The Trap Door: I Can't Stop Lovin' You

Metropolis (2001)

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It’s nice to rediscover a classic that you liked only to find that you love it the second time around. I’ve owned the 2001 animated version of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis for the better part of a decade now but I’ve not watched it for the same amount of time. Finding it on Netflix, I was curious to see if it still held up. Directed by Rintaro and written by Katsuhiro Otomo, the film is both a departure from and reaffirmation of the original manga and the sci-fi classic from which it takes its inspiration.

Set in the future city of Metropolis, the story revolves around the construction of an enormous Ziggurat—a multi level mega-skyscraper, built and under the control of the ruling alpha oligarch, Duke Red, who is shadowed and helped by his adopted heir, Rock, along with the Marduke Party (Duke Red is financially supporting them and is the defacto leader). On the surface, the people celebrate this magnificent marvel of engineering, but below the surface, even during the Mayor’s speech during the opening of the building, tensions are reaching a boiling point. Ostensibly, the main problem which lives below in Zone 3, the lowest level of the city, is a simmering resentment on the part of the working class humans—those who are so unwanted that machines and robots have completely assumed their purpose in Metropolis. Couple that with the fact that the machines themselves are starting to resent that they can’t go into certain areas of the city and are trodden on by their masters and shot in the streets and alleys like dogs, and things are not as rosy as they appear. Detective Shinsaku Ban arrives in Metropolis on the night of the dedication of the Ziggurat along with his nephew, Kenichi, tracking the illegal activities of Dr. Laughton, a robotics expert with an amoral streak. Of course, Laughton is in the employment of Duke Red building a robot girl named Tima. Tima is special in ways that only Laughton and Duke Red know. Rock, following his father, fatally shoots Laughton and tries to kill Tima and destroy Laughton’s lab before she can awaken. Before he can, a crowd gathers, including Ban, Kenichi, and their robotic Pero, and Rock retreats into the shadows. Kenichi finds Tima after Ban finds Laughton. Now everyone is either trying to find out the truth behind Tima’s existence or trying to bury it. The stage is set.

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Words don’t do Metropolis justice as a cinematic tour de force. At its heart is a fundamental choice to stand up for the decency of the human spirit. The human workforce is being treated poorly, and while the more desperate elements would love nothing more than to burn it all to the ground, there are people who just want a measure of dignity. Far from the glamour of the alabaster towers, the people can only look up at the sunlight and dream of a better life. The robots are happy to work the truly terrible jobs they are given, but the sheer contempt they are held in by their creators makes their existence hell. Rock is the ultimate expression of the paranoia and fear of humankind toward their own creations. He dispassionately murders them in the street as vermin, all in the hope of his “father’s” approval. Duke Red is a man driven mad with grief and consumed with the need to control everything in his eminent domain. This need to replace what he has lost causes him to alienate a boy, Rock, who genuinely loves him and sets him on a path that will destroy his enemies, his allies, and innocent people alike. Shinsaku Ban is the pure, distilled essence of the practical gumshoe: he always gets his man, sees the evil that men do and laments that he cannot do more, and does what is required that justice might prevail. Central to the story is Kenichi and Tima and how Kenichi finds out just how far he will go to save the girl he just met. Tima doesn’t deserve the reason for which she was created, but she has the full treatment as a robot that learns the awesome and terrible truth behind choosing between life and death. As she grows as a person, Tima gently breaks free from Kenichi and becomes a being in her own right. All these people are going to collide, and every hope, dream, madness, fear, impulse, and self-destructive feeling is heading their way.

The film also introduces a serious power struggle between the Mayor, the President, and Duke Red. Red’s building something awesome and evil atop the Ziggurat, and the Mayor and President of Metropolis are scared witless of it. They think they can outsmart Duke Red and still maintain a mask of civility. Little do they realize that Duke Red is not just worrying about the political fallout from the outside world but them as well. As the film works its way to the end, the elements of the original 1929 Fritz Lang version are worked into the fabric: the workers revolution, the oligarch’s need to wipe out dissent, and the simple robot becoming a great and terrible axe to sweep over the people of Metropolis. After reading the original manga by Tezuka, from which he claimed he took only the basic idea and the still image of Maria the robot from the original film, I can understand why Otomo chose the elements he did to use in the update. The original would have made an interesting long form series but not a very good film. By fusing both films together, Rintaro and Otomo allow Tezuka’s world to shape events but not the characters.

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The art and direction on show—with an emphasis on vast, open areas and shots of characters lost in the sprawling city—is superb. The down-below of the lower Zones is a shantytown of cobbled shacks, disorganized alleys, loading docks, and warehouses where the unobserved and unseen proletariat meet in secret commune. Zone 2 is where the robots live automated and regulated lives and humans seldom tread. All the dangerous energies and substances that no flesh-and-blood creature could handle are innocently and faithfully dealt with by the machines. Here, deals are made in secret and obsessive bodyguards hunt down innocents against a neo-noir, industrial design nightmare. Zone 1 is the light, the ideal and cause of all jealousies in Metropolis. It’s a fan of Art Deco’s Shangri-La: huge German style halls, stations, and buildings and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired air corridors and building-spanning domes. Here, mansions set atop buildings with greedy and expectant eyes turn upward to the Ziggurat which dominates even in this rarified air. Rintaro takes the time to show his cast caught in these places in misé-en-scene where the background, crowds, sounds, shapes, and colors all blur so that viewers see only the person in the scene with a purpose and dialog. Each crowd scene, lovingly, has individual character designs so that no two crowd members are the same. The same attention to detail makes characters like Fifi the robot, who looks the same as other robot models, stand out because of damage, patina colouring, and personality traits. These distinguishing aspects all serve to bring the performance out from behind the neat visuals. Rintaro also adds Twenties-style scene wipes that shrink circles on a point of action and reopen in the same scene at a later moment.

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The cast in both languages (Japanese and English) nail their characters, and I’m happy to see people like Barbara Goodson, Rebecca Forstadt, Steve Blum, and Doug Stone heading the English cast while Kōsei Tomita, Norio Wakamoto, and Taro Ishida give the original audio everything to keep the audience there and in the moment. I still grin when Duke Red approaches his podium at the start of the film, gives a speech, and therein proclaims “May it stand forever! Our Ziggurat!!” to start the story.

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Finally, the score by Toshiyuki Honda seals the deal as the universal nature of the film and the correct balance between the past versions of Metropolis and this latest incarnation. A mixture of Jazz and Dixieland, the Roaring Twenties, is the DNA of Metropolis’ aural experience. The feel of depression and listless nature of life in “Going To "Zone” and “El Bombero” smashes over your ears as people run across halls, streets, and squares to meet the latest crisis. Somber and eloquent tracks like "Sympathy" flesh out a more orchestral view throughout the film. A rendition of “St James Infirmary” allows Rintaro to show Tima how far from the light she is. Finally, I get emotional every time I hear “There’ll Never Be Goodbye”, the ending theme of the film. It's so jazzy, so sad and filled with the memories of people and loves long gone but not forgotten. It’s the capstone for the whole endeavour. In fact, the only way to survive the ending is to listen to the other ending song: Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You." Both themes are Kenichi and Tima’s theme. It’s up to you which suits them better. Here’s a link to the soundtrack for you to enjoy.

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Apparently, there is a final moment at the end of the credits in the Japanese blu ray release and the original theatrical version where the formal ending is not as final as we are led to believe. If that’s the case, then the film’s creators really have gotten the mix of anime and German Expressionist films right. I’m just annoyed that the US/UK DVD omits this ending. In an interview on the DVD I have somewhere around here, Rintaro and Otomo both agree that Tezuka would not have OK’d Metropolis as an animated project. I would hope they meant that he would have not have chosen to do the original manga, as the film stands as an amazing tribute to Dr. Tezuka and to animated filmmaking in general. A visual treat, a compelling, if oft-repeated, story, and a brilliant ending, the film not only escapes the Trap Door, it flies out to find more people to enjoy it.

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On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

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Snapshot: The Man, the Mustache, the Legend

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Osamu Tezuka's so-called "Star System" was an amazingly unique way of connecting his stories — the master manga artist "cast" his characters as "actors" in "roles," thereby allowing him to show Astro Boy as both a boy robot (in the famous manga by the same name) and the vengeful younger brother of a robbery victim (in a chapter of Black Jack).

In the first final chapter of Black Jack (it finished, continued again, then finished for real), called "The SL Train of Life" and published in Vertical's Volume 11, Tezuka shows the titular doctor on a steam locomotive or "SL," traveling toward what we can assume is another patient to cure. Black Jack, of course, is no ordinary doctor; he is an unlicensed, back-alley surgeon who charges exorbitant fees and yet follows a curious moral code that is entirely his own. Throughout the train ride, which grows more and more bizarre as it goes on, Black Jack runs into various important people in his life, from his med-school sweetheart Dr. Kisaragi to his rival Dr. Kiriko to his mentor Dr. Honma to his assistant Pinoko. In the end, the train turns out to be, unsurprisingly, a dream, a chance for the enigmatic surgeon to reflect on his life thus far.

However, one other character sticks out from the others Black Jack meets on his ephemeral train ride. It's the conductor, a mustachioed man who claims that the doctor operated on him multiple times. This, of course, is absolutely true, as the character is none other than Shunsaku Ban (a.k.a. Higeoyaji), a Star System regular since Tezuka's earliest manga series. In fact, Ban's design is based on a caricature of Tezuka's own father. Ban features prominently in multiple Black Jack stories, albeit as a different character each time. Importantly, every other character on the train is mostly limited to Black Jack as far as the Star System goes. Only Dr. Honma has another appearance — as Saruta in Phoenix.

The importance of Shunsaku Ban's presence on the train may not be clear to Tezuka newcomers, for whom Black Jack may be their only experience with the prolific storyteller. After all, he's just a recurring patient, not someone who has had a significant influence on the doctor's life. However, Ban is more than that within the larger Tezuka canon. He is a lovable old man, a father, a grandfather, and a working-class laborer. He is an upstanding citizen, a private detective, and a criminal. He is a crucial binding thread, appearing in many of Tezuka's most popular and important works. His apperance in Black Jack's final moments is telling — it shows Tezuka's respect for this character, his insistence that if anybody is to represent the countless people Black Jack has saved, to thank this timeless anti-hero for his work, it has to be the mustachioed everyman, Shunsaku Ban.

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects on a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. To read previous entries, click here.

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Review: Princess Knight

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Princess Knight, volume 1Medium: Manga (3 volumes in Japan, 2 volumes in North America)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance
Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Vertical, Inc. (US/CA)
Serialized in: Shoujo Club (JP)
Demographic: Shoujo
Release Date: Jan 1963 – Oct 1966 (JP), Nov 1, 2011 – Dec 6, 2011 (US/CA) 
Age Rating: 6+

Vertical, Inc. has struck again with Princess Knight, a classic story by the "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka. The manga critics have all gone wild over it, praising the two-volume series for its examination of gender identity and its swashbuckling action. Frankly, though, I think Tezuka's other masterpieces may have created a bit of over-hype for Princess Knight, as it is, in my opinion, one of the weaker manga in Tezuka's English canon.

Frequently cited — somewhat inaccurately — as the series that sparked the entire shōjo (girls comic) style, Princess Knight is also particularly notable for being one of the many manga for girls but written by a man. At the time there were very few women in manga, so it was expected for men to write comics for girls. However, many of the female manga artists who came to prominence in the 1970s, known collectively as the Showa 24 Group, would later cite Princess Knight as one of the series that inspired them to make their own manga.

