The iconic visage of manga is the face of kawaii (cute). Bulbous-eyed and pencil-lipped, its facial glyph has become an international marker of a cuteness that is simultaneously endearing and unsettling. The specificity of the hyper-kawaii face is deliberately flattened by manga inscription, appearing equally as it does in saccharine kiddie stories and extreme pornographic scenarios. Confusion understandably arises when one attempts to read face according to a Western semiotics of emotion. Japan’s cute face has nothing to do with projecting cuteness – but everything to do with framing all it conceals. Japan has long been perceived as a culture of masks. The kawaii face continues the tradition, taking place beside the making-up and mask-donning of children’s festivals, geisha rituals, kabuki attire and noh gestures – not to mention the numerous forms of painting and illustration which further codify the face as an ideogram whose minimal marks instantly signify identifiable emotional states. Projecting through withholding connotes so much of Japan and the role of masks is equally qualified by ancient mythological rituals and everyday social customs. Tezuka’s earlier manga – from his first published children’s work in the mid 1940s through to his capitalisation of manga market trends by the mid 1960s – presents a veritable encyclopaedia of the kawaii face. From central characters like Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) in the work of the same name and Leo in Jungle Emperor (Jungeru taitei) to side characters Chinku in Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi) to others like Michi from Metropolis (Metoroporisu) and Bokko in Wonder 3 (Wanda suri) – all are distinctly Tezukian in stroke and acutely anthropomorphic in form.
Yet a considered reading of any of these manga will reveal an emotional range far in excess of the presumed signification these kawaii faces present. Cloying moments certainly abound, but remorse and revenge spike these titles. Their kawaii faces function as counterpoint: their simplistic, hyper-iconic design aggressively reduces emotional complexity into a glacial skin worn like a mask. Tezuka’s characters in these early manga are consistently innocent yet abused, open-minded yet harshly judged, debilitated yet regenerative. The more their cuteness remains fixed, the more compressed their emotional composure. Read properly, any manifest cuteness more appropriately conceals a character’s rounded connection to others. Their interactions are no mere affectations of sentimentality, as they exhibit compassion, resilience and hopefulness. Astro, Leo, Bokko, Michi, et al. yearn to comprehend humans, yet remain destined to ponder their exclusion from the human domain.
From the outset of this earlier period, Tezuka’s manga represented characters in high-theatrical modes inherited from the mannered gesticulation of kabuki and the violent minimalism of noh. He fully transposed their theatrical devices into the manga medium, using his pen to draw stylised faces just as the kabuki and noh actor donned make-up and masks, and inked pages in ways that recalled the graphic flatness of their stage scrims and backdrops. In this sense, Tezuka’s pages are micro-stages whose calligraphic nature is laterally aligned to Japanese theatre craft. Culturally contextualised, Tezuka’s paragons of cuteness bear only the slightest resemblance to Disney’s beaming cherubs. While the latter stem from an idyllic pre- war era, their assimilation by Tezuka into manga for a readership recovering from the war is less a sign of Euro-kitsch and more an anagram of Japanese inscrutability. The faces of Astro Boy and his counterparts embody a peculiar post-war traumatisation akin to many depictions of doe-eyed waifs from the era, marking their character masks as distilled psychological hieroglyphs – reductive facial forms with broad expressive range.
If one cannot bypass the obvious cuteness of Astro Boy, it would be approaching illiteracy to miss the ‘scarred cuteness’ in Tezuka’s gekiga (drama pictures) manga. Gekiga is a more seriously toned, adult-oriented narrative form of manga which stresses realistic effect and emotional impact over the visual symbolism and hi-keyed archetypes displayed in earlier mainstream manga. While manga or 'comic pictures' is the umbrella term for all Japanese comics, gekiga has been viewed as a branch within manga, emanating from the late 1960s when new styles and approaches to content were explored by a variety of manga artists. Originally associated with controversy, taboo-breaking and radicalism, gekiga traits have since become subsumed into a wide range of manga, leaving the term with more historical significance today than an overall descriptive function. While Tezuka’s recognised identity as a master of the manga form predates the gekiga evolution, he did not let its mandate for politicised spleen and psychological acridity pass him by. According to some critics, he adopted the pose of gekiga while others register the slant he brought to the trend. Either way, some of Tezuka’s gekiga works are more than mere examples of opportune synchronicity to a clichéd sixties zeitgeist of social change.
