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Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

Tezuka Osamu, Manga College (August 1950), cover.

The original cover of Tezuka Osamu’s Manga College, which is no longer used for copyright reasons, can be read like a cipher, like a diagram of Tezuka’s artistic identity at around the time the book was published, in the summer of 1950. If you have read Manga College or similar intro books by Tezuka, you know that Professor Manga is basically a wizened stand-in for the artist. Here he sports a cap bearing the logo of Tezuka’s Mushi Pro, at this point just a name not an operation. He has drawn on the chalkboard a fairly faithful image of Mickey Mouse, as if this is where instruction in “Comicology” (the title of a book on his desk) shall begin and always return. Below on the ground is his partner. He is also modeled on Mickey. He has the big shoes, the ears, and generally the face, but he is definitely not Mickey. He is just a rodent. This impostor, this scrawny pot-bellied wise-ass wanna-be, he also makes art. He has drawn a picture of the professor, and it stinks.

What is going on here? Professor Tezuka is so good at cartooning that he can simulate Disney. Pseudo-Mickey is so bad that he makes a mess of Tezuka. This is not teacher versus student, for the students are sitting over here, on our side, facing the teacher and the board. So much is illustrated on the first page of the book, showing a standard college lecture hall, with tiered seats in a semi-circular arrangement, looking down upon the professor and, at his foot, the little mouse. How is it that the fake Mickey is Tezuka’s aide? Or conscience? How is it that he teases Tezuka with maladroit yet effective caricatures?

Is it that Tezuka draws the rodent as the rodent wants to be seen, while the rodent does just the opposite, rendering Tezuka as Tezuka wishes not to be seen?

How is this the face of Comicology in Japan, 1950? Is it significant that in that very spring Tezuka had begun his first serial for a Tokyo magazine, and that perhaps he could begin to look away from his akahon roots and the rodents living within them? Is it significant that just the previous year, Daiei Film Co. President Nagata Masaichi had signed a personal deal with Walt Disney to be the studio’s sole licensing agent in Japan, thereby bringing to Japan the first official Mickeys in bulk in well over a decade?

Tezuka Osamu, Magic House (February 1948), cover.

Thesis: From his arrival in Japan in the early 30s, Mickey Mouse was an icon of humor. To some, he was also ambassador of American ingenuity and American quality in production. But thanks to lax copyright protections for foreign properties, and his rendition by goods-makers that did not necessarily privilege the faithful or even skillful reproduction of his image, Mickey also became in Japan an icon of appropriation and its side effects, like modified personality and degraded design. This continued into the early postwar period. But towards the end of the Occupation, a series of forces colluded to “correct” Mickey’s image. Amongst them was Tezuka Osamu. For Tezuka, rectifying Disney went hand in hand with a number of things. It meant denying the akahon rodent of his roots and the production ethic on which its inventiveness fed. It meant recalling Mickey from appropriation and putting him back in the hands of authorship. It meant repositioning Disney as a light of genius and industriousness, against a mainstream that viewed him primarily as a talented showman and joker. It meant seeing himself more and more in the image of Disney. It meant expelling the rodent from the classroom, however much he had been there for the professor in his youth, and teaching straight from the Mickey on the board.

For what follows, let us take the rodent as akahon and the blackboard Mickey as manga industry at the dawn of the Fifties. This allegory, as you will see, is based on more than my imagination.

Note: On akahon, see “An Introduction to Akahon Manga

(Continued)


15 Responses to Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

  1. Dash Shaw says:

    More evidence to support my crackpot theory that Floyd Gottfredson is the true father of Tezuka’s comics work — Fred Patten in “Watching Anime, Reading Manga” wrote Tezuka was really into Gottfredson. Look at those Gottfredson Mickey pages next to early Tezuka! He’s clinging to the Mickey character (like in that Cartoon College cover) specifically because of Gottfredson’s work here I think… Anyway, I’m nuts — great post as always!

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  3. Fascinating stuff. The Katō Paper Company’s Mickey Mouse with Tom (of Tom and Jerry) is actually a partial redraw of John Stanley’s Tom and Jerry in Dell’s Our Gang 17 (1945), with Mickey and Minnie inserted into the Jerry and Tuffy roles.

