The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
There are too many dead guys in this anime business. Losing Satoshi Kon as we so recently did (not to mention noted key animator Shojuro Yamauchi) brought this problem into sharp relief for many fans, and it's a problem I found myself reflecting on as I recently watched The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu, a wonderful single-DVD collection of the famous Dr. Tezuka's short films released in North America last year by KimStim. This DVD was something of a "stealth release," at least as far as fan-centric anime is concerned - there were no press releases, no ambitious micro-sites, no viral marketing campaign, and an awful lot of the print and online anime press failed to even mention its release. As for Tezuka, he is known far and wide as the creator of Astro Boy, the revered "God of Manga," and one of the chief architects of the anime business. Also, like Satoshi Kon, he died well before his time, succumbing to stomach cancer in 1989 at the age of 60. Think about that for a second: if he had beaten the odds and stuck around, he might still be doing stuff today, since he'd be just past the 80-year mark. Fans like you and me would probably have photos of ourselves with him at cons; it was a fond dream of his to establish anime as a creative force on these shores, and he enjoyed meeting fans of his work when he visited American fan conventions in the late 70s.
Here's the thing: by my reckoning, even if we put aside the many fine films contained on the Astonishing Work DVD, more than twenty of Dr. Tezuka's animated works have been translated into English and released in North America in one form or another. How many of them can you name, right off the top of your head? I reeled off fourteen or so before I had to go running to the internet and my well-worn copy of the Anime Encyclopedia. Some overly-kind people tell me I'm an expert on stuff like this, which is rubbish, but I am a pretty well-schooled enthusiast-- and if I can only name a dozen or so of Tezuka's anime that have seen English release, your average fan will probably remember less than ten. This is totally unacceptable, so what I'll do is discuss, briefly, every one of Tezuka's anime that saw release on these shores. Then I'll tell you why you ought to check out the swell KimStim DVD. Let's get started.
Obviously, the thing to do is start at the beginning: Astro Boy. Wait a minute, that's totally not early enough! Tezuka is actually credited on the production team of Alakazam the Great (nee Saiyuki), Toei's mon-steriffic, fun-tastic retelling of the Monkey King legend from 1960. This film saw US release in 1961 courtesy of American International Pictures (how about a DVD release, MGM?), but as Tezuka once confided to Fred Patten, he wasn't involved in the film; he was just asked to chip in his name for publicity purposes, being that he did have a popular Monkey King manga at the time, My Son Goku. Tezuka's relationship with Toei didn't stop there, though-- while he wasn't involved with the animation team, he did co-write the screenplay to 1961's forgettable The Adventures of Sinbad, which hit American theatres courtesy of Signal International. It also hit DVD bargain bins courtesy of budget publisher CatCom some years back; from a historical perspective, it's not a bad watch.
So what's next? Astro Boy! Tezuka's most famous creation was an instant smash on Japanese TV, and NBC Films were quick to gobble up the US rights. A memorable adaptation by Fred Ladd helped the series become a staple of American kids' TV, and the show is still available on DVD today courtesy of The Right Stuf International. The show's longevity and success would see NBC pony up resources to help create 1965's Kimba, the White Lion, the first color anime TV series. Like its predecessor, Kimba was a hit, and like Astro Boy, it's available on DVD to this day courtesy of The Right Stuf International. Kimba was the subject of a little controversy back in the early 1990s, when Disney's The Lion King raked in $400 million at the box office. Some critics were quick to cite similarities between the two, but Disney were equally quick to distance themselves from the earlier work, claiming there was no connection. If you're even a little curious, scare up a couple of Kimba episodes and compare for yourself; if you ask me, the similarities are numerous and obvious.
After this point, things start to blur a little bit. Tezuka's wonderful 2-volume Wonder 3 manga was ported to a black and white 52-episode TV version in 1965. This cartoon, detailing the exploits of three space aliens who disguise themselves as domestic animals in order to observe our world, was retitled The Amazing Three and adapted by producer Ruben Guberman and Miami's Copri International studio. The series was sold to a just a few stations in the US, including Los Angeles's KCOR and New York's famous WPIX, but it hung around on the airwaves long enough for several episodes to be taped off-air in the early 70s. These tapes are all that remain of the English version, though a Spanish film collector has recently surfaced with negatives of twelve episodes from KCOR's vaults, giving collectors hopes that they might one day see a DVD release. Along with that, producer Joe Oriolo nabbed Tezuka's seminal shoujo adventure Princess Knight, which once again was only shown on TV in a few markets in the early 70s. Several Princess Knight episodes were released on DVD in the UK under the title Choppy and the Princess, but there's never been an American home video release.
