story by H. Doug Matsuoka
image Courtesy Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
Why would the venerable Asian Art Museum of San Francisco exhibit the work of a mere cartoonist and comic book illustrator? Because that artist is Osamu Tezuka. Don’t recognize the name? You’ve probably seen his art, or at least art he’s influenced. Tezuka (1928-1989) is considered the Walt Disney of Japan—without the theme parks and corporate gigantism—and has been called “The God of Manga.” He drew his first comic at 6 years old and just kept going. His complete works comprise more than 400 volumes and 170,000 pages and inspired the watery-eyed, tiny-nosed manga characters that are now cliché in Japanese comic art. Americans might know him best for his television anime serial, Astro Boy.
Manga, for those who’ve been living in a comic book cave for the last ten years, are what comics are called in Japan; anime is animation. If you’ve seen Pokémon, you’re already familiar with manga and anime and also with Tezuka’s legacy. Manga and anime are catching on here, but they’re already a multibillion-dollar industry in Japan—the annual US comic output equals a mere two-week run in Japan—and Tezuka was among its pioneers.
The museum will display Tezuka’s original artwork. Museum director Emily Sano says, “He’s being shown in a very classical museum context because we’re trying to emphasize that Tezuka was an artist, genuinely an artist. He was a genius.” Sano insists that Tezuka comes straight out of the tradition of Japanese artists like Hokusai. This is not to say that stodgy tradition will rule at the exhibition or in its “Manga Lounge.” “We don’t want people to think they’re going to see a bunch of woodblock prints or something. We expect to see wildly dressed young people running around the Civic Center in San Francisco coming to see our show.”
The Tezuka exhibit fits the museum’s policy of balancing the traditional with the contemporary. “It’s a big challenge to continually do that and really engage our audiences with an Asian art museum that is not your mother’s Asian art museum,” Sano says. But be a good kid and bring mom anyway.
Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga
(June 2–Sept. 9)
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco