go, Go, GO, Astro Boy! (1)

projectatom

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Part 1:

As noted in the previous post, Astro Boy is a conscious robot, nuclear-powered, with synthetic skin, giving him the appearance of a twelve-year-old boy, and plastic hair that sticks out like horns from the top and the left of his head. He has lasers in his fingertips, rockets in his limbs, blasters in his arms, a super-computer for a brain, ‘100,000 horsepower’ strength, extremely sensitive hearing, spotlights in his eyes, and two 50 caliber machine guns in his buttocks.

Astro Boy was invented by Dr. Tenma, then Minister of Science, to replace his own son, Tobio, who had died in a car accident. (In later versions of the story, Tobio was rebelling against his father at the time.) However, Tenma eventually discovered that, although designed to look like a boy, Astro could not physically grow up. (Also, being a powerful robot of recent invention, he had not yet mastered command of his own powers, and so was breaking things in public, much to Tenma’s embarrassment.) All of this led Tenma to a moment of clarity, discovering that his robot was just really a robot, and not a boy, and so could not be his son. Furious (with himself, but projecting it on Astro), he sold the robot to a sadistic circus ring-leader, and in the process of having to deal with the other robots in the circus, Astro at last began to control his powers while at the same time developing a conscience.

Fortunately for Astro, a kindly professor of robotics, Dr. Ochanomizu, took interest in his plight, and after the passage of the Robot law, liberating robots from their condition of slavery into independent agency invested with the rights of citizens, Ochanomizu took Astro under his wing to help him develop his conscience and his capacity for learning.

There’s the basic grounding of the Astro Boy narrative. In one sense, it tells us almost everything, in another, it tells us, well, not very much.

It tells us everything, because contained in Astro’s origin story are most of the themes that the further adventures of our hero will depict, discuss – even, one might say, ruminate over. The difficult relations between humans and robots; the moral corruption and cruelty of which humans are capable; the problem of discrimination and the hope for liberation; the notion that conscious requires both learning and conscience, the one to acquire knowledge, the other to acquire insight and judgment.

On the other hand, the origin story tells us very little, because there is no indication in the bare plot, how we are to take all this – is it humor? drama? action-adventure? – perhaps a blend of all these.

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Astro Boy was first designed in prototype in 1951 as Ambassador Atom, a supporting character in a tale about inter-planetary politics. This didn’t make all that big of a splash, but an editor at Shonen magazine, a manga magazine for boys, recognized the potential in the character and encouraged the author, Osamu Tezuka, to begin a series with Astro as the leading character. This began publication in Japan in April, 1952.

The series became a manga sensation over night, and by the mid-50s had inspired a live-action television show (very low budget, from what I can tell from the trailer for it I’ve seen). Then in 1962, Tezuka himself developed an animated cartoon series for television – writing, drawing, even participating in the animation with his staff of six (some of whom went on to become notable figures in the anime industry). Due to budget constraints, the series uses what is known as ‘limited animation’ with stock backgrounds, stock shots, very limited figure movement, etc. But I admit this actually increases the charm of the series for me; it has a quirky surrealistically mechanical aura in many of the visuals.

It should be noted that animation had been a fascination for Tezuka long before he initiated this series. His father owning a movie projector, Tezuka was, from quite an early age, fascinated with American animated films, primarily those by Walt Disney, although the main influence discernible in the Astro Boy series is that of the Fleischer Brothers. The Astro Boy series could not duplicate the slickness or gloss of the better-budgeted American animated television shows or films of the time, but it does evidence a sophisticated humor and a visual inventiveness well in advance of them.  (It should be noted that Tezuka’s manga were also always in advance of work being done in American comics of the same era.)

The series was quite successful in Japan, and became the first foreign animation series to achieve any popularity in the United States, through syndication by NBC (with translations and slight, culturally informed re-editings by Fred Ladd).

However, Tezuka, although a complete workaholic, appears to have been rather restless intellectually, his mind leaping from idea to idea until the idea had played itself out, then moving on to other ideas. So at the end of the series, he simply killed off the character by flying him off into the sun (taking a world-destructive bomb with him, thus saving the earth).

Fans were outraged. of course. So Tezuka, still engaged in the manga serializations of the Astro Boy saga, came up with manga story arc about how Astro was saved by aliens – well, it’s actually a fascinating story arc, concerning, along the way, problems with social class, the possibility of intelligence evolving in insects on other planets, time loops, and the Vietnam War. It goes on for about 600 pages, and gets quite complicated, so I can only mention it here.

The point is that, like any good robot, Astro Boy simply could not die. After developing a remake of the original series for television in 1980 (with which he had little to do, beyond supplying stories and designs), Tezuka himself effectively retired the character. But fans would not let him go.

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What is there about Astro Boy that appeals to any audience? I put the question that way, because his appeal can be discovered across wide demographics in Japan, and he has developed a cult following in many other nations as well. More importantly, he is the object of deep and positive nostalgia to the point where, by the time Tezuka effectively stopped producing more episodes in the serial, he had readers who had been following him for years, well into their adulthood. Even today, adults speak of their memories of the manga, and of the animation series, in glowing terms.

Astro Boy was originally designed for Japanese males in their early teens – hence his physical appearance as a twelve-year old boy.  The aesthetic psychology at work here is fairly plain. Astro looked like many of the members of his audience, but without physical blemish. However, he still represented the sense of alienation that young people often feel when entering the ‘awkward years’ of early puberty – he looked human, but he was ‘different’ – he was a robot.

Nonetheless, there were compensations for this alienation – he was extremely smart, had amazing powers, and always demonstrated a conscience superior to many of the adult humans around him. So he wasn’t just different, but his difference marked him as superior. Fortunately for the world, he had no vanity, so never exhibited smug satisfaction with himself. On the contrary, he was always trying to find his way through the world, trying to be both robot and boy in a world where many could accept him as neither.

So there’s the initial hook for his young audience, the process of identifying with a like, though superior (in some way) hero.

But that’s not the case for adults, is it? well, certainly many of us still secretly long for our childhood after all.

But I think the appeal runs deeper. For one thing, there are those big innocent eyes of his, staring out in wonder at the brave new world of the future. He can express a number of emotions, even negative ones, but the two primary expressions we see in his face (certainly the most memorable) are a fierce determination when in action, and a winning, unambiguous smile – unambiguous because there is not the slightest hint of duplicity or of pretension in it. So Astro Boy is all of a piece – he never seems temperamental or given over to deep doubt, he never holds a grudge or engages in hidden agendas. He says what he means (and frequently takes what humans say all too literally). He is the exemplar of what one might call ‘sophisticated innocence’ – almost a youthful version of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ now capable of theorizing physics while discussing ethics. ‘Almost,’ because he is still learning. And despite all the action in his adventures, learning is actually his central pr-occupation. Although never appearing pretentiously curious, he nevertheless recurrently questions every new phenomenon he encounters. And of course he is always willing to help others, frequently at the risk of his own existence: he’s a true hero. In many ways an ideal human being.

Except – he’s a robot. And that makes all the difference.

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My primary source has been:  The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution; Frederik Schodt; Stone Bridge Press; 2007.

IMDB site, first TV series (1963): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056739/?ref_=fn_al_tt_4.

Primary Wikipedia article:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astro_Boy_%28character%29

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