Sapphire, the protagonist of Princess Knight, is both hero and heroine, since the mischevious angel Tink accidentally gave her both a boy and a girl heart before she was born. Since she is the heir apparent to the kingdom of Silverland, Sapphire's gender is quite important; women can't inherit the throne! To prevent the nasty Duke Duralumin's idiot son from becoming prince, her family raises Sapphire as both boy and girl, and she spends part of the day fencing and fighting, and another part picking flowers and talking to woodland creatures. God sends Tink down to Earth to fix his mistake and get back Sapphire's boy heart.

Meanwhile, beneath the facade of her princely life, Sapphire longs to fully embrace her girl side, and even wears a blonde wig to a carnival, wherein she meets the dashing Prince Franz Charming. But things go awry when Charming and Sapphire engage in a tournament as princes, and the nasty Duke Duralumin poisons Charming's sword in an attempt to kill Sapphire. A few hijinks later and the king is dead, Charming is accused of murder, and Sapphire's identity is revealed. She loses not only the throne, but her freedom as well: she and her mother find themselves locked in jail by their own people. For the remainder of these two thick volumes, we follow Sapphire's journey to regain the throne, win the love of Prince Charming, and escape the wiles of not only Duke Duralumin, but also Madame Hell, an appropriately named devil woman who wants to steal Sapphire's girl heart and give it to her own daughter.

Some critics have celebrated Princess Knight for its subversion of traditional gender roles, but ironically this is precisely where the manga fails to connect. Perhaps by the most liberal definition of the term, Vertical could claim that this is Tezuka's "proto-feminist" masterpiece (as they do on the back cover), but it hardly applies to a story in which Sapphire's girl heart gives her the ability to pick flowers and her boy heart gives her the ability to swordfight. I fact, in many cases she loses one heart or the other, and Tezuka makes it very clear that without the boy heart, she loses all of her strength and will to fight. (Get ready for gripping lines like "Oh no, I feel weak all of a sudden. I feel like my boy heart's been sucked right out of me! Oh, I'm so scared!")

A page from Princess Knight in which Tink watches Sapphire swordfightingThe second volume features a bit more criticism of traditional gender roles, portrayed with classic Tezuka bluntness via a group of women who lock themselves in a castle and fight off the men in order to protect Sapphire. The most striking moment of this scene is when Sapphire — equipped only with a sword and her girl heart — fights off a villain she could only defeat previously when she had both hearts. Here it seems that Tezuka is making a more direct correlation between her fighting ability and Sapphire herself (rather than her gender), but it's such a long time coming and it comes from so far out of left field that it seems almost accidental.

The gender commentary isn't the only place where the presentation and pacing leave their marks, though. The entire manga runs at a breakneck pace, and major developments occur at such a striking speed that it can be difficult to keep up. Futhermore, when introducing characters, Tezuka wastes no time in explaining straight to your face exactly how they feel about everything, without the slightest hint of subtlety. For instance, within the first few pages of Sapphire meeting the pirate captain Blood, not only has he professed his instantaneous love for her, but she has introduced herself with the brilliant line "I promise I'm not a shady person."

Despite a whirlwind of events surrounding her, watching the eponymous Princess Knight can be downright boring. She's certainly not a passive Dinsey princess, but generally things happen to Sapphire, and she rarely does anything herself, making her little more than an object for the plot to bounce off of. Indeed, at one point near the climax she is bedridden, waiting for other characters to bring her the help she needs. Madame Hell's daughter Hecate, a hip, rebellious young devil girl who opposes her mother's plan to marry her off to Prince Charming, is a much more interesting heroine, and suffice it to say that a character named "Prince Charming" hardly ranks among Tezuka's most layered protagonists.

The comedy is the one aspect of Tezuka's style that remains consistently on-point in Princess Knight. There are lots of one- or two-panel visual gags that punctuate the action just long enough to induce a chuckle before he gets back into the main story, and they have the same sort of non-sequiter, anachronistic charm that we've come to expect from the author. None of this is all that surprising, since in the early 1960s Tezuka was still largely writing for children, and was still known for his gag antics.

This, of course, extends equally to the art, which falls much closer to Astro Boy (1952) than later works like Ode to Kirihito (1966), which makes sense considering that Princess Knight's original run was concurrent with Astro Boy (Tezuka reworked the series for a 1963 rerelease, the version used for the Vertical edition). While its overall tone is reminiscent of Astro Boy, it achieves an appropriately fairy-tale aesthetic through the use of super-clean lines, simple, bubbly shapes, and generally lighter tones. Readers may also notice that, in addition to the overwhelming Disney influence on the designs of the characters and backgrounds, Tezuka also takes cues from early shojo adventure comics like Katsuji Matsumoto's The Mysterious Clover (1934).

Princess Knight is, quite frankly, a baffling read. It seems to fly by even faster than Astro Boy, but unlike the richly established world and characters of that series, this feels more like a clumsy pastiche of Disney fantasy-adventure films. What's more, the gender commentary is bluntly feminist at best and downright sexist at worst, and the entire work feels largely purposeless. It pains me to say this, but I can't recommend Princess Knight unless, like me, you feel the need to plumb the depths of Osamu Tezuka's English-language catalog. Perhaps in its time Princess Knight may have captivated its young audience, but today it serves as a reminder that even a god makes mistakes every once in a while.

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Snapshot: Light Motif

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Zephyrus from Swallowing the EarthSnapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers describes a recent moment in anime, manga, games, or another medium that really made an impact on them. To read previous entries, click here.

Osamu Tezuka's contributions to the manga world are innumerable, but I have always been particularly struck by his innovative panel layouts and narrative strategies. Recently, in reading my copy of Swallowing The Earth (reprinted after DMP's wildly successful Kickstarter campaign), one specific chapter served as a sharp reminder of the brilliance of Tezuka's visual storytelling.

In the early chapter "Light Motif," the story turns away from the dangerous seductress Zephyrus and her quest to destroy the world of men, flashing back to the origins of the far-reaching revenge plot. It is 1940, in Locarno, Switzerland, and stock Tezuka villain Acetelyne Lamp is about to steal away his father-in-law's fortune, much to his wife's chagrin. In the midst of a howling storm, she runs away, taking her six daughters with her. We learn that her name is Zephyrus, and thus the Zephyrus that we see in the modern day is a persona taken up by her daughters.

Here Tezuka begins to experiment with full black page backgrounds and a cinematic zoom effect, with each successive panel getting smaller and smaller (or larger and larger) to simulate a film camera. After one such zoom out and another zoom in, we have moved in both time and space to Lyon, France. The year is 1939, and Lamp has sold his father-in-law's scientific research to the Nazis. As if Acetelyne Lamp's typecast villany isn't established enough, Tezuka has now convinced us that he is not a man to be trusted. His wife is heartbroken.

Zoom! Cut! It is now seven years earlier, and Zephyrus is introducing her boyfriend, Lamp, to her father amid a field of flowers. He would like to marry her, and her father happily acquieces. Zoom in on butterflies, cut to two arms in a bedroom, the lights dimmed. They are in Nice, in the winter of the same year. For two pages here Tezuka shows us the intimacy of these two lovers with nothing more than a series of horizontal panels, framing their arms as they talk. Lamp is having financial difficulty and wants to sell Zephyrus's father's research. Her arm shrinks away from his.

More black panels bring us to Lyon in 1940, where Lamp informs his father-in-law that, on the Nazi's orders, he is sending him to work for them. In a page exclusively composed of vertical panels, Lamp moves from the bottom of the panel to the top, and we see him speaking down not only to Zephyrus's handicapped father, but to her as well. He is an ambitious, ruthless man, completely in control of the situation.

Another cacophonous black page takes us from Zephyrus's father's suicide to the birth of a baby to Locarno again, in 1940. Canted shots of trains show Zephyrus's frantic flight.

An introductory shot of Zephyrus from earlier in the manga. (I couldn't get any scans from "Light Motif" itself.)

Finally, we come to rest in 1943, on a small island near Guadalcanal. A caretaker rushes back to Zephyrus's bedside, watching as she relays her final words to her daughters. They must destroy money, law, and men in order to get revenge on the father who destroyed their lives. Zephyrus passes, and we zoom away from her crying children and finish the story on one final black panel.

In just 24 pages, we see the beginning, middle, and end of a marriage, with time and space jumbled up in the subjectivity of memory. In the hands of a clumsier manga artist, such temporal and aesthetic changes would surely be confusing, but it is a testament to his genius that Tezuka is able to tie it all up into a fast-paced, digestible, and entertaining package.

This post is a part of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Moveable Feast (MMF), a week-long celebration of the manga work of Osamu Tezuka, hosted by The Manga Critic. Check out the extensive archive for this week's MMF at The Manga Critic.

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DMP Kickstarting Another Tezuka Manga: Barbara

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Barbara, by Osamu Tezuka.After the success of their Kickstarter campaign to reprint Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing The Earth, Digital Manga Publishing is now attempting to gather enough funds from their fans to finance the licensing and release of a new, never-published-in-English manga. This time, the Tezuka manga of choice is Barbara, the twisted story of a mad novelist and the strange woman he meets at a train station. It was published as a follow-up to Ayako (as in a spiritual successor, not a sequel), the disturbing historical Tezuka manga that Vertical published last year (read my review of Ayako).

Giving at least $25 to the Kickstarter will net you a copy of the book if and when it is released, giving over $35 gets you the book plus a digital companion with "bonus art and commentary," and DMP has thrown in a bunch of other nice extras as the pledge amounts get higher. (The top prize, for pledging $145 or more, is a copy of Barbara signed by Tezuka scholar Frederik L. Schodt, your name at the top of the credits in the book, and a tour of the DMP offices, among other things.) And the way Kickstarter works, your money only goes through if the campaign is successful, so there's no risk.

As anime scholar Helen McCarthy points out in a blog post, this new strategy of financing publishing based on customers fronting the cost is certainly unusual. However, a changing industry environment requires changing business practices, and I think this is a really cool way to get fans involved and ensure that releases are actually going to be profitable. Plus, DMP is getting more Tezuka manga out there, and that's all I can ask for.

For more information on Barbara, check out the great profile of the manga over at TezukaInEnglish, and make sure you pledge to the Kickstarter right here!

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Review: Ayako (Manga)

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Ayako, by Osamu Tezuka

Medium: Manga (1 volume, 704 pages)
Genres: Drama, Historical, Suspense
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Shueisha (JPN), Vertical Inc. (NA/UK)
Demographic: Seinen (ran in Big Comic)
Release Dates: Jan. 25, 1972 – Jun. 25, 1973 (JPN), Fall 2010 (NA/UK)
Age Rating: 16+

It's no secret at this point that Osamu Tezuka's reputation as the "Walt Disney of Japan" is fairly inaccurate. His corpus of English releases, which began with his more well-known children's works like Astro Boy (1952), has grown in years past to include a lot of the artist's more racy material, serving as a reminder that Tezuka was able to tackle a wide variety of styles. Ayako (1972), which came to American shores just last month in a new hardcover translation from Vertical, Inc., illustrates this better than nearly any other Tezuka manga I have read.