The 70s would also see the release of Cleopatra, Queen of Sex. This deceptively-retitled edit of Tezuka's unconventional Cleopatra (his radically weird retelling of the legendary Egyptian ruler's life and times was indeed a movie for adults, but by no means was it an ADULT MOVIE) was released in New York in April of 1972. I'm telling you, the next time I'm in New York I'm hitting the library to look at newspaper movie theatre listings from that period - the print, exhibited by Xanadu Films, has long been lost, and I have no idea if it was dubbed or subtitled. Hopefully, the entertainment section of the Times or Post can shed some light on the subject. As the seventies drew to a close, Tezuka created a remarkable animated sci-fi chapter of his Phoenix Saga. Titled Phoenix 2772, this film was dubbed and released on U.S. home video. Unfortunately, the vintage of the dub isn't clear (it was one of those Hong Kong-dubbed cheapies) and the home video release was never satisfactory - the film was first released as a chopped-up Just for Kids version titled Space Firebird. It would later hit video stores under its original title on the infamous Best Film & Video label, where it remained a poorly transferred pan n' scan job. This is a very cool movie, if a bit incoherent - ostensibly the tale of a genetically engineered soldier hunting the legendary bird of fire in deep space, it features numerous jaw-dropping animation sequences, and a really entertaining cameo by Black Jack, Tezuka's famous dark doctor. If you're really jonesing to see this film, your best bet is probably the Region 4 Australian DVD from Madman Entertainment.
Now we're into the 80s, which opened with two notable Tezuka projects. The first was Unico, a sumptuously animated feature film from Sanrio based on Tezuka's adorable little purple unicorn. Not only was this a beautiful and really fun family film, but it also was the first major project to involve a tiny, fledgling studio called Madhouse. Unico and its sequel, Unico in the Island of Magic (an earlier pilot film was never dubbed) were home video and cable TV staples throughout the decade. New Galaxy Anime, an upstart video publisher, surfaced in 2007 with promises to release both Unico films, but it never happened. 1980's other big deal was none other than Astro Boy! This color retelling of the boy robot's adventures was, once again, only shown sporadically in the US, but it aired to great acclaim in both Canada and Australia. For fans of Naoki Urasawa's exceptional Pluto manga, this version of Astro Boy does include an extremely entertaining animated version of The World's Strongest Robot. Astro Boy '80 would eventually find its way to DVD courtesy of Manga Entertainment; their release included both a subtitled version (in most, but not all episodes) and a dub, which, curiously, is different from the dub that aired in Canada and Australia. I still haven't figured that one out.
As the 80s progressed, the emerging Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) would dust off a handful of anime programs to fill hours in their schedule. One of these programs was Leo the Lion, which was actually 1966's Go Forth, Leo!, the direct sequel to Kimba, featuring an adult version of the character. CBN's dub is exceptionally clumsy, with wooden acting and an enjoyably awful theme song, but it's got a strange charm to it. Unfortunately, the DVD release features what may be the absolute wost sound mix I have ever heard on a commercial DVD, so steer clear of it. These episodes got released on VHS as well, if you're curious. This wasn't even close to being the end of Kimba in English, either - some weird Canadian company ended up getting the rights to the original series and creating their own dub, with black jack and hookers. And in the run up to the anime boom at the turn of the century, Pioneer dusted off 1989's TV remake of Kimba to sell as a children's home video product. Their dub-only VHS release involved cutting episodes and some sequences being shown out of order, details which proved endlessly frustrating to my colleague Justin Sevakis, who is a fan of this series.
