Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Osamu Tezuka - Message to the Future

Tezuka, the creator of "Black Jack", "Phoenix", "Buddha", "MW", "Tetsuwan Atomu (Atom Boy)" and many other titles, was born on Nov. 3, 1928. As part of the celebrations of the 80th anniversary of his birth, there are a string of activities and events planned for over the course of the year. One of those events - "Tezuka Gene" - already took place at Parco, in Shibuya, last November. The latest one is "Tezuka Osamu - A Message to the Future".

"Message" is running at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku, Tokyo, just two stops on the Sobu line past Akihabara. The museum is located behind the sumo tournament building in Ryogoku, which is why I saw three sumo wrestlers in yukata and sandals on my way there. "Message" started its run on April 18, and will continue until June 21. Initially, I wasn't planning on going because it would take about 1.5 hours to get there by train from my apartment and then I'd have to pay the 1300 yen ($13) entry fee just to get inside. But, the Japan Times paper ran a promotional giveaway of 5 pairs of tickets, and I ended up winning a pair. On top of that, I had to be out of the apartment for several hours prior to going in to work in Akihabara last Wednesday, so I was just 20 minutes by foot away from the museum with lots of time to kill.

(Getting to the second floor.)

The museum building is huge, and stands up on four legs. There are escalators and elevators for getting up to the second floor, but the Tezuka exhibit was actually in the basement. The museum is more-or-less dedicated to Tokyo's art history, and has a small-scale model recreation of Edo (the original name of Tokyo) on display. There are various Ukiyo-e prints, fans and wall scrolls either currently on display or planned for upcoming exhibits.

(All pictures from the Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage are used for review purposes only.)

"A Message to the Future" takes up about 10 rooms, and has about 250 pieces on display. Naturally, photos are not allowed (they're even prohibited in the gift shop), in part because the museum wants you to buy the $23 souvenir book that has pictures of everything that's in the exhibit. While there is a sampling of several of Tezuka's titles (Vampire, Marvelous Melmo, MW, Gororo, Ribbon Knight, etc.), the bulk of the artwork comes from Tetsuwan Atomu, Black Jack and Phoenix, with original storyboards, character layout sheets, painted cels, and manga rough sketches. There are a handful of DVD players showing scenes from the different series, but the scenes are essentially 2-3 minute loops, rather than full TV episodes.

(Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

The incidental portions of the display include Tezuka's work desk, a recreation of Atomu on the laboratory table, two full-size models of Atomu's enemies, and some silly-looking robots that weren't designed with moving parts.

(Insect sketch book. Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

The exhibit is broken up into zones, starting with Tezuka's early life (family, growing up collecting and drawing insects, going to medical school and getting his degree, and breaking into the manga field), then laying out his manga to illustrate his personal philosophy, going on to discuss his explorations of what it means to be human and how humans fit into the grand scheme of the universe, and finally ending up with related works from other artists (examples include Urasawa's vision of Atom Boy's world in Pluto, and the U.S. CG re-make of Atom Boy). For 500 yen, you can rent a wireless video player to listen to an audio track explaining the different parts of each zone.

(Medical degree. Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

Because the exhibit is so heavily focused on the artwork, with little interactivity and no hands-on, and the videos are just short loops, it's easy to blow through "Message" in about 15 minutes. Very little of the accompanying explanatory text is in English, so there's nothing to just stand in front of and read. Unless you're a Tezuka fan, or an art student, there's not going to be a lot here to appeal to you. BUT, if you ARE a Tezuka fan, a student of manga history, or want to study manga art, then it's easy to get lost in here. There's over 200 pieces of original artwork, with examples of layout, pacing and panel structure, and I just stood in front of some of the pieces trying to understand them for several minutes at a time.

(Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

The exhibit is missing some obvious titles, such as Broken Down Film, and Jumping, which were both well ahead of their time. But, the curator was trying to develop his own message out of Tezuka's full body of work, and therefore chose to exclude things that I'd have preferred to see. With luck, "A Message to the Future" will go on the road internationally, and a future exhibit will be developed to showcase more of Tezuka's other works.

(Black Jack. Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

C.B. Liddell wrote a review of the exhibit for the "Metropolis" weekly magazine in issue 790, whining that it wasn't open to non-Japanese speakers. The argument (which had nothing to do with the curator's intent) was that if Japan wants to overcome the recession and to make Japanese creative efforts more commercially viable internationally, then the museum should really have designed "Message" to be more exploitable. That is, everything should have been in English. While I think that Liddell missed the point ("Message" was designed for the Japanese people as a tribute to one of their heroes), I do agree that English explanations would have been a good idea. I counted about 20-30 people from other countries (China, France, east Europe) while I was there, and none of them could read Japanese. I'm pretty sure that the audio track was also Japanese-only. Tezuka has a strong global fan base and "Message" automatically attracted tourists, so the museum did fail to capitalize on them. Again, I can only hope that the exhibit goes on world tour, which would require that the host countries print up guide books in their own languages.

(Gift shop. Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

Overall, it was a good exhibit. Tezuka drew a lot, and being able to see the original art up close was a real thrill. If you're in the area, if you can understand Japanese, and if you like manga, then I highly recommend that you check "Message" out. Otherwise, you may want to spend your money on a sumo match.

(Phoenix. Edo-Tokyo Museum webpage, review purposes only.)

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