This is a short interview I did with Melbourne artist Phillip Brophy for the Melbourne street press about an exhibition of Tetzuka Osamu’s artwork at Victoria’s National Gallery and screening season at ACMI:
For the majority of people in the West their first contact with Japanese anime came as a child via Tezuka Osamu’ classic TV serials Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Often screened early in the morning amongst other Western cartoons there was something a little different about these animations that even as a child you could detect even if you couldn’ understand exactly what is was at the time. There’ a certain depth and darkness that pervades the world of these cute wide-eyed animations, something that irrevocably separated them from their Western counterparts.
“Something like Astro Boy, a lot of people think “oh yeah, a superhero,” offers Melbourne artist Philip Brophy who is curating two special shows celebrating the extraordinary body of work of Tezuka. “But he’s modelled on an eight-year-old boy. Most superheroes in the American context are adults and muscly. So he’ got this complete non-masculine, non-grown up appearance to him. He’ also a completely robot being. Most superheroes are transformed humans or like Superman they’re an alien from another planet but actually they all look like fucking humans anyway and behave like humans.”
“So Astro Boy is not only superficially different from the hero model but the reason that Astro Boy is engaged to fight is because robots that have been designed and programmed by humans cause havoc and Astro Boy himself from his computer brain knows there’ no such thing as a bad robot, it’s simply robots who have been programmed by potentially bad humans. So then he has to destroy these robots but he’ always in every battle talking to them and trying to get the robots to stop what they’re doing. And then he ends up killing and destroying them and punching them up, he’ wracked with remorse that he had to extinguish a life form. And then when it gets to that point he starts saying but “I’m just a programmed robot too aren’ I? So how am I any different from them? So he has this existential crisis.”
All of which is pretty heavy going when you consider Astro Boy was originally a Manga comic aimed specifically towards children. Tezuka’ work though refuses to shy away from adult themes, unlike say Walt Disney who Tezuka was often equated with.
“Tezuka is post war,” offers Brophy. “He’ not from the victors side unlike Disney. Japan was defeated in WW2 and the Americans were occupying Japan from 1945- 1952 and the Americans were completely controlling the cultural output of any kind of media that the Japanese were producing at that time. Tezuka had been through the war and was in his twenties during the American occupation. During that time he saw a lot of dreadful things. When Disney was doing his stuff in the thirties Disney wasn’ seeing dreadful things. Disney puts wonderful things into his animation; Tezuka puts dreadful things into his animation. They’re like chalk and cheese, their worldview, their experiences, their sentiment and the ideas that they want to express are completely different. You may as well say that Tezuka is like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too. Because it’s got nothing to do with it. Often people say Tezuka or even Miyazaki are the Japanese Walt Disney, but Disney meant nothing to them.”
“Tezuka was influenced by Disney’ work when it finally came into Japan after the war,” Brophy concedes however. â€œBecause in the lead up to the war there was a complete suppression of any material coming into Japan. In the aftermath and the occupation because America was trying to force democracy on them they dumped, they bucket dumped, they bathed the American culture on Japan and that caused these interesting mutations in Japanese culture. And a lot of the Japanese loved it. But it didn’ mean that they then wanted to worship America and continue the exact ideals that those works represented. They then took what they wanted from those certain visual techniques and styles and what not and completely transformed them and made them resonate to a Japanese audience.”
And now we’ve come full circle with anime’ increasing popularity in the West and Brophy’ retrospective screening season at ACMI and an exhibition of Tezuka’ Manga artwork in the National Gallery finally giving one of the masters of modern anime some well deserved recognition. Though for many in the West anime is still a difficult proposition.
“To look at anime and see very cute looking figures doing extremely violent things in a ten part story that is incomprehensible and has no clear direction as whether it’s meant to be funny or tragic, and they chop and change radically throughout the parts, to encounter that and say “God this is really badly written, or “they sure haven’ put it together in any great way like the Star Wars trilogy, then that would be excessively dumb,” suggests Brophy caustically. â€œThe thing is that that there are people that still come across anime and are still reading it at a surface level as to how different it is from the incredibly boring Hollywood type conventions of cinema and storytelling and then not once thinking that maybe they do things differently in Japan.”
“Maybe the fact that they don’ eat hamburgers, they eat raw fish might have something to do with their whole outlook on life. So it’s kind’ve quite unfortunate that there’ still a presumption that the difference of anime is somehow a problem, because it aint a problem for the Japanese. And what we’re dealing with is an imported cultural product. So it’s up to the individual to make sense of that.”
“To me personally my reading of the distinction is, and this could be why I gravitate towards anime, is that it comes from a non European non Judeo Christian culture. They don’ give a shit about God and the Devil, the whole history of morality and anything to do with what’s important in great European history is immaterial to them, and for me personally I don’ give a shit about anything to do with any kind of religion nor do I care about European history. And I think that’s what some people could find perplexing. Just the brainwashed idea that there should be a hero for a story. I don’ know where the fuck that comes from.”
“If people go and watch a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the women’ done up in these incredible ritual clothes, kneeling down and doing this long drawn out ceremony, bowing her head. When someone encounters that, even a yob from fucking Braybrook or whatever, if they encounter that they’re gonna know that “right this is Japanese, this is the thing that they do when they’re making the tea.’ They’re not going to say “oh c’mon just get your fucking tea bag. It’s another culture and it’s different from how you make a cup of tea. But with a lot of Japanese post war popular culture a lot of it doesn’ look traditional, a lot of it almost looks Western. So anime just looks like cartoons. Because it looks like something that we think is familiar people then think it accords to Western means of construction or it has Western readings for why it exists and how it develops. But thing is that anime is exactly like a Japanese tea ceremony, it’s as completely Japanese, and in fact any sensationalist anime has probably got more to do with Japanese tea making than it does with fucking Walt Disney.”