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Is Tezuka God?

By Yani Mentzas

Continuing our blog coverage this month to celebrate our Japan issue, Yani Mentzas, who many of our readers will remember from his appearance as a blogger during our Graphic Novels issue, holds forth on Osamu Tezuka. —Editors

Back in February, when the Graphic Novels issue was up, I wrote here about the challenges of publishing manga in translation. I indicated in the final post that the subsequent entry would be on Osamu Tezuka, the most revered artist in the medium's history. To my great pleasure, I've been invited back for the Japan issue this month to make good on my word, and I hope I'm not betraying anyone's trust when I start off with pointed theological considerations.

The title of this post is, in my view, a rhetorical question whose answer is affirmative in a literal sense. Readers who enjoy some familiarity with contemporary Japanese culture know that Tezuka is referred to as the "God of Manga" (manga no kamisama) in his native land. But it must be noted further that the epithet is not to be taken too figuratively. The phrase only seems metaphorical if one is assuming, consciously or not, a monotheistic frame of reference.

Certainly no one—myself included, let it be said—is proposing that the author was omniscient or coterminous with the universe, in that Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense of the divine. But his not being God (or His Son) in that unique capitalized fashion does not mean that it hasn't been claimed that he is a deity. There is a claim, an attenuated but meaningful one, outside the monotheistic half of the world, and it's important to remember this so the moniker is not misconstrued as some shorthand assertion of immaculate greatness.

When the Japanese, with their lingering animistic sensibilities and tradition of ancestor worship, call someone divine—other than Tezuka, the founder of Panasonic, Konosuke Matsushita, for instance, is the "God of Business" (keiei no kamisama), Tetsuharu Kawakami, legendary first baseman of the Yomiuri Giants, the "God of Batting" (dageki no kamisama), and prose stylist Naoya Shiga the "God of Fiction" (shosetsu no kamisama)—these individuals are not being termed perfect, and certainly not morally infallible. Gods in the non-Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense don't even have to be supernatural, no more so than those deceased Caesars that the Romans, great ancestor worshippers too, promptly deified. The deeply human impulse to bow to gods who're human was not entirely eradicated with the victory of Christianity and remained in the form of canonizations—a panoply of patron saints.

This non-capitalized understanding of "god" is common enough in usage and practice, at least prior to and outside of the Christian West, that it amounts to a second, non-metaphorical definition of the word, and it is in this sense that Tezuka literally is god. It's not a synonym for hero. A hero is "admired" or "cheered" and can "fall from grace." Not so a god, who is to be "revered" and "worshipped," who may "fade from memory" yet never cease to be divine.

While the ultimate purpose of obeying a monotheistic deity is otherworldly, the benefits of heeding a heathenish deity are typically of this world. To those who would be mindful of the sacred work of Tezuka, I promise the latter kind of reward only.

But the good news is that there is a god—one "we can believe in" named Osamu Tezuka. I invite you to kneel with me at his altar once a week this month of May and not just because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Yani Mentzas is the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical, Inc., publisher of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel masterpiece Black Jack

Published May 7, 2009   Copyright 2009 Yani Mentzas

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