Gone are the science-fiction themes of most of Tezuka's other works. Even in his darkest of moments, such as the gripping Ode to Kirihito (1970), there are twinges of the fantastic that betray Tezuka's love for science fiction. In Ayako, Tezuka focuses on the harshness of a historical reality in which there are no robots or aliens or mysterious diseases — only humans are to blame for our misfortunes, and only we can pull ourselves out of them.

The Tenge family is reeling in the wake of the post-war American occupation. As they watch their lands in the Japanese countryside get sold off to tenant farmers, the once-rich clan sees the return of P.O.W. son Jiro, who is now working undercover for the American occupation forces. He comes home to find a family rife with sin and dark secrets. His brother Ichiro is letting his own father sleep with his wife in return for the family fortune, resulting in Jiro's new four-year-old sister/niece Ayako. After Jiro is implicated in a high-profile murder case, with Ayako’s testimony serving as the only evidence toward his indictment, the family decides to preserve their honor by locking her away in the storehouse cellar, to be kept there until she dies.

It is a testament to Tezuka's tight cast and vibrant characterization that he manages to keep the story interesting despite its frequent jumps in both time and place. The Tenges eventually spread out into different places and careers, but the connection to the original reasons for Ayako's imprisonment remain a burden upon all of their consciences, thus keeping everything centered around the title character. The small cast helps you create a deeper connection with them, as their relationships and feelings are all easily understood within the structure of their acutely dysfunctional family.

Ironically, though, Ayako herself is little more than a caricature. She emerges from her 23-year imprisonment as an emotionally stunted young woman, completely ignorant of many customs and ideas that come naturally to most people. This simplistic personality can get a little grating after a while, and it certainly makes her character hard to connect with, but Tezuka makes it clear that he intends her odd behavior as an expression of her tragic upbringing.

Speaking of tragedy, Ayako is horrifically sad beyond any other Tezuka manga I have ever read, and in fact beyond most other manga, period. With murder, rape, and incest throughout, this is not a book for the faint of heart. Sometimes it feels like Tezuka is just throwing in more tragedy for the sake of making you sadder, but it all ends up serving the author's ultimate message: a condemnation of secrecy and hidden sin. In the end, what destroys the characters is a compounding of everything they have ever done (and not done) to other people. As the vessel for the Tenge family's sins, Ayako gets the brunt of their love, hate, compassion, and anger, making its conclusion all the more impactful.

Throughout Ayako, Tezuka revels in the vastness of the Japanese countryside, providing beautiful full-page drawings of hills and fields alongside meticulously drawn cityscapes. Additionally, he tries his hand at recreations of photographic images, a technique that accentuates the historical relevance granted by his frequent references to real events during the Japanese reconstruction. It's also worth noting that only a single character from Tezuka's Star System (the detective Geta) shows up in Ayako, a very deliberate choice that serves to detach the characters and their predicaments from the sometimes whimsical worlds of Tezuka's other works.

Vertical's translation is great as always, but this time they've brought on Mari Morimoto, well-known translator of manga like Dragon Ball (1984) and Naruto (1997). The one notable facet of the translation, which may be credited to either Morimoto or the editors in charge of revising her translation, is the depiction of the characters' country accents. All of the Tenges speak in a Southern American accent, depicted phonetically in what I can best describe as the manga equivalent of a Mark Twain novel. I find that it adds a welcome sense of place to the work that manga often don't have, but some might find that they can only read "Naw!" so many times before it gets a little grating.

EDIT: Naturally, no review of Ayako can go without mentioning that it is flipped (i.e. reads left to right) and features beautiful art direction — from Peter Mendelsund — both inside and on its striking hard cover. Clearly Vertical did both of these things in order to promote it among literati types (as opposed to your average teenage manga fan in Barnes & Noble) as they did with Buddha (1972), and it does a great job. The flipping is an unfortunate consequence of this, but it should hopefully help the book find an audience outside of the manga crowd.

Ayako isn't quite perfect, mostly due to Tezuka's over-reliance on tragic twists and the title character's flat characterization, but as an examination of sin and long-term guilt, it is a powerful story, almost Shakespearean in its penchant for melodrama. Fans of Ode to Kirihito will find much to love here; in fact, its dedication to only a few locations and a centrally connected cast of characters makes it a little more accessible than the sprawling epic that is Kirihito. Be warned, however: Ayako is manga at its most tragic — in this seemingly endless bout of sin and suffering, no one is safe from the taint of evil, and no one is spared its consequences.

[Highly Recommended]

This review is based on a complimentary review copy, graciously provided by Vertical, Inc. (and given away to an Ani-Gamers reader after this review was written).

Reminder: Ani-Gamers is giving away copies of Ayako to two lucky readers. Check out the contest rules to enter!

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Holiday Giveaway: Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

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Ayako, by Osamu Tezuka

The holiday season is upon us, so in keeping with the spirit of this time of year, we want to give away some gifts to our wonderful readers. Thanks to the folks at Vertical, Inc., I've got two copies of Osamu Tezuka's manga Ayako (1972) sitting right next to me, and I need to select two lucky winners to receive this brand-new, hardcover English release from the "god of manga." (Note that one of these is the review copy that I read in order to write my upcoming review of the book. It is still in near-perfect condition.)

How can you win one of these fabulous prizes, you ask? Well, just leave us a comment below this post telling us about the best geek-related gift you've ever received (or given to someone else) for any occasion — not just the holidays. Extra points for anime, manga, or game-related ones, but you can stray outside of that if you want. Make sure to leave some form of contact information, because we'll be picking our two favorite entries from the comments section and sending those people copies of Ayako!

The deadline for this contest is 11:59 PM on December 30, 2010, so you've got time to report back about any gifts you might receive this year. Best of luck! Oh, and before I forget: all of us at Ani-Gamers would like to wish our readers a happy and healthy holiday season. We hope you'll keep reading for the next two weeks as we roll out our Anime Secret Santa reviews and 2010 Staff Picks.

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Review: Apollo's Song (Manga)

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Apollo's Song volume 1, by Osamu Tezuka

Medium: Manga (1 volume)
Genres: Drama, Romance
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Shōnen Gahōsha (JPN), Vertical Inc. (NA/UK)
Release Dates: 1970 (JPN), 2007, re-release in 2010 (NA/UK)
Age Rating: 16+

Given that the main focus of Apollo's Song is love and all the strife that results, I could get away with writing a "Love is a crazy thing, isn't it?" type of intro for this review. But I won't, because the manga does a much better job of doing that in its own introduction, which shows anthropomorphized sperm in a marathon race to reach the egg. That probably sounds absurd, but the reverence shown to love and procreation comes through the page, letting you know you are reading something rather special.

The main character of Apollo's Song is Shogo Chikaishi, a teenage boy who is brought in to a psychiatric hospital with a rather bizarre malady that is the focus of much of the story. You see, Shogo hates the concept of love. He is incapable of feeling it himself, and the mere sight of love or affection of any kind disgusts him so thoroughly that he feels an unstoppable urge to kill those involved, be they human or animal.

The doctor who takes Shogo on as a patient is rather troubled by this and so decides that a suite of tests and treatments are in order, including a terrifying session of electroconvulsive therapy. It is during this therapy that Apollo's Song introduces it's key element that sets it far apart — the Goddess. Taking the form of a massive female statue she scolds Shogo for his hatred of love and forces him to confront the root of his problem. Then, as a punishment for his transgressions against the sanctity of love, Shogo is condemned to a never-ending series of trials — over and over he must come to know love, but every time it is within his grasp it will be snatched away from him. The more cynical among those reading probably just laughed and yelled “Oh, just like real life then!” out loud.

What follows this proclamation is a series of discrete tales that follow the template that the goddess outlines — each time, Shogo comes close to being cured but is ultimately thwarted, usually in a harrowing fashion. You would think this pattern would get dull, but there is another facet to the story; you are never fully sure what is “real”, or what is a dream, a hypnotic suggestion, or even if Shogo is actually dead or alive for the majority of the manga. The different trials Shogo experiences also have their own back-story and love stories within them, further muddying the waters about what is taking place in reality and what is confined to his imagination. Even the ending of the story is wonderfully ambiguous and ends on a rather depressing note for Shogo, but leaves it up to the reader to decide what the ending entails.

I am a massive fan of this sort of reality-bending fiction and so Apollo’s Song scores lots of points with me, enough to make me overlook some of its nagging flaws. The biggest among these is the repetition of the individual stories within the overall plot arc — as mentioned before, they all follow the exact pattern that the Goddess outlines. In addition, some of the stories are instantly forgettable, and even on my fifth reading I am confronted with entire chapters I had completely forgotten and am beginning to forget even as I write this review. Another, more egregious issue is that Shogo himself is an unpleasant dick who keeps undoing his own character development. While this can be seen as a normal human character flaw, especially for someone as seriously ill as he is, it can become exasperating after he fails to even attempt to reform himself for the umpteenth time in the face of great pressure to do so.

This frustration with Shogo is eased by getting know him through the art, with all emotions laid bare on the page for you to see and feel as you read. Simply put, the facial expressions and body language in the manga are among the best I have seen. At one key moment in the story an entire page is set aside at time for a single facial expression of sorrow — a powerful moment hammered home by a very simply presented image. The rest of the art (especially the layout) is equally superb, with many nice touches and unique pages added to keep you interested. The emotional highs and lows (mostly lows, in this case) are wonderfully captured on the page, with each moment given time to breathe over multiple pages and clear layouts to heighten the impact. The main triumph of the art is that each separate story told within the overarching plot looks and feels like its own separate series. You can tell from a glance what the setting feels like and how it differs from every other story presented in the manga.

While I pointed out some flaws earlier in this review that may sound like deal-breakers to some, I am still a fan of Apollo's Song due to how much it rewards revisiting. While not a short book by any stretch of the imagination, the story is just the right size to pick up and read for the hell of it without without the investment of time that MW or Ode to Kirihito demand. Due to its very powerful message and reality-bending storyline, each reading can give you something new to chew on.

I have read this story in a multitude of personal states and attitudes towards love — while happily in a relationship, in a failing relationship, and shortly after a break-up, and each time it has given me something new to think about and an uplifting feeling despite its grim storyline.


This review is based on a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

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NYCC 2010: Vertical licenses Tezuka's The Book of Human Insects, Furuya's No Longer Human

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The Book of Human Insects, by Osamu Tezuka

At New York Comic Con yesterday, manga and translated Japanese book publisher Vertical, Inc. announced two brand new manga licenses. The first is The Book of Human Insects (also known as "Human Metamorphosis"), a 1970 manga by "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka. The 360-page one-volume manga will ship in a hardcover edition on July 26, 2011 for $22.99.

Additionally, Vertical Marketing Director Ed Chavez announced a license for the first volume of No Longer Human, Usamaru Furuya's manga adaptation of Osamu Dazai's original novel. Volume 1 of the three-volume series will ship on September 13, 2011 in a 208-page paperback edition for $12.95. Furuya manga is a recent trend at Vertical, as the publisher picked up his one-shot Lychee Light Club manga in July.