Tezuka died in 1989, but his animated characters did not die with him. One of his in-progress productions at the time of his demise was Blue Blink, an intriguing TV series based on Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov's book The Little Humpbacked Horse. The staff completed this series according to Tezuka's carefully laid plans, and it actually made its way to Hawaii's KIKU-TV, where it was shown subtitled in the early 1990s. Also emerging in the early 1990s was In the Beginning, a 26-episode set of Old Testament tales directed by Tezuka's old understudy Osamu Dezaki. This series, which is a bit deliberate but extremely well-animated, came about because of a request that the Vatican made to Italy's RAI production house for a TV cartoon version of the Bible. RAI passed this request on to Dr. Tezuka, who created a pilot episode based on the tale of Noah's Ark. Tezuka died before he could complete subsequent episodes, but RAI and Tezuka Productions retained his pilot film and character artwork for eventual release. In the Beginning aired dubbed on ETWN, and was later released on VHS.
Up next in the hit parade is 1993's Ambassador Magma OVA series. Based on an earlier live-action TV series about giant battlin' aliens (which was also released in English, under the title Space Giants), Magma was produced by Bandai Visual and Tezuka Productions and billed as an important anniversary project; it even featured Tooru Oohira, who played the villainous Goa in the original live-action series, reprising his role. Despite this, Magma is unaccountably poor and incomprehensibly dull, so it's pretty amazing that the entire hoary thirteen episodes were released in English on both VHS and laserdisc. The series is quite bad, but it is salvaged somewhat by numerous weird moments and its energetic and almost completely inept dub, produced by a very inexperienced Animaze.
Starting in 1996, Dezaki would deliver what was probably the high water mark, up to that point, for anime based on Tezuka's manga. Along with longtime collaborator Akio Sugino, Dezaki directed a series of ten Black Jack OVAs. Tezuka's famous rebel doctor has remained extremely popular in Japan since his introduction in the 70s, and in the OVAs we have a remarkably gripping and sophisticated medical drama. Building on the momentum of the OVAs, the duo would create a lavish feature film, which took place at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Tezuka Productions actually dubbed the first six episodes of the series themselves, and easily found a U.S. partner in the late, great Central Park Media. Manga Entertainment ended up releasing the movie (also dubbed with the same cast by Tezuka Pro), but a few years down the line CPM acquired and dubbed the final four OVA episodes for DVD release themselves, using the same cast as the Tezuka Productions dub. Like so many anime DVDs, these discs are getting hard to find - if you come across them, don't hesitate to snap 'em up! Black Jack has also returned in recent years, in two new TV series that are available streaming on Crunchyroll. These shows retain the manga's serious tone, but are more similar in art style to Tezuka's original, cartoonish artwork than Dezaki and Sugino's realistic take on the characters.
Western anime fandom's appreciation of Tezuka's work started to approach its zenith, at this point - the fine Black Jack OVAs and the film were appreciated by many fans, and they were followed on by a truly blockbuster project, 2001's Metropolis. Directed by Rintaro, scripted by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on one of Tezuka's earliest works, Metropolis was a lavishly animated affair with great visuals and a pretty solid plot and characters. Its US theatrical release in 2002 was presented as a typical arthouse tour, with only a few prints slowly making the rounds of small theatres across the country, but this approach yielded almost three quarters of a million dollars, which was a surprisingly high take for what is usually regarded as a "token" theatrical run. Sony would release the film on DVD, and it has run regularly on cable TV since then. It's about time this one got a blu-ray release.
Tezuka Productions would go back to the well and remake Astro Boy in 2003, commemorating both the 40th anniversary of the cartoon and the fictional "birthdate" of Astro himself. The company spared no expense in revitalizing their flagship hero; the TV series was bankrolled by Sony, and directed and scripted by the famous (and somewhat infamous) Konaka brothers.
Unfortunately, its western release was badly, badly bungled, featuring a gutted musical score, extensively rewritten scripts, and some episodes either omitted or shown out of sequence; the show was irregularly bounced between Kids WB and Cartoon Network before being canceled. Its broadcast run was never properly finished, although Sony did see fit to throw out a dub-only, poor-quality DVD box. Astro Boy 2003's handling by Sony is a compelling model of how not to release an anime series in the west, which is pretty frustrating in retrospect.
I'll wind up the list with two more projects. The first is Jungle Emperor Leo, a 1997 retelling of Tezuka's classic Kimba tale. Regarded by some as an "answer" to The Lion King, the film, which retells the later part of Tezuka's original story, is satisfying but rarely exceptional. Media Blasters dubbed and released the movie on DVD in 2003. The final entry is another Media Blasters release, 2004's Phoenix TV series. Based on one of Tezuka's most ambitious manga works, Phoenix is pretty crucial - it's directed by the great Ryosuke Takahashi, with compelling Akio Sugino character art and a sweeping orchestral score by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Western fans were very excited upon its Japanese release in '04, because one of the producers was listed as WNET, New York's well-funded public TV station. This fueled speculation that the series would air on WNET, which was later confirmed by Media Blasters, who were handling the adaptation and home video release. But for whatever reason, Phoenix didn't make it out in English until 2007.
With all of that out of the way, it's time to spend a little time talking about The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu. Kimstim's DVD release is a smart, no-frills translation of the original Japanese DVD. Aside from English menus and the addition of subtitles, it's virtually identical, right down to the 13 shorts in the exact same order. The short films themselves run the gamut from grainy, scratchy 60s-era films to sharp, digitally remastered fare from the years leading up to Tezuka's death in 1989, and while the newer stuff looks great, I was left wondering if removing the hiss and grain of the older films wouldn't detract from their charm somewhat.
What these short films demonstrate, more than anything else, is Tezuka's absolutely remarkable, intuitive grasp of animated expression and storytelling. For a guy who got his start in comics, Tezuka took to the animated medium like a natural, practically flying out of the gate with Tales of the Street Corner. This 1962 featurette (40 minutes) is startlingly colorful, but has the flat, stylized look of famous UPA short films like Christopher Crumpet and When Magoo Flew. It's a moody piece, primarily set to music, that depicts life on a street corner from the point of view of handbills posted to the walls. It starts brightly, but when the surroundings turn to war and the effervescent, dancing posters are replaced with propaganda pieces featuring a Rodchenko-esque dictator, the mood turns. It's an endlessly clever little film, and it leads right into Male, a stark, simple conversation with between a man and his cat-- only with a wicked twist at the end.
Tezuka's subsequent 60s films run the gamut from Memory (stiff photographic cutouts give way to an absolutely boffo gag about aliens speculating on the usage of toilets) to The Drop (a castaway on a raft goes bananas trying to chase down the last few drops of fresh water on the boat) to his famous 1966 featurette Pictures at an Exhibition. This oldie but goodie is framed by a version of Mussorgsky's composition of the same name, jauntily re-imagined by Tezuka's musical partner in crime, Isao Tomita. While it's thematically a bit similar to his earlier Street Corner (pictures come to life and reveal stories of their own), it's still quite interesting, riffing on everything from Max Fleischer's Mr. Bug Goes to Town to West Side Story. The short does meander quite a bit, though - the good parts are really good, but it's not consistently good like his earlier featurette.
Pictures from an Exhibition actually casts some light on this collection's only serious flaw: it's kinda hard to take in all at once. Not only is the material a bit dry and aged, it's radically different from the TV and feature film anime that Tezuka produced throughout his career. Like a lot of older animated material (Zakka Films' wonderful The Roots of Japanese Anime comes to mind) it's sometimes tough to put aside the historical context and try to enjoy the material strictly on its own merit. Then again, Tezuka is full of surprises; 1968's The Genesis starts off with a huge placard proclaiming "THIS IS DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON" before spilling a bizarre interpretation of the Bible.
The thing is, then the 80s happened. I don't know why Tezuka effectively skipped a decade in creating his animated shorts, but he took a pass on the 70s and the next work of note wouldn't come until 1984's Jumping, but it's certainly worth the wait; the master starts with a simple sequence of a child, seen from first-person viewpoint, jumping energetically down the street-- only the kid's leaps get higher and farther, and start to take on comically strange trajectories. It brings comic animation auteur Bill Plympton to mind, but interestingly, Plympton's best work didn't come until the late 80s. I wonder if he saw Jumping before churning out comedy gems like Your Face and How to Kiss?
