Analyzing pop culture is not a job for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned, let me tell you. On a good day, friends and loved ones will express their amazement that you watch TV or read comic books for a living. On a bad day, however, those same people will hurl all manner of invective at you because, well, you watch TV or read comic books for a living. The importance of such things to the world at large can be a mighty hard sell. I mean, yes, we can say that Mickey Mouse cartoons represent groundbreaking achievements in filmmaking and the marriage of the themes of children’s fantasy literature to the surrealist aesthetic, but at the same time, we’re waxing philosophical about a castrato-voiced rat wearing big yellow shoes. Some days you’ve just gotta bite that bullet and press on.
I say this because I’m about to argue the cultural significance of a cartoon about a robot boy with machine-guns in his butt-cheeks.
Astro Boy New Adventures (shin Tetsuwan Atom) - Volume 1
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969
The last few years have been a boom for the Japanese animation industry as Americans have finally begun to embrace anime in unprecedented numbers. While overgrown kids my age may have fond memories of such early Japanese imports as Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and Battle of the Planets, such cartoons were never widely available—my wife, who grew up in Detroit, recalls her hopeless childhood crush on Racer X, but my Florida-bred self never saw an episode of Speed Racer until I was in my 20s.
Today, my own children are eager acolytes in the global Pokémon cult and one can find scads of merchandise for Dragonball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam at Wal-Mart. Moreover, the influence of anime on the current generation of American cartoonists has even penetrated Disney Studios, much of whose The Lion King was cribbed from Kimba and whose Atlantis: The Lost Empire was, in places, virtually indistinguishable from Nippon television product.
So it seems an opportune time for Manga Entertainment to haul out perhaps its biggest gun, 51 episodes of Shin Tetsuwan Atom, the second series, never before released in the U.S., starring Japan’s most iconographic superhero, Mighty Atom—or as he’s known in America, Astro Boy. You may not know him, but you’ve seen him: shiny black spiky head, black underwear, red boots. Astro Boy.
Created in 1952 as a comic-book by influential artist Osamu Tezuka—often called “the Walt Disney of Japan” or simply “the God of Manga”—the story of Astro Boy is at once a fable about a young boy (albeit a robot boy with nigh-unlimited destructive power) attempting to find himself and a cautionary tale about the right and wrong uses of technology.
Like most Japanese popular culture of the ‘50s, Tezuka’s story was born of the mixture of terror and awe that followed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but where Toho Studios reacted by embodying Nature’s vengeance in the nightmarish bulk of Godzilla, Tezuka’s aim was to show that there was a positive way to embrace the Atomic Age. Thus, although his creation is a robot who frequently does battle with missiles, tanks, and monsters, he is first and foremost a boy with a good and open heart, and therein lies his true power.
Tezuka’s vision was a wild success, and in 1963 became a long-running black-and-white cartoon series on Japanese TV. Though it was not the first anime, Tetsuwan Atom was the first to be internationally distributed, more or less establishing animation as both a viable industry and an art form in its own right in Japan, much as the adventures of Mickey Mouse and Superman did for American cartoons and comic books, respectively.
Despite his creation’s popularity, however, Tezuka was dissatisfied with certain differences between the animated version of Astro Boy and his original concept, as the cartoon focused primarily on action and superheroics, elements Tezuka felt were the least important aspects of his story. In 1980, he was approached to produce a new series, this time in color, and he jumped at the opportunity to include those more philosophical elements the earlier series had ignored. So, expect this release to be the subject of contention among anime purists—which series is the real Astro Boy?
The “new” adventures are set in the year 2030, against a backdrop of technological accomplishment and social upheaval, as new legislation has awarded equal rights to robots, splitting Earth’s human population into contentious camps. The Minister of Science and Technology (for what we may assume is Japan, though all names here are Western) is one Dr. Boynton, a robotics expert so obsessed with creating a human-like battle robot that he ignores his son Toby, even when Toby suggests the answer to Boynton’s repeated failure, creating a smaller boy-robot. About a minute into the first episode Toby is killed in a hovercar accident, driving the half-mad Boynton to fashion his new prototype into Toby’s likeness and program it with his son’s personality.
This creates much dismay among Boynton’s colleagues, who believe that a living weapon with titanic strength, supersonic flight capability, lasers in his fingers, and yes, twin machine-guns that telescope from his butt probably shouldn’t be guided by an 8-year-old’s questionable impulse control. Nonetheless, Boynton insists and is dismissed from his post. He and robo-Toby go away together, but it is not long before the volatile perfectionist Boynton loses his patience with his surrogate son’s inability to pass for human and rejects him. Heartbroken, Toby falls in with the cruel owner of a robot circus, but is rescued by the new Minister of Technology, Dr. Packadermus J. Elephun (yes, his nose is enormous), who becomes Toby’s new father-figure and renames him Astro. Further adventures follow Astro as he enrolls in school and attempts to break through the anti-robot prejudices of his classmates, falls in love, and continues to walk that tightrope between his function as a piece of ordnance and his real-boy programming—hardware versus software.
The beauty of Tezuka’s story is that is resonates all over the place—it’s basically a science-fiction retelling of Pinocchio, complete with a Geppetto and a Stromboli, but with an anti-bigotry message that surprises because it is a running theme rather than an issue-of-the-week. And while other attempts to handle this theme—Spielberg’s A.I. springs to mind—seem unable to do it with less than the heaviest of hands, Astro Boy keeps the level of whimsy high and piles on the superheroics at just the right time (when you hear the opening tone of a synth leading into the show’s annoyingly catchy theme song, you know it’s time for Astro to kick butt).
There are a few moments, however, that may prove disturbing, especially for kids. The death of Toby Boynton is the first of many tragedies here, and few punches are pulled: I watched the first volume with my children and had a rough time explaining the ill fate of Astro’s first love, a prototype little-girl robot built to be a walking bomb, to my 5-year-old daughter. Still, I’d much rather explain the sad parts than have them edited out.
With America’s growing (and long overdue) acceptance of animation as an art form for adults, the release of Astro Boy New Adventures in the United States is a significant event, and while the exploits of the shiny little punk may lack the hyperthyroid violence of Dragonball Z or the insidious marketability of Pokémon, they have the inestimable virtues of history and heart. For good or ill, we’re all anime fans now, primed for the good stuff, and this is some of the best.