The Genesis of Anime (But Not That One)

Before there was a Neon Genesis Evangelion, Osamu Tezuka made a Bible anime.

In art as in life, beginnings have a certain freshness to them, a certain special light. If you’re new here as I once was, you may check the FAQ after three or four articles, and it’s there. The year was 1984. No war between Oceania and Eastasia, though. Instead, the Vatican of St. John Paul II made an ardent request through the Italian National Broadcasting Network to the groundbreaking anime/manga pioneer, founder of classic shoujo, to adapt the Old Testament for the screen. Surprised? Yet, from the Cathedrals to the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican has always been interested in evangelization through visuals. Pope Leo XIII may even have been the oldest person ever captured on film.

Osamu Tezuka, the “Disney of Japan,” lived in an age that most of us know only through that beautiful Shirobako flashback. That strange pre-Eva, pre-Ghost in the Shell pioneer territory. In Astro Boy or Angel’s Egg, Heidi or Fables of the Green Forest (the basis for Shirobako‘s Andes Chucky), Rose of Versailles or Maison Ikkoku, many things were being done for the first time ever. And not only in animation, but in cinema as a whole. Technicolor and lightweight equipment, West Side Story and Andrei Rublev, Liberty Valance and To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho and 2001: a Space Odyssey (did you know that Kubrick apparently asked Tezuka to be his artistic director? Just imagine that).

Back in 1966, Ava Gardner and Peter O’Toole (remember them? I, ahem, don’t, but, the sound of those names!) were participating in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. The thundering soundtrack (here) was composed by a young avant-garde Japanese musician about Tezuka’s age, Toshiro Mayuzumi. A small botanical garden on the outskirts of Rome served as the Garden of Eden. There were five reproductions of Noah’s Ark, the largest being 200 feet long, 64 feet wide, and 50 feet high. The animals were delivered from a German zoo. It was an epic effort.

Yeah, too epic. As Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire‘s producers had also discovered, that kind of monumental cinema was too risky now. The planned sequels were cancelled. Long before filming his own Creation story, Tezuka parodied Huston’s in his low-budget short animated film The Genesis. Even though this short is only an extended joke, his gift for elegant sequences and striking symbols was undeniable. See his newly created Sun.

According to Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, “The beloved hallmarks of Japanese animated fare — the striking of theatrical poses, the lingering freeze-frames, the limited ranges of motion — evolved from desperate cost-saving workarounds.” Geniuses made artistic gold from these limitations. The new art could very well take a jab at the old.

In time, others noticed Tezuka’s gift. The Vatican did. And thus, he came to spend his final days animating the Christian Scriptures, as he passed away before the project, entitled In the Beginning: The Bible Stories, was completed.

Tezuka spent two years writing the scenario and drawing concept art by himself. His successor in the project, Osamu Dezaki, delivered an impressive work of very interesting early anime aimed at children. In a style reminiscent of Once Upon a Time… Man, but with epicness, warmth, interesting character moments, and pathos (sorry, Maestro), he makes the Garden, the Flood, Babel and the three angels that visit Abraham shine. Human emotions and personal relationships are depicted in a poignant way. Poking fun here and there, there is also a Disney-like companion, Rocco the Fox (or perhaps it’s a dynasty?) who accompanies the Patriarchs and Israel.

I’m just five episodes in, so I’ll focus on Eden. It’s great. I miss some things, though. That intimacy with God when He walked in the garden during the cool of the evening breeze. The deep and beautiful scene of Adam and Eve hiding from God, is instead replaced by one in which, for dramatic effect, the Garden turns into a literal desert between the sin of Adam and Eve and their first repentance. But I love how Tezuka fleshes out their joyful love, the feeling of adventure, the myriad of colorful animals and flowers, the wonder. Something like that must have happened at the margins of the real story.

Yes, I consider the book of Genesis a true account, true in the very same sense that Once upon a time… Man is true. I think they are two reports of factual things that actually happened.

I think too, that this historicity of Genesis is what ultimately makes sense of our own universal nostalgia, our attraction for intimate signs and flashes from a purer, brighter time that, when we come to analyze it, seems to retreat even farther. We enchant the past, we color it.

