The Brilliant Framing and Paneling of Tezuka Osamu

So I’ve mentioned before that I’m an unabashed fan of Tezuka Osamu, the legendary “manga no kamisama” (god of manga). I’ve been going through his Hi no tori (Phoenix) for the first time in years, and I was struck by how innovative and expressive his paneling and framing is. Tezuka is credited with bringing cinematic techniques to manga. He used establishing shots, close ups, low angles, high angles, etc., whereas most of his predecessors tended to just draw a scene as if the reader were looking at a stage, static and from one angle. (I want to give due credit for this observation, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where I read it. Probably something by Fred Schodt.) Tezuka pioneered cinematic techniques that still look great today and indeed are still in use by manga artists.

But I want to look at a few examples where Tezuka really exploits paneling and framing, going beyond an imitation of cinema to demonstrate a mastery of his medium. This is not a comprehensive overview, by any means, just some things I noticed while reading Hi no tori.


This is from Volume 1 (黎明 Reimei). In this scene, the boy in the middle, Nagi, after reuniting with his sister Hinaku (left) demands to know why she is living with Gusuri, the man who betrayed their village (right). Separating each of the people into panels allows Tezuka to do some neat things. For one thing, we can see all three people in detail, even though at this point they are somewhat separated physically. Specifically, it allows him to show the reader Gusuri’s reaction without having him in the conversation. He is hanging back a little in this scene, so Tezuka can keep the conversation between Nagi and Hinaku alone while still showing the reader how Gusuri feels. Furthermore, by separating the people into three panels Tezuka is able to mix shots: a close up on Gusuri, a wide shot on Nagi, and an… underexposed (silhouetted) wide shot on Hinaku. Tezuka exploits the expectations of the medium, the demarcation of panels into separate visual spaces, to freely mix different styles of portrayal in order to get exactly the effect he wants.

But what’s even more interesting (and brilliant) here is that Tezuka has effortlessly changed the nature of paneling. Normally panels indicate chronological division; each panel is a new moment in time, and the progression of panels expresses the progression of narrative time. Here, however, the horizontal rows of panels indicate spatial division across a single simultaneous moment. At the same time, the vertical divisions indicate the usual chronological division, and Tezuka mixes both types of division freely. Yet it doesn’t feel awkward at all because he puts his panels into a regular grid (something he normally eschews), allowing the reader to divide up the panels into rows at a glance. Note that the only way to achieve this effect in cinema would be with an extremely awkward split screen effect. Tezuka, however, exploits the conventions of the manga form to achieve it smoothly and transparently.

In the last three rows of the second page, above, Tezuka suddenly ascribes physicality to his panel borders. This is not an unusual technique for Tezuka, especially the conceit of shocked or angry characters breaking out of the panel frame. Tezuka never seems to forget the comic origins of his media, and he tends to throw in a gag or two when things get too sober, even in his most serious manga (such as here, where they’re discussing the massacre of an entire village). Here too, it functions as a kind of self-deprecating tension reliever, Tezuka’s way of saying “whoops, I got too serious and artsy in a comic!”.1 At the same time, however, it does more. Notice how Nagi places his hand against the panel border in the third-to-last panel. The border, granted physicality, is now a wall that separates him from Hinaku – a visual metaphor for the distance that now separates their worldviews. He is trying desperately to get closer to her, pushing his nose beyond the panel border, but for all his effort (he is sweating!) pushing against the border, he can’t quite get through to her.

In the last two rows, Tezuka metatextually (metavisually?) calls attention to his own artifice. When the panel borders are broken and Nagi invades the other panels with different “shots,” the reader’s attention is drawn to just how unnatural they look in the same shot: Nagi is the same size as Gusuri’s whole head, and remains fully illuminated next to the silhouetted Hinaku. At the same time, by physically breaking the panel borders Tezuka dissolves the tension of separation between characters, leading into the next page where they are all featured in the same panel again.

