- Tezuka Osamu's Circle of Life:Vitalism, Evolution, and Buddhism
On October 31, 1988, Tezuka gave a speech at his old school in Osaka for an audience of 1400 students. At this point, Tezuka had already been diagnosed with cancer, of which he would die less than two months later. On stage, he drew on a large sheet of paper several characters that appear in his manga and explained his ideas about them. About the Phoenix, the symbolic character of the manga with that title, he said that it symbolized life (seimei) itself, and he believed "it is something cosmical." In the manga, on several occasions, the Phoenix is flying in space and at times seems to be one with the cosmos itself. Tezuka continued: "This character, Phoenix, possesses eternal life. And this life, this cosmos, pervades everything, and everything has this power of life (seimeiryoku): the earth, the sun, all have this life power. Everything is alive."1 Tezuka's last message to the next generation was to respect life.
One welcome development in Japanese studies in recent years has been the recognition that manga and anime have to be taken seriously as important sites and media for the production and dissemination of culture. In the rise of manga and anime studies, much emphasis has been placed on Tezuka Osamu as the pioneer and "God of Manga." Manga and anime studies, being a young discipline, has initially tended to overemphasize somewhat the pioneering [End Page 34] role of Tezuka Osamu but has since moved to place his work in a longer and more complex history of the development of manga. It is indeed important not to treat Tezuka Osamu's manga, similar to any creative figure in any genre, as sui generis, but what about the interactions between manga and other genres, such as philosophy, religion, and intellectual history? How can we understand Tezuka Osamu as a player in the intellectual history of Japan? Attention to the theme of life in Tezuka's work can provide some answers.
Tezuka himself described life (seimei, a term that refers to life as such, distinct from the life of an individual as in his or her "life," expressed in Japanese as jinsei), as symbolized by the Phoenix, as the central theme of all his work, taking many forms, such as the connections and comparisons between human and animal life, warnings against war, and the depictions of the complexities of medical intervention in life. Hence it is worth looking for the origins and environment of Tezuka's conception of life and its evolution. This inquiry will show that, although Tezuka's ideas were formed by experiences in his own life, his ideas are also to a large degree embedded in a wider intellectual history. Tezuka Osamu's conceptualization of life should be understood within a larger history of Japanese trans-war intellectual history and is a focal point where themes in science, philosophy, and religion converge. In this essay, I will focus in particular on how this conceptualization of life was formed through an interaction among ideas of Buddhism, evolutionary theory, and vitalism. This essay will also confirm that manga and anime are important media in the construction and dissemination of philosophical ideas concerning society, religion, and science, especially in postwar Japan.
In his autobiography, Boku no manga jinsei (1997, My manga life), and in several lectures, Tezuka described how experiences in his early life and adolescence led him to find life as the leading theme of his work.2 Bullied in primary school, Tezuka found solace in reading about biology and collecting insects. He made many studies of animals, especially insects. "Osamu" was his real name, but he changed the way he wrote it in Japanese by adding the character for "insect." According to Tezuka's own story, what first opened his eyes to the theme of life were two dramatic experiences in adolescence. First, Tezuka experienced the devastating B-29 firebombing raids on Osaka, which left a lasting impact on his mind. It might be added that, while the atomic bombs have become the symbols of war trauma in postwar Japan, the firebombing [End Page 35] was...