Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Heart of Japanese Animation Beats in a Robot Boy

To continue with our birthday theme this week, here is an excellent article written back in 2003 about the April 7th birthday celebration. It covers both the details of the celebration itself and how Astro Boy has become an important figure for animation, science, and society in Japan. Definitely worth reading for all Astro-fans.

You can read it on the New York Time's website or click the link below to continue reading right here.

Tokyo Journal; Heart of Japanese Animation Beats in a Robot Boy

Published: April 7, 2003

Back in 1951, Osamu Tezuka, a Japanese cartoonist, dreamed up Astro Boy, a lovable robot with laser fingertips, searchlight eyes, machine guns in his black shorts, and rocket jets flaming from his red boots.

To make the 100,000-horsepower tyke seem really futuristic, the artist gave his creation a truly far-out birth date: April 7, 2003.

Tokyo may not yet have flying cars, but Astro Boy's official birthday on Monday marks the coming of age of Japan's animation industry. No longer marginalized, the bare-chested rocket boy with the spiky hair, known in Japanese as Tetsuwan Atomu, is being hailed with fireworks, costume parades, intellectual seminars, an exhibit in Parliament and a $1 million diamond-and ruby-encrusted likeness in a downtown department store display.

"We Japanese want to live alongside robots, that is why we love Astro Boy," said Takao Imai, a 72-year-old lawyer, dressed in a white smock and a white wig of cotton curls to look like Professor Elefun, Astro Boy's eccentric scientist protector.

Carrying a white cotton Astro Boy birthday cake, Mr. Imai was preparing to parade with his 5-year-old grandson Akinojo Ogura, who had just wowed a preparade rally with a spirited rendition of the Astro Boy song.

Moriyoshi Yoshizawa, a parade organizer, agreed, saying: ''Japanese people imagine a world where robots live with people. That idea comes from Astro Boy.''

The celebration, outside the Takadanobaba rail station today, was partly a neighborhood event. It was here on April 7, 2003, that Astro Boy, the robot with the kind heart, was created in a fictitious laboratory, according to the plot line written half a century ago.

But it was also partly a promotion. Today, Fuji Television Network broadcast the first segment of a new 50-part Astro Boy series that is to travel to the United States later this year. With this export in the offing, Astro Boy will contribute to what one essayist recently called Japan's ''gross national cool.''

During the 1990's, Japan became synonymous with economic stagnation. But, at the same time, it also became a cultural exporting powerhouse. Two weeks ago, in the latest example, Hayao Miyazaki's ''Spirited Away'' won the Oscar for best animated feature film. With this boost, the film has burst out of the art-house circuit and is now showing at 800 movie theaters across North America.

American television is now broadcasting almost 20 shows of anime, as Japan's sophisticated cartoons are called. Sales of anime videocassettes and DVD's are expected to reach about $500 million this year, according to Tokyopop, which sells Japanese comic books.

Hollywood is interested in remaking Japanese live-action movies. Last year, ''The Ring,'' an American horror movie based on a Japanese film of the same title, drew $127 million in North American box office revenues. An American remake is in the works of ''Shall We Dance?,'' a hugely successful romantic comedy about a quiet salaryman who finds love and a new meaning to life through ballroom dancing.

Separately, the top two children's trading card games in the United States are Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon, both made by Japanese companies. In November, Shonen Jump, one of Japan's most popular ''manga'' or comic books, went on sale, in English, in the United States.

Jun Saito, who took a leave of absence last summer from a Yale graduate school program to run for Parliament here -- and won -- said, ''The Yale students I ran into that were interested in learning Japanese were attracted not by business, but by manga and anime.''

Americans, Canadians and Australians all came out today for the Astro Boy parade.

"Astro Boy, and anime, are different from the typical American cartoon fare," said Dario Feltracco, a 32-year-old English conversation teacher from Ontario. "Astro Boy has characters, serious themes."

Stephen Haley, a 41-year-old Australian artist living in Takadanobaba, said: "Animation is stunning visually. Before, the Japanese never looked very seriously at the export market."

While Hollywood is often accused of exporting violence, Astro Boy spreads the message of peace. In the original series, he fought for justice, peace and for harmony between robots and humans.

"Astro Boy is the only one who can make peace between the two sides," said Marc Handler, the American editor of the new series. "The generals can't solve the problem, the politicians can't solve it, the adults can't. It takes the pure heart of the child."

In Japan, producers hope their new Astro Boy will once again capture the national moment.

"In 1951, there were still ruins in Japan," said Yoshihiro Shimuzu, general manager of the Tezuka Production Company, creators of Astro Boy. "People made efforts to create a bright future and better Japan. Astro Boy became the symbol of their dream."

Now, he continued, ''people have become tired of materialism, and Astro Boy is a robot with a heart.''

"Once again, the vector of Astro Boy matches with that of the people," he concluded.

"At this time of economic depression, people are seeking positive feelings."