YEARS ago, a museum wanted to devote an exhibit to the work of Osamu Tezuka, the great manga artist, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, which in turn beget the Japanese anime craze that circled the globe. Tezuka was shocked that a museum wanted his original drawings. "My manga artworks were drawn only for the purpose of publication and not at all for people to appreciate at a museum," he said.
Tezuka offered to create new art for the show, rather than display the working panels, which were cut and glued and covered in correction fluid. But Tezuka, who died in 1989, never got around to making the drawings.
Now, museum-goers finally have the chance to see some of those original works.
Last week, the first exhibition devoted to Tezuka outside of Japan opened at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, where it runs through Sept. 9. Sometimes called the Walt Disney of Japan, other times labeled "The God of Manga," Tezuka created more than 70 titles, drawing 150,000 pages over his long career. Some 200 of those works are displayed at the exhibit, "Tezuka: The Marvel of Magna," which originated at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. San Francisco is its only U.S. stop.
"The magna form can be treated as a serious art form," says Australian artist Philip Brophy, who curated the show. "Magna has a very long historical tradition. It's a purely Japanese sensibility. This is a very sad exhibit. There is not a lot of fun stuff."
Tezuka's universe is filled with orphans and outcasts: Astro Boy, the Pinocchio-like robot abandoned by its creator who tries to reconcile humans and their warring machines; Kimba, the parentless lion who seeks to bring about peace between man and the animal kingdom; Black Jack, the tortured renegade surgeon who operates on the desperately needy (and, on occasion, himself) and makes TV's Dr. House look like Mary Poppins. Tezuka even created a manga version of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." Raskolnikov could have been one of Tezuka's antiheroes. The artist was a pacifist, yet violence permeates his oeuvre.
Tezuka's fans make some grand claims for his work. "His stories are far deeper than novels," Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Productions, writes in the catalog.
"Tezuka was dealing with quite dense philosophical concepts," Brophy says. "These were very complicated ideas to put into children's books."
Actually, Tezuka worked in two comic genres: magna, which was largely aimed at children, and gekiga, or drama pictures, which targeted adult audiences with its psychologically raw stories of love and violence.
Born in Osaka in 1928, Tezuka came of age in U.S.-occupied, postwar Japan. He loved drawing as a child and was especially fascinated by Mickey Mouse (whose rounded ears he later transmuted into Astro Boy's spiky hairdo). Why, he once asked his father, did Mickey Mouse only have four fingers? Americans, his father replied, were like that.
Tezuka went to medical school but started publishing his drawings at the same time.
In 1947, Tezuka illustrated "New Treasure Island," a story by Sakai Shichima about a boy on a treasure hunt. The manga book sold 400,000 copies, helping to spark a boom for the genre in Japan that persists to this day, when more than a third of all books published are manga.
In the early 1950s, he unveiled Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion (in Japanese known as Mighty Atom and Jungle Emperor).
Astro Boy especially seized the national imagination in a country where two large cities had been vaporized by the atomic bomb and which was in the throes of rapid rebuilding and rushing into the future.
"Tezuka created a being powered by the same form of energy that caused so much devastation," Brophy says. "These stories are very sad, often ending with Astro Boy crying that he had to destroy another robot. You can see a lot of depth and complexity in these works."
In 1961, Tezuka founded his animation studio, Mushi Productions, which created animated versions of Astro Boy and Kimba. Both shows were worldwide successes. Tezuka devotees insisted that Disney ripped off Kimba for its "Lion King" movie -- a charge studio executives have denied.
Even after 40 years of steady output, Tezuka kept producing more and was at work on several different titles when he died in 1989. His death, Frederik L. Schodt writes in "Dreamland Japan," "sent shock waves through nearly everyone under 50 in Japan. Most had been raised on his comics or animation and were still enjoying his latest creations for adults."
The show presents the entire spectrum of Tezuka's work to the American public for the first time. The exhibition displays original panels and reproductions from 17 books. The emphasis is on the graphics, not the text.
A two-page panel display from a Kimba book, for example, is completely devoid of words, showing the young lion romping through the countryside, searching for a city his father once visited, imagining himself flying with birds and ultimately standing over the African landscape awestruck by its beauty.
"To me, it's on par with any great poem," Brophy enthuses.
And yet even Tezuka's best known works were somewhat misunderstood in the U.S.
Fred Ladd, who lives in Woodland Hills, worked at NBC in the 1960s when the network began running "Astro Boy" and "Kimba the White Lion."
NBC, he recalls, rejected six episodes because the network deemed the violence too graphic. Ladd says he was able to save three episodes by editing. One installment, for example, showed a character putting a gun to someone's head. Cutting off the scene after the gun was pointed in the person's general direction solved the problem.
The irony, he says, is that the underlying message of both cartoons was peaceful.
"Tezuka's philosophy was absolutely expressed in all his works," Ladd says. "He revered life. Astro Boy always fights for what's right. Kimba is a lion form of Astro Boy; he's against the law of the jungle. He says we need to have peace. The kids like that. That's timeless."