If anything, it is Tezuka’s transition into producing gekiga that best positions the divergence of his earlier hyper-iconic visages and his use of such characterisation to portray the effect turbulent socio-political changes have on people. In this sense, the bulk of Tezuka’s successful work produced in the immediate postwar period under the American occupation (1945–1952) did not directly address his surrounding conditions. Combining allegory, fable and parable, he utilised a wide range of fantasy, comedy and adventure genres to entertain his readers. Following the substantial success of his stories over this period, his work became speculative in purpose and serious in tone – to such a degree that characters in his post-occupation stories seem to symbolically enact traumas akin to those suffered by many Japanese immediately after the war including bereavement, destitution, disillusionment and alienation, etcetera. As his work became more closely aligned to the gekiga movement, parables of war, oppression and subterfuge figure strongly as if wartime conditions were recurring in his writing through karmic revisitation. Perceived in this philosophical light, Tezuka’s gekiga characters are terse reconstitutions of the dramatis personae from his most famous earlier titles, now forced to endure the ravages born of dramatic situations to which they seem fated.
Directed as if they are stock actors in Tezuka’s theatre company, the archetypes of Astro, Leo, Sapphire from Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi), and Melmo from Marvellous Melmo (Fushi ga no Merumo) star in Tezuka’s gekiga where they are ‘de-iconicised’. These once-cute character types are rebuilt from an emotional ground zero to explore how the Japanese psyche can contest and attend to the despoiling experiences their drama generates. Accordingly, their mask is recoded as a signifier of post-cute. Recalling the idea of Japan projecting through withholding, characters in manga like MW (Mu), Song of Apollo (Apporo no uta), Eulogy to Kirihito (Kirihito sanka), Human Metamorphosis (Ningen konchu ki), Ludwig B (Rudovihi. B), Buddha and Phoenix (Hi no tori) ordain that which is behind the mask as a formidable and foreboding presence. This is the psychological and hence dramatic crux of most of Tezuka’s gekiga.
The face in Tezuka’s gekiga highlights its surface sheen more than ever. If the earlier works invited identification with the cuddlesome, the gekiga works portend a harsh duality in their theatricalised two-facedness. Centred as so many of the stories are on the duplicitous and deceitful manoeuvres of humans, the post-cute effect of their visages serves to amplify the psychological mechanisms which motivate their actions. From portraits of self-disorienting quandaries of personal identity (Ludwig B, Bomba!, Song of Apollo) to investigations into self-destructive disregard for personal ethics (Crime and Punishment (Tsumi to batsu), MW, Human Metamorphosis) to treatises on self-revelatory moments of personal enlightenment (Eulogy to Kirihito, Buddha, Phoenix), Tezuka’s characters teeter on the brink of redefinition and reincarnation. Throughout these tales, the self is not mined in the quest of humanist aspiration as we find in enlightened literature. Rather, it is excavated – abrasively hollowed out and clinically ground into a talcose selflessness which lines the interior of the manga mask. These faces appear graphically consistent and stable, yet the fixity of their iconic formation results from the massive force with which the self has been compacted. Reductively, one could claim that Tezuka’s gekiga concords with modernist journeys into existential inertia, romanticised nihilism and world-weary despair. But the visceral, material outcomes of his manga escape the Euro-centric pull of such floundering and lock us into orbits of cosmological and transcendental explorations of the self as guided by Buddhist, Zen and Shinto precepts. In this dizzying, phantasmal cosmos Tezuka performs as a theatre director, his characters project through dramatic masks and his manga pages operate as theatrical stages.
While Tezuka’s narratives are mobilised by the graphic momentum he achieves through his visual-effects rendering, it is his sense of staging that shapes and controls the drama of his manga. Combining mergers of calligraphic ornamentation born of Japanese scroll paintings with a neo-baroque framing inherited from European art history, his pages can perversely resemble gaudy Viennese appropriations of melodramatic Japanese theatre productions. Never one to avoid such confounding cross-cultural blends – and proudly bearing the influence of the Takarazuka all-female theatre musicals – Tezuka’s manga heightens the artifice and hones the theatricality inherent to the medium. While this is standard artistry for the ocular sensibility of manga set in fantasy visions of European historical lore, Tezuka’s extension of hi-key detailing and florid visual arrangement into the realist contemporary settings typical of gekiga, determines a disjuncture between form and content – between puppet pantomime and psychological realism.
