This previously unreleased Osamu Dezaki interview comes from the 2018 book on Osamu Dezaki I mentioned in the preface to the prior Akio Sugino article (which you can find here). I confess that although Dezaki is one of my favorite directors, if not my actual favorite, I am not as interested in his earlier work prior to becoming a fully-fledged director. This is why I was delighted to see a lot of commentary on Black Jack in this interview, which is easily among my favorites of his work. The interview touches upon titles from the whole span of his career though, rest assured — yes, even Hamtaro (briefly).
I also want to shout out a potential upcoming Osamu Dezaki documentary from Joe & Silwer Productions. I would really like to see this happen so if you are interested at all please give them a follow on Twitter here (@IMPACTCINEMAS) and Instagram here (@howdezakidoesit) and spread the word!
All footnotes and links below are my own additions.
A new interview! An Osamu Dezaki discussion on Tomorrow’s Joe, Osamu Tezuka, and the future of Japanese animation.
Composition: Sachihiko Yamada
Osamu Dezaki. Born in 1943. He debuts as a rental manga artist in high school. Afterwards, he enters Mushi Production and the world of animation. In 1970, he directs for the first time on Tomorrow’s Joe, and continues in that role, putting out many masterpieces into the world such as Gamba’s Adventure, Treasure Island, Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick, and so on. He enters eternal slumber on April 17th, 2011.
Up until his lamentable passing in 2011, director Osamu Dezaki has been in charge of many masterpieces. A precious recording with Dezaki was unearthed for this book — an interview conducted for a theatrical pamphlet for the Dororo movie (2007, directed by Akihiko Shiota). We transcribed sections previously unreleased from this recording.
(Cooperation: Tōhō Co., Ltd. Visual Division & Tōhō Stella Co., Ltd.)
The student days spent grinding away at manga
⸺ Before you entered Mushi Pro, you were a professional rental manga artist. Did you aspire to become one since you were a young boy?
Dezaki: I was in awe of the monthly magazines containing Osamu Tezuka’s work, such as the ones from Kōdansha and Shōgakukan. But from the perspective of a young boy, even if I submitted my work, there’s no way it would get accepted into a first-rate magazine. But among the magazines, it wasn’t a second or third rate magazine, but there was a first-and-a-half rate magazine (laughs) called Baseball Boy [Yakyū Shōnen] (Hōbunsha). “Hirō Terada’s Manga Course” was printed in that magazine, and inside was a call for submissions of four-panel manga and one-page manga. I think this was around my third year of middle school, but I submitted a one-page manga and got a special commendation. Terada sent me a letter encouraging me to keep going — he was such a kind person. I was so happy. As I drew manga, eventually I set my sights on the world of rental manga.
⸺ Indeed, that era was the golden age of rental manga.
Dezaki: The Kansai manga artists — such as Takao Saito, Masaaki Satō, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi — drew short stories in rental manga. Those were well received, and everyone rented them. More rental manga anthologies started accepting submissions from readers, which is when I considered drawing and submitting my own work.
⸺ What kind of stories did you draw?
Dezaki: The stories… If I were to describe them now, they’re vulgar (laughs). It was gekiga, so it featured nothing but intense narratives about gangs, handguns, and the like. Back then there was a famous rental manga magazine called City [Machi]. When I was in high school, they accepted one of my submissions. Then I got more requests from other magazines and gradually it became my job. I thought, “At this rate, maybe I should keep working in the world of manga.” But when I was in my second year of high school, the rental bookstores went out of business due to the proliferation of TVs. Correspondingly, more magazines ceased publication too. This was when I quit drawing manga. Little me had his heart broken (laughs). I figured I’d go to university, but up until this point I just drew manga drafts during class and couldn’t keep up with studying whatsoever. “Uh-oh, this is bad.” In any case, at least I managed to graduate and get a job at a Tōshiba Tamagawa factory in Mizonokuchi, Kawasaki City.
⸺ What were your days like at the factory?