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Review: Phoenix – The Complete Collection (Dub)

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Phoenix: The Perfect Collection box art

Medium: TV Anime (13 episodes)
Genres: Drama, Fantasy, Historical
Director: Takahashi Ryosuke
Studio: Tezuka Productions
Release Dates: Mar. 21, 2004 – May 4, 2004 (Japan), Nov. 25, 2008 (Media Blasters – N.America)
Rated: Not Rated

After the fun we had with Tezuka Month, I found myself tempted by a complete 13-episode box set of Phoenix: Perfect Collection sitting by itself at a convention. What I discovered was a Tezuka-style story in a digitally-glossed over aesthetic that seems a bit out of place, but stands true to the original work. Even with some slower, epic moments, Phoenix is a wonderfully crafted story with as many highs and lows as the original manga volumes. The opening animation, with its classical orchestra and ominous female solo over the opening credits, already dictates a story of philosophical ambition as the Phoenix flies out of an infant galaxy, across a space Buddha, and into the corona of a sun that becomes a metaphor for ... wait for it Lion King fans ... the circle of life.

Phoenix follows the main stories of the manga collection by Osamu Tezuka in arcs that run from one to five episodes in length. Beginning with the largest story, Dawn, the series leaps in time back and forth by thousands of years, going from ancient times to the end of mankind and planet Earth itself. Other than the recurring role of Saruta, Tezuka’s stock tragedy character with the melon-sized blistered nose, Phoenix does not center on any one character, rather it follows how they are all affected by the title character, the elusive and sparkly Pidgeot, also known as the Phoenix. The longer stories are my favorites since they have the chance to grow and change, evolving from supernatural to political drama to war movie with the grace of a swan flapping its wings.

The story of Inugami, a member of a royal family whose face is replaced with a wolf’s, was one of the most compelling pieces as the lines between man and monster are blurred while Tezuka kicks organized religion right in the gonads. The shorter stories act as allegories about the injustice of killing one to save many: in both cases, the Phoenix grants her gift of immortality as a cruel, Twilight Zone-esque punishment.

The show has a big animation budget, with lighting and shading effects almost taking center stage during some action scenes, although the movement and kinetic energy are captured and translated superbly from Tezuka’s original layout. What throws me off is how out-of-place a Tezuka design looks in full color. For some reason, I can’t get over a Tezuka character design placed in front of a realistic setting; the facial proportions are too larger-than-life to ignore.

I was very surprised to find Media Blasters in charge of the dub, and even more blown away by how well it was executed. Recorded at NYAV Post in New York City, a handful of A-list dubbers were called in for lighter roles, with studio director Mike Sinterniklaas pulling his weight throughout the series. The highlight goes to the diversity of Danny Burstein, who alters Saruta’s aggression and passion throughout the story as both the times and the character age. This is a very competent and well-translated dub which made me ignore the original Japanese track entirely. I even turned off the subtitles when I realized how much more coherent the English speech track was by comparison.

What I am most thankful with for this re-imagining is its honesty to the source material, in that every story hammers home the defining instincts of mankind: survival, war, transformation leading to rebirth, and robots.


This review is based on a retail copy of the Media Blasters DVD box set, purchased by the reviewer.

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Review: Weekly Astro Boy Magazine (iPhone App)

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Screenshots from the Japanese version of the Weekly Astro Boy Magazine App (courtesy of

Platform: iPhone, iPod Touch
Publishers: D-Arc, Inc. Tezuka Productions
Release Date: Oct. 2009 (US), Mar. 2010 (UK/AU/etc.)

During Tezuka Month you may have seen my breathless news post about how the Astro Boy iPhone app had been expanded to new countries, including my own native land of Great Britain. As previously mentioned, I had been aching to get my hands on the app since learning of its existence and cursing the arbitrary barriers preventing me from doing so.

So now that I actually have Weekly Astro Boy Magazine firmly installed on my iPhone, was the wait worth it?

To recap, the app allows you to read translated chapters of famous Tezuka manga such as Black Jack, Astro Boy and Dororo, on your iPhone or iPod Touch through a devoted e-reader application. The chapters are arranged into volumes which are released weekly for $1 (or your local equivalent) each, with the selection of manga on offer differing each week. You can pick and choose which volumes you download, so there is no obligation to keep forking out money.

First things first, this application is only available for the iPhone and iPod touch — no other handset types are covered so it you just bought a shiny Android (or any other mobile OS) device you are out of luck. Sorry!

In the app store you will find two versions of the program — a free version with a single issue of the magazine and a paid, $1 version with the first two issues. This is a rather confusing decision given the two could have easily been rolled into one free app that charged you for the second issue. Of course, this could be due to some bizarre rule on Apple's part regarding in-app purchases. Once downloaded, you can buy additional issues of the magazine from within the program, which would be a wonderful way to take the hassle out of getting more content if it was not for two major problems.

First, the purchasing and downloading system is very slow, and it often takes multiple attempts to confirm your purchase of a new volume. The app then takes an irritatingly long time to download your purchased content and has a tendency to fail to complete a download. These frequent failures are infuriating; it is a blessing that the application can resume partial downloads otherwise I would have quickly given up on using it. Due to these frustrations I tend to only download new issues of the magazine when I am work, where I can abuse the powerful wireless connection to get issues in a quarter of the time with fewer errors. A minor note to add here is that, without fail, each time I have downloaded a new issue I have received “Download failed” error at 99% complete only to have it show up, completed, in the program.

The second major problem with the program, and one that is entirely out of the hands of the publishers, is that while the app is downloading you are unable to do anything else on your device. Remember, no multi-tasking on iPhone OS! (At the time of writing, using OS 3.2) This includes viewing already downloaded issues. Add this to the frequent failures experienced while downloading and the entire process begins to become more and more unappealing.

With all that technical rigmarole out of the way, how does it perform when you view the manga you have downloaded? Very well, actually. I must admit I was rather dubious about viewing manga on the iPhone screen as I presumed it would involve an awful lot of moving the page to view the art in detail. I was pleasantly surprised to find that you can read a full page in the portrait orientation quite easily, although the finer details are lost on the more lavish titles included in the magazine. Zooming in/out and moving around the page are smooth and responsive and feel no more obstructive than using a physical book. There is a small delay when displaying a new page as the program loads the image, although this only manifests should you have your device playing music at the time and does not impact the viewing experience. It is also easy to confuse the application at times — should you accidentally turn the page, any attempt to stop it will confuse the program and you have to wait for the transition to complete before making any additional movements on the touchscreen. This may be an issue of an idiotic user however, as I am rather clumsy and tend to use the app while on a bumpy commute.

So far it feels like I am griping, but all of my complaints are incidental points - slip-ups on the path to greatness. The simple fact that this app exists and that it works as intended is a small marvel. For the equivalent of $1 you get a sizeable chunk of manga from a range of Tezuka's works, some of which may be difficult to get a hold of where you live. I personally have never seen a physical copy of Adolf, and the opportunity to read it in any form is wonderful even with the niggling issues attached. Plus — and this is a definite positive for me — it will not clutter your already overloaded bookshelf.


NOTE: At the time of writing, the iPad is not available in the UK, and so I have been unable to review this app on this new platform. The iTunes store lists that Weekly Astro Boy Magazine is compatible with the iPad, however. If you are lucky enough to have an iPad, please try the free version of this app and let us know how it is in the comments below!

This review is based on the March 2010 version of the iPhone application, purchased by the reviewer.

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Ani-Gamers Podcast #028b – The Greatest Podcast on Earth, Part II

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Astro Boy and his robot sister Uran

Hosts: Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto, Frederik L. Schodt, Ed Sizemore
Topic: Second half of our comparison of all versions of the Astro Boy story "The Greatest Robot on Earth" (original manga, 60s anime, 1980 anime, 2003 anime, and Pluto manga)

This is the second half of episode #028, featuring a continuation of our discussion of Astro Boy and its many adaptations. If you're confused about this show, I'd suggest you listen to the first half, which you can find right here. Additionally, listen till the end of the show for contest information, primarily that the Black Jack "suggest-a-topic" contest will be ending next Sunday, April 25 at 11:59pm.

Show notes and links after the break.

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(Runtime: 47 minutes)

[00:00] Introduction for people confused about the episode.

[00:31] Opening Song: "Tetsuwan Atom" by Atoms (Astro Boy [1980] OP)

[01:03] We begin with talking about the character of Pluto and his relationship with Astro's sister Uran. We kind of meander off into a discussion of Uran specifically and Urasawa's interesting take on her character in Pluto.

[07:49] Some more focused discussion here of Urasawa's art in Pluto and his plans (or lack thereof) for future Osamu Tezuka adaptations.

[12:25] We talk about Pluto's depiction in Urasawa's Pluto manga, which gives him less of a "human" personality and makes him much more mysterious than his original character.

[17:28] Ed gets us talking about specific moments, themes, and visual cues from Tezuka's original manga that Urasawa includes in Pluto. This later expands into some talk about Tezuka's greater ideas about humanity in his manga. Evan mentions an "internal focus" to Urasawa's version as opposed to an "external focus" in Tezuka's original.

[22:40] Then some references to older Astro Boy stories and other Tezuka manga series and the themes therein. Ed calls Astro a "circular" character. We talk about how to introduce people to the Astro Boy canon.

[27:57] We talk about the end of the story and the reasons provided by each story for why Pluto destroyed so many beloved robots. Ed describes Tezuka's understanding of what Evan calls "second-degree responsibility" and brings up an idea he calls "temporal arrogance."

[39:35] Evan wraps it up by asking about each person's favorite adaptation. We provide some final thoughts on what order to read/watch the versions of this story.

[43:24] That's the end of the show! Check out Ed's reviews at and Fred's books and other information at Follow all three hosts on Twitter Ed is "edsizemore", Fred is "fschodt", and Evan is "VamptVo".

[46:44] Ending Song: "WORLD END Instrumental" by FLOW (Code Geass R2 2nd OP)

[46:59] Evan throws in some information about the Black Jack contest, which ends on Sunday, April 25 at 11:59pm.

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Ode to Kirihito contest winners are in

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A page from Osamu Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito

I decided to expand the Ode to Kirihito contest a little bit by putting people into the running even if their comment was after midnight on March 31. (Double posts didn't give you an extra chance however.) So, with that in mind, the four randomly-selected winners of the Ode to Kirihito contest for Osamu Tezuka Month are F-Man, Ninjatron, Steve, and Yan.

Everybody on that list but F-Man has their e-mail address in their Blogger profile, so I can easily get in contact with all of you. If you're reading this, F-Man, send me an e-mail at evanm [at] anigamers [dot] com to claim your prize and tell me your address!

Also, I'd like to thank everyone who commented, and particularly commend you on contributing more significant content than "hey I want a prize too lol." You guys made writing the articles this month that much more worthwhile with the knowledge that somebody out there was reading them and appreciating them. Thanks!

Meanwhile, I've still got prizes to give away here. (Thanks for all of the great stuff, Vertical!) To find out how to enter the third Tezuka Month contest, which is totally running over into April, you'd best listen to Ani-Gamers Podcast #028a for the details. Good luck!

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Guest Post: Tezuka and the 108 Stars of Destiny

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A Tezuka drawing depicting a staggering number of his famous manga characters

This is a guest post written by frequent Ani-Gamers collaborators Hisui and Narutaki from the Reverse Thieves anime blog. Thanks, guys!

Evan has dedicated the month of March on Ani-Gamers to the legendary "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka, and while several of the writers at Ani-Gamers are contributing their thoughts and reviews, we at Reverse Thieves heeded Evan's call for guest posts as well! But what to do proved a little difficult; another review wouldn't be much help, so when Evan suggested an essay about some aspect of Tezuka, that really got us thinking. One of the artist's most famous aspects is what is lovingly referred to as Tezuka's Star System, in which his characters appear over and over in again in various works. This has become a unique trait to Tezuka that has gone on to influence a world of manga in various ways.