On to the next example:


This is a page from Volume 4 (Hō’ō 鳳凰). Here the character with the huge nose, Gaō, has just been told by a high priest that Buddhism is just a political tool that the Court is purposely spreading in order to consolidate its political power. Gaō runs away in angry denial.

First, I want to comment on the clever textuality on display. In the last panel Gaō is yelling 怒, the kanji (ideograph) for anger, but there is no furigana or okuriagana that would tell the reader how it is pronounced. The reader knows the idea of what is in Gaō’s speech bubble, but has no idea how it is pronounced: he is literally bellowing in wordless rage! And it’s surprising that it works so well. Speech bubbles are a form of direct quotation, like quotation marks or kagikakko in Japanese. If something is inside quotes, it’s what the person actually said: Compare

He said, “I’ll sell you my bicycle.”


He said he’d sell me his bicycle.

The second line is indirect quotation. We get the meaning of what “he” said, but not his actual words. Anyway, speech bubbles are a form of direct quotation. But if we tried to pull this trick in a novel, it would be…. awkward. 我王は「怒」と叫んだ just doesn’t work. We expect the stuff in the kagikakko and preceding the quotative to to be actual words someone said. We could narratively describe someone bellowing in wordless rage (“He bellowed in wordless rage”), but direct quoting a wordless ideograph doesn’t really work. Yet, somehow, it totally works in the above page, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the conventions surrounding direct quotations in manga are younger and more flexible? Or perhaps because in a manga, readers expect to have most information conveyed visually rather than verbally, so a nonverbal ideograph feels natural? I’m not sure, but in any case it does work, and it’s a textual innovation that Tezuka exploits to really convey the emotional intensity of the situation. He can depict Gaō bellowing in wordless rage without resorting to a narrator suddenly and awkwardly coming in and telling us so narratively.

Ok, so back to paneling. The interesting feature here, of course, is Gaō running in a right-angle path around the page before arriving at the last panel. Gaō is, again, running away in angry denial, not so much from the high priest, but from the truth that has now been unveiled to him. Notice that Tezuka doesn’t use any panel borders here, which is very unusual for him. In other words, the panel border that clearly delineates the bounds of the narrative space is missing and the narrative space becomes boundless, invading the whole canvas of the page.

At first it may seem like Gaō is running uselessly in circles, but the lack of borders gives us another perspective: Gaō is actually trying to escape the page. The black frame that depicts his path ends just as its corner hits the right margin, and then again as hits the bottom of the page. Frustrated in his attempt to escape right, he runs for the bottom of the page, but of course that is equally useless. Finally, in the last panel, we can now see that he is actually running towards the reader. He is even looking right at us! Having failed to escape right and down, he is now trying to escape out the front of the page.

This is an amazing visual metaphor for Gaō’s internal psychological struggle. The panelless, unbounded space creates the illusion that Gaō might be able to escape the page if he runs hard and far enough, but of course that is entirely impossible for a fictional character. Similarly, it seems like he can escape the truth if he runs far and hard enough away from the priest that opened his eyes to it, but of course it is impossible to escape the truth once revealed. Gaō’s attempt to escape from the truth is just as futile as his attempt to escape from the page. This is a pretty brilliant use of framing and paneling to reveal Gaō’s psychological state.

Finally, since we know that Tezuka is capable of such brilliant and cinematic framing, it really draws our attention when he doesn’t use those things, and opts for a static, front-on presentation instead. Take this sequence from Vol. 1, again. Here the queen of Yamatai, Himiko, has set herself up as a kind of shaman-queen who rules through the fear of and respect for her magic. Himiko, the text has made clear, will be in later ages immortalized as the sun goddess Amaterasu, who incidentally the Japanese emperors claim as their direct ancestor, therefore legitimating their rule through divine right. In this scene, however, Himiko is clearly weakening, and her brother Susano’o enters to taunt her about her aging, which betrays her as a normal human, and ask her to stop ruling through fear of magic. See how Tezuka frames this:


