Search form

The Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum: A Cultural Monument

Heather Kenyon relates the events from Cardiff, Wales, an educational festival full of panel discussions and lectures with many bright spots, despite the rain.

A skylight inside the museum displays Tezuka's family of animated characters. Image courtesy of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum.

If you're traveling in Japan and want to pay tribute to one of Japan's pioneers of manga, the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum should be the first place on your list. Located in the small town of Takarazuka in the Kansai region you can take the local train at Osaka Umeda station, change at Amagasaki and get off at the end of the line. Walk down Flower Avenue past the souvenir shops and quaint restaurants until you come to a silver futuristic building, resembling an astro-lab. The dome will remind you of a space movie and the faces of Atom Boy, Leo, Princess Knight and Phoenix, etched on the titanium walls, will tell you that this is the place, the memorial to the legacy of Osamu Tezuka.

The Manga memorial prides itself on being one of the most popular attractions in Japan, claiming thousands of visitors per month. With its charming theme park as a backdrop, the museum is somewhat akin to the Disney Empire on a smaller and less commercial scale. None the less, even after his death, Tezuka remains one of Japan's most important cultural heroes and his cartoon characters have captured Japanese hearts since the 1940s.

Tezuka's Legacy

Tezuka began his career as a cartoonist in 1947. An avid storyteller interested in western literature, his modernized version of Treasure Island placed him on the literary map with book sales around 400,000 copies. Throughout his long career, he drew nearly 150,000 pages of comics which filled some 500 different titled works. The museum has a remarkable archive of material and the main exhibition hall houses the permanent collection which includes drawings, photographs, notebooks and volumes of comic strips.

Born in 1928, Tezuka's childhood in the environs of Takarazuka brought him close to nature, a theme he often used in his stories. One of the wonders of the museum exhibition are the notebooks of finely detailed insect studies. Another attraction are his portraits, in particular actors from the Takarazuka theater review which marked his taste for theatrical lighting and design. His first cartoon strip, Diary of Ma-chan (1946) appeared regularly in a children's newspaper Shokokumin Shimbun and launched his career as a commercial artist.

Osamu Tezuka. Image courtesy of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum.

Although Tezuka studied medicine at Osaka University, he became one of Japan's rising literati with his first forays into cartoons. His early stories were sophisticated adaptations of world literature or staunch social comments on universal problems. His long narratives, complex plots and cinematic style, often reminiscent of German or French movies he saw as a child, paved the way to a new and innovative manga style. Also, Tezuka was not interested in the American happy ending syndrome. His works contain grief, anger and hate, thus giving him a reputation as being a "philosopher of manga." The early Tezuka comics were linked to his impressions of World War II, the devastation of Japan during this time and post-war development. Naturally, they bore a heavy overtone. With time, he changed his views toward more humorous, religious and theoretical subjects. Whatever the subject matter however, he was never a lighthearted figure.

By far one of his most popular comic book works, the Jungle Emperor has transformed itself from a serialized comic strip in 1950 to the first Japanese television animation in 1966 to a box office success as a theatrical feature in 1997. This story of three generations of white lions remains a symbol for Tezuka's focus on humanism and his campaign to preserve nature. His crossover from comics to animation made him one of Japan's foremost directors. His second comic Astro Boy gained him international success. After its serialization as a comic, it was soon a television special popular in the United States in the 1960s. In 1962, Tezuka launched Mushi Productions Ltd. from a small Tokyo office filled with aspiring animators and artists. These were the golden years of Japanese Manga.

However, Tezuka should not be considered solely a manga artist as his experimental animation shows. This lesser known and eclectic side of Tezuka won him many awards with films such as: A Street Corner Tale, a short work which used colorful, angled figures; Jumping, which won the 1984 Zagreb International Film Festival; Broken Down Film, a scratched out ode to American pioneers, which won the Hiroshima Animation Festival; and his last work, Legend of the Forest in 1988, which was applauded at Zagreb again. In 1964, Tezuka met Disney at the New York World's Fair, and although the two creators have often been paralleled, Tezuka remained more low keyed and close to his role as a master cartoonist than his counterpart. Yes, Tezuka created an animation empire, with thousands of memorable characters, yet he managed to remain independent, a free-spirited businessman--a rare achievement.

While walking through the three floors of the Tezuka Manga Museum, one can only be impressed by his dedication to the art of the cartoon.

The floor plan of the 14,000 square foot Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum. Image courtesy of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum.

What Is the Museum Like?

It's like visiting the foyer of Princess Knight. It's like meeting Atom Boy for the first time and it's like discovering what Japanese manga is all about. The first floor is a historical view of Tezuka's life and early work. All arranged on stage-like science fiction panels, the books and memorabilia are a trip down memory lane. An NHK documentary at the rear of the room interviews key figures in Japanese animation and a small screening room shows an animated film of Tezuka's life every 20 minutes. A ride up the elevator to the second floor brings you to a small gallery for rotating exhibitions which include not only Tezuka's legacy but also that of new artists and old colleagues, such as Fujiko Fujio the creator of the legendary Doraemon. A Jungle Emperor cafe lets you sit and read books from the impressive library with hundreds of volumes. The green jungle tables and chairs leave a wonderland kind of setting. The video console in the center of the main hall is the most popular stop in town. The waiting line is long, for this is a chance to watch rare Tezuka videos which give an overview of Tezuka's productions...don't expect to find a seat! The Tezuka Museum is truly a living museum. Adults and children come for hours to watch tapes, read books and play.

The gift shop is the next stop where Tezuka marketing is at its finest with everything from pens and pins to T-shirts and towels. Post cards are a popular favorite, as are the complete collection of video tapes. From here, take the elevator to the basement and be prepared to experience the craft of animation first hand.

Two fliers from recent exhibits at the museum: Jungle Emperor and Doraemon. Image courtesy of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum

The basement studio, complete with a life-size model of the artist at work, is a great educational experience. The talking Tezuka puppet introduces his profession and then along clean, long light tables, visitors can make their own four-cel production. Visitors take a seat at the animation light tables and the charming assistant passes out pencils, three-hole-punched paper and animation pegs. Then with their own imaginations and the directions on the console, they can make their own films. Once finished, the assistant then manipulates the cels, expanding them in video time, and projects them on a television monitor. Surely, this has been the start of many a career. The idea behind this memorial was to be a place where people would interact with each other through comics and animation emphasizing education. The museum is more than a success, it's a national archive and one not to be missed.

Watching the 1980 epic animation Phoenix 2772, released in theaters in 1980 by the Toho movie company, one can only think of this incredible bird changing the lives of many, to be a representation of Tezuka's own spirit. He saw a need in the Japanese society for vehicles of imagination and change and he created many of them.

The Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum is open daily except Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For information and directions, contact the museum by phone (81) 0797-81-2970 or fax (81) 0797-81-3660.

Jackie Leger is a Santa Monica, California-based writer specializing in independent animation.