Despite my listing the several manga series I follow in Day 24, Japan itself has always held less fascination for me than it seems to for many in the nerd set. Don’t get me wrong—my years of fandom for and later assistance on Usagi Yojimbo has instilled an interest in Japanese history in me, you can’t go through film school without cultivating a love for Ozu and Kurasawa, and I think everyone I know enjoys Miyazaki. But it’s not like the people I’ve known who seemed almost to find in Japanese culture the answer to their own alienation from America’s. Japan the place has never seemed more or less interesting than any of dozens of parts of the world that I’d like to visit.
So it was strange during the years that I dated and briefly lived with a Japanese woman that the first question people would ask me when I mentioned her was, “Oh, do you speak Japanese?” It was just assumed that her ethnicity and culture were part of the attraction, when in fact they were incidental. Though born in Japan, she had come to America at the age of three, and her unaccented English, I gathered, was far stronger than her Japanese, which was frozen at about the middle-school level. In our years together I learned maybe three words, and Japan wasn’t high on her list of priorities either, unless it was to argue that the food is the best in the world and the horror films the scariest.
But so it was that I ended up visiting Japan in October 2006. She went to see her extended family about every year and a half, and it had never really occurred to me to go, as some far more enthusiastic friend or other was always eager, but on this particular trip she asked me to come. My attitude towards travel is, whether I’ve long desired to go or not, if I get the opportunity and can afford it, I should. This is the same reason that a year later I accompanied a friend on a road trip from San Francisco to Fort Bragg, NC, and why, in 1998, I had gone on a school-sponsored summer trip to China for a couple weeks. Similarly, I had never given traveling to China much thought, but had an incredible time, and I’d actually be much quicker to return there than to Japan, for the dual reasons that it felt more different from home and because, 14 years later, I suspect that it’s massively changed from when I was there.
In the years since we split up, Japanese culture has become a bit more present in my life, between assisting on Usagi and starting to read a lot more manga, but at the time my main touchstone was my passion for the work of Osamu Tezuka, whose Phoenix and Buddha had changed my concept of comics during college. Asked what I wanted to do and see while we were there, I deferred to her with one exception: we must visit the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum in Takarazuka, Tezuka’s hometown. We did a lot of the standard things, too: visited the Imperial palace and the Tsukiji fish market, saw lots of temples, ate takoyaki and Osaka ramen, toured the Sapporo brewery and the Tōei Kyoto Studio Park, where samurai TV shows are filmed, walked Akihabera Electric Town, all that stuff.
But the thing I anticipated was the Tezuka museum. Considered in Japan the God of Manga, Tezuka’s importance to manga and anime has no direct American comparison. It is as if Jack Kirby and Walt Disney were a single person, producing a fantastically outsized number of comics pages (estimates go as high as 150,000) that reinvented the way stories were told in the medium, and going on to become one of the most beloved producers in animation, running a studio that created many of the classics of the genre. At once a brilliant entertainer of children, Tezuka also created strange, dark, experimental work I read again and again when they finally came to America. I’ve since learned that the average manga reader in Japan focuses primarily on what’s new, and older works are not widely read. The exception are Tezuka’s classics like Astro Boy and Black Jack.
We turned out to be perfectly situated for a visit to the museum, as our home base was in Osaka prefecture, and Takarazuka is a short distance away in neighboring Hyōgo prefecture. I remember it being a fairly brief train ride. We had been primed a few days earlier when we discovered the Tezuka Osamu World store in the Kyoto rail station, and there we took pictures with statues of Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atom and Black Jack, whose series had yet to be published by Vertical, meaning I was only vaguely aware of it (I’ve been rendering Tezuka’s name surname last in Western style, but of course in Japan it’s the other way around).
Similar figures greet you outside the museum, notably the phoenix, and unsurprisingly, Astro Boy is everywhere. Japanese and American representations of the character share display cases.
The place is designed like some sort of science-fiction lab, with prop machines and piping everywhere and the books and art on display in glass tubes. It’s a thorough collection, including all of Tezuka’s books, some in multiple editions, and original art going back to his childhood. Unfortunately the curved glass makes in-focus photos hard to accomplish, but I hope this example is clear enough to show a young Tezuka’s already-impressive grasp of storytelling, composition, and camera angle selection. It’s probably better than I could do today at nearly age 30.
I had better luck capturing this page from Buddha, beautiful even at small size in a photo.
A highlight of the space is the recreation of Tezuka’s modest work desk, the master facing away from visitors, intent on whatever story is in front of him. It’s raised up above the main floor, so you can’t walk right up to it.
Taking the stairs, we were treated to exhibits explaining Japanese comics before and after Tezuka, the befores largely made up of static gag strips and Tezuka’s appearance infusing a new dynamism and sense of action, with livelier, big-eyed characters inspired by the Disney style. Tezuka’s innovations have since become such a part of the language that one sometimes has to stop and remember that they were remarkable when Tezuka was first developing them.
Tezuka’s silly side gets play, too, and his Hyoutan-Tsugi gag character, which shows up in nearly all his comics, even some of the more serious ones, is a common sight, hovering in this instance above the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize 10th Anniversary Exhibition.
The award itself, naturally, resembles Astro Boy.
Finally, we settled into the adjoining theater, showing a program of Tezuka-produced shorts. In my memory, they have no dialogue, though possibly the stories were just so clear from the visuals alone that it didn’t matter I didn’t understand Japanese. The one I remember best involves a boy crushing on a dancer, which was funny and poignant and wonderful.
It’s rare that I worry much about whether comics get “respect,” a concern that some professionals I know express, but which just doesn’t seem all that important to me. Still, to have something like this, a physical place to visit that immerses guests in the atmosphere of the work like the Tezuka museum does, is special. I want to have this experience for all my favorites. Can you imagine a space designed to evoke the feeling of Kirby comics, filled with his artwork, that great old desk you see in pictures of him, a bookshelf approximating the reference he would pull from, an accounting of his contributions to the comics of the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies? A place to go and experience Kirby? That’s what the Tezuka museum is like. Whether it exists because his work is respectable, or because it got so many people when they were young, or because he changed everything, so what? It’s there, and thank goodness for it.
The online Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center is currently planning to fund a “pop-up” gallery space for Kirby art and artifacts near Kirby’s childhood neighborhood. The museum didn’t make its original goal to raise the necessary funds before last year’s New York Comic Con, but is has continued taking donations toward a future opening and has apparently received an influx of cash since the release of The Avengers. What they’re envisioning is temporary, but their ultimate goal is a permanent space. Judging from my experience at the Tezuka museum, such an institution could be amazing, and I hope that someday it will happen. While we’re at it, how about an Eisner museum? Who else? There must be tons.
If you go to Japan, see the Tezuka museum. If you can, give to the Kirby museum. Thanks.
Next: We’re in the cool-down period. Maybe that long-threatened tour of my neighborhood and its comicsness.
Also: I’m obviously way behind. Will have to address that.