Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fred Schodt: Astro Boy Forever!

Author, translator, and all around awesome guy Frederik L. Schodt strikes again with an article published in Breeze Issue #39 via the Japan Foundation Los Angeles that explains the virtues and historical significance of Astro Boy better than anyone else ever could.

Here's a small slice.

"Tezuka set his story in a Japan fifty years in the future, and filled scenes in his story with futuristic highways, flying cars, and skyscrapers, as well as robots and new-fangled inventions that few people at the time had imagined. To young fans in then-impoverished Tokyo , most of whom were probably ten or twelve year old boys, it was a hugely exciting world. But at the same time Tezuka was also careful to include both familiar and reassuring scenes. Among the futuristic skyscrapers he always drew some ramshackle old houses of traditional construction."
You can read the whole article here, and keep reading for more about a lecture delivered by Fred delivered this past summer. You can also access an archived version of the article by clicking the link below. Thanks again to Robert of The Sci-Fi Block for the tip!

I love the design of the little robot boy character known as Astro Boy. In my dreams I sometimes see him zooming through the clouds and over mountains, rockets firing from his feet, his right arm outstretched in front of him with fist clenched. Or I imagine him attending Ochanomizu elementary school in Tokyo with his human pals, wearing a Japanese school boy uniform and carrying a knapsack. My house is filled with Astro Boy-themed stationary, badges, action figures, towels, clocks, and other assorted gadgets. Needless to say, I am a big Astro Boy fan. But I may be different from others in that I am also fascinated by Astro Boy in ways that relate more to history than immediate entertainment.

Astro Boy is a message to us from the past. Most North Americans probably know him as the star of an old black and white animated TV series of the same name, syndicated by NBC Enterprises in 1963, or as the star of similarly-named series from 1980, 2003, or even the computer graphics feature film of 2009. But the Astro Boy story actually has far deeper roots, for it was first created by Japan 's late Osamu Tezuka as a manga (comic book) series, titled Tetsuwan Atomu , or “Mighty Atom,” in 1951-2. It was a long-running series that Tezuka regularly drew until around 1969, but he also occasionally turned out short episodes in the early 1970s. These stories are now collected and available in English translation as a series of twenty-three paperback volumes from Dark Horse Comics, and to read them is to see Astro Boy in a completely different light than he appears in the TV series or in the recent feature film.

Tezuka—who is known today in Japan as the manga no kamisama , or “God of Comics”—began creating his Astro Boy character for the manga series only six years after World War II. It was a bleak time. Japan was still occupied by Allied forces, bombed-out cities were still being reconstructed, and people were still scrambling to get enough to eat. Tezuka was only twenty-three or four, but he knew the children of defeated Japan needed something positive, something new, to help them look forward rather than back. Encouraged by his editors at Shonen magazine, he tried to give young readers hope and courage, while wrapping his story in a strong pro-peace framework.

Partly inspired, perhaps, by the 19th century Pinocchio story, Tezuka made Astro a ten or eleven year old boy-robot, created by a brilliant-but-unstable scientist named Dr. Tenma, who wanted a surrogate for his real son, Tobio (who had been killed in an auto accident). Astro is eventually disowned by Tenma because, as a robot, he fails to grow like a real human boy. Luckily, however, Astro is taken in by another scientist, Professor Ochanomizu, who—feeling sorry for him—creates an entire robot family for him of a robot father, mother, brother, and little sister. In Tezuka's story, Astro had been created with the cream of Japanese advanced technology, and he had many powers that —quite unlike American superheroes—were all based on pseudo-scientific principles. The most advanced robot of his era, he had rockets in his feet and hands, a computer brain, and searchlight eyes. At the same time, he was so intelligent and natural in his movements that he was fully capable of coexisting with humans and even acting as one. And he did so, enrolling in the fifth grade of the local elementary school. To the delight of young readers in Japan , Astro's parents (also robots) were not as intelligent or advanced as he was, with the result that they enrolled in the first grade of the same school.

Tezuka set his story in a Japan fifty years in the future, and filled scenes in his story with futuristic highways, flying cars, and skyscrapers, as well as robots and new-fangled inventions that few people at the time had imagined. To young fans in then-impoverished Tokyo , most of whom were probably ten or twelve year old boys, it was a hugely exciting world. But at the same time Tezuka was also careful to include both familiar and reassuring scenes. Among the futuristic skyscrapers he always drew some ramshackle old houses of traditional construction. Adult characters often wore Western style suits and ties, but Astro's school teacher occasionally swaggered about with traditional wooden geta clogs. And Astro's schoolmates dressed in the uniforms of the 1950s. At first, the exact time frame of the Astro Boy story was not entirely clear, but Tezuka eventually settled on April 7, 2003 for Astro's birthday (or creation day). This meant that—while drawing Astro Boy in the 1950s as fanciful science fiction for children—Tezuka was in fact creating a story set in our time, today. He gave us, in a sense, a time capsule of an alternative future.

