Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Astro Boy is still flying high after 57 years of fighting crime with technology
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Astro Boy is still flying high after 57 years of fighting crime with technology

tetsuwan_atomu_1_21Astro Boy,” the new American computer-animated version of the Japanese comic and cartoon that launched the revolution we now call anime, opens today.

I’m more than a little nervous about seeing the movie, since it may not resemble the Japanese cartoon I grew up with, and because Hollywood really screwed up “Speed Racer” when they decided to turn that classic anime into a big live-action spectacle.

(The following text is a re-worked version of a pre-blog Nikkei View column I wrote back in 2003.)

Astro Boy, called “Tetsuwan Atomu” in Japan, was originally introduced in 1952, as a manga, or comic book character, and later turned into an animated television series. Created by the pioneering Japanese comic and anime (animation) artist Osamu Tezuka, his name stands for “The Mighty Atom,” an image still vivid in the minds of millions of Japanese who had lived through the end of World War II just seven years before, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The cartoon character is best-known in the US for the English-dubbed versions of the “Astro Boy” series that first aired in 1963 and then was re-launched with a new series in 1982 and resurrected in a computer-animated film opening today, featuring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy and Samuel L. Jackson.

The story line is a spin on Pinocchio and superhero comics, mixed with a dose of Steven Spielberg’s film “A.I.” (actually “A.I.” borrows more than a dose from Astro Boy). When the kindhearted Dr. Boynton’s (Professor Tenna in the Japanese original) son is killed in a car accident, he invents an atomic-powered robotic replacement only to discover that there’s no way that the android can truly be human. The mechanical boy was born on April 7, 2003 — the far future — in the original manga.

The grieving father sells the robot to a circus that forces androids to fight each other for the entertainment of spectators. But Astro Boy is rescued by Dr. Elefun (Professor Ochanomizu, or “tea-water,” in Japan), an android-rights activist, who cares for the diminutive robot and sends him out in the world to fight crime.

The concept was revolutionary, considering that Tezuka came up with the idea in the early 1950s, when the space program was still a gleam in a handful of US scientists’ eyes, and computers still filled entire rooms to calculate equations that a palm-sized unit can handle in a flash today.

The acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick didn’t raise the question of the humanity of robots until 1968 in his novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (which was turned into the moody 198x movie, “Bladerunner”), and Spielberg didn’t make his movie about an android child’s search for his humanity until 2001.

But half a century earlier, a comic book artist was wondering whether machines can generate innate human-ness.

Astro Boy wasn’t Tezuka’s only triumph, but it was certainly his masterpiece as a work of world culture.

Osamu Tezuka, inventor of Astro Boy and modern animeOsamu Tezuka is acknowledged as the “father of manga,” the vibrant Japanese artform of pulp comic novels. These aren’t like typical monthly American comic books, which are paltry slim magazines compared to the dozens of book-length plotlines read avidly by Japanese men, women and children every week. Japanese manga come in all varieties including ones with adult themes of sex and violence. This breadth of appeal also applies to anime, the equally popular industry of animated films and TV shows consumed by Japanese and increasingly, people throughout the world.

Born in 1928 in Osaka, Tezuka grew up a fan of Walt Disney’s animated features. He reportedly saw “Snow White” 80 times, studying every moment panel-by-panel and marveling at the creativity of the Disney studio. After World War II, he was on the path of becoming a doctor when he began drawing a four-panel comic strip in a local newspaper, which led to drawing serialized storylines for book-length manga magazines. His titles such as “New Treasure Island”, “Lost World” and “Next World” were so popular they sold an unprecedented 400,000 copies each, and made him a superstar in Japan. He still earned his doctor’s license but he never practiced medicine.

Instead, he kept creating mangas that struck the imagination of his Japanese audience – Kimba the White Lion was another cartoon series that was translated and shown on US television, and later copied by the very studio Tezuka had admired in his youth, Disney, for “The Lion King” – and he also turned his attention to the equally rigorous world of anime, bringing many of his most popular characters to life. When “Tetsuwan Atomu” premiered in 1963, it was the first-ever animated series on Japanese television.

I vividly recall watching the original “Tetsuwan Atomu” series on TV in Japan. They were drawn in black and white, but the excitement and action jumped off the screen and kept me enthralled. When my family moved to the states in 1966, I was surprised and pleased to be able to continue watching the cartoon, this time dubbed into English as “Astro Boy.”

The American version even used the same theme song, but with kids singing the words in English. (Its interesting to note that the trailer for the new movie shows scenes that are copies of scenes from the original opening sequence, below.)

I liked the Astro Boy character so much, with its large, watery manga eyes and double-pointed head (which Tezuka claimed was based on his own hair when he got up in the morning), that even now I have a small Astro Boy charm hanging off my car’s rear-view mirror. No fuzzy dice or Christmas tree-shaped air fresheners for me!

The impact of Tezuka’s work, and Astro Boy in particular, as pop culture ambassadors of the Japanese way of looking at and expressing their world, still reverberates today. Japanese animation would not be as advanced and intellectually far-reaching if it weren’t for Tezuka’s groundbreaking work, I doubt that Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning creator of “Spirited Away” and the earlier “Princess Mononoke,” would have the career that he has, both in Japan and internationally.

When Osamu Tezuka died on Feb. 9, 1989, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper explained, “Foreign visitors to Japan often find it difficult to understand why Japanese people like comics so much. For example they often reportedly find it odd to see grown men and women engrossed in weekly comic magazine on the trains during commute hours. One explanation for the popularity of comics in Japan, however, is that Japan had Tezuka Osamu, whereas other nations did not. Without Dr. Tezuka, the postwar explosion in comics in Japan would have been inconceivable.”

And without Astro Boy, today’s explosion in anime would be equally inconceivable.