap his pants

  4. Cory says:

    I really need to see this.

    It’s weird, the people who inspire us the most are usually people with insane motivation and drive to always be working but when we’re able to take a closer look into their actual human lives, there’s something tragic there, they have to sacrifice so much to their work. Tezuka is a huge hero to me and his imagination was amazing but I’m definitely not envious of his personal life, I wouldn’t wish for that.

  5. zak sally says:

    showed this movie to one of my (comics) classes cold, frankly to kill some class time (this is rare, believe it or not), thinking “hell i’ve always wanted to know a LOT more about Tezuka…”, and i was just in a sort of stunned disbelief through the whole thing.
    the almost nonchalant insanity of how much and how intensely he works is just…i don’t even know WHAT to make of it. you would think that at that level you would relax somewhat, or just tell editors “piss off, i’m OSAMU TEZUKA, i’ll finish the thing when i damn well please, and right now i’m going to go out to dinner and catch a movie”.
    “work ethic” is one thing; what he’s doing is a whole nother level….it’s like…some kind of punishment trip.
    i totally want a team of assistants, just like him. and jim davis.
    will someone PLEASE publish that “dark period” stuff he cites in the doc (that he says should never be reprinted)? those pages are GORGEOUS.

    hatching guides?!?! good LORD ABOVE!!!!

    • Lastworthy says:

      I could be totally wrong, as I’ve yet to see the video, but isn’t the “dark period” where most of the Tezuka we’ve been getting in english comes from? The majority of what Vertical has been putting out has been ’70-73 material, which seems to be the most focused he ever was on telling “adult” stories. From what I’ve seen It seems like there is a trend again toward darker material (mostly shorts?) in the early 80’s, but that’s also a period where he was working on stuff like Unico.
      I’m sure i’ve got a wire crossed somewhere, It’s insane how much Tezuka there is out there.

  6. Delete this if it’s against the rules, but corporate monolith Amazon.com is currently selling the $40 book/dvd combo for a paltry $14.89!
    Link: http://www.amazon.com/Art-Osamu-Tezuka-God-Manga/dp/0810982498

  7. covey says:

    Dash, you always have some interesting thoughts to add. The Disney idea is particularly interesting. It’s about as speculative as one can get but I could imagine that sticking in someone’s mind at a young age, as that person is still developing (and no doubt often lauded in Tezuka’s case, making him only able to internally measure himself against THE BEST, the MOST prolific and capable cartoonists in the world). Throw in a little of the neurosis that Tezuka must have and maybe you’d never shake loose the idea that you have to be as prolific as everything signed “Disney.”

    On another note: I’m curious- do you recommend the Johnson “Ideas” book?

  8. Lastworthy says:

    Wow, if I knew that video was included I would have made getting that book a much higher priority, Japanese documentaries on creative-types are uniformly mind blowing.
    I think it’ll still have to wait until after Ayako next week.

    then again…

  9. dash shaw says:

    Hey Jacob, yeah, I hope I made it clear that that theory is totally speculative. I can’t back it up at all.
    I don’t know enough about everything involved to speak critically about the Johnson book, but I liked it. It’s super easy to read and enjoyable. I’d recommend it.
    Lastworthy, yeah, I don’t think the exact page that Tezuka was looking at in the documentary has been translated. But I can’t be sure. He’s always working on multiple stories at the same time, so you can’t look at one story from a time and assume they were all similar from that period. He worked on Phoenix for twenty years. As you said, it’s hard to keep track of everything.

  10. DerikB says:

    Book and dvd is only $15 at Amazon. I ordered a copy today.

  11. I’ll have to check this out, particularly because I teach a manga class to 8th graders.

    Great find – little side note that I think is worth mentioning. Allow me to get on my soap box.

    It kind of frustrates me when genius cartoonists say things like “You have to be stupid to do this” or “it’s a miserable life”. Chris Ware, Adrine Tomine and a coupla others are guilty of this self loathing too. I can’t tell if this is some lame self modesty, clinical depression or being 100% literal. In any case, it’s just frustrating because I disagree with the sentiment; it’s outdated. Sure, cartoonists spend a lot of time sitting behind a desk in isolation. But 95% of privileged society does that anyway in cubicles looking at people’s faces on facebook. Little kids spend the same amount of time in isolation playing XBox or whatever. At least cartoonists are producing, not consuming!

    This said, I haven’t seen the documentary. Perhaps Tezuka is one of a kind and really just a lunatic.

    • alb lee says:

      While I certainly agree that such a notion is outdated, I think i still enjoy the whole attitude in and of itself as a general reflection of the craft of cartooning itself. Sure, comics may be on the slow, (read: slow) rise up the ladder in terms of recognition in art, societal, and overall respect, categories of existence but to the guys you listed, I think in some respect they get off on the thrill of participating in something that most (in their mind) consider completely irrelevant.

      So, they stick with it. Sort of a niche thing, imo

  12. Scott says:

    I was surprised that the team of assistants did not even fake enthusiasm for their work in front of the film crew. The only time they didn’t seem stressed was when Tezuka was boarding a plane at the airport. Does anyone know if his assistants went on to make a name for themselves? That sort of sweatshop atmosphere would almost seem justified if it at least launched a few careers.

    • tshaw says:

      According to Tezuka’s introduction to “Electro” Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009) got a break assisting on Astro Boy.

  13. I’m happy to have run across this because I had no ideal this book/dvd was around and it seems to be great.

    I have even more respect for Tezuka knowning he so hands on with his comics and I’d love to reach a point in my career where I can draw all day and have someone drop of food for me.

  14. Thanks for the notice to this- never saw that the book shipped with a DVD, let alone a documentary that covers Tezuka’s work process! I always assumed that there was a lot of exaggeration involved in descriptions of the amount of work Tezuka actually produced- sounds like less exaggeration than I had assumed.

  15. jasontmiles says:

    “I’m begging you, let me work!”

    Tezuka’s last words as lay dying from essentially not taking care of his health (remember he was a doctor!).

  16. […] Shaw has a fascinating take on the new Tezuka book from Abrams and the DVD it contains. His thoughts on “the God of […]

  17. Nick Jones says:

    Dash, thanks for the great post, and thanks all for the glowing comments too. I’m managing editor at Ilex Press, the UK publisher that put together Art of Tezuka and the accompanying DVD (co-published by Abrams in the US, of course), and I can tell you that we at Ilex and the book’s author, Helen McCarthy, all worked really hard on this project, so it’s fantastic to read that people are appreciating it. When I was sorting out the translation for the documentary I watched it quite a few times, and it never ceased to amaze me. Glad everyone else is having the same reaction.

    Nick Jones

  18. […] Osamu Tezuka worked really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard. “Tezuka is very likely the hardest working cartoonist of all time. We see him draw two pages in the car on the way to an airport and three pages on the plane ride.” […]

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