But I believe that what we desire is not mainly Ava Gardner’s time, or that of Leo XIII or Tezuka. And it is only partially our own childhood, teenage years, or first love we long for. Instead, the longing reaches even farther back, projecting its light onto our beginnings. Once, the entire world was a colorful garden.

I believe that what Tezuka depicts here happened. That there was a time when Humanity was in harmony with nature, in perfect peace with itself, man and woman discovering a world of wonder together and talking to an all-powerful God as to a friend. When work felt like pure co-creation, as artistic creation still feels today sometimes.

It was a time when romantic love and sexual union were radiant, exclusive and pure, without the thorns or deserts, without the empty promises. When we were catchers in the rye, with no evil whatsoever in our hearts, and could feel to the fullest that we were loved—by others, by ourselves, by God.

It was also a time when we could look to the future with unlimited hope at the adventures ahead and within, living a story that wasn’t besieged by decrepitude, ambiguity or death. The human heart still remembers “the law by which we were made”. It’s not an illusion.

Once, we were home.

And knowing that is valuable. That’s why the Vatican contacted a genius storyteller.

We cannot look at the past as something that it wasn’t. Nostalgia is ambivalent. It can be a trap used to manipulate us, a hidden factory of idols. But it can also be a powerful sign that leads us to a place of gratitude, nobility and hope, where we remember love and honor it.

The original Cowboy Bebop, for example, masterfully depicts this painful duality—both the glory and tragedy of nostalgia. In his dusty, ambiguous world, full of references to the great and the not so great, Spike remembers his Eve and their Eden. That makes him different, nobler. But it may also destroy him. It can be found in other anime as well: one may slip from Anastasia’s waltz into the Anastasia Syndrome. Or into Kon’s Paranoia Agent.

Looked at differently, perhaps, the past and its people may provide us with insights that our contemporary world lacks: useful snippets, words of wisdom or a different perspective to help us see with clearer eyes. We may turn our nostalgia into appreciation of the present, or even hope.

But, you know, it’s almost 2022. The present becomes the past at an amazing speed. I’ve been talking about newness and pioneers, but can this truly be anything other than a nostalgia piece? The light of beginnings often means living in a world of bright phantoms and large absences.

Trying to live only in the present or only in the future can easily turn into a wild goose chase in which we forget who we are. The ambiguity of the past comes to invade the present and project shadows into the future. That’s precisely why, in Scripture, we have “a Letter, written by our heavenly Father, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage so far from its heavenly country”—back to Leo XIII.

You may feel that this is a desperate plea and that nowadays we simply cannot square what this ancient text tells us with the discoveries of modern science, be it astronomy, genetics, paleology, modern psychology or comparative literature. But there is no contradiction between any truth and the Truth. Done right, all these things—natural science, philosophy, psychology, and so on—will match each other and God’s word. Bear with me.

Working our way through a new literary genre or a different form of expression from an ancient culture is like going from Tezuka to Huston. Genesis is not a book of science. We will have to take into account that the sacred writer may have used, say, thematic rather than chronological order, or depicted how something feels to the observer rather than directly describing its appearance, or used conventions from that ancient culture for numbers, time periods, geneology or names. We say that we we haven’t seen each other in a thousand years, that Stalin attacked Poland, or that John Locke is the father of modern parliaments. Making sense of these descriptions from the outside can be hard (but I would want to watch that anime).

The Bible itself provides some clues. For example, knowing that “God is Spirit”, we conclude that actions and passions such as being tired, modelling with clay, walking in the evening breeze or breathing are appropriate analogies for the things He actually did. Actual, historic actions. The inspired author or authors were protected from error to convey the revealed truth, and every sentence reveals something that actually happened.

And as we patiently, acceptingly build cultural bridges, we will find more and more truth. The map buried beneath. A solid foundation for a deeper, more fruitful nostalgia, linked to a greater hope. There are chords between the history of our world, divine revelation, and our own stories; ties to what our heart sees in the past, why it’s there, and why it’s incomplete.

And so, the claim about parallels in other tales, myths or philosophies, be they ancient or modern, rightly understood, is not an argument against faith. The human heart is “not compound[ed] of lies“. In God’s good, meaningful, dynamic Creation, deep connections abound.

