Astro Boy

Tagged: Film | TV

1. Japanese animated tv series (1963-1966; vt Mighty Atom; Astroboy). Original title Tetsuwan Atomu. Based on the Manga by Osamu Tezuka. Directed by Osamu Tezuka. Writers include Osamu Tezuka, Noriyuki Honma, Masaki Tsuji, Kenichi Takahashi and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Voice cast includes Hisashi Katsuta, Yoko Mizugaki, Reiko Mutou, Mari Shimizu, Kazue Tagami and Hisashi Yokomori. 193 25-minute episodes. Black and white.

It is the year 2000 and a boy, Tobio, dies in a road accident. His father Dr. Tenma (Yokomori), head of the Ministry of Science, is maddened with grief and orders the Ministry's Scientists to build a Robot that looks like his son, naming him Astro Boy (Shimizu/Tagami): Beethoven's Fifth plays as Dr Tenma brings him to life. Astro Boy has many Superpowers, most notably rocket feet and great strength.

As the years pass, his father becomes upset over Astro Boy's lack of growth: after berating him for being only a machine he sells him to the circus, where he reluctantly fights other robots. Somewhat belatedly, the clearly unstable Dr Tenma is forced to retire and, following the passing of the Robot Bill of Rights, the sympathetic new head of the Ministry, Professor Ochanomizu (Katsuta), is able to rescue Astro Boy. Because he was traumatized by Dr Tenma's words and is distressed by not having a mother, the Professor makes robot parents for Astro Boy, and later a sister, Uran (Mizugaki/Mutou).

Though some of Astro Boy's adventures are routine, featuring gangsters and rampaging robots, many engage with more interesting sf ideas: Astro Boy leading the second expedition to Mars, where he fights invading Aliens; visiting a Parallel World where Tobio never died; Cyborg dogs fitted with electronic brains; a man learning he is a robot; a scientist fighting the human race's destruction of the environment (see Ecology; Pollution); Astro Boy being shrunk (see Miniaturization) and entering the body of a stricken astronaut; aliens forcing representatives of two worlds to fight, the losers' planet to be destroyed; a Mad Scientist unwisely creates one million mammoth snails; a twenty-third-century time traveller (see Time Travel) kidnaps and exhibits apemen – Astro Boy stops him but befriends his daughter, who points out that, as a robot, he will likely still be around in the twenty-third century, and invites him to visit her then.

Many stories feature conflict between robots and humans: the former are second-class Earth citizens (for instance, only one robot police officer has the authority to arrest people), having to suffer institutionalized and public bigotry (see Race in SF; Slavery). In the episode "Cape Town Lullaby", a man incites attacks on robots, believing they murdered his mother; he is unaware that she was a robot killed by humans.

The character designs, aside from Astro Boy himself, tend to the exaggerated and goofy; unsurprisingly the very limited animation style is restrictive, but some scenes, particularly the more stylized, can be effective. An obvious influence is Pinocchio (1940): more than anything, Astro Boy wants to be seen as a real boy. He is upset when he feels he lacks a human quality, such as a sense of fear. One villain remarks that Astro Boy cannot be considered human since he is incapable of evil.

Astro Boy is of immense importance to animation history: it is arguably the first Anime series and the first to be shown in the USA, though substantially laundered to keep it compliant with NBC's standards and practices. The show's tone leant more towards Walt Disney than 1960s US Television cartoons, whilst also attempting to convey – relatively speaking – greater emotional realism and explore moral issues. Some of the visual Humour recalls the whacky surrealism of early animation, though the more frequent slapstick humour is less successful. At times it can be surprisingly sombre: aside from Astro Boy's treatment by his father, we are played the final recording of a marooned astronaut, hearing her dying breath.

This was not the first attempt to put Astro Boy on television: there had been a live-action Japanese show, Testuwan Atomu (1959-1960) which ran for 65 episodes. Three of the episodes from the animated series were made into a film, Tetsuwan Atom: Uchuu no Yuusha (1964). Later productions, all animated, comprise the television series Astro Boy (1980-1981) with 52 episodes; Astro Boy (2003-2004) with 50 episodes; and, for preschoolers, Little Astro Boy (2014) with eight episodes. A further film is Astro Boy (2009): see 2 below. [SP]

2. Film (2009 Hong Kong). Imagi Animation Studios/Tezuka Production Company. Directed by David Bowers. Written by Timothy Harris. Cast includes Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Freddie Highmore, Bill Nighy and Donald Sutherland. 94 minutes. Colour.

Starrily voiced, Hong Kong-made reboot for global audiences of Osama Tezuka's most famous creation, the boy Robot created to substitute for a scientist's dead son, equipped with jet-shooting extremities and weaponized buttocks. This version of the origin story ramps up the father-son issues by having the flesh-and-blood Toby accidentally vaporized in one of his Scientist father's experiments (rather than killed in an unrelated accident); the robot version is created from the same Technology in a passion of guilt, but rejected and thrown out of the sky-City to survive on the junkyard surface below with other rejects, with whose help (and copious invocation of the Laws of Robotics) he defeats the city's autocratic ruler and wins his father's acceptance. The film bends a heavily Christlike redemptive arc around a maudlin narrative of parental guilt and rejection, which might convince more if it found any place at all for the concept of mothers. [NL]

see also: Steamboy.

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