This is not to deny that animation was important, or that it was not primary, in the sense of coming first. Nor is to meant to imply that Tezuka’s first contact with an American comic book occurred necessarily after the war. The practice works that Tezuka penned furiously between the spring and fall of 1945 show clearly that the reason “ten cent comics” made such an impact on the artist is that they had fallen on fallow ground.
As from his interviews and articles, so from his practice works, we know that Tezuka had been reading and copying George McManus and Milt Gross from before the end of the war. As mentioned earlier, Jiggs and Maggie appear prominently in To the Day of Victory, as Americans whose house has been destroyed by Japanese bombers. In Old Man’s Treasure Island (Oyaji no takarajima, Late Summer-Fall 1945) the oily character that would later become Ham Egg in Tezuka’s “star system” clearly shows his roots in Gross’ universe of obnoxious Americans. Both McManus and Gross, Tezuka said he read in translation, Bringing Up Father having appeared in Asahi Graph in the early-mid 1920s and He Done Her Wrong in Shin Seinen in 1937.
There are other segments from Tezuka’s juvenilia that suggest mystery and science fiction pulp magazine illustration, like the “batman” that threatens the heroine of Old Man’s Treasure Island in a basement cell, or the rocket ship being readied for Mars in The Ghost Man (Yūrei otoko, April – June 1945), or the Cobra Princess of the same work, a flying female robot who looks more waifish than anything I have ever seen in prewar manga, though she would look not far from home in little Japanese children’s Western-style fantasy fairy tale books of the early 20s. Might any of these have come from comic books?
As far as influences from Disney are concerned, this seems to be an era that supports the conventional belief that the source of Tezuka’s “Disney style” comes from animation. Most famous is the image of Mickey in a fighter plane in To the Day of Victory, bearing down on a Japanese child, filling him with bullets (shown at the beginning of this essay). Maybe he was watching “Mail Pilot” (1933) on his Pathé Baby. It might also be possible that he had the adaptation of Gottfredson’s strip in the Big Little Book of 1933. The dot eyes, the furrowed brow, and the gritted teeth, however, are not Gottfredson of the early 30s.
The influence of the Pathé projector is more certain for at least one scene in Old Man’s Treasure Island, in which a precocious puppy – he later talks – subdues a saw shark threatening castaways on a raft after a shipwreck. This is clearly taken from the Mickey short “The Castaway” (1931), the setting and the action, as well as the big-eyed stylization of the shark. It might have been difficult for Tezuka to copy directly from the projection. Though the machine was hand-cranked and could be slowed to any speed desired, if left in one place for too long the celluloid began to melt, as Tezuka explained in an essay from 1976. But if you own the film, there are other ways to illuminate the film’s images. Tezuka could have scrutinized them upon a windowpane in daytime. Any other kind of makeshift light table would also do.
When the same puppy appears again at the end of the story, he is dressed, gesticulating, and moving just like Mickey. Notice across the three pages below how he is “animated”: as if slightly rotated counterclockwise between the fourth and fifth panels, or as if in a continuous motion from the first (top right) to the second. Why is his hand up like that in the second? Tezuka is clearly working from sort of “model sheet” that provides, not just singular iconic images of Mickey, but the character in serial poses. He is rendered in that compact non-tubular manner typical of Mickey in the era of “Mad Doctor” (1933), and tiptoes as if he might have in that very film. At the same time, he has an upright posture and a confidence of bodily expression when talking that suggests instead something later, almost like something drawn by Gottfredson from the late 30s, which is telling. On numerous occasions Japanese artists copied the early 30s strips reprinted in the Mickey Mouse Series from David McKay Publishing (1932-33). But as far as I know, unless somehow they got hold of foreign-language newspapers, they would have had no access to the later stories until the Dell editions brought in after the war. Tezuka is thought to have worked on Old Man’s Treasure Island even after the Japanese surrender, some say up to 1947, so it is possible that here we are seeing some of the very first signs of influence from the legendary “ten cent comics” of the Occupation.
It was perhaps the same collection of home movies and prewar books that gave shape to Little Ma, the cuddly star of Ma Chan’s Diary (Maa chan no nikkichō), Tezuka’s debut four-panel serial for the Shōkokumin Newspaper (January – March 1946). Sometimes Little Ma has four fingers, sometimes he has five, but in either case he inexplicably wears white gloves. He wears his pants high on the waist, and its button is oddly prominent. The resemblance to Mickey is not too strong, and might pass unnoticed without knowledge of Tezuka’s tastes. This was a moment – it might have been the last moment for many years – in which Tezuka could still draw independently of a full-blown “Disney style.”
One thing that makes the matter of Tezuka and his Disney sources difficult for this early period is the existence of domestically produced Mickeys from the 1930s. One could read and copy Mickey without ever having seen an official Disney book. Tezuka said that he read a number of these, liking especially Shaka Bontarō’s Mickey’s Show (Mikkii no katsuyaku, 1934), which I introduced in my akahon Mickey essay a couple of months ago. I think it possible that Little Ma was also based on such Mickey manga, for there is a little book from 1936 from the kamishibai publisher Zenkōsha titled surprisingly enough Mickey Maa Chan. The only difference in their names is that Tezuka’s Maa is written with a “ma” and a long sign, while “Little Ma Mickey” is written with a “ma” and an “a.” In addition to the near identity of their names is the similarity of their graphic stylizations. Tezuka’s Little Ma has always struck me as being too compact and too cute, and his contour lines too thick, to be described accurately as “Disney style.” But with Little Mickey Ma, Tezuka’s association of Mickey motifs with fat-lined kindergarten characterization makes more sense. “Disney style” does not mean only “Disney Studio style.”
I said that these were probably the last months that Tezuka could still be free of a full-blown Disney style. If the Little Mickey Ma connection is legit, it seems possible that these were also the last months that he relied on unofficial Disney images as models for that style. What changed things – what directed Tezuka away from random motifs and towards an entire graphic storytelling system, away from copies and towards originals, away from Japanese Mickeys and towards American ones – were the media flows of the Occupation. Tezuka might have had the will and the skill to “master” Disney. But without the many comic books brought into Japan by American military men after the war, he would not have had the material resources to make that dream a reality.