  4. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    @Dash. Gottfredson certainly, working on the specifics now of what Tezuka was looking at (which I am sure anyone reading TCJ could do better and faster than I will be able to). Pretty sure he owned a copy of the Japanese edition of the Better Little Book “Mickey Mouse and the Stolen Jewels.” But also evidence that he was reading and taking from Disney Four Color titles regardless of the artist. Got a Barks & Tezuka essay in the oven (July?). Maybe I can get your eye for style on specific Tezuka images in future posts.
    @ David. Thank you for that identification. Trying to create a picture of the types of comics floating around in Japan after the war — and more generally a non-isolationist history of mid-century manga — so every little piece helps.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Ryan Holmberg. Have your read John Dower’s Embracing Defeat (about post-war Japan). There’s an interesting discussion there about how the American occupying forces used comics to reshape Japanese culture.

    • ryanholmberg says:

      I have read Dower. I will re-check, but I seem to remember that being mainly about Blondie and the “American way of life.” In addition to that kind of formal and directed importations, what I want to also try to capture is the more random, amorphous, and relatively non-ideological (or accidentally ideological) channel of the comic book-reading GI stationed in Japan during the Occupation, and also after (I have seen evidence of post-1952 Dick Sprang Batman and 3D comics in early Tatsumi Yoshihiro and Saito Takao).

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  8. Kumi Kaoru says:

    Hello, Mr. Holmberg. I’m sorry I didn’t join your lecture last Wednesday since I’m living in a town 500 km away from Tokyo. I deeply regretted I should have when I read a report about your wonderful talk in Natsume’s blog.

    BTW
    >Is it significant that just the previous year, Daiei Film Co. President Nagata Masaichi had signed a personal deal with Walt Disney to be the studio’s sole licensing agent in Japan, thereby bringing to Japan the first official Mickeys in bulk in well over a decade?

    This is quoted from my humble talk last year in Natsume’s course, right? I remeber someone Gaijin boy asked me why Nagata was allowed to claim him to be the agent of Walt Disney Company for merchandising in Japan instead of claiming his company Daiei to be so. I suppose ‘personal deal’ is not an adequate term in this context. After all, he succeeded in making contracts with Disney Co *on behalf of Daiei*. the largest film studio (at least he claimed so in Hollywood) in Japan.

    I read your astounding essays in Comic Journal. Are there any plans for future translation of them into Japanese? I’m quite interested since I knew you’re going to write a studing book on Japanese comics in the future. For your information, I’m now translating a book by a former Walt Disney animator…

  9. Kumi Kaoru says:

    P.S. I heard Ono-sensei questioned one of your theories; he said it is questionable Disney comics published American domestically in 1942 has been circlated in Osaka soon after the war. I think it is very high possibility, because Tezuka had got acquainted with an American solder by chance in 1946 when he was a student in Osaka University and the GI (African American) provided the young Japanese with a pile of American comics when he found him skilful in portrait drawing. (See Tezuka’s essay _Watashi no Mozart_) Hope this helps.

  10. Sandra Battle says:

    I wanted know if this was Prof. Holmberg who taught Art History at CSI. If so, just wanted to say howdy!

  11. Lorna says:

    This is a very interesting article; it has inspired me to write my third year manga coursework on how America influenced Japanese Manga. I was wondering if anyone might be able to help me out with any further resources regarding ‘Mickey-like’ characters in early manga?
    Thanks!

    • Ryan Holmberg says:

      If you read Japanese, see Otsuka Eiji, Mikkii no shoshiki (2013). See also the New Treasure Island articles on TCJ by me, and my article on the same in the forthcoming Phantom Blot volume in Fantagraphics’ Gottfredson series. Beyond that, I think you will have to do some serious collecting and archival research of your own. I will hopefully be writing more on the subject down the line.

      • Lorna says:

        Thankyou very much. I am afraid I do not speak Japanese; which does make the research a little harder. But, I will have a look at the other articles that you suggest.
        Thankyou very much for getting back to me.
        All the best!

  12. Ryan Holmberg says:

    If you don’t read Japanese, a few of Otsuka Eiji’s essays have been translated in Mechademia. Recently out, and most relevant for the present topic, is “An Unholy Alliance of Eisenstein and Disney” (Mechademia vol. 8, 2013), which I think has major flaws as far as manga history goes but will get you thinking on the subject. You might also want to look in Frederik Schodt’s Astro Boy Essays and Marc Steinberg’s Anime’s Media Mix. I also forgot to mention the two Ten Cent Manga books I did: Sugiura Shigeru’s Last of the Mohicans, and Tezuka’s The Mysterious Underground Men. There’s some “how America influenced Japanese Manga” in the Hayashi Seiichi Gold Pollen book as well.

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