Tezuka keeps the frame static for six whole pages! Now, since we know that he normally is much more inventive with his framing and paneling, this screams at the reader that Tezuka is doing something interesting here, keeping the frame static to focus our attention on something. And that something, obviously, is the mirror in the center. For the first six panels – a whole page and a half – we see nothing but the mirror. Even after other characters enter, the frame doesn’t shift to them, but stays the same with the mirror at center. And when Himiko starts chasing Susano’o around they run in a circle around the mirror, still at center. Obviously, the framing here is drawing the reader’s attention to the mirror, hinting that it is significant somehow.

Well, if Himiko is Amaterasu, then the only mirror that could merit forcing the reader’s attention on it for six pages would be the mirror that Amaterasu gave Ninigi when she sent him down to Earth to subjugate Japan. It, along with the magatama beads and the sword Kusanagi, are the three imperial regalia of Japan and are powerful symbols of the emperor and imperial divinity. Even today, no one outside of the imperial family and a few important Shinto priests have seen them, leaving them shrouded in mystery. Hi no tori never explicitly fingers the mirror in this scene as the mirror of the regalia, but the visual attention poured on it by Tezuka’s choice of framing makes it clear it could be no other. However, the characters don’t even pay it any attention. So what is it doing here?

Remember, this scene is all about Himiko’s aging. In the second panel of the second page someone outside the panel announces “The Queen shall now retire.” In the next panel Himiko staggers in, on the verge of passing out, clearly barely able to handle the demands of her office anymore. It is after Susano’o comments on her aging, in the third panel of the fourth page, that Himiko snaps, flying into a violent rage. In the next panel she says “You’re talking about my face, aren’t you?! My- My face!!” So this scene is all about Himiko’s aging, especially as evident in her face. The mirror then, unnoticed in the background, can be taken to be the mirror she looks in to look at the reflection of her face, checking on her aging obsessively. In other words, far from being a sacred object of divine origin, the mirror of the imperial regalia is merely the instrument of an extremely vain woman. (If you look closely, she is wearing magatama beads on her head as a mere fashion accessory. Those too are just another accoutrement of her vanity.) In the end, she knocks the mirror over carelessly – because it is just a mirror, certainly not a holy object to be treated with reverence or enshrined. Tezuka is able to communicate all of this without ever having a narrator come in and say “this is the mirror that would later be an imperial regalia.” Simply by framing the scene in a certain way, to focus the reader’s attention on a certain background element, Tezuka silently deconstructs one of the most potent symbols of imperial power! Even when he uses static shots, Tezuka’s framing and paneling show true mastery of the manga form.

Again, I only picked a few examples I happened to come across. There are plenty of other examples of Tezuka’s superb craftsmanship. But I think these few examples are pretty clear evidence of Tezuka’s brilliance at framing and paneling, a convention which most readers (or even authors) probably take for granted, but which Tezuka exploits for maximum effect.


1. For another example of this, see the below sequence. Here a band of thieves meets up to split their spoils, has a falling out, and one dies. This is a great artistic presentation, but again in the very last panel Tezuka seems to self-consciously say “Oh, I guess I was too serious and artsy there. Have a gag!” and inserts Hyōtantsuki, the gourd pig thing, a reoccurring gag character.


2 thoughts on “The Brilliant Framing and Paneling of Tezuka Osamu

  1. May I borrow the 怒 example for my dissertation about novel expressive techniques using kanji? 🙂 (with full citation, of course.)

    Judging from the other samples, am I right in supposing that most kanji in this manga have furigana (and therefore the lack of them in the 怒 baloons is salient?)

    • @leoboiko: Yes, of course! 🙂 Yeah, despite having a lot of adult subject matter, Hi no tori was published in shonen magazines, so most kanji do have furigana. So not having any there further draws our attention.

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