Dezaki: Back then, a lot of people with no academic background worked at factories as temporary hires. I became friends with those people, and I’d mess around and goof off in their dormitories — I didn’t understand anything about the work. This is how I conducted myself, and even my boss seemed to realize, “This guy can’t do anything” (laughs). All this was happening at the beginning of Japan’s economic miracle. People would spend several tens of hours working overtime to make money. I on the other hand, in my entire one-and-a-half-year tenure, managed a mere single hour of overtime (laughs). Ultimately, they tasked me with arranging the floor plans, and even though by then I had distanced myself from manga, I thought, “Actually, maybe this kind of drawing work is good after all.”
Watching Astro Boy and entering Mushi Pro
⸺ So from there, how did you end up at Mushi Pro?
Dezaki: Occasionally on New Year’s I visit my folks. If I recall correctly, it was January 1st, and Astro Boy had just begun. I turned on the TV. “Oh, they made Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy into an anime!” I was elated. Afterwards, during golden week, I went back to visit my folks again and looked through the newspaper. I saw an ad with Astro’s face drawn on it; Mushi Pro was recruiting. They started production in January, and by May they were short on staff, I guess. I was living my life in a half-hearted manner back then, and my current work wasn’t interesting, so I decided to apply for the position. Somehow I ended up getting it.
⸺ Up until that point, had you encountered anime besides Astro?
Dezaki: Looking back, I had seen Disney’s Snow White and Tōei’s Panda and the Magic Serpent [Hakujaden], but I wasn’t even aware of the word “animation.” After all, animation hadn’t permeated public consciousness yet in that period.
⸺ What did Mushi Pro test you on?
Dezaki: They gave me some kind of inbetweening test, like animating a leaping character. I didn’t know “animation,” but I had drawn flip book manga many times in the pages of my textbooks. Since I knew how to draw, most of what I did was just intuition (laughs). There were a lot of people who took the test, but only three people passed. One of the interviewers was Gisaburo Sugii. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I heard later that apparently he had read my manga. He knew I could draw manga and figured that I already had immediately applicable skills, so he let me pass. (On page 134 of this book we interview Mr. Sugii, and he denies having read Dezaki’s manga at the time)
⸺ Throughout your entire career, you’ve drawn an enormous number of storyboards, but where did your storyboarding begin?
Dezaki: Just to clarify, I was in Mushi Pro for only one year. I started with inbetweening, and then suddenly I was given all sorts of other tasks. After two months, I was doing secondary key animation. It was still an experimental time back then. Around that time, Tokyo Movie started production on Big X (1964). They had no staff, so my senior colleagues took part time work there. Through that circumstance, they asked me to draw storyboards. Storyboarding work involves overseeing people’s work, so I decided to give it a shot. That’s when animation and my manga-tuned sensibilities collided; I rebounded right back to my manga-drawing self.
⸺ In a way, it felt closer to the gekiga you had drawn.
Dezaki: The selling point of gekiga was its awareness of live-action, but storyboards for animation also depict sounds, music, voices, and motion too. I thought, “This is fascinating! So there was this kind of work too!” The stuff I drew on paper up until that point was interesting too, but this stuff would actually be in motion. I was delighted. I headed to my desk and scribbled through the night, completely in sync with my younger manga-drawing days. That was my first job as an episode director, and how I was no longer able to evade the world of animation. Even now I draw storyboards (laughs).
“Animation must be entertaining”
⸺ During your days at Mushi Pro, did you talk much with Osamu Tezuka?
Dezaki: People ask me a lot, “Did you have any interesting run-ins with Tezuka in the past?” I really wasn’t in a position where something like that would happen. Speaking of Tezuka, when I was drawing manga, Suzuki Publishing was soliciting submissions from newcomers, and the chief judge was Tezuka. I was already a pro at the time, but I submitted my work anyway since he was judging (laughs). I got a special commendation and Tezuka’s review was also printed in the magazine, but I could tell it wasn’t actually his words (laughs). So I sent him a letter directly: “Anyway, I’d like to get your feedback!” Half of it was a fan letter too.
