The Astonishing Work of Osamu Tezuka

"The god of manga." "The father of anime." What more impressive titles could you ask for? While Hayao Miyazaki may be on the forefront of most minds as Japan's premier animator, these titles don't belong to him but instead to legendary filmmaker and author Osamu Tezuka.  Responsible for over 150,000 pages of manga and several television programs like the seminal Astro Boy, Tezuka had perhaps the greatest impact of any one individual on the medium. Yet when you go back and look at his work, it rarely looks like what we in the 21st century think of as anime. While he inspired the "huge eyes" that are an anime staple (if not cliche), much of his porfolio looks very different from modern Japanese output, even (gasp!) American. But Tezuka really didn't care all that much what the Japanese world thought of him. While he made a few amazing TV series, he had no interest in disposable entertainment. He wanted to create art that would be seen internationally, that in some small way might make a difference on a global front.

The Astonishing Work of Osamu Tezuka collects 13 of his short features, ranging in length from 13 seconds to nearly 40 minutes, that he created for that international audience. When watching this DVD, you begin to realize just exactly what kind of genius Tezuka really was. While you see homage paid to Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and other Western contemporaries he admired, his ability to seamlessly merge stylistic features and create something new is nothing less than profound. As with any collection of this sort, different viewers will find different favorites. Sensitive viewers might be offended by an image or two -- after all, Tezuka was an animation pioneer, and that included making shows that weren't meant for children -- but the discerning viewer will find plenty to share with the family as well. It's really a tour-de-force by a master whose work, even 20 years after his untimely death at age 60, redefines what anime can be.

Each of the shorts is self-contained, and most of the longer ones are set to classical music ala Fantasia. And what fantastic worlds Tezuka creates! It starts with my personal favorite, "Tales From A Street Corner", where we see the intersection of a young girl and her lost teddy, a naughty mouse, posters that come alive, and a dictator who might just wind up destroying it all. There's the incomplete but amazing "Legend of the Forest," which hops through centuries of artistic forms as Tezuka weaves his tale of nature vs. progress. Other highlights include: "Broken Down Film," where a cowboy finds himself in a cartoon so old that he has to work against the film stock itself; "Push," where a man used to having everything a button away discovers the limits to automation; and "Jumping," where we the audience wind up leaping from place to place, encountering everything from ticked off birds to denizens of the underworld. While a couple shorts may challenge the patience of the modern viewer, all of them are worth seeing.

Are there caveats?  Only a few. While most of the shorts crackle with life, I found a couple of them just OK, but I wouldn't return to them often. Occasionally, a short will have an image or two that is no longer politically correct...that's not surprising considering their creation dates, but Tezuka does come off a little sexist at times. However, all of those issues are quite livable. The DVD itself has some problems, including mistimed subs on "Mermaid" and a soundtrack that is, in perhaps one or two shorts, just off the action onscreen for a moment here and there. While the soundtrack issue may be a problem with the source material, if they weren't able to catch subtitles that were nearly a minute off, they wouldn't have caught slight variations in the sound either. However, these issues aren't a reason to skip this disc.

Despite the slight problems, this is something anime fans need to see. Does it look like anime in the prototypical sense? Not even close. But does that really matter?  Here is the creativity much of the industry still lacks. In this collection we witness Oscar-caliber shorts that blow away the majority of the films you'd seen in Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation. On full display are Tezuka's bigger themes of environmentalism and the futility of war, as well as his quirky but warm sense of humor. And as we watch the interview with Tezuka included on the disc and do a little homework, it becomes clear that Tezuka overcame all sorts of obstacles to get these experimental films made.

You may not love everything here -- I didn't -- but if you're anything like me, you will grow a deep appreciation for this man who inspired so many to become more than mere animators, but true artists. It's sad that most of his work is dated enough to not merit review by modern anime fans.  These shorts, on the other hand, are timeless, not only in their artistic stylings but in their messages. You don't want to miss it.

The Astonishing Work of Osamu Tezuka -- brief nudity, violence -- A