Osamu Tezuka, hugely influential illustrator and author, was born on this day in 1928. Here are 20 things you should know about the man and his creations.
1. Osamu Tezuka was born in Osaka in 1928 and grew up in Kobe, where his mother often took him to the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female musical theatre specializing in lavish, Broadway-style productions. It’s been suggested their convention of highlighting characters’ eyes influenced Tezuka’s drawing style.
2. Osamu Tezuka is largely responsible for the manga convention of depicting characters with big, sparkly eyes. In addition to the Takarazuka, he was greatly influenced by Grim Natwick’s Betty Boop and many of Walt Disney’s films – especially Bambi, which he professed to have seen over 80 times.
3. “Osamu Tezuka has often been called the Walt Disney of Japan,” writes Helen McCarthy, author of The Art of Osamu Tezuka. “But he was far more than that. Tezuka was Walt Disney, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Tim Burton, and Carl Sagan all rolled into one incredibly prolific creator.”
Commemorative postage stamps issued by the Japanese government in 1997
4. At age 17, he created his first manga work, Diary of Ma-Chan, the story of a young boy in occupied Japan trying to learn English. His first big hit came with 1947’s New Treasure Island, an updated version of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic and a manga often cited as the starting point of Japan’s postwar comics boom. Innovative for its fast-paced storyline and cinematic framing techniques, it quickly sold over 400,000 copies.
5. Astro Boy (known in Japan as “Mighty Atom”) was an even bigger success. Partly inspired by Pinocchio, its the story of a robot boy created by a scientist as a replacement for his deceased child. Astro Boy is later sold to the circus but then is adopted by the kindly Professor Ochanomizu, who wishes to see humans and robots peacefully coexist. When its discovered Astro Boy has super powers, he is sent to fight crime, injustice, and prejudice. Astro Boy was first published as a serialized manga from 1951 to 1968, followed by two more series in 1972-1973 and 1980-81. In 1963 it was made into a Japanese TV anime series that lasted four seasons and consisted of 193 episodes.
6. At the height of its popularity, Astro Boy was watched by over 40% of Japanese TV viewers. In 1963, the series was brought to American television.
7. In 1964, the first Astro Boy feature film, Heroes of Space, was released in Japan.
8. Tezuka met Walt Disney at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Disney praised Astro Boy and said he hoped to make something like it one day. Stanley Kubrick also enjoyed the film and at one point approached Tezuka about being the art director for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
9. After Astro Boy, Tezuka is best known in the United States for Kimba the White Lion (titled “Jungle Emperor” in Japan). Originally published in 1950, the manga became the first color anime produced in Japan, and would later be shown in the US, Europe and Australia. The story concerns a young lion raised by humans who then returns to the jungle and tries to teach the animals what he has learned. It was made into a feature film and won the Silver Lion award at the Venice International Film festival in 1967.
10. Upon the release of Disney’s The Lion King, many animation fans noted the similarities between certain characters, situations and even sequences in the two films. Disney’s lawyers insisted any similarities were coincidence, though actor Matthew Broderick believed when he signed on for the picture that it was to be a Kimba remake.
11. Over the course of his career,Tezuka would recast many of his previous characters in different works, a practice he compared to film directors who called upon a stable of actors to appear in different roles. Because many written Japanese characters have the same pronunciation, he was able to spell their names differently from story to story while their names sounded phonetically the same. As a joke,he also created a list of how much each of these characters was paid to appear in his various works.
12. Osamu Tezuka himself makes cameos in most of his manga, usually appearing as a thin bespectacled man in a beret. When his Black Jack series was made into a TV show, he appeared onscreen as himself, just as he had in the comic.
13. Tezuka studied medicine and became a licenced physician prior to pursuing comics full-time. Though he never practiced medicine, he made use of his medical and scientific knowledge in many of his works. An early work called Tuberculosis is about a boy and his uncle who are able to shrink to microscopic size in order to battle the disease inside a young child’s body. The protagonist of his comic Black Jack is a mysterious doctor with superhuman surgical skills who is sought out by the rich and powerful to do operations no one else would dare perform. It was one of Tezuka’s most popular and longest running works, both as a comic book and a TV show.
14. Tezuka considered the Phoenix Cycle his greatest achievement, a project that he worked on periodically for 35 years and included twelve comic volumes, a feature film, three shorter films and a 13 episode TV series. The story concerns reincarnation and the quest for immortality and covers a huge range of Japanese historical eras as well as futuristic sci-fi settings. Visually experimental, it’s also considered the densest of his works as full appreciation of The Phoenix Cycle largely depends on being familiar with his stable of previous characters.
15. International audiences may also know Osamu Tezuka from the 2001 film Metropolis, a critical success adapted from his 1949 manga.
16. Other noted works include Buddha, an epic manga interpretation of the life of Buddha that Tezuka worked on for ten years, and Adolf, a story set Weimar Germany about three boys named Adolf – one of whom happens to be the young Adolf Hitler.
17. Osamu Tezuka died of stomach cancer in on February 9,1989, the same month as Emperor Hirohito. It is said some government officials feared that the public mourning of Osamu Tezuka was eclipsing that of the Emperor.
18. In 1994, the city of Takarazuka opened the Tezuka Osamu Museum of Comic Art. In 1997, the Japanese government issued postage stamps featuring Tezuka and his artwork.
19. Though the Astro Boy character was created in 1951, in the comic his birthday is given as April 7th, 2003. When that date arrived, both Astro Boy and his fictional mentor, Professor Ochanomizu, were granted full legal citizen status by the Japanese government.
20. Assessing Tezuka’s importance to the Japanese cultural landscape, one newspaper remarked, “Foreign visitors to Japan often find it difficult to understand why Japanese people like comics so much. One explanation for the popularity of comics in Japan is that Japan had Osamu Tezuka, whereas other nations did not.”
Astro Boy at Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria launch of 'Tezuka: the Marvel of Manga' exhibition in 2006.(Photo by William West/AFP/Getty Images)