⸺ Did you get a response?
Dezaki: No, of course not. I thought, “That’s the kind of being the great Tezuka is,” so on the contrary, I was actually happy instead. My colleagues frequently say, “Oh this and that happened with Tezuka.” I’d react, “I’m envious of you bastards, but you guys are also wrong” (laughs). Tezuka is someone who gambled everything on manga and anime. That’s the kind of being Tezuka is to me. There’s no other way I can put it. Even when I entered Mushi Pro, I couldn’t believe that I actually came to the same place where Tezuka worked.
⸺ That said, I imagine you would have had opportunities to talk to Tezuka about the work you were doing at Mushi Pro.
Dezaki: When I began storyboarding Astro Boy, he was going to check over my work so I went to his workplace for the first time. I think he was in the middle of his own work, but he swiftly looked through my storyboards and told me, “Dezaki, animation must be entertaining.” I think he meant something along the lines of, my anime was too gloomy, so I need to make it more upbeat. Indeed, all the episodes I did featured a troubled and worried Astro. In a good way, his words still remain deep down in me.
⸺ Did you act on his feedback for your subsequent projects?
Dezaki: Nope. At the time I was like, “Oh I see!” But I thought it was impossible for me to act on. He can say and do that because he’s Tezuka, but I’m not. Of course, I’ve worked on many projects for children, but I have a strong tendency to depict adult society within such works. That’s how I do things. Even children’s gag material like Ancestor Genius Bakabon is entirely dark humor. I didn’t remotely consider trying to make children laugh (laughs). It’s honestly only come to me recently when storyboarding the Hamtaro movie. I remembered his words and directed the story with a fun, upbeat tempo. That’s when I felt like I kind of understood what he was trying to say.
Showing children an unknown world
⸺ When you took on your first directing job with Tomorrow’s Joe, it during the gekiga boom with a somewhat special social landscape.
Dezaki: You know, at the beginning of the 70s, we had the second round of Anpo Protests and America’s failures in the Vietnam War. There was just a sort of anti-America hippie sentiment. Folk songs came around to Japan, and a lot of what people were feeling was imprinted onto manga like “why did this happen to us?” or “what is power?” A lot of manga came out that tried to realistically depict that.
⸺ Even when the characters in Joe face tough hardships, they put their all into what’s in front of them. The portrayal of them in these moments is quite compelling.
Dezaki: No matter what circumstances humans face, even if they get knocked down, as long as they have a hometown or an identity they can hold onto, they should be able to bounce back. Perhaps I only feel that way because I don’t have such things, and I am in awe of them. For me, it’s friends and colleagues over family.
The first time I storyboarded,
I was fascinated
Picture of a young Dezaki (second from the left) along with his Mushi Pro colleagues. The distinctive Mushi Pro logo is visible in the background.
⸺ Even in works you directed individual episodes for, such as Dororo, Tezuka’s manga reflects those times with its harsh depictions.
Dezaki: Tezuka’s manga always has this antisocial message of “you all think you’re all that, but is it the truth?” For Dororo, I think people thought that since Tezuka had already been involved in animation by then, his works would be viewed as comfortable family entertainment. I on the other hand did not agree. In a way, this was not a major concept in his work, but he always created stories from the position of the weak. I always admired this sort of story construction, so when I read Dororo, I felt like Tezuka had come back.
⸺ So in your opinion, the primary trend of Tezuka is this rebellious spirit?
Dezaki: I do have quite a strong perception of him being this author who depicts this rebellious spirit through manga, yes. Seeing as he would adapt things like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment into manga, I think his starting point was doing things differently from all the manga that came prior.
⸺ He did portray racial discrimination through the robots in Astro Boy.