The collection is rounded out by the fine Broken Down Film, which pokes fun at both old cartoons and the joys of messed up film reels running on damaged, dirty movie projectors, and a few other shorts before reaching the piece de resistance - 1987's Legend of the Forest. An exceptional and ambitious featurette, Legend of the Forest actually saw VHS release some years back courtesy of the Right Stuf; needless to say, it's good to see it back in print, and anchoring a fine collection of Tezuka's shorts to boot. The film itself is both an engrossing tale of man vs. nature and an exercise in telling the story of of modern animation, starting with simple drawings, progressing to flickery, Winsor McCay-esque scribblings, and funny-animal cartoons reminiscent of early RKO and Warner Bros. shorts, before making way for brightly colored, Disney-esque animation, and later eye-catching, stylized anime-esque sequences. The other films in this collection sometimes stumble, but Legend of the Forest never misses a beat - it's a great piece of anime and a great work of filmmaking both. 1987's Academy Award for short animated films went to Frédéric Back's excellent The Man Who Planted Trees, but looking at Legend of the Forest makes me wonder if Tezuka remembered to have it submitted to the Academy, because it's easily the equal of Back's work.
Kimstim's DVD does feature a flaw or two - subtitles are a bit rough, and the timing is occasionally way off, but that's a pretty small complaint considering this exceptional collection can be had for less than $20 at a lot of outlets. It is absolutely essential if you're a general animation buff or if you take special interest in the history of anime, and still worth seeing if you have only a passing interest in Tezuka. One final thing I would like to crow about is a short interview with Dr. Tezuka present on the DVD. This was absolutely wonderful to watch, and not only because I'd only really known him from that one photo of him smiling (you know the one) before seeing it. The doctor is articulate and energetic - he speaks with passion and precision, and rarely stumbles on his words. Furthermore, he says a number of really interesting observations throughout the talk. He ruminates on the emergence of CG animation ("It makes the end product seem cold and banal... I try to avoid this in my work.") and speaks of growing disillusionment with Japan's animation business. "TV animation has gone in a direction that I did not expect," he laments, citing the lack of challenging, experimental works like his shorts. The interview wraps with him pledging to help repair the problems with the industry, leaving me wondering what the anime business would look like if Tezuka were still alive.
So that's the alpha and the omega of Tezuka anime released in English in North America. Did I miss any? I bet I did, in spite of my research - Dr. Tezuka was a ferociously prolific creator (it's been reported that his final words on record were, "I'm begging you, let me work!"), and it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that even more of his works were adapted. In fact, I wish more of his animated films were out in English, because there's just so darn many that aren't! There are numerous TV shows, starting with the clumsy Big X and moving forward with Dororo (a gripping horror story about a patchwork swordsman - manga, video game, and live-action adaptations have seen US release), Marvelous Melmo (Tezuka's take on a magical girl tale), the Three-Eyed One (that drooling kid in the back of class is actually the last surviving member of an ancient race of evil geniuses!), Jetter Mars (starts as an Astro Boy retread before diverging and getting interesting), and Don Dracula (an extremely popular vampire comedy that was canceled due to loss of funding). There are the other two Anime-Rama films, companions to the lavish and ambitious Cleopatra: 1968's 1001 Nights (billed as the first-ever animated film for adults) and 1972's Belladonna of Sorrow, which famously bankrupted Tezuka's old Mushi Productions. Finally, there's a broad range of excellent TV movies from the late 70s and early 80s; probably chief among them is Marine Express, an utterly silly and incredibly entertaining undersea mystery featuring almost every famous Tezuka character, from Black Jack to Astro Boy to Kimba. With Dr. Tezuka's name firmly established among today's anime fans, hopefully more and more of these classics will come to light.
What we will see, in any case, is a theatrical adaptation of Tezuka's famous Buddha manga; Tezuka Productions are already putting their plans to create this new project in motion. I have little doubt that it will be a fine film. (I try to be 100% optimistic, but then again, Ambassador Magma!) The studio recently helped to create popular movies based on his MW psychodrama manga. There have been murmurings of a new Jungle Emperor Leo project. It is a testament to the artistic vision and intelligence of Dr. Tezuka that his characters not only survive but thrive decades after his unfortunate demise. So my big question is: what's the next Tezuka anime we'll see in English? I'm sure we'll all find out soon.
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