The Star System is a device that Tezuka uses to have characters appear in similar roles from series to series with the same character design but different names. A character like Duke Red will almost always be a villain, whereas Higeoyaji (a.k.a. Shunsaku Ban) might play a wide variety of middle-aged man roles. Tezuka often remarked on the system and likened it to a director reusing the same actors again and again after finding he liked their performances. Considering Tezuka's nigh-obsession with film and the theatre, and his frequent exposure to these media at a young age thanks to his parents, there is little doubt that they went on to not only inform the way he drew comics, but also the way he saw his characters.

At first you may think this is just a cleverly disguised way of recycling character designs, but it goes deeper than that. Ask most any writer and they will tell you that their characters are often very close to their hearts. Even take a look at yourself and how attached you may become to a character during the course of the story. There is a personal connection that occurs when someone creates a character, a history, and a story for them and Tezuka was no exception; in fact he might have felt it more strongly than most. Tezuka even went as far as writing up lists of the various "actors" he used in his Star System, with notes like how much each was paid. Tezuka fans love the Star System since it rewards readers for reading multiple series, giving them a silent wink and a nod when they notice Star System characters. It is a delightful reward when you spot, say, Rock Holmes in both Black Jack and Astro Boy.

Star System characters Dr. Hanamaru (bottom left, bearded) and Skunk (bottom right, dark scrub) argue about a surgery in this page from Black Jack

As the "God of Manga," Tezuka's influence can be seen on almost all aspects of manga and anime, and this includes other people using the Star System. While Go Nagai would go onto influence manga in innumerable ways himself, you can see the traces of the Star System in his own manga. Numerous characters from The Abashiri Family and Harenchi Gakuen reappear in Go Nagai's Cutie Honey. Violence Jack is not only a sequel to Devilman but Go Nagai also repurposes characters from several other series for it. You can also look to the prolific Rumiko Takahashi's stories for nods to the Star System. Takahashi has stated that her main character can be seen as the same character viewed during different parts of his life from a child to a young adult.

The Star System also plays a big role in Naoki Urasawa's work. Urasawa makes no bones about him being a huge fan of Osamu Tezuka — made even more clear by his writing of Pluto — but long before that he was taking cues from the Star System. He almost always uses a character that looks like Kosaku Matsuda or Yawara Inokuma in his series as well as several other recurring actors. The Star System reaches beyond manga too, as some anime directors can even be seen using it. Yasuhiro Imagawa is famous for plucking characters from many of the creator's sources when adapting a manga into anime. In Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, not only does he re-imagine Mitsuteru Yokoyama's classic, but he practically turns it into an homage as he pulls characters from Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms into the story. Imagawa went on to bring a similar feeling to Go Nagai's Shin Mazinger Shogeki! Z Hen.

It is easy to mistake someone using the Star System for an inability to vary their character designs. Although some manga-ka (Ed. note: manga artists) use the Star System, it is hardly a universal staple of the world of manga. At times it might seem that a manga-ka is using the Star System but in is in fact just reusing character designs due to lack of ability, laziness, or time constraints. Much like the difference between homage and rip-off, it can be a tricky matter to determine which is going on without the manga-ka commenting one way or another. But it can also be a fun and insightful line of conversation, because it is no secret that Tezuka's influence runs quite deep indeed.

This is merely an introduction and light examination of Tezuka's Star System. The system itself is more complex and its influence more far-reaching than this simple overview could give. If you wish to learn more about the Star System, you should track down the following books for more information about Tezuka himself and the many unique and influential traits of his manga:

You can also check out the following web sites, which are great resources for learning more about Tezuka:

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Ani-Gamers Podcast #028a – The Greatest Podcast on Earth, Part I

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A great comparison of the original Astro Boy manga (in orange) and Naoki Urasawa's Pluto retelling (in black). Source unknown.

Hosts: Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto, Frederik L. Schodt, Ed Sizemore
Topic: Comparison of all versions of the Astro Boy story "The Greatest Robot on Earth" (original manga, 60s anime, 1980 anime, 2003 anime, and Pluto manga)

In a last-ditch effort to release a podcast for Osamu Tezuka Month, I recorded this episode with manga translator Fred Schodt (author of The Astro Boy Essays, translator of Astro Boy and Pluto) and manga reviewer Ed Sizemore (Manga Worth Reading), featuring an in-depth discussion of the Astro Boy story "The Greatest Robot on Earth" and all of the adaptations thereof. The episode was quite long and I wanted to get something out before the end of the month, so this is only the first part of the show.

In it, we only get to two of our discussion topics: Astro's fateful decision to increase his horsepower and the dichotomy between the philosophies and depictions of Dr. Ochanomizu and Dr. Tenma. In addition, there's a quick announcement of an Ani-Gamers Podcast contest at the end of the episode, so stick around to find out how to win some fabulous Tezuka-themed prizes, courtesy of Vertical, Inc.

Show notes and links after the break.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - RSS Feed - iTunes - Send us Feedback! - More episodes

(Runtime: 37 minutes)

[00:00] Opening Song: "R.O.D. OP" by Taku Iwasaki (Read Or Die OAV OP)

[00:16] Evan introduces our two awesome guests.

[02:07] We move on to some background and a plot synopsis of "The Greatest Robot on Earth."

[05:31] Our trio begins with a quite long conversation about Astro's decision to upgrade his horsepower from 100,000 to 1,000,000. In doing so, we also bring up the central themes of "The Greatest Robot on Earth" and get into the underlying characterizations of Astro, Dr. Ochanomizu, and Dr. Tenma.

[31:17] Continuing with our discussion of the two doctors, we begin with Evan's idea of the two as representing an angel/devil dichotomy. (In discussing the topic, Ed brings up an alternative model of the two as representing a yin-yang.)

[35:58] That's it for this half of the show. Evan announces the (late) Tezuka Month contest for the podcast.

[37:27] Ending Song: "Tetsuwan Atom" by Atoms (Astro Boy[1980] OP)

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Guest Review: Nextworld, vol. 1 (Manga)

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The first volume of Osamu Tezuka's Nextworld

Medium: Manga (2 volumes)
Genres: Drama, Science Fiction
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Various (JPN), Dark Horse Manga (NA/UK)
Release Dates: Jan. 10, 1951 – Feb 10, 1951 (JPN), 2003 (NA/UK)
Age Rating: Unknown

This is a guest review written by Phillip of the Eeeper's Choice Podcast. Thanks, Phillip!

Part of Osamu Tezuka’s "Science Fiction Trilogy," comprised of Nextworld, Lost World, and Metropolis, Nextworld serves as a cautionary tale of using science for the wrong reasons and what unchecked warring could do to the human race. First published in 1951, the two-volume series begins when Professor Yamadano ("played" by Tezuka stock player Dr. Hanamaru) explores Horseshoe Island, an island that the Nation of Star (it’s America, folks) has used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. After finding a fantastic menagerie of creatures (which he describes as Verderungen, a German word which basically means ‘changed’) that are not part of the natural order, he discovers a small humanoid creature, which he decides to bring to the Nation of Star’s international conference on atomic energy to prove that atomic weapons are wrong to use. Unfortunately, due to interference from a certain Detective Mustachio (Tezuka stock player Higeoyaji), the creature escapes, an invisible hand carries off Mustachio, and Yamadano is left alone. Meanwhile, at the conference, the Professor’s attempt to warn the world is all for nothing as the Nation of Star and the Uran Federation (it’s Russia) squabble and bicker about whether or not nuclear weapons are necessary.

It is into this world we are thrown headfirst by Tezuka from his 50’s output, marked for its exploration of the themes of science versus man and identity exploration. Reading the first volume, you would never assume that the childish squabble that breaks out at the conference could be matched by the sight of enormous battleships trying to level one another, but maybe there’s a weird parallel between the two concepts. The two big nations fight and bark at each other like a pair of spoiled children, so their encounters with each other really are the same only magnified. As with Metropolis, the different strands of the story are initially taken at face value with no real significance as to the gravity of the situation the characters find themselves in. Only as the volume closes do we realise the magnitude that some characters’ choices have on people. Now, you can read as much or as little as you like into the story, but I always suspect that the author has more going on than simple gags or people behaving irrationally (even though the former does happen).

Nowhere is Tezuka’s ability to throw you off more highlighted than the character of Poponyo. A childhood friend of Ivan Redonov, the son of the Uran Federation’s ambassador to the Nation Of Star, she is — on first inspection — a happy go lucky sort of girl with nothing but love for her friend. Too bad she works as the manager of the Underground Factory, a facility run in the Uran Federation by the Ministry of Science with prisoners as slave labor. Working people into the floor, she sees no reason to go easier on the prisoners except when Ivan makes her do it. Here is a character that should be living life to its fullest, and in fact Tezuka inserts another character called Cocoa who does live the life that Poponyo should have, but who will never know anything except how to hurt other people. But Dr. Tezuka doesn’t simply make his heroes heroic and his villains villainous. One of the manipulators of the story, Ambassador Redonov, is seen writing poignantly to his son Ivan on the boy’s fifteenth birthday to let him know that he is thinking of him and that he loves him. Redonov knows what asking the boy to go to the underground factory will mean to Ivan but he asks nevertheless because he only wants what is best for him.

Tezuka would again visit the idea of nations having weapons that should never be deployed against anyone on a more personal level with 1976’s MW and in a more general way with 1949’s Metropolis with scientific progress for scientific progress’ sake. But here, instead of us doing it to ourselves, we are doing it to others first.

As the manga draws to a close Tezuka invokes the Bible and the story of Noah as the world of the Fumoon, the creatures Yamadano found on the island, and the world of humans come crashing into one another. As the two groups prepare to fight, it is clear that humanity is hopelessly outmatched even before the fight has begun, and this is not an underdog kind of fight we are witnessing. Using a simple peasant village people as his example, the villagers ask their priest why their world will be washed away in God’s final judgment when they themselves were a peaceful people and had never done any harm to anyone. Maybe this is Tezuka’s way of saying that when men play God in life and death decisions with the world in the balance, it’s the little people who ultimately pay the highest prices.

On a personal note, Dark Horse have included an explanation for how certain "people from Africa and Southeast Asia," as depicted by the author, are presented without changes. They claim that they understand how people could be upset by such depictions, but they have released it unchanged so that people can get an understanding of how the world viewed certain groups in that era. I find it ironic that Tezuka and Tezuka Productions, people who the larger manga/anime audience have ignored, would go to the trouble to explain themselves when there are a slew of popular artists and writers working today who depict people from other countries any way they chose (for example, all blonde girls from America are presented as being somehow "easy") and don’t apologize for it. Were there more like Tezuka, the experience we have as readers and viewers would be greatly enriched.


This review is based on a retail copy of the Dark Horse manga purchased by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Metropolis: Taking a Stroll Through the "Tezuka Backlot"

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The movie poster for Rintaro's Metropolis anime

Warning: The following article discusses important plot points in the Metropolis manga and anime. Don't read it if you're avoiding being spoiled for a manga that came out over fifty years ago or an anime that came out nearly a decade ago. If you're not a wimp, however, then read on!