Viewed in this light, Tezuka’s gekiga consciously stages human drama without resorting to realism, naturalism or verisimilitude. As with most manga – gekiga or otherwise – the Western reading of their comic-book textuality tends to discount the maturity of their narrative formation. The power of Tezuka’s gekiga lies in its refusal to conform to standards of either fictive plausibility or mimetic dramaturgy. Princess Knight, Jungle Emperor, Crime and Punishment and Ludwig B offer cold comment on the human condition, yet not once do they refute their exaggerated Bavarian aesthetics where characters suffer delirium, collapse from emotional exhaustion and faint at traumatic moments in disorienting, overwrought worlds imported from Disney’s fantasy Euro-world. Astro Boy, Song of Apollo and Phoenix calculate complex connections between the psyche and the cosmos, yet never do they renounce their futuristic settings pulped from American sci-fi illustrations. Acknowledging how Tezuka’s stagecraft and visual mise en scène govern his manga is the key to perceiving his transition into gekiga – where realism is evaporated and artifice is consolidated.
The stage for the sprawling human drama of the Phoenix saga is no mere setting: it is life itself. A mix of speculative fiction, sci-fi phantasmagoria and historical re-imagining, the twelve chapters of Phoenix ping-pong in sequence from a far future to the distance past. Tezuka’s ultimate aim was to reduce the time gap between each vacillated chapter, so that eventually, the final chapter would occur in the present of his writing. While involving a formidable cast of characters, the key figure of the mythical phoenix bird appears in each instalment, serving to guide characters to higher levels of consciousness. Most of them experience moments of intense illumination, wherein existence is encountered as an engulfing amoeba of consciousness guided by infinite interconnectivity. Freed from Judeo-Christian parameters of mortal finality and Godly directives, Phoenix presents each character as a molecule of humanity: neither the essential human nor the universal everyman, but an infinitesimal droplet of life’s voluminous energy.
Tezuka’s graphic sensibilities embolden what otherwise would appear as navel-gazing. Phoenix is notable for stretches of pages where the human form and face become saturated with visual effects, reshaping characters into anthropomorphic globules and humanoid squiggles floating in vistas of pen and ink. Centred on the malleable interchangeability of cosmological scale, the borders between iconic characters and de-iconicised psyches are blurred in fluid exchanges as characters are rendered in a flux of representational modes. Darkly cross-hatched panels flecked with while paint can be appreciated or read as symbolic chartings of stars and as dynamic passages of calligraphic marks of ink on paper. Like planetary dimensions revealed by microscopes, the resolutely abstracted graphics of Phoenix provides a stage for its characters to disassemble and reassemble their selves. For key characters like Romy and Makimura (Nostalgia), Leona and Chihiro (Resurrection) and Tamami and Masato (Future) illuminating moments and disorienting points of transgression mark dimensional shifts in their consciousness. Phoenix is Tezuka’s most scintillating example of how his gekiga masks are powdered with the fine dust of selflessness meaning.
The drawn outlines of the characters in Phoenix are not a matter of discernment, recognition or identification. Rather, they are transmuted energies graphically encoded in the guise of humans. While actual humans are formularised as life forces, robots and aliens are calculated into indices of human behaviour. Collectively, these humans, robots and aliens are connected by cosmic energies yet separated by their psyches. Robots will demonstrate compassion while humans will exhibit monstrousness – no definitive states apply. Their figuration symbolises how humanity can deceptively shift and slip, the movement of which defines their status as characters.
The Song of Apollo reconfigures Phoenix’s irrigated network of spiritual reincarnation into the bubbling psychosexual confusion within Shogo – a serial sex offender interred in an experimental psychiatric clinic where he undergoes radical dream therapy. More than any other of Tezuka’s gekiga, The Song of Apollo is an uncompromising tale of how the self is a chaotic multiplication of chanced causes and unpredictable effects. Cited by Tezuka himself as his bleakest work in its extreme encapsulation of negativity, its study of Shogo’s psychosis uncovers an angle on the societal malaise of sex offenders that in its causal analysis is surprisingly prescient for the time of its publication in 1973.
In place of Phoenix’s karmic retribution with concatenated characters in fractal formation, The Song of Apollo articulates cycles of abuse that imprint and control the mind of Shogo in a mix of hereditary and fateful narrative loops. Even though the bulk of the story takes place within his dream-altered mindscape, the story proposes this interiority to be the true matter behind his social mask. A nightmarish dimension unfolds, suffocating Shogo as he grapples with his a-social urges and psychosexual compulsions. His dream trips shuttle him through familiar war-torn zones (evoking though not labelling Japan’s engagement in the Second World War) and unfamiliar sci-fi domains where cloning abounds in ways that decimate even Shogo’s desultory summation of humanity. Possibly the most salient difference that distinguishes Tezuka’s gekiga from his earlier manga is the accent on sexuality; centralised in The Song of Apollo, it manifests in depictions of erotic and violent schisms which fever Shogo’s mind. Specifically, gender difference is capitulated across an unforgiving war zone in the battle of the sexes. Far from the fields of Eros, Shogo’s rabid heterosexuality digs deep trenches in this terrain. His pathological violence underscores all that separates men from women. Tezuka employs manga’s gender coding (jagged diagonals to express male violence; swirling curves to express female sensuality) to render Shogo and his lovers as tersely opposed yet fatefully conjoined. The result is an unflinching story of sexual attraction and romantic compulsion.
