Judge Mike Pinsky would never let his robot child run around without a shirt on in this kind of weather.
Our reviews of Astro Boy (2009) (published March 8th, 2010), Astro Boy (2003), Volume 1 (published September 28th, 2009), and Astro Boy (2003): The Complete Series (published April 21st, 2005) are also available.
"Stronger than all the rest! This mighty robot will pass the test!"—Theme Song (English Version)
The thing I always notice first about Astro Boy is his hair. That impossible hair. It points up in the front and the back, always at the same angles, no matter which way he turns his head. Sort of like Mickey Mouse's miraculous ears. In fact, like Mickey, Astro Boy also frequently wears pants, but no shirt. So there it is: Astro Boy is Mickey Mouse. With super powers.
It probably is not too far from the truth. Much has been made about how Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy, was inspired by Walt Disney. But as an artist, Tezuka quickly stepped out on his own. The influence of Tezuka on Japanese popular culture cannot be measured. He created comics for children (Jungle Emperor, Astro Boy), comics for adults (Black Jack, Adolf), spiritual epics (his broad-ranging Phoenix series), experimental short films, television series and movies—upwards of 500 different projects numbering tens of thousands of pages. No artist has ever been so wide-ranging in twentieth century popular culture, Japanese or otherwise. Tezuka did it all.
But Tezuka will always be remembered most for Astro Boy. In Japan, he is known as "Tetsuwan Atom," or Mighty Atom. His adventures began in comic form in 1952, and Tezuka brought him to the television screen a decade later. Over the course of 193 episodes, Astro Boy gained international fame. But Tezuka was never entirely happy