One of the most amazing things about reading and watching Tezuka manga and anime is the incredible depth of the world that his works maintain amongst themselves. Beyond the universes and stories created for each anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka constructed an entire backbone to his stories, a meta-story of sorts revolving around his "Star System," a so-called acting troupe filled with the familiar faces from his manga series. In a way, he has left other manga artists and animators with more than the backbone of the anime and manga industries and aesthetics; he has left behind what might be called the "Tezuka Backlot": a universe behind the stories that opens up pathways for newcomers to work with his actors and environments to create new stories from the old. Let's take a walk through director Rintaro's unique vision of this backlot, as I analyze his 2001 film, Metropolis, through the lens of Tezuka's original 1949 manga version of the story.

It is important to note that Rintaro's vision of the backlot is distinctly different from Tezuka's manga, which, legend has it, was the artist's least favorite creation. What makes the movie so interesting is that the director takes a pre-Astro Boy Tezuka manga that was admittedly not very good to begin with (due partly to cuts forced by Tezuka's editors) and infuses it with the knowledge of Tezuka's entire canon. Thus, it serves as a powerful tribute to the life and work of its original creator just as it is a technical and emotional achievement of its director.

Duke Red coerces Dr. Lawton into creating a synthetic being for him. (Sorry, I couldn't find a scan of a manga page in English!)

Both stories begin, delightfully, with a scientific conference held by the greatest minds in the world in the greatest city in the world, the futuristic Metropolis. Tezuka's vision holds a distinct charm with its fifties-era kitschy sci-fi look, but Rintaro makes an interesting choice: Metropolis looks (at least partially) like the futuristic world foretold in Fritz Lang's seminal 1926 science fiction film of the same name. Even though Tezuka "hadn't seen the movie and [...] didn't even know what it was about", and his idea for the manga came only from a single promotional shot of "the female robot [Maria]'s birth scene," the choice to integrate this aesthetic into the adaptation shows a fascinating reverence to not just Tezuka, but his influences as well (Tezuka 164). In fact, the "Ziggurat," a giant tower that serves as a primary visual and narrative cue in the film, is itself based on the tower in Lang's movie, and it also never actually appeared in Tezuka's manga.

It is into the bustle of this city, filled with excitement spurred by the completion of the Ziggurat's construction, that antagonist Duke Red steps into the spotlight. Seen only as the shadowy leader of the "Red Party" in the manga, Duke steps up his position in the anime, becoming not just a nobleman (as his title implies), but the most powerful man in Metropolis, with the political and economic clout to control the mayor and president, not to mention privately fund the construction of the Ziggurat and maintain a private army called the Marduks. While Duke Red was at the beginning of his career in the manga, this depiction shows him after his many roles shaped him into a far richer, more powerful figure in Tezuka's stories. But Duke Red also gained something far more meaningful through his years as a Tezuka character: a son.

Kenichi and Tima from the Metropolis anime

Rock Holmes, a boy hero who made his first major appearance a mere sixteen days after the publication of Metropolis in Detective Boy Rock Holmes (1949), shows up as a villain in Metropolis (EDIT: the movie version), reflecting his evolution from an innocent child to a dark, charismatic villain later in Tezuka's career. However, Rock notably does not appear in the original manga. Here Rintaro truly expresses his attention to the backlot, as he brings in a longtime actor and all of his emotional baggage to fill a spot in a story that didn't originally feature him. Rock is often depicted as the son of Duke Red (just take a look at the first chapter of Black Jack), so his dedication to his (adopted in this case) father fits in perfectly with his character. However, the Duke denies his familial love, treating him instead as nothing more than a pawn in the Marduk Party.

From the earliest moments of the story, Rock takes out his frustration with this situation out on the people around him. Most notably, he hates robots — an act of discrimination that firmly casts him as the villain in Tezuka's meta-universe — and dedicates himself to destroying any that go out of line in the city. At the very beginning of the story, he even tries to destroy the robot girl Tima (the anime's replacement of the manga's gender-changing "Michi") commissioned by Duke Red, and his final act of the film is to make a desperate stab at the robots encircling him and his father. His deep hatred of robots replaces Duke Red's nonchalant mistreatment of such in the original manga, and provides a perfect counterpoint to the embracing philosophy upheld by the anime version of the story's protagonist, Kenichi.

Duke Red (left) scolds his adopted son Rock (right)

In the manga, Tezuka definitely explores the themes of culture clash that he would later expand upon in Astro Boy, but they are shown in a distinctly different light than the movie version. The clash is between Detective Shunsaku Ban, who is trying to unmask the Red Party's activities, and Duke Red. While Duke Red creates robots and drives them to work without a care for their well-being, Ban befriends one of the workers, who is quickly melted down by the Duke. Later, Tezuka transfers this robot friendship to active hostility, as Michi discovers that she is an artificial being and decides to join with the robots to tear down Metropolis, the pride and joy of the race that created and subjugated them.

Meanwhile, the Metropolis anime, for all of the subtlety that it infuses into Tezuka's original (which is quite blunt in how it states the moral about humans "destroying themselves with their own science"), squanders this in some ways by explaining exactly what moral it is trying to get across. The human rebel Atlas — yes, a human reincarnation of Astro Boy's rebellious robot brother — monologues to a stoic robot detective about the purpose of emotions in motivating humans to violence, and when Tima finally joins with the Ziggurat's systems and takes control of the hidden weapons inside, she lets everybody know that "this is punishment for toying with robots."

The dramatic final battle between Kenichi and Michi at the end of the Metropolis manga

However, despite the sheer number of new cast members and set pieces that it adds, the Metropolis anime winds up being far more personal than its source material. Tezuka's manga jumps all over the place, focusing on a variety of characters and never stopping long enough to develop any of them. Kenichi and Michi are only given brief moments to show their personalities: Kenichi is a cocky yet intelligent kid and Michi is, well ... just a nice little boy I guess. In the anime, Rintaro is given a chance to show Kenichi in the grand scheme of things by contrasting him with Rock, as mentioned earlier. In doing so, he focuses less on the sprawling city of Metropolis and more on the interactions of its characters. Rock and Kenichi's brief battle on the steps in the snow is a particularly poignant struggle between two Tezuka boy heroes, forced to fight by their differing ideologies. Rock also tries to kill Tima, who is essentially "taking the place of Astro [Boy] as the robots' champion" (Palmer), though such unforgivable murders of revered characters are old hat for Rock, who already attempted to kill Osamu Tezuka himself in the Vampires manga.

Finally, both stories provide interesting viewpoints on the relationship between Kenichi and Michi/Tima. In the manga, it was little more than a brief friendship, erected mostly for the purpose of indulging children in the fantasy of how awesome it would be to have a best friend with superpowers. The anime softens Kenichi's slightly arrogant personality, necessarily making him the nice guy to Rock's mean guy, and adding much needed philosophical tension to their single face-to-face confrontation (which is, by the way, the only time Kenichi attacks anyone in the whole film).

Nevertheless, it is in the final moments that the movie shows the deepest change in Kenichi's character. When faced with being thrown off of the top of the Ziggurat by a malfunctioning Tima, Ken does not choose, as he does in the manga, to fight her in order to stop her rampage against all of humanity. No, this softer Kenichi calls her name, trying in vain to get her to return to her senses. In the end, just like his manga namesake, the boy is unable to save the girl, but her loss is made even more emotional for viewers with a knowledge of the manga.

Robot detective Pero, Detective Shunsaku Ban, and his nephew Kenichi

The two stories of the anime and manga, when combined, form a tale of the futility of escaping death that Tezuka surely would have appreciated. That is to say, when Kenichi uses force to stop Michi/Tima from destroying mankind, he cannot save her from death, and when he uses kindness, he again cannot save her. To a viewer experiencing both versions of the story, it feels like Michi/Tima has died twice, and no matter what way we might want Kenichi to try to help her, he will never be able to.

When it comes down to it, Metropolis is much more than a visually stunning, dramatically powerful movie. On its own, it certainly might have wowed audiences, but as a capstone to a readthrough of Tezuka's broad body of work, the film is unbelievably poignant. Simply reading some of Metropolis, Astro Boy, and Black Jack can be enough to provide a simple education in Tezuka's Star System that will greatly enrich a viewing of the Metropolis movie. As with most any Tezuka adaptation, this is a movie that absolutely must be experienced alongside the original version to achieve the full effect.

Quotes, dates, and facts cited from:
  • McCarthy, Helen. The Art of Osamu Tezuka. New York: Abrams, 2009. Print.
  • Palmer, Ada. "Rock Holmes: Transformation." Tezuka In English. N.p. 23 Mar. 2010. Web. <>.
  • Tezuka, Osamu. Metropolis. Trans. Kumar Sivasubramanian. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 2003. Print.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!

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Review: Astro Boy – Omega Factor (GBA)

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Astro Boy: Omega Factor for Game Boy Advance

Medium: Video Game (Game Boy Advance)
Genre: Action
Designer: Tez Okano (Director/Game & Visual Concept/Story)
Developers: Treasure, Hitmaker
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date(s): Dec. 18, 2003 (JP), Aug. 18, 2004 (US), Feb 18, 2005 (EU)
Rated: E for Everyone

I bought this game in early 2005 and, to be utterly blunt, I would have passed it by entirely if it had not been for the prominent logo of the developer on the box. Gunstar Heroes on the Mega Drive/ Genesis is a cornerstone of my youth and as a result I have a rather shallow policy of buying any Treasure game I see.

At the time of Omega Factor’s release I was starting to get into anime in a serious way. Instead of just passively watching, I was starting to do background research — finding names of directors, checking the Internet, crawling about for more information on what to watch.

In its own way this game was a massive help as an introduction to Tezuka's work as it incorporates a great number of the Star System of characters, and even includes a barebones mini-reference guide in the options screen. Some of the characters are flat-out obscure even now, but if you know who they are it is endlessly gratifying to see them all line up and take part in the plot. Hell, one of the pivotal moments in the plot has you protecting Black Jack while he operates on someone — an honestly badass moment.

Omega Factor puts you in the role of Astro Boy (bet you didn't see that coming), and follows a complete storyline from his initial activation onwards through a series of discrete stories that are initially independent but slowly coalesce into a single, larger plot. The storyline is well-paced and simply presented, told primarily through static cutscenes with text dialogue. The storyline sucks you right in, however is deeply marred by the fact that the entire story arc requires you to play the bulk of the game's levels twice in order to complete it. However, so engrossing is the gameplay that even on my recent playthough it took a good long while to actually notice that I was replaying the majority of the levels for a second time with very little change apart from the toughness of the enemies.

Towards the end there are one or two easy-to-miss links in the storyline, particularly if you are ham-handed and accidentally skip past some key dialogue like I did. These small slip-ups required me to go scurrying to GameFAQs in order to find out how to continue. I also experienced a rather irritating glitch where a plot event would not fire properly and so I had to reset the console and re-do some earlier events in order to make the game progress.

But these small issues do not detract from the games very satisfying resolution — it is (surprisingly) emotionally powerful, especially for an action game.

The moment-to-moment gameplay comes generally under one of two main types — some stages are laid out like a side scrolling beat ‘em up and others like a shoot ‘em up. Both modes share the same controls and attacks, allowing the gameplay to shift quickly and frequently between the two without needing to explain the change each time. Neither play style is outstanding on its own but the frequent switching helps to keep the game fresh, especially as levels will often drag on a lot longer than is enjoyable, with too many waves of enemies showing up to the party. The same can be said of the game's bosses — due to a quirk of the storyline you will end up fighting all of them at least twice, each time more difficult than the last. The endgame boss rush event is difficult to the point of wanting to throw your console at the wall; I have only ever completed it once on Normal mode, no matter how often I try. Still, it was an amazing feeling when I finally managed it.

