Spotlight on Japan: The Animated Short Films of Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is one of the most influential manga authors and animators of all time. He defined the way anime would be drawn all the way from the 70’s to the 90’s. Justifiably, he has earned nicknames such as “god of comics”. He can’t be described as a representative of this style or that genre – he combined and used many styles in his animation and turned genres upside down at the same time. He is best known as the creator of Astro Boy and Black Jack, but there are many wonders to be found from his early animation work in the 60’s and the short films he created in the 80’s.

Broken Down Film

In Broken Down Film (1985), the main character struggles literally struggles with the damaged film. He tries to keep the frame in place while rescuing a girl tied to the tracks and fighting the villain. It is almost as if Tezuka acknowledges how the characters are victims of the format: they are slaves to the animators’ will and the film. The vertical scratches of the film turn out to be rain and accidental spills of color on black & white frames are in the characters’ way. It is even more clearly pointed out in one example: near the end of the film as the main character is leaving on horseback, the horse is already far away while he is waving his goodbyes in the air – only to suddenly find himself on the horse a few frames later. All of this is animated with an admirable devotion to old school American animation and the “damaged film” concept. The experimentality is approached with a clear vision and it is cut together smoothly – the rhythm of this short never leaves one cold.

Drop

A man’s attempt to drink on a raft become desperate  in Drop (1965) after he drinks sea water. Lighting strikes and it rains, but he only manages to catch a few rain drops. His passion for drinking makes him delusional and he even disregards the beautiful women he sees for a drop of water. The survival instinct is on and rationality is gone – and that’s what it hilarious for the audience. Tezuka draws the character in a funnily gritty way that exaggerates his despair against the dark and stormy sea that serves as the background for his actions. The fluidity of the animation is as amazing as usual for Tezuka – especially the switch between the delusions and “reality” without a cut is wonderful.

Memory

Memory (1964) is probably the most bizarre but also one of the most brilliant short film Tezuka ever made. As its title suggest, it is about memory: how it works and how it changes in time. Examples are taken from such classic situations as memories of love, work and war. Cleverly Tezuka shows how time changes the way we see history. How wars (even the atomic bomb!) seem like kids’ play eventually. Even though that’s awesome on its own, Tezuka’s approach to its animation is sheer madness – brilliant madness, that is. He combines so many “styles” of animation that it’s hard to count them. The one that stood out the most to me was using cut-out characters from real photographs during the first minute and then animating the rest of the shot around them.

Male

In Male (1962) a cat talks about the relationship between men and women. Yes, a cat. The whole thing unfolds visually via a limited use of frame – like small bubbles in darkness or a pair of eyes. The repetition of certain actions create an intriguing even if flawed narrative. The sound effects are deliberately offbeat and loud, but they actually bring most of the humor – like in a film by Jacques Tati. The cat’s voice is very like that of a squirrel’s and it can get a bit annoying – although he’s not talking all the time.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait (1988) is certainly the short piece of animation I have ever seen. Basically it’s a 10-second animation where 3 parts of the screen slide like in a slot machine, trying to find the matching images. The final result is Tezuka’s self portrait that pukes – or something like that. Something colored comes out of his black & white face. Essentially the short film is a one trick pony that is more likely to make you scratch your head than laugh – and has no replay value unless you want to figure out what is coming out of his face. The animation is solid and the idea is decent so it’s not a waste of time – as if 10 seconds was too long for anyone.

Push

A man is driving in a car in the desert. At each stop he changes something used to a brand new one. Clothes, a car, face – and even pets. Everything he wants is always behind a button. In Push (1987), pushing a button solves all of the main character’s problems. But what happens when he meets God and asks for a brand new Earth? I can see why he asks for a new one: there’s no one else on the Earth he lives on and it’s just plain desert with ugly houses that only offer those “button services”. But is he asking too much? In fact, this whole tirade is a magnificent satire of the contemporary society. In Japan nearly everything is available if you just push a button. There are machines that even sell underwear – not even mentioning the Internet. Tezuka brings this fine satire together with sketchy art design that fits to the “cheap” world. It might not be the sharpest satire out there, but it’s solid and interesting to say the least.

Muramasa

Based on an actual Japanese legend, Muramasa (1987) is the story of a samurai who finds a cursed sword. The curse makes him see everyone around him as straw men who he strikes down in sheer madness. The ambiguous storytelling leaves a lot of details open, but that’s not a problem here. The real delight comes from Tezuka’s unique approach: his shorts have been mostly wordless before, but now it’s taken even further. The animation is a combination of “still shots” and fluid animation. The result is that only a few actions are fluidly animated – and they are always within these “still shots”. That makes the form fascinating and surprisingly lyrical. It makes the pain of the curse mute but tangible.

Mermaid

At 8 and half minutes, Mermaid (1964) is the longest short film Tezuka ever made – along with Muramasa. It is set a in world where daydreaming is forbidden, yet our main character does that. He meets a mermaid and turns a cloud into a flute. For that, he is put into an institution that uses the same behavioural techniques as the one in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The nightmarish interrogation and manipulation pave the way for an unlikely ending. Despite Tezuka’s wonderful touch on the story, it feels a tad overlong.

Jumping

Jumping (1984) ended up being my absolute favorite of these short films. In short it’s a short film about a kid jumping gigantic leaps across Earth. It is all animated from a first person view in a single “take”. The astounding amount of detail and absolutely gripping use of kinetic animation absolutely floored me. I felt the height of those jumps in my stomach. It’s something that just has to be seen. It takes us on a trip that shows bits of all the ups and downs of the world we live in. For me, it evoked the joy of living in its own way. There is no other film that is quite like Tezuka’s Jumping – without words, a conventional plot or even an actual character, it thrilled me more than most other films.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

One Response to Spotlight on Japan: The Animated Short Films of Osamu Tezuka

  1. Ryan Silva says:

    Just popping in to let you all know I’m not dead yet.
    I’m gonna put together a short review of the major festival-winning films of this year that I’ve gotten a chance to watch.

    Prepares yours bodies.

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