Tezuka, Osamu. MW. Tokyo: Shôgakukan, 1976- (English translation: New York: Vertical Inc., 2007) (582 pages)
Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989), known as the godfather of Japanese comics (manga), is sometimes referred to as “The Walt Disney of Japan”, a moniker he shares with Miyazaki Hayao. But just imagine that Walt Disney, after creating Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Bambi, would go on to make a slasher film about a deranged serial killer intent on destroying the world. MW, one of Tezuka’s lesser-known stories first serialized in 1976, is an example of how the artist attempted to radically reinvent his work by publishing lengthy, adult-oriented, action-packed, and often violent and highly political thrillers. It is also a work that, because of its explicit tackling of sensitive, even taboo themes, is often ignored in reviews of Tezuka’s oeuvre and in exhibitions or museums dedicated to his work. Nevertheless, MW, published in an English translation in 2009, provides a critical view of post-war Japan and its political environment that remains as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.
Tezuka Osamu was born in 1928 in Toyonaka, Osaka and raised in Takarazuka, well known for the all-female Theatre Company that would later have a great influence on Tezuka’s comics targeted at young girls. As a student Tezuka graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at Osaka University in 1951, but he chose to focus on his passion for drawing and chase his dream of becoming a professional manga artist. He did so highly successfully, producing over 700 works totalling 150,000 pages drawn. Today it is hard to imagine Japanese manga, animated films (anime), and even popular culture in the broader sense, without his pioneering influence.
Tezuka’s most important innovation was the creation of story comics. At the beginning of his career in 1947 he started producing long, novel-like manga which broke with the all-pervasive short comic strips of the pre-war era. Stylistically Tezuka was greatly influenced by early-twentieth-century American, French and German films. He consciously started using cinematic techniques in his work, experimenting with close-ups, different visual angles, and techniques to accentuate action and movement. Tezuka was furthermore instrumental in bringing about Japanese pop culture’s well-known fascination with robot heroes. In 1951 he created Tetsuwan Atomu (a.k.a. Atomu Taishi, Mighty Atom), a series that ran until 1966, about a robot built by a tortured scientist to replace his dead son. The manga went on to become Japan’s first animated TV series in 1963. Exported to the US, it was shown on TV as Astro Boy in the late 1960s and became the first international anime icon. Last but not least importantly, Japan’s “cute culture” would not exist without Tezuka. Strongly influenced by the work of American artists such as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, Tezuka introduced the “large eyes” phenomenon into his story comics for girls during the 1950s, before it would turn into the hallmark of Japanese cute culture.
In the 1970s Tezuka Osamu gave his career a radical new twist. Instead of stories about humanoid robots with super powers and wide-eyed fantastic female heroes in a romantic and fairytale-like world, he started catering towards a more adult audience. With this, he made the shift to gekiga (literally, “drama pictures”), targeting an adult audience and focussing much more on action and realism. Examples include Ode to Kirihito (1970), about a young doctor’s quest to find a cure for a disease that turns its victims into dog-like creatures, and Black Jack, a highly successful series that ran from 1973 until 1983, about a mysterious and unlicensed yet genius surgeon. In Ayako (1972), the saga of a wealthy Japanese family in the aftermath of the Second World War, Tezuka portrayed the dark side of post-war Japanese politics and voiced strong criticism of the US Occupation.
Tezuka continued this critical political perspective in MW, which he started serializing in 1976. In the story, MW is the name of a secret chemical weapon stored in a US military base on a small island near Okinawa, created to inflict mass casualties in the Vietnam War. One day, accidental leakage of the poison gas wipes out the entire population of the island. The US and Japanese governments cooperate closely in a massive cover-up operation to prevent the incident from seeing the light of day. The poison gas is moved to another air base, and the island is repopulated. It turns out, however, that two boys have survived the disaster. Garai Iwao is a teenage member of a gang of juvenile delinquents, and Yûki Michio is a young boy and descendant of a well-known family of kabuki actors. They escape alive because at the time of the disaster they were in a cave where Garai was molesting the young Yûki. Sixteen years later the two men are still lovers. Garai has become a catholic priest, tormented by the horrifying events on the island but also struggling with his sexual identity. Yûki turns out to have been affected by the gas leakage. Having lost all sense of morality and of right and wrong, he has become a serial killer intent on locating the chemical weapon and mass-producing it to wipe out humanity. The catholic priest is torn between his continuing “unholy union” with the attractive and androgynous Yûki and his responsibility to stop him from committing further evil.
The story thus revolves around moral conflict and the blurred boundaries between right and wrong, and good and evil. Yûki is the personification of evil, but at the same time a victim of human immorality, symbolized both by the sexual abuse of a child and the detrimental impact of the biochemical weapon. Father Garai is the hero intent on fighting evil, but he is also a catholic priest incapable of sticking to his vows and a former child molester partly at the very source of the evil underlying the story. MW is therefore a great example of what came to be a key feature in many of Tezuka’s works, namely the relativity of, and symbiotic relationship between concepts that in the West are often seen as binary opposites: male and female, right and wrong, good and evil, and real and unreal.
But MW is at least as interesting for its political and social commentary. Tezuka is highly critical of the US, referred to as Nation X in the book. The author condemns the pioneering role played by the US in developing chemical weapons aimed at causing indiscriminate casualties on a massive scale. In particular, the author lashes out against US efforts to convince the public to accept the usage of chemical and biological weapons including poison gases and defoliants such as Agent Orange that were used in Vietnam. These weapons, stored on Japanese soil, harm and kill without distinction, also causing the deaths of friendly forces and civilians. “Come to think of it, the atom bomb is an indiscriminate killer too”, Tezuka adds (p. 290).
In fact, the poison gas incident in MW is likely based on a real-life event that occurred in the summer of 1969, when canisters containing the nerve gas VX, stored on Okinawa, started leaking, and 23 US personnel and one civilian were hospitalized. The incident brought to light that the US had been storing nuclear warheads and chemical weapons (including 1.9 million kg of VX nerve gas) on its bases in Japan. Using this background as his cue, Tezuka expresses his vehement opposition to the continued military presence of the US in post-war Japan, and in particular to the lack of Japanese jurisdiction on American bases even after control of Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1971. The manga vividly expresses the Japanese frustration with the country’s continual subjection to a foreign country, when a Japanese detective in charge of the investigation fumes to an American military officer: “Bastards! Where’s our sovereignty?” (p. 502).
But Tezuka also strongly alludes to the implication of the Japanese political leadership in this self-chosen submission to the US. Following the US-Japan revised security treaty of 1960, the US has the right to use military bases and facilities in Japan, in exchange for the pledge to defend the host country in the case of an attack. The security alliance comes at a price, however. Japan not only pays about 70% of the costs of basing the US troops, but it is also prevented from perceiving itself as a “normal country”. In MW, Japan’s political leaders and powerful businessmen are clearly culpable of this “humiliating” state of affairs. In the interest of Japan’s relationship with the US, the Japanese government decides to cover up the poison gas incident, outsourcing the whitewash operation to a large construction company. As a result, “the foreign nation in question was deeply indebted to the ruling liberty party for their assistance in staging the elaborate cover-up operation and promised to provide the party with powerful indirect support thereafter” (p. 348). In the story, the person in charge of the cover-up is assemblyman “Nakata Eikaku of the Liberty party”, easily identifiable as Tanaka Kakuei of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s Prime Minister from 1972 until 1974. Tanaka, nicknamed “the godfather” or “the shadow shogun”, steered Japanese politics for almost two decades and became synonymous with close ties with large construction companies, corruption scandals, and behind-the-scenes wielding of power. During Tezuka’s work on MW, the Lockheed Scandal broke out, revealing that Tanaka had accepted multi-million-dollar bribes from the American company. Tezuka clearly takes a stand against the rampant corruption in Japanese politics, and the close entanglement of government bureaucracy and big business, in particular construction companies.
Finally, MW is revolutionary in its open portrayal and clear endorsement of homosexual relationships, in an era arguably less liberal than today, and even before the theme of “Boys’ Love” (BL) became widespread in manga. In the story, the lesbian editor of a newspaper refuses to run a story aimed at discrediting him, including pictures of the catholic priest’s visit to a gay club. “Father, gay love is accepted outside of Japan. In the U.S., some states openly condone it. Whether you’re a member of the clergy or of the Diet, it’s no one else’s business” (p. 432). MW was turned into a motion picture in 2009, largely following the manga’s storyline, but the film omits all open references to the homosexual relationship between the priest and the murderer, reportedly on the insistence of the film’s sponsors.
Walt Disney, who exerted a strong influence on the work of Tezuka Osamu, stuck to his family-oriented style until the end of his career. In spite of frequent references in the media to Disney’s “dark side”, the public image of “Disney cute” remained congruent with the approach taken in his work. Tezuka, “The Walt Disney of Japan”, consciously shifted away from “cute culture” as of the 1970s. He actively ventured in new directions by addressing adult audiences, tackling dark themes, and including strong political/social commentary in his work. However, Tezuka’s controversial new ambitions, a fine example of which is MW, have been less publicized. In both cases, the public image illustrates the tendency to ignore the necessary symbiotic coexistence of seemingly mutually exclusive concepts, such as good and evil — or cute and sinister —, a theme strongly present in MW.
One of Tezuka’s core beliefs was that manga should challenge mainstream society’s morality and ideas. His critical view on Japanese politics, intimate links between government and business, the security treaty with the US and the presence of US bases on Japanese soil, and the mainstream bias against homosexuality in a Westernized Japan, is as pertinent today as forty years ago.
Dr. Bart Gaens works as Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), and is also Project Director at the Center on US Politics and Power at the same institute. Furthermore, he is Specially-Appointed Associate Professor at the University of Osaka, Japan, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki. In the recent past he has worked as Acting Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has published on Europe-Asia relations with special focus on the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) process. Research interests further include Japan’s foreign policy, as well as security-related issues in East Asia.