Another complaint to level against the game is that it contains a particularly aggravating quick-time event — they were a lot more novel in 2005, but even then the idea of pressing the "A" button 12 times in succession without missing once to progress the plot must have seemed bonkers.

The game shoves a remarkable amount of action onto the Game Boy screen, causing rampant slowdown in some places due to the number of enemies that are visible on the screen at one time — the fact that each time you strike an enemy a collection of stars fly out to show the damage doesn't really help this.

The different difficulty modes Omega Factor offers are very well-made, with each mode feeling like an entirely different game and providing a nice chunk of re-playability. Just don't try playing on Hard mode the first time around; otherwise you are going to sound silly when you have to explain to the doctor that a fight against your asshole robot brother on the moon is the cause of your sudden high blood pressure.

The game includes a very light RPG-style element with the application of an upgrade system over the course of the game. This is nothing outstandingly original, but the source of the upgrades is rather inventive and in keeping with the general "feeling" of Astro Boy — as you meet and understand the motivations of other characters in the story you are awarded extra points to upgrade your abilities. By the end you will have everything maxed whether you go looking for additional characters or not, so there is no need to worry about having to trawl through an FAQ to avoid being horribly gimped for the later game stages.

Shortly after I agreed to write this review, I was hit by a sudden worry. "Oh crap," I said to myself, "It's going to be a kick in the pants to the reader if I review this and it turns out you can no longer get a hold of it." A quick bit of searching shows that you can quite easily nab a copy, even so many years after its release date. Hell, you may have walked past a used copy in your own local games store before. Despite my many gripes, the core of Astro Boy: Omega Factor is solid gold. I would honestly recommend picking up a copy if you see one.


This review is based on a retail copy of the DS game purchased by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Review: Adolf (Manga)

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The cover of the Cadence Books release of Osamu Tezuka's Adolf

Medium: Manga (5 volumes)
Genres: Drama, Historical
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Bungei Shunju (JPN), Cadence Books/Viz Media (NA/UK)
Release Dates: Jan. 6, 1982 – May 30, 1985 (JPN), 1997 (NA/UK)
Age Rating: Unknown

Due to Japan’s strict policies against fictionalizing the events of WWII, Osamu Tezuka had to wait nearly forty years after the war before setting a story in that era that did not rely heavily on metaphor and robots. Released in the mid-1980s, Adolf is a complex story about three young men all sharing the same name: Two of their tales span the entire war as a young German Jew and a young German Aryan who grow up as friends, then become enemies as the war develops. The third Adolf is easy enough to guess in a story about WWII.

The massive tale begins at the Olympics in Berlin, where reporter Sohei Togi searches for his missing brother only to uncover a murder conspiracy. While his journey spans across both Germany and Japan, Adolf Hitler’s influence spreads as the Hitler Youth rises like an approaching drum line. His investigations discover a pinnacle secret about Hitler upon which the decade-long story pivots. This makes him the target of many assassination attempts until he can slip away into secrecy.

Meanwhile, as one race rises to superiority, Adolf Kaufmann uses his diluted Aryan background as grounds to feel superior to previous childhood friend Adolf Kamil. In the fifth volume, their parallel return to their hometown is a dark blessing at best, especially once Kaufmann discovers his mother has remarried to Japanese reporter ... Sohei Togi!

Having spent last month reading Tezuka’s Buddha and Phoenix, the stark, serious nature of this story came as a surprise. There are very few moments of comedic relief, and almost no chibi exaggerations from Tezuka’s earlier works. Even the drawing style has very detailed character design and backgrounds that emphasize the brutal nature of the environment. It is also necessary to note that Tezuka did not use any of his cast of stock characters (Ed: the "Star System") when composing this piece: every character in Adolf is designed and used solely for Adolf. When metaphor is used, however, it is vivid and striking. The most memorable moments for me in this five-volume epic are the depictions of rape: Tezuka streaks the feminine form in heavy shadows that contort into barbaric teeth and animal fangs to deliver his point across. As with most of his works, this is a testament to humanism and the flawed raison d’etre of nationality. Tezuka is unrelenting in his portrayal of pettiness driven by race and man’s need to rise higher than his peers.

Adolf’s message and story have no place remaining in obscurity for all but the fans who find the graphic novels translated by Cadence Books (a former division of Viz Media). Tezuka’s lack of Jewish perspective is compensated by his intimate knowledge of Japan’s unsettling cultural reset at the war’s end. He is able to translate that fear and instability flawlessly in the Adolf’s western Germany community. In a poignant moment, both Adolfs and their cultural groups are huddled in darkness in a single bomb shelter. The irony and the misery are captured by Tezuka’s honed sense of lighting and composition. You feel pressed against the sweating shoulder of your enemy while, above, the town you both deserve is being blown to fiery debris by America.

Graphic novels like Adolf offer so much political and historical context, it is a shame that the current generation will lose it amid their Hetalia hug pillows.

Read Adolf. Plaster its images above your bed. Organize the youth of your communities and march in the streets until Tezuka’s banner becomes the only banner this nation reads ... uh-oh ...

(Ani-Gamers does not condone the use of Osama Tezuka’s works as propaganda or prejudice against Axis Powers Hetalia nor its creator. We would just encourage you to read more Tezuka if given the opportunity.)


This review is based on Cadence Books graphic novels purchased by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Review: Black Jack, vols.1-9 (Manga)

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Black Jack, volume 8 Medium: Manga (17 volumes total, 9 released in US/UK at the time of writing)
Genres: Drama, Medical
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Shōnen Champion (JPN), Vertical Inc. (NA/UK)
Release Dates: 1973 – 1983 (JPN), Sept 2008 – ongoing (NA/UK)
Age Rating: Unknown

Sometimes, when I have a spare moment, I wonder what would have been if I had followed a different path in life. Maybe I could have become a concert pianist, or a doctor. The thing is, even if I had trained to be a doctor, I would certainly have turned nowhere near as awesome as Black Jack is.

Black Jack, the titular character of Osamu Tezuka's manga, is a roguish, outcast surgeon who scorns the medical establishment and instead follows his own personal code of honor as he goes around fixing people up and then charging outrageous sums of money for his services. Black Jack is, like his scarred body, a patchwork character with many interesting facets to his personality — he can be comfortably introduced as a rude, blunt dick but is set apart by his endless drive to preserve life. Thankfully his character is free from many dull tropes; he does not have a "Heart of Gold" by any stretch of the imagination, nor does he neatly fit into the mold of a typical "anti-hero".

You may remember Ani-Gamers Podcast #016, in which we discussed Black Jack and talked quite a bit about how we disliked Pinoko, the other main character in the series who for some will be an absolute turn-off. To give you a brief introduction, Pinoko is a girl "born" of a Teratoid Cystoma who believes she is Black Jack's wife. She is generally very immature, speaks a lot of garbage with a comedic lisp and is very disruptive when involved with the story. While I am still not her greatest fan by any stretch of the imagination, I have warmed to the character with her repeated appearances, as she is a genuinely interesting character.

The art leaps seamlessly from clean character art and background to hyper-detailed shots of surgery — Tezuka's own medical training no doubt shining though. I am rather squeamish to be quite honest, and thankfully any internal body shots or injuries are shown very matter-of-factly.

Black Jack's introduction in volume 1

One of the wonderful things about Black Jack, at least for me, is that almost every story is completely self-contained, even those that reference older events.

This length is a major strength of the series — each self-contained chapter is only around 20-25 pages all told. Should you find yourself disliking a story for whatever reason, in a few pages you can simply move on to the next. This also allows each tale to have it's own individual impact, with brevity bringing the best out of the storytelling. The individual tales waste no time in getting to the point and setting things out — sadly this can lead to very abrupt endings, but this pace is a nice way to present the story. Most importantly, it prevents the story from getting bogged down in details, hanging plot threads, or an overarching plot. There are distinct themes throughout the manga, which are usually tied to supporting characters, but these are used sparingly and are a treat when they appear. This short format also helps out with the dialogue — no one ever minces words and everything said is important to your enjoyment of the story.

Overall the stories have a great mix of tone; the subject is grave, life-or-death indeed, but it retains a playful air. The use of lighthearted elements is especially effective at helping to maintain suspension of disbelief for the more outlandish or flat-out crazy situations. (Like the time Black Jack operated on a supercomputer! Or the time he had to excise a talking facial deformity! Or when he had to hunt down and operate on a super-intelligent stag!)

Normally in reviews you would now expect the line of "Oh, one of those is fake, but I bet you can’t guess which one!" No, all of the above happen at some point in Black Jack.

Some of my personal favorite stories are, quite simply, ones where the ending is a downer. Sometimes a case is beyond even Black Jack, or external pressures interfere, and so for whatever reason things don't turn out for the best. It’s honestly great that not every chapter ends positively — it keeps you on your toes while reading. These conclusions are often quite arresting — more than once I found myself putting the volume down to process what had just happened because it had emotionally effected me.

Meanwhile, the main thrust of the manga's varied messages deal with the sanctity and importance of preserving life above all else as well as scorning the established medical community (one of the reasons Tezuka himself never applied his medical training directly) and other confounding variables that can get in the way of saving life.

Black Jack builds Pinoko from her scattered organs.

One of the facets of this overarching philosophy is in regards to euthanasia, and is one of my personal issues with the series. Without getting too political or turning this review into a soapbox, I am a personal proponent of euthanasia and assisted suicide, whereas Tezuka (via Black Jack) is dead set against the idea in any form. One of my favorite characters, Dr. Kiriko, assists those who wish to die and has his own back-story and issues to grapple with as he does his grisly duty. Sadly all the stories that involve him end up becoming one-sided lectures with those who suggest euthanasia coming off as straw men whom Black Jack successfully discredits by the end. After a while this begins to feel rather immature as the larger issue is stunted by the short format of the series.

To be frank, the first volume is probably the most uneven out of the volumes released thus far. The selection varies wildly between some great stories, most of which are vital in filling in back-story or introducing the few principal cast members, and other lesser chapters that left me skimming the page waiting for the story to end. As the series has continued, and I have become more familiar with the cast, the overall quality of the stories (and perhaps my appreciation for them) has definitely increased. The last two volumes I purchased I read voraciously over the course of a single weekend.

Despite its (admittedly few) flaws, I would not hesitate to recommend Black Jack to almost anyone. Not just those who like manga, but anyone who wants to read a succinct, clear, medically themed drama and isn't afraid of having it displayed pictorially. In order to write this review I had to recall some volumes that I had lent to various friends I was trying to introduce to the series — a task more difficult than it sounds as some did not wish to return the books.

[Highly Recommended]

This review is based on Vertical, Inc. graphic novels purchased by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Tezuka Contest #2: Ode to Kirihito

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The prizes just keep rolling in this month, as we move on to our second contest of Osamu Tezuka month. This week we'll be giving away four copies of Vertical, Inc.'s new two-volume release of Ode to Kirihito. However, this week we're switching up the way to enter. Instead of just commenting on this post, you'll be entered into the contest simply by commenting on any Tezuka Month post during this week (including this one).

If possible, please include your e-mail address so we can get in contact with you to send you the prize. We'll randomly pick four winners next Sunday at 11:59pm. Watch the site next week on Monday for a post announcing the winners.

