(aka, Phoenix 2772, Phoenix 2772: The Cosmic Zone of Love.
Literal translation: Phoenix 2772: Space Creature)
It’s really hard to grasp Tezuka’s place within the Anime and Manga world.
Perhaps the best comparison might be to Walt Disney, although that really doesn’t quite cover it either. Yes, his Astroboy series — and the manga series that inspired it — is legendary even in the U.S., but it certainly doesn’t begin to sum up his career.
For starters, he created Astro (or “Mighty Atom” to give a more accurate rendition of his Japanese name) after he’d already created his first classic works — The Lost World, Metropolis, and Future World. But even before he wrote those books and six years before his creation of Astroboy, his first major work, New Treasure Island (1946), changed how comics were published and started what has been called the golden age of manga.
Tezuka would create constantly until his death in 1989, and his career was one of constant invention, with new characters, new series, and even new types of comics flowing from his prolific pen.
While he’d started out doing wild, humorous (if often surprisingly serious) stories based on Milt Gross’ bigfoot style, he would later do more serious adult oriented works (gekiga), including a lengthy manga biography of Gautama Buddha, and what may be his masterpiece, the unfinished epic, The Phoenix (Hi No Tori).
Starting in 1954, He finished twelve volumes of the story before his death, each volume a standalone story in which the legendary Phoenix plays a part. They alternated between the past and distant future, with the first volume (Dawn) taking place during the legendary founding of Japan. As the series progressed, the stories became closer and closer together in time, and everyone expected that it would climax with a story set in the modern world and crossing time lines.
But he died before he could finish the story.
Among all his other projects, Tezuka had ventured into animation in 1959. While he never had the makings of a great animator, his studio helped pioneer a lot of the techniques we take for granted in limited animation, and even dabbled in combinations of live action and anime in his series Vampire. He’s listed as the director of a great many of the episodes they produced, although, from what I’ve read, I’m not sure you’d describe his contributions as “directing.”
He’s listed as the general director on the epic anime version of Hi No Tori made in 1980, and wrote its screenplay. You have to remember that only two years earlier, he and his Tezuka Productions had worked on Toho Studios’ live action version of the Dawn chapter of the epic story. Tezuka even directed several animated sequences for the film, including the phoenix itself, an army of foxes, and a brief Astroboy cameo (seriously).
Perhaps the Toho film sparked his interest in creating this anime. On the other hand, considering that his production studio contributed to the making of the earlier film, and he would go on to produce four more OVA anime before his death, one suspects that he was pushing very hard to get these films made. After all, The Phoenix was one of his favorite projects, and one which allowed him to explore a lot of his frequent themes.
There is something rather strange about this film, however: it is not an adaptation of any of the actual storylines in The Phoenix.
I suppose this seems even odder because Hi No Tori (1978) is a more or less faithful adaptation of the Dawn chapter. Even with Tezuka Productions’ credited role in the production the earlier film, I really do not know how big a part Tezuka played. But you would expect that an anime for which he served as General Director would have been adapted directly from his work.
Mind you, if you look at the basic outline of the second chapter (Future), there is a strong parallel between the two storylines.
But there are also even more dramatic differences.
However, it’s been far too long since I read the book for me to make any meaningful comments on how close they may be. Apparently, the film borrowed ideas from several of the storylines, as well as many of his other works. As Tezuka did in countless other Anime projects, you can also find many of his recurring characters showing up in minor roles, including Rock, Shunsaku Bun (Mr. Mustachio) and even Black Jack himself.
But no Astroboy this time. Oh, well. You can’t have everything.
The other notable thing is that the movie seems to take a tour through the many different styles Osamu Tezuka used in his long career. The opening sequence is deliberately simple, like a children’s book, as we see a test-tube baby born, and raised within what amounts to a baby raising machine. The style changes a bit as he gets older, although there is a marvelous 3-D videogame sequence which still reflects this childlike style.
Eventually, he and his robot nursemaid, Olga, emerge into a hard-edged city of the distant future, in the clean, detailed style Tezuka used in so many science fiction stories.
However, he wasn’t content with settling at one style, so we get beautiful gardens presented in the most romantic way, and, after a stunning chase sequence, a hellish prison, with fire and deadly magma — and a stunning, semi-abstract sequence showing the downtrodden prisoners working in unison.
Before long, the story moves into space as the hero hunts for the Phoenix, finding burnt out ships just like his own along the way. But then he ends up on a planet full of strange alien life (drawn in an awesomely cartoony way, with a lot of very silly creatures) and acquires two thoroughly weird new alien companions along the way.
Which leads to one of the most head-scratching sequences in the entire film as three cute alien companions all perform a long, silly dance together.
Did I mention that Tezuka was a great admirer of Walt Disney?
But I guess that was obvious.
Without going into too many more details, Tezuka throws wild, abstract psychedelic colors across the screen in a way reminiscent of 2001, and has the Phoenix itself transform through a remarkable number of strange and bizarre forms, in a variety of different styles, before we finally see the familiar version of the Phoenix from so many other versions of the story.
And it all ends with epic destruction, and a remarkable choice.
Phoenix 2772 (a number, by the way, which refers to the space firebird and not to the date in which all this takes place) is not your typical anime. Like Tezuka, it ranges wildly from realistic to bigfoot comic styles, often in the same scene. It is very serious, yet unafraid to throw in a few silly jokes, goofy creatures and even sillier characters, like the mad scientist, Dr. Saruta. As in the rest of the story, death is the usual reward for those pursuing the Phoenix for their own gain, but this time the Phoenix itself actually longs for something. While the story looks like it is about the final destruction of the Earth, instead the ultimate theme is one which has shown up again in the saga: re-generation and rebirth, and the whole cycle starting over like the Phoenix of legend dying in a rush of flame, only to be reborn again.
I suppose a lot of people will criticize Tezuka for his constant changes of style, or tone, but this is very much what it is like to read his Manga. It may not have adapted any of his stories exactly, but it does capture the true essence of his work.
The animation isn’t aways up to his vision, but it looks quite good in an Eighties anime sort of way. And it is full of truly striking sequences, full of imagination and splendor.
This is an incredible film, with so much packed into its two-hour length, and a deep, underlying philosophy. And yet it is an entertaining work which will appeal to younger viewers as well. It lacks the hard edge that Katsuhiro Otomo and Akira would soon bring to anime, or the endless philosophical musings of Mamoru Oshii’s strange films and may have started looking a little old-fashioned after they came out.
But it’s still a remarkable accomplishment, made all the more remarkable because he achieved it on a tight budget and limited resources.
Is it a classic? I’m not sure, it’s one of those films which is so big and sprawling it’s hard to say what you think of it. But it is a minor classic, at least.
And definitely worth a view….
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