TeZukA: bridges and doors

Tetsuwan Atom © Tezuka Pro, cover design © Sadler's Wells

When Osamu Tezuka was a small boy, he lived in a little town surrounded by woodlands teeming with life. His next door neighbours were actresses in the local theatre. His father would bring home comics and films. His imagination was fed equally by his surroundings and stories from the other side of the world, from Europe and America. He turned these raw materials into worlds that were uniquely his, yet recognisably and proudly the descendants of the worlds that inspired him.

For choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui,  growing up in urban Belgium, childhood inspiration also came from home and abroad. Apart from the rich comics cultures of Europe and America, his imagination fed on anime and manga in French. As a small child he didn’t know or care that the giant robots and fighting heroes came from Japan, and he wasn’t aware of Tezuka or any of the other artists involved. He simply enjoyed the adventures.

Many of the audience for the first performances of TeZukA, his latest work for Sadler’s Wells, were in exactly the same position. They knew little or nothing about anime and manga. Tezuka’s name was just a word on a billboard. And just as a child doesn’t care who directed a movie, it didn’t bother them in the slightest. They simply enjoyed the work for itself.

I saw TeZukA twice, and loved it both times. It isn’t a straightforward narrative of Tezuka’s life or any of his works – a linear drama like The Nutcracker or West Side Story. Rather it’s an evocation of some of the themes and ideas in Tezuka’s art and writing. The cast of twelve superb dancers, including two Shaolin monks, embody a range of Tezuka characters. They also convey some of his ideas – sexual tension (brilliantly embodied in a sizzling insect-woman sequence,) jealousy and envy, despair, the primacy and power of nature, the sheer horror of war.

But TeZukA steps outside narrative. It brings to life the working practice of the artist, both through the company’s process of rehearsal and performance with a calligrapher, and through making each dancer the basis of all graphic art: the mark on the page. The dancers evoke panel borders. They become the thing that flows from the brush and captures the thought. People talk about the importance of line in dance, but there are few dance works where line is as important as this: both to describe how the dancers use their bodies, and to describe how their bodies define line in art, evoking through ephemeral movement what Tezuka pinned down for mass reproduction.

Another thread running through the production is Tezuka’s passionate reverence for all forms of life, and his view of life as a circle of interdependence, encapsulated in a discussion of bacteria and their social interaction. Narrative from the work of molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler at Princeton University, spoken by the dancers, illuminates the idea of interaction and co-operation with a story of bacterial luminescence – literally throwing light on this vital theme as the dancer play out the triumphs and tragedies of Tezuka’s questing, questioning characters. Some of my own thoughts about Tezuka and his world, taken from my conversations with the choreographer,  are also part of the work. A few passages are spoken in French, emphasising the multicultural character of the work, although Sadler’s Wells provided surtitles for the linguistically challenged.

The wonderful work of the dancers is enhanced by a team of artists. Designers, composers and lighting teams are often considered as working in the background, but every element of TeZukA is vital and visible, a community of organisms that shines through the accretion of effort. Master Tosui Suzuki is a calligrapher who also portrays Osamu Tezuka in his stage debut. He worked on the production from an early stage, helping the whole team to understand and experience the importance of the handmade line.

Taiki Ueda is a video artist whose magical creation – part installation, part experience, part virtual set – brings Tezuka’s pages to life with a compelling range of motifs, movements and beautiful ideas. With lighting designer Willy Cessa, Ueda creates a world for the characters to walk through, changeable, dazzling and dangerous. They are dressed for the journey by Sasa Kovacevic, whose fashion background shows in the fact that even the most theatrical of the costumes manage to look like real clothes. (The one exception to that is a fabulous Ambassador Magma robot suit. This is a production that can think and have fun at the same time.)

The music, composed by Nitin Sawhney, incorporates traditional Asian works and extracts of Tezuka TV scores. Alongside Sawhney’s recorded performance, three gifted musicians perform live onstage throughout the show, using instruments from Japan, Korea and Europe. The overall impact is tremendous, perhaps best encapsulated in the moment at the end of the first act when the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, which took place while the company was rehearsing in Japan, is evoked with heartrending subtlety. The awareness that so much of the music is live, that this precise interaction of recorded score and human voice and instruments will never come again, adds weight to the immediacy of the whole performance. There is a sense of magic, of being part of a ritual of import, that comes rarely in these days of mass-produced entertainment. (That doesn’t stop me wishing for a CD to capture and replay the experience.)

After the first performance I saw, I talked to members of the cast, crew, production team and audience. The 1,500 seat theatre had been packed, and I didn’t find many people outside the company who knew anything about Tezuka or manga, yet everyone had responded in their own way to this wonderful evocation of Tezuka’s art. I believe one of the functions of art is to help the audience enter into and explore new worlds. Tezuka himself was a bridge between the prewar manga he loved and the starved imaginations of the children of the new Japan. TeZukA echoed the process, opening a door through which a London theatre audience could explore his art.

The second performance started differently for some of us, in that I gave a pre-show talk on Tezuka’s life and work in the 200-seater Lilian Baylis studio. It was packed, with extra chairs hauled in (and people, including a couple of friends, turned away at the door – I’m sorry about that!) I don’t know whether there were more fans in the audience that night because they came for the talk, or whether the talk itself meant that a substantial minority of the audience was aware of the inspiration for TeZukA. Several people kindly said afterwards that they felt they got more out of the evening because they had some background, and quite a few of them took away signed copies of my book, The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga. But I don’t really think prior knowledge made a difference to their enjoyment. All you need to know is onstage, in the work unfolding.

Tezuka’s work has been inspiring artists, scientists and thinkers over six decades. Taking his energy for inspiration, they have carried on the circle of life, creating new worlds of their own. He loved that process, and I think he would have been delighted to see it in action at Sadler’s Wells.

2 thoughts on “TeZukA: bridges and doors

  1. Thank you for the wonderful talk! We saw TeZukA twice as well (we loved it so much the first time, we came back Friday to see it again), and it was brilliant both times. We only wish a) that the show was being performed for another month, and b) your talk had been longer. You gave us insight into Tezuka that we didn’t have before, and we’ve been a fan of his work for years (as difficult as it has sometimes been to find in English). And you’re a captivating speaker!

    Hope to see you again!

    • Jeff, thank you! I always say that any kind of talk or presentation is a dialogue with the audience. Even if they don’t say a word or ask a question, the speaker reacts to their expressions, their movements, their reactions, their energy – like a DJ reacting to the dancers in the room. With a good audience, it’s easy to be a good speaker. I know a lot of those present didn’t have your level of knowledge of Tezuka – some told me later they hadn’t heard of him before this show – but everyone was so open to new things, it was a joy to work that room.

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