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Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga

Manga expert Helen McCarthy explores the work of the Japanese Walt Disney

The work of prolific Japanese manga and anime revolutionary Osamu Tezuka is about to be exposed to a whole new audience, with the release of the Imagi Animation Studios-produced version of Astro Boy, featuring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicholas Cage and Matt Lucas. Those unfamiliar with Manga probably won't have seen the original Astro Boy animations or comics (or other Tezuka successes, such as Kimba The White Lion), so author Helen McCarthy has put together The Art of Osamu Tezuka – a book which reveals why he is one the key figures of 20th century pop culture. Packed full of images never before seen outside Japan, the book presents Tezuka as an inquisitvely-minded artist, writer, animator, entrepreneur and traveller of formidable imagination. It includes a foreword by Akira creator Katsuhior Otomo and a specially created 45-minute documentary. McCarthy, who is currently making a feature-length documentary about Tezuka's life and work, spoke to Dazed about her fascination with a man who whose work has touched so many so deeply.

Dazed Digital: How did you first discover the work of Osamu Tezuka?
Helen McCarthy: I was aware of Tezuka from the late 1970s. I loved film and his experimental work kept cropping up in festival brochures and film magazines. I started getting into anime in the early 80s and found his comics and commercial animation through Frederik L Schodt's wonderful book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, which came out in 1983. The more I saw of his work, the more I was impressed. He has a fantastic ability to generate stories and characters. He also makes great female characters, and I found his work as an artist intriguing.

DD: What differentiates his work from that of other prolific Manga artists?
Helen McCarthy: Two things: the depth and range of his cultural frame of reference, and his astonishing technical facility. He was very well-read, and he mines the cultural canon of many eras and countries. He kept returning to certain core motifs – Buddhist thought, metamorphosis and rebirth, Goethe's Faust, South-American and Oceanic legend are just a few examples of themes that recur again and again in his work.

As an artist, he had great natural gifts. Looking at some of his childhood insect drawings and self-portraits, I'm reminded of Picasso's juvenile works. He originated many of the working systems still used by Manga artists today. He was rationalising and organising line style before Letratone was invented, and he wrote the first book on how to draw Manga because fans kept turning up at his home and writing in to ask for advice.

DD: Did you ever get to meet the man himself?
Helen McCarthy: Sadly, no, but I feel as if I've come to know him while writing this book. I've met a number of people who knew him and that just makes me more aware of what I missed. He was great company, always up for a party or a good meal, always ready to play music or go and see a film. He always made time to have fun.

DD: What is your favourite Tezuka piece of work?
Helen McCarthy: That's a difficult question because I still have so much to explore and learn about his work. And it has so many facets – I love the design work he did for the 1970 Osaka World's Fair, and as an illustrator he produced some real gems.

Right now, the Manga that interests me most is Barbara, which is a mordant look at the Tokyo literati of the 70s and a passionate hymn to the artist's insane relationship with his muse. It's not available in English at the moment, but luckily those of us who don't read much Japanese can get it in French.

The animated work I keep returning to is Marine Express, a superficially lightweight, silly TV special made for family entertainment, but with some very interesting ideas wrapped up in a visual froth that recalls Supermarionation, Ishiro Honda and all kinds of other pop-culture oddments. But of course, there are so many magical things in the Tezuka canon that it's difficult to settle on a favourite.

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga published by Ilex out now.