I'll start us off with a conversation topic in this post: Personally, I have found that Tezuka is particularly good at evoking strong emotions in simple yet memorable single panels. What are some of the most memorable "Tezuka moments" that you have seen in his anime and/or manga? One of my personal moments is in Ode to Kirihito, where Dr. Urabe gets a startling call about the fate of his former patient. Torn apart by this new information, he slowly turns from the phone, and on the next page, we see his face up close, a grotesque mask of anger and guilt. Though he is entirely human, Urabe looks far more beast than man in that single moment.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!

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Review: Astro Boy, vol.3 (Manga)

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Astro Boy, volume 3

Medium: Manga (23 volumes)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publishers: Kodansha (JPN), Dark Horse (NA/UK)
Release Dates: Apr. 1952 – Mar. 1968 (JPN), Mar. 15, 2002 (NA/UK)
Age Rating: Not Rated

To be honest, much of Tezuka's work is old. We can talk about how influential his series are on anime and manga, and we can discuss the depth of his themes, but the fact remains that many of his early works, including Astro Boy, just don't age very well. Astro Boy volume three, a Dark Horse release that compiles two stories from the Astro Boy universe, is no exception, but it is still completely worth reading for a quite unexpected reason.

Specifically, this volume is a treasure trove for fans of Tezuka adaptations. The bulk of the book's 208 pages is filled with a story called "The Greatest Robot on Earth," which pits Astro against Pluto, a giant, horned robot programmed to destroy the seven most powerful robots in the world (including Astro), thereby making him king of the robot world. The kindly Dr. Ochanomizu tries to keep the boy robot from fighting Pluto, as the colossal enemy proves time and again that Astro's 100,000 horsepower isn't enough to defeat Pluto's own one million. Meanwhile, Pluto forms his first and only friendship with Astro's robot sister Uran, and faces a fundamental moral dilemma: to destroy Astro would be to rob his only friend of the most important person in her life.

"The Greatest Robot on Earth" is, according to Tezuka's brief introduction at the beginning of the book, among his most popular Astro Boy story arcs, and its popularity has even spawned Naoki Urasawa's fantastic seinen retelling, Pluto. However, readers expecting the dark murder mystery tones of Pluto will be sorely disappointed to find a comic squarely aimed at children, as this was naturally the demographic for which Tezuka wrote Astro Boy. The pacing is also brutally fast, forcing much-needed exposition into a mere two speech bubbles in a single tiny panel.

The truth is that this story has simply not aged well. It is often hard to understand what's going on as Tezuka barrels through the story at a breakneck pace, and many of the robots that Pluto destroys are barely given more than a page for character introduction before they are wiped out. Even the fight scenes, which Tezuka builds up with commendable tension in so few pages, are tragically brief, a shame considering the exciting style with which the artist depicts them.

Despite all this, "The Greatest Robot on Earth" is worth it because, despite the shortcomings of the storytelling style, Tezuka has important things to say about love, friendship, family, and most of all duty (in Pluto's case) and self-acceptance (in Astro's case). Pluto faces a classic military conundrum: to obey a corrupt order or to do what you believe is right, while Astro must choose to raise his horsepower from 100,000 to one million, even though Dr. Ochanomizu insists that being the greatest robot in the world is all about his heart, not his horsepower. In the end, even though Pluto chooses to do the right thing, it is Astro's decision to embrace the philosophy of "might-makes-right" that leaves an appropriately unsatisfying conclusion to the tale.

With so much going on between the lines, it is no wonder that this one story has been adapted into arcs in all three Astro Boy anime series as well as Urasawa's Pluto. Each of these four adaptations provides an entirely different look at the same themes. For example, Urasawa's manga delves into the private lives of each of Pluto's robot victims, while the 1980 Astro Boy anime reverses Astro's decision regarding his horsepower, painting a much less grim picture than Tezuka does at the end of this manga arc. The 2003 anime takes the story a step further, casting Dr. Tenma (Astro's father) as the scientist behind Pluto's creation.

After such an adaptation-friendly chapter, it is only natural that the balance is taken up by "Mad Machine," a brief story about a machine craeted by Dr. Fooler (a regular character in Tezuka's "Star System") that causes every robot in Tokyo to go haywire. Dr. Ochanomizu manages to take Astro Boy apart before the Mad Machine is turned on, and sends the boy to destroy it as it takes a three-minute break to recharge. Keen readers will remember that a similar machine is used by Duke Red in Rintaro's Metropolis to fry the circuits of all of the robots in Metropolis. Unsurprisingly, the scientist at the helm of Rintaro's Mad Machine is the very same Dr. Fooler.

On its own, volume three of Astro Boy is hardly enjoyable for anyone but Tezuka addicts and children, but in the context of the adaptations that it has spawned, this particular volume just might be one of the most important in the whole series. If you haven't read any adaptations of "The Greatest Robot on Earth" yet, the original manga version is easily the best one to start with. It will provide a basis of comparison as well as a few interesting themes to toy around with before you move on to Pluto or any of the anime story arcs.


This review is based on a Dark Horse graphic novel purchased by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Review: Black Jack – The Movie (Dub)

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Black Jack: The Movie Medium: Anime Film
Genres: Drama, Medical, Suspense
Director: Osamu Dezaki
Studio: Tezuka Productions
Release Dates: 1996 (Japan), Apr. 24, 2001 (Palm Pictures–N.America)
Rated: R

Black Jack centers around a uniquely skilled surgeon who’ll attempt to and eventually (successfully) resolve any proposed medical emergency ... for the right price. This particular movie focuses on a publicly unexpected explosion of talent by formerly milk-toast members of society involved in the fields of athleticism, art, and science, and Black Jack’s subsequent involvement as detective and savior in their rehabilitation in the midst of a medical and commercial conspiracy. Black Jack is hired to basically fix an unforeseen defect in the genetic engineering of “superhumans” and, in time, comes to realize that his employers are *gasp* the deviants behind the medical mystery.

Although released in 1993, Black Jack (written and directed by Osamu Dezaki, Osamu Tezuka’s protégé) is beautiful in the way vinyl is authentic and 35 mm film should never be abandoned for digital. It’s a bit of a throwback in style and noir-ish in execution but remains very effective for the story told. Appropriately dominated by dark colors and lack of light, each frame, even those frozen in Dezaki’s characteristic “postcard memories,” infers a sense of haplessness, an underground mindset, and the uncertainty named boogeyman hiding beneath every young child’s bed.

The movie works within a theme of capability vs. morality, which is formally and effectively portrayed by the main character’s non-existent Hippocratic oath, and examines three prevalent opinions: that of the optimist, the independent, and the corrupt.

The optimist is wisely not the main character. Fantastically, it is the villain. She who hopes above all to push through a drug capable of advancing mankind but is so focused on the end that she does not concern herself with the means being undertaken in the process of getting there. In a likewise bit of genius, the corrupt is not the villain mentioned formerly, but the test subjects: ordinary people who volunteered to be artificially altered to obtain a greatness undeserved and who pay the ultimate price for their greed, either at their own hands or those of the addictive drug’s eventually mortal side-effects of fortune and fame.

Black Jack falls nicely in-between, serving as a polished stainless steel scalpel reflecting both sides as he cuts away the infection. In such a position, Black Jack is free to perform the surgeries necessary to save lives while standing the moral ground of not being involved in an experiment. He’s got abundant natural talent but never lets it exceed his own purpose in life, which he regards with the determination of an uncompromised licensed physician. He exists as a neutral tool himself, tasked with the duty of doing whatever legally possible to save the life in his hands.

Just because all three types of characters are complex doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. There’s the hyper-energetic comedic relief of Pinoko, Black Jack’s sidekick, and allusions via her puzzles to Osamu Tezuka characters. There is also some decently dry humor sparsely threaded into some of the less tense moments of the movie.

All things considered, Black Jack is a wonderful anime deserving of your indulgence. The art may look retro and the character designs may look a bit antique, but this is a labor of love by student for teacher that manages to retain many facets of his talented sweat. As long as you’re into well-rounded characters, distinctive visual storytelling, and an engaging (albeit predictable) plot, this movie is recommended to all adults.


This review is based on a Netflix video stream paid for by the reviewer.

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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Win a copy of MW for Tezuka Month!

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MW, one of Osamu Tezuka's darkest manga series

To begin the first of three — yes, three — contests for Tezuka Month here at Ani-Gamers, we will be giving away two new paperback copies of one of the darkest manga series ever to come out of the mind of Osamu Tezuka: MW. The story follows the exploits of the bisexual criminal mastermind Michio Yuki and his lover, Catholic priest Father Gurai. Both men were survivors of a poisonous gas leak, and the effects of the poison have warped Yuki's mind, turning him into a twisted monster. The series, created in the late 1970s, represents the darkest time for Tezuka, both in his personal and professional life.

For more information on MW, read our very own Mitchell Dyer's review of the mind-blowing one-volume story. But how do you get your hands on a copy from us? Well, we're starting this first contest off with something pretty simple. In the comments below, let us know what your favorite Tezuka manga is, and WHY (that part is important). If you haven't read any Tezuka manga, let us know which one you're most looking forward to checking out and why.

At midnight EST next Sunday (March 14), we will randomly select two winners, and they will receive brand-new paperback copies of MW, courtesy of the fine folks at Vertical, Inc. Have fun, and don't hesitate to discuss your choices with each other in the comments!

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!

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Weekly Astro Boy Magazine app now available to new lands

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Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) from Tezuka Productions

Starting today, anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch (or even, presumably, an iPad, in the future) and lives in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or other listed countries can download the stonking good App “Weekly Astro Boy Magazine”. They join Japanese, Canadian and American fans who have been able to get the app since its original launch in 2009.

While this would be great news at any other time of year, this is especially timely given the ongoing Ani-Gamers Tezuka Month celebrations, and that fact that I personally have been awaiting the release of this App with baited breath since its initial announcement.

The app works by first asking you to download a small reader application — costing $1 or the local equivalent — and then each week additional “issues” are published which the user can purchase, each for an additional $1. The individual issues contain a mixture of chapters from various Tezuka works including the titular Astro Boy, Black Jack, Dororo, and Phoenix. The translations are the same as those used in the domestically published works due to the program makers agreements with Tezuka Productions and publishers — for example the Dark Horse translation is used for the Astro Boy chapters.

A free version, containing the first issue of the magazine, is available for you to download and try with no obligation. In addition, you are under no obligation at any point to purchase new issues so you don't have to worry about the app siphoning money out of you.

A nice bonus is that all the previously released chapters are available for download in English in the new territories right now — I will freely admit abusing the wi-fi at my work office downloading additional issues of the magazine this afternoon.

From a brief play with the application this afternoon I am very happy with the viewing software — the user interface is well built for viewing the manga pages, if perhaps a little awkward when you want to change the issue you wish to read and I have a bad habit of exiting the reader application entirely when trying to do this. In addition there is no real way to know which chapters you are receiving each week short of subscribing to the Application's twitter feed (included at the foot of this post) The official website only lists the titles present in a volume, not the chapter names or any additional details. I would be interested to see how it performs on a iPad once they are released, due to the larger viewing area.

A special bonus for me is that the first Astro Boy Story serialised in the magazine is “The Greatest Robot on Earth”, the origin for the Naoki Urasawa adaption "Pluto" and a story I have wanted to read for a long time but never had the opportunity.

I heartily recommend that you give the App a try should you have an iPhone or iPod touch — it does have a free version after all.

[via, AstroBoyMag official Twitter]

Check out more articles about Osamu Tezuka in our March 2010 Tezuka Theme Month!
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