Tezuka was a true intellectual, trained as a scientist (he later became a licensed physician), so even though he was drawing a story mainly for young boys, he had to keep himself entertained. For him, this meant exploring what now seem to be shockingly serious issues for children's fare. For example, Astro was a humanoid robot and had to coexist with humans, but in the story the humans were often prejudiced against robots. In manga episodes like “The Tragedy of Bailey,” Tezuka thus tackled subjects such as civil rights. “There are always people,” he once wrote, “who take offense at stories depicting discrimination in too real or raw a fashion, but making the victim of discrimination a robot rather than a human gives me a lot more freedom, and allows me to be far more provocative.” In other episodes, such as the 1953 episode “Red Cat,” he tackled (with a liberal paraphrasing of a famous 1903 work by novelist Doppo Kunikida) the problem of overdevelopment and its threat to the environment—long before most people had given much thought to pollution or even the finite nature of the earth. In the 1955 “Yellow Horse” episode, he explored drug and addiction issues. In 1967-69, in an episode called “The Angel of Vietnam,” he even dabbled in politics and the explored the morality of the Vietnam War. And in the 1956 story, “Robot Bombs,” he envisioned an issue that has taken on a special urgency for all of us today—suicide bombers.

Our world today does not exactly look like the world that Tezuka envisioned. We do not yet have flying cars, and we rarely see humanoid, intelligent robots. Yet we are surrounded by intelligent machines and systems, and whether they are computers, ATMs, or the amorphous web that we now daily surf, we interact with them nearly every day. And we are thus increasingly forced to confront many of the existential issues that Tezuka raised—not only about war and peace and pollution and nature—but about artificial intelligence, and the coexistence of man and machine. Loosely interpreted, Astro Boy sometimes seems quite prophetic.

There is a second reason that I find Tezuka's Astro Boy series fascinating, and it is independent of the content of either the manga or the animated series, and again more related to history. Astro Boy was not Tezuka's first manga work, and not the last, for he went on to create scores more. But it has become his most famous, and rightly so. There were comic books and cartoons in Japan before the war, but at the beginning of the fifties, with Astro Boy and other now-famous works such as Jungle Emperor (also known as Kimba the White Lion , 1951-54) and Princess Knight (1953-56), Tezuka laid the groundwork for a revolution in the medium. Following Tezuka's lead, more and more Japanese artists began to create longer, more visually-oriented and “cinematic” stories. In the process they elevated the comic book medium from a restricted format mainly enjoyed by children, to a medium of expression that in Japan today rivals film and novels and is also enjoyed by a broad swath of the adult population.

In 1963 Tezuka used money earned from drawing popular manga to create an animation studio, Mushi Productions. For the company's first commercial venture he decided to animate none other than his Astro Boy story for television, thus creating Japan's first domestically produced, weekly, thirty minute animated TV series. It was a feat that resulted in a huge swelling of national pride in Japan at the time. And it also created the template for today's gargantuan manga and anime industries, because the TV version of Astro Boy proved so popular that it spawned a huge merchandise industry, generating toys, stationary, and seemingly endless spin-offs. Executives from NBC Enterprises in the United States also noticed this, and eventually signed a contract with Tezuka and Mushi Productions. With the help of veteran animation producer, Fred Ladd, the series was then cleverly translated and localized for the American market, thus appearing on American television sets as the first weekly animated series from Japan . Later, it would also be broadcast in many other languages around the world, thrilling children everywhere with its originality. So the enormous popularity of Japanese manga and anime in the English-speaking world today can be directly traced back to Tezuka, and to Astro Boy .

Osamu Tezuka passed away in 1989, but long, long ago, he had a vision for both anime and manga that turned out to be correct. As he wrote in the foreword to my 1983 book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics , “My experience convinces me that comics, regardless of what language they are printed in, are an important form of expression that crosses all national and cultural boundaries, that comics are great fun, and that they can further peace and goodwill among nations.”

© 2009 Frederik L. Schodt

Frederik L. Schodt is a writer, translator, and interpreter who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the spring of 2009 the Japanese Emperor granted him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for his contributions to the promotion of Japanese popular culture in the United States . His latest book is The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution ( Berkeley : Stone Bridge Press, 2007).