Dezaki: Yeah, clearly the buses only robots could ride was in reference to racism against black people; apartheid was still practiced in those times. Even though Astro destroyed other robots, on the contrary, he himself was under oppression. His existence was portrayed this way. If it were a normal anime company, they’d go in a different direction and turn it into rose-tinted idealism. I wonder if there’s anyone like Tezuka left. It doesn’t feel like there is. After all, people are going to take the easy way out.
⸺ By the way, which was the first Tezuka manga you encountered?
Dezaki: If I recall correctly, the first Tezuka work I came across was one of his early serialized work: Age of Adventure. I wasn’t aware of the name “Osamu Tezuka” at the time, but that’s when I started reading his work — although, Tezuka himself called Age of Adventure a failure (laughs).
⸺ Earlier you said you have a strong tendency to depict adult society within works for children. Tomorrow’s Joe depicts the progression of the fights between boxers, the people who live in the slums, and those in the juvenile reform facility. At times, these depictions are extreme. Did you find it difficult to adapt this work into anime, for broadcast during the family dinner time slot?
Dezaki: No, I think it was pretty standard. On the contrary, I think society today is strange and reckless when it comes to taboo. It doesn’t make sense that you can’t show blood because it’s during a time slot when people are eating. I did have trouble doing some work for NHK because there were a lot of lines in the script containing disallowed words. The whole “don’t show blood during mealtime” way of TV productions is just code for overseas markets; this is an excuse based on business considerations. It’s absurd. Well, there are good aspects to not showing blood. However, these people inhabit a remarkable world, and to portray this, there are times when showing blood is necessary.
⸺ Not hiding that kind of expression is especially what impacts the kids who are watching.
Dezaki: For series like Gamba’s Adventure, I’ve heard people say even though they were scared as kids, their eyes were glued to the screen. Indeed, Gamba is meant for kids, but that’s also not the case. It may appear so from the illustrations, but I was thinking about how to depict these small individuals trying to live in a rather cruel world. Even if it would scare children, I wanted to them to experience the unknown, where it’s not all sunshine and roses. If they don’t understand the world can be harsh, then they cannot become adults.
The first role as director on an adaptation of a Tezuka manga: Black Jack
⸺ Among the various projects you’ve directed, Tezuka’s Black Jack is one of them.
Dezaki: With Black Jack, I finally got to direct a Tezuka adaptation. It was a shame he had already passed away by that point, but the stories were constructed with the idea of how I would have worked with him if he were still alive. Put another way, I may have better understood the true nature of Osamu Tezuka the creator. I’d likely have conflicting opinions with him, and more curious incidents may have happened. But it is what it is, because I was talking to a phantom (laughs).
⸺ Many people have tried to adapt Black Jack into film or TV. Which parts of the original manga did you emphasize for the OVA?
Dezaki: I think what Tezuka wanted to get across in that work is portrayed by Black Jack’s anger during the drama. That is why I wanted to bring out the rage. I think he would forgive me for persisting on that. It would have worked as well to make a shrieking comedy with Pinoko, but that’s not the true nature of the work. Black Jack is someone who goes above the law, right? There’s no point if you don’t depict the hidden meaning there. Even though money isn’t his goal, he demands a fortune from his patients. Isn’t it the way he asks his patients how they think about the gravity of life?
No matter what people are told by others, I don’t want them to think that there are any “hard-and-fast” rules.
⸺ Considering the anger Black Jack shows and his inquiries to his patients, it’s truly as though the work keeps asking its readers such questions. You could say it’s the true nature of Tezuka’s work.
Dezaki: Maybe it was the anger Tezuka held towards society. I really think this is where the question of “is this really okay?” comes from. Once you diverge from that viewpoint, at a glance it may still appear intriguing, but it’s actually meaningless. I think inside Black Jack, what drives the world is not money nor societal structures, but the ever-present desire to be human.
⸺ In the original manga, the various issues which stem from the ego of patients and doctors is a relevant theme even in the modern day.
