Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Expanding Universe of Astro Boy

The Daily Yomuri brings us a great article about how Astro Boy is evolving in the Japanese marketplace with new versions, including the previously reported "Lard Ass-tro Boy" and other interpretations. The upcoming animated movie also gets a brief mention.

Do new versions of classic characters really help? Judging by what they say in this article and others like it, Tezuka Productions doesn't seem to mind. They feel it's a way to keep characters like Astro Boy in the public consciousness. But they also admit that long time fans complain about it. Is it really worth ostracizing the loyal followers?

Judge for yourself! Read "THROUGH OTAKU EYES / The expanding universe of Astro Boy" on The Daily Yomuri Online webpage or click the link below for the locally saved copy.

THROUGH OTAKU EYES / The expanding universe of Astro Boy

Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

"Atom-kun," SoftBank's new cell phone, may prove a bit of a shock for long-time fans of Astro Boy, as the character on it looks nothing like the original artist's Mighty Atom.

Osamu Tezuka's character has been reenvisioned by popular illustrator Lily Franky with a big belly, thick lips and tiny eyes. While Astro Boy is known for having "Juman-bariki" (100,000 horsepower), Atom-kun looks run-down and laid-back.

But Atom-kun has been authorized by Tezuka Production Co. In fact, it was the company that asked Franky to make the new version of Astro Boy. "We are aware Lily is paying his respects to Mr. Tezuka. We asked him to create Astro Boy in his own style," said Yoshihiro Shimizu, the head of the copyright and operation division.

Yawaraka Sensha (fragile tank) creator Rareko has released to the Web Yawaraka Atom, a merging of the Web animator's series with the anime classic. The anime, which can be seen by clicking on atom/, is another example of the characters being restyled in completely new ways. "Sure, we get complaints from old Tezuka fans," Shimizu says.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tezuka's death. A decade ago, Shimizu began introducing new products based on Tezuka's creation under what he has dubbed the "avocali system," whose name is an amalgamation of avocado and California Roll.

"For Edo-style sushi to take off internationally, chefs had to incorporate local foods [such as avocado]," Shimizu says. "In the same sense, we felt the best way to disseminate Osamu Tezuka's DNA was to have artists from around the world 'cook' his characters--even if it meant changing their look."

The theory behind this is that it is better for the life of the character to allow popular young designers to make "secondary creations."

Pluto, a manga by Naoki Urasawa based on Tezuka's Astro Boy, is one such outlet.

In a more daring project, Tezuka Production allowed the public to create animations, manga and other fan fiction works, such as those found at Comic Market, by using all of Tezuka's characters at Open Post. On the site, launched by groups including the Association of Japanese Animations, under the direction of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, works were posted and discussed interactively by creators, users and others. The project ran for five months, ending in March.

Shimizu says his firm is ready to work with any particularly talented artists it might find.

Not to be outdone, the global film industry is having its own go at the character, which has a healthy following overseas. Hong Kong's Imagi Animation Studios has a CGI version of Astro Boy slated to hit theaters in 2009, with Freddie Highmore voicing the main character, according to

Thanks to this strategy, which can be compared to the open source system used in the software world, there has been a rise in revenue from Astro Boy licensing in recent years. The large-mindedness of the production company, in which model changes and parodies are welcomed, may open new possibilities in the character business, distinguishing it from the example set by the Walt Disney Co., for example.

But doesn't that lead to the loss of the original Astro Boy's identity? "Shakespeare's Hamlet is ultimately the same no matter how it is presented, isn't it?" Shimizu rebuts.