“As some of your poets have said…”, began St. Paul in Athens. “And as some of our favorite anime creators have noted…”, Beneath the Tangles may add. Echoes, intuitions, parallels, “seeds of the Logos” will appear here and there. The works point to each other, and to the Artist.

But the Garden is only the first half of the story. There are, certainly, some lies within us. We swallowed them, and with them, arose an intimate and perennial war.

Eden ended with sin. Our enemy is not any of the modern sciences, and only indirectly is it the ideologies and philosophies inspired by ignorance, despair or pride. Rather, our enemy is pride itself, sin itself, the bitter fruit of distrust that, from a first choice, began invading everything. From sin comes the lie of a cold, indifferent universe without a loving Center, the threatening caricatures of the Creator, the accounts of reality in which great things are not going to happen unless we become like gods. Trying to attain Eden directly, we reenact the Fall.

Eden and war are themes we find again and again in the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who may have taken on the mantle of the “Disney of Japan”. His words about Tezuka are worth considering. “Miyazaki once said that Tezuka’s early manga showed the contradictions of the modern world. In that work, modernity meant “prosperity and mass consumption,” but also “the invention of destruction.” It was “scary, absurd, painful and hopeful.” You could argue that Tezuka’s anime embodied those contradictions. And”, the article continues, “in Tales of a Street Corner, you see flashes of what was, what would be and what might have been”.

I concur. Released four years before Huston’s film, this short experimental film by Tezuka feels like a 36-minute-long cousin to Fantasia or Silly Symphonies. It brims with creativity and new techniques, with life and nostalgia. It makes a point of cleverly doing a lot with very little, reusing choreography and shots, and limiting movements while filling them with deep, simple beauty. The music and images push each other forward in this depiction of a typical street in a typical neighborhood, where a girl tries to regain her teddy bear after it falls out of the window and gets stuck on the roof.

Enter the youngest and brightest son of a large family of mice, along with a creaking lamp post and a tree, a moth that looks like a fairy, and a seemingly infinite display of wall posters that wordlessly reference everything you can think of. A rich pantomime follows, each character and poster joining in the music in their own unique, creative way, as the love stories of a violinist in one of them and a pianist in another begin to unfold. The street is full of life; it’s truly a child’s world. There’s action and tension, albeit along the lines of a Silly Symphony. And then, spoilers, things change.

The kind music director of the posters is replaced by a sinister-looking general, and a shadow of fear falls over the street. The colorful harmony is no more. Instead, the world is remade in the general’s image, the posters being replaced by an endless gallery of images of the same person. The characters, especially the lovers, fight in vain against this arrogant, aggressive folly. The war eventually comes with fire and fury, and the street corner is destroyed.

But not the child. Holding her teddy bear again, she walks through the ruins, leaving the war behind her to live and create, just as Osamu Tezuka did, and Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Noah after the Flood. The courageous love of the pianist and the violinist ignites everything and everyone in this little world, and the light outshines the darkness. Holding to the object of her love, a part of this place, the little girl is a sign of hope and innocence as the street corner is preserved safely inside of her. Though wounded, the world is still beautiful.

We are offered all that, too, in Christ. By clinging to this relationship, we “destroy every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ”. We eat a reversed fruit of Eden, one given freely; we sup on ground wheat in bread, and crushed grapes in wine. Made fruitful by love, and thus good to eat.

The lies of sin may seem great and impressive, as did the nations surrounding Israel that conquered or loomed over it. But the lies will fall. And then the truth that was hidden by them will come back renewed, with each knowledge, experience or desire of the heart bringing a deeper resonance with their inner calling, their greater practical and existential insights.

Let us receive the meaningful things of the past with gratitude—all those beginnings that echoed in us—and hold them inside ourselves as we walk.

To quote Tezuka one last time, “What I try to convey through my works is simple. … ‘Love all creatures! Love everything that has life!’ I have tried to express this message in every one of my works.” God, our Father, expressed the same thing when He created everything, as He himself tells us, in the beginning.

Stories from the Bible: In the Beginning (In the Beginning: The Bible Stories) can be streamed (in Spanish) at The Internet Archive.

3 thoughts on “The Genesis of Anime (But Not That One)

  1. Man…. Thank you for sharing that! Appreciate the depth of his work, and of your insight.

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