If The Song of Apollo sensationalises the darker side of man, Human Metamorphosis centralises woman as a ‘black hole’ in Japanese mythology [a particularly a-feminist notion of woman]. A portrait of Tomura – a woman who would do anything to get what she wants – the story trails her various exploits as she swims through a bottomless reservoir of a-moral currents, seducing men and women alike in order to manipulate, blackmail and crush them as she climbs to the top of her self-centred power domain. This depiction of woman as guileful manipulator partially replays standard misogynist tales of vixens in the modern world; however, such tales reverberate throughout Japanese cultural history and are portrayed by abused women who ply their sexuality with survivalist verve – from betrothed princesses to purchased geishas to abused ‘comfort women’. Human Metamorphosis remains Tezuka’s harshest assessment of the human condition by razing any maternal, sisterly or romantic attributes from Tomura. Discounting such gendered prescription, he constructs a depressing yet realistic world devoid of chivalry, within which femininity is completely unshielded by the humanist collapse created by Tomura’s implosive self-immolatory power.
Recalling the masks and make-up that crucially site manga’s drama at face value and surface level, Human Metamorphosis typifies the onion-skin layering of what is presumed to be human. Yet in place of uncovering some primal or ultimate truth, Tezuka’s operations of surfacing, tracing and excavating are employed to remove the shell from human interiority and confront the nothingness attained through remorseless acts. Staged in a mix of hallucinogenic noir penumbra and lysergic glare, Tomura’s being is pulped into arabesques of ink. Relating to the uniquely Japanese ideogramatic and contra-illusionary sensibility that influences centuries of its graphic and painterly arts, Tomura’s psychological make-up is poetically contoured through imaginative brushwork. From shadowed profiles to disembodied eyes to abstracted torsos, she is less fleshed-out and more poured-out and conjured as an emptied vessel.
While many of Tezuka’s gekiga symbolise inner turmoil to the extent of diminishing stature and corporeal decomposition, Eulogy to Kirihito reverses this tack and studies the psychological effects of bodily metamorphosis. Here Tezuka’s interest in existential malleability and mutations of mind and form is realised through the main character, Dr Kirihito Osanai, who contracts a rare disease after conducting research in a remote village. Afflicted with a bizarre mix of congenital and behavioural aberrations, he devolves into a bestial hybrid: hungry for raw meat, physiologically recast with canine features, yet all the while retaining human perception. Thus he becomes his other – not simply a mutated human, but a complete victim who he, as doctor, seeks to treat and cure. Aligned with the arching cosmological template that dictates Tezuka’s plot flows and situational flux, Kirihito’s otherness is contained wholly within his being, while his malaise is revealed to be not simply within him, but in the world around him. His physical, emotional and social changes are ultimately moments of transition wherein he comes to understand himself through his relation to others: from accepting his affliction to comprehending people’s fear of difference to realising medicine’s rejection of aberrant phenomena. With emotional and psychological metamorphosis at the thematic base of the story, Tezuka (himself a doctor of medicine) clinically directs Kirihito through a series of endurances, battles and collapses that chart how a human is shaped, literally, by external forces. In as much as the mask is a moulding of the face – a cast of its surface form – Kirihito is a human reformed and remoulded into the state of becoming a mask.
Tezuka’s gekiga evidences the superior degree to which he conveys heightened states of subjectivity and graphic invention, pushing the language of manga to an abstract edge while always deriving these flourishes from dramatically motivated circumstance. Ultimately his gekiga is dedicated to surface effects – but in a way that redefines their purpose. While thematic discourse in the narrative arts tends to perceive ‘effects’ as fluff of meagre consequence to literate exposition, in manga they operate under self-reflexive cursive conditions. They refer equally to the illustrative techniques that dress manga’s staging, and the cosmological impact characters have through their existence and actions. Most importantly, these two categories are dissolved into the one phenomenal, compound effect. Tezuka’s characters are drawn on a flat surface – and that’s where their depth resides. Pictograms of drama (possibly the most apt translation of gekiga), they are to be read through their caricatured physique, exaggerated stature, gross countenance and grimacing masks. A mix of author, artist, director and doctor, Tezuka similarly reads the rendered effects of people as symptoms of their interior psychological states and their social relations.