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THE IMAGE, FRAMED AND HUNG TO CATCH THE EYE AS ONE FIRST ENTERS THE GALLERY, IS A SUITABLY CHARACTERISTIC ONE: DYNAMIC IN COMPOSITION AND TONE, WITH AN INKY FLUIDITY TO ITS LINE, IT SEEMS AT ONCE BOTH ORGANIC AND FUTURISTIC, NOT TO MENTION KIND OF CUTE. IN IT, ASTRO BOY, THAT ICONIC AND SPRIGHTLY BOY CHILD ROBOT WHO FOR DECADES NOW HAS SERVED AS THE AVATAR OF JAPANESE ANIME AND MANGA IN THE WEST, IS FIGHTING A GOOFY LOOKING HUMAN ADULT, WHOSE EXPRESSION OF BEWILDERED ASTONISHMENT CAN BE GLIMPSED AS HIS SINEWY BODY SOMERSAULTS BACKWARDS THROUGH THE AIR, SOUNDLY PUMMELED AND CLEARLY BEATEN.
Tezuka, Black Jack, cover from Black Jack, 1974,<BR /> Weekly Shonen Champion, published by Akita Shoten Tezuka, Black Jack, cover from Black Jack, 1974,
Weekly Shonen Champion, published by Akita Shoten
©Tezuka Productions
The exhibition in which this image appears, Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga, is full of such visually striking images. Developed by and for the National Gallery of Victoria in collaboration with guest curator Philip Brophy, and touring to both the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in 2007, the exhibition marks the first Western retrospective of the work of pioneering manga artist and innovator Osamu Tezuka, creator not only of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion (aka Jungle Emperor), but of over 700 other manga titles. Not all of these are represented in the exhibition, of course, but those that are (about sixteen titles) are not only representative of the remarkable breadth and depth of Tezuka’s oeuvre—not to mention its quasi-philosophical richness and inherent humanistic worldview—but also clearly establish him as one of the finest graphic artists of the post-war period, artist, entertainer or otherwise.

For the Western viewer, the iconic figure of Astro Boy serves as a convenient entry point into the world of both manga and Tezuka. I am no exception. Like many of my generation, my only previous connection to Tezuka was watching Astro Boy on television back when I was a little kid. His spiky black hair and his rocket booster boots are instantly recognisable but my interest in this sucker punch of an image—and in the exhibition waiting beyond it—has less to do with my childhood memories of serialised early morning cartoons than it does with the image’s graphic power, which is like a black-and-white slap in the face.

Tezuka’s work pivots on a series of dichotomies. The most obvious of these is the not-quite-absolute split between his manga for children and his gekiga for adults, embodied in the exhibition space itself by the colour-coded division between green walls (children’s manga) and blue (adults’ gekiga). However, this is by no means the only or the most interesting dichotomy. There is also the divide—a certain graphic tension—between abstraction and figuration, which often manifests as a struggle between page layout and panel content, or, within the panels themselves, between background and foreground (Tezuka’s backgrounds are like Futurist Florence Broadhurst wallpapers, particularly in a manga like Astro Boy).

There’s also a tension between modes—one might even say ‘schools’—of visual representation; a tension which cuts across all the manga and gekiga appearing in the exhibition. At times, Tezuka’s work seems to strive towards a kind of no-nonsense (if certainly heightened) realism; at others, it embraces no-holds-barred abstraction, Impressionism, or my personal favourite, Surrealism.

There are panels (and whole pages) in some of Tezuka’s darker gekiga work, particularly Bomba and Eulogy for Kirihito, which shock with their surrealist imagery. In a page from the latter, to illustrate Kirihito’s mental and physical torment as he transforms into a hybrid creature—half-dog, half-man—Tezuka gives us a series of disparate, terrible images, motivated not by any narrative or diegetic causality, but by a kind of emphatic, affective causality. The image of a primitive, almost totem- or sculpture-like being, lying on its back against a solid black background screaming, is genuinely terrifying (indeed, it was one of a few images that, for its very strangeness and uniqueness within the context of the exhibition, I just had to go back and see for a second time before I left). Other panels on the same page show a solid black form in the shape of an explosion and the turbulent surface of a pond during a downpour.

In another image from Kirihito a doctor, in a hospital somewhere, comes to a shocking realisation about something or other. Presently, his glasses begin to levitate, floating away from his face, which fades away. The floating spectacles instantly recall the floating bowler hats of Hans Richter. Rising against an empty white background, the spectacle lenses suddenly crack. Blood pours out into the air from invisible eye sockets. And then we’re back in the hospital again, in reality, ready to get on with the story.

But this page appears in a frame, behind glass: there’s no story to get on with. The images are abstracted, fragmented, devoid (even robbed) of their narrative context. Continually, we are told—by the wall panels, by the room book, by the small army of tour guides who lurk behind corners waiting to jump out and inform you—that Tezuka’s manga is concerned, first and foremost, with the telling of a story. But in the context of the gallery space, where comic books are hung as opposed to held, fingered, dog-eared and read, manga-stories become—(gasp!)—graphic art and, as such, at least comparatively, storyless.

And so as I leave this visually exhilarating exhibition, feeling genuinely excited about all that I have seen, I am hit all of a sudden by a feeling that I’ve missed something. I begin to wonder if I really know any more about manga than before. I wonder if I know less. I realise I want to turn the page and to find out what happens to Astro. The visual dynamism of his movements seems less important to me now. A gallery wall is not a comic book. I want to know what happens next.


Tezuka, the Marvel of Manga, curator Philip Brophy, National Gallery of Victoria, Nov 3-Jan 28; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Feb 23-April 29; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, June 2-Sept 9

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 22

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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