Dezaki: This is probably what the original manga was trying to get at. In the anime adaptation, there’s lines like, “I’m a doctor so I intend to save your life, but I only assist your drive to be alive. There’s no meaning if you don’t have that drive.” Black Jack truly feels that this is the role of science and medicine; the patient is the protagonist. Due to this, he’s the sort of person who would say to the patient, “Go ahead and die if you want to.” If the patient has even a sliver of the will to live, and even the slightest cure would give them hope, then Black Jack would bet on this and treat them. Beyond that, what is a doctor? There’s no way a clear answer would present itself, but we can try to investigate. I feel like the work kept showing different aspects of this question to its readers.
Reject the “hard-and-fast” rules, and search for what’s correct, freely from your own viewpoint
⸺ What do you think about the current animation industry in Japan?
Dezaki: This is just my personal principle, but I don’t believe there are any “hard-and-fast” rules in society. It’s truth in numbers every time. For instance, if people make a big commotion over a boring movie, you wonder why. Everyone ends up convinced it’s amazing. There’s a lot of people who behave this way. Unbeknownst to everyone, people’s opinions end up converging, and then even you feel compelled to inherit those same opinions.
⸺ Did something like that happen recently?
Dezaki: Recently, I was asked to be a judge for a film competition. I watched about two days’ worth of submissions for the entire animation category. One submission got a lot of attention and made it to the second round. I watched it… But I didn’t understand how something that bad made it to the second round. By the way, it drew much more of an audience than any of the other fantastic submissions. It’s because mass media made a big deal about it. It just seems absurd to me. If this were a film contest overseas, it would likely be regarded as complete trash. People would be like, “What is this shit? I demand a refund!” That’s how bad it was, but no one would say so. People won’t give a critique like this out in the open, but they will do so behind the scenes. It’s the natural conclusion you’d draw from its quality. I was dumbfounded.
Words on a signed sketch left behind by Osamu Dezaki (from the Feb 1983 issue of Kindai Eigasha’s The Anime).
Dezaki: In the end, this current discussion is just based on my own values and standards. It’s just that the world of Japanese animation definitely does have some of this trend. Since a while ago, I’ve felt strongly that something is off. If you entrust value judgements to other people, then you are just adopting the same views. I think you should see and confirm these things with your own eyes and ears. Something is twisted. I can’t comprehend people who are content to just adopt other people’s views. No matter what people are told by others, I don’t want them to think that there are any “hard-and-fast” rules. I mean this positively, but you should reject the “hard-and-fast” rules and search for what’s correct, freely from your own viewpoint. I want more people to understand something this obvious.
- The Gisaburo Sugii interview referenced here is a nice read, with tidbits like how Dezaki popularized the sentori (線撮り) system — where due to lack of time, prior to coloring the cels they would do a rough film cut so they could give something to the audio staff and voice actors to work from — or how Night on the Galactic Railroad — my personal Sugii favorite — was developed from seven different staff members’ storyboards into a single cohesive movie. Regarding what is referenced in the Dezaki interview however, here is the relevant excerpt from the beginning:
⸻ You first encountered Dezaki when he entered Mushi Pro.
Sugii: I don’t recall the details too well, but basically the top Mushi Pro students — such as Yūsaku Sakamoto (animator, representative work: Tales of a Street Corner, and others) and Eiichi Yamamoto (animation director, representative work: Space Battleship Yamato III, and others) — were the interviewers for the recruitment exam. Osamu was a bit standoffish, so he almost got rejected even though they acknowledged he could draw well. I recommended him, and thanks to that he got accepted into Mushi Pro, or so Osamu said.
⸻ Had you read his rental manga prior to meeting him?
Sugii: Did he say that? Well, we can let that be the official record then (laughs). From what I remember, at the time I was completely unaware that Osamu was previously a manga artist. I remember from the get-go I could see that his illustrations were top-notch, and it had his distinctive flavor; he already possessed his unique Dezaki-world by that point.
- You can read more on why Tezuka thought Age of Adventure was a flop over at Tezuka In English here. ⬏
- The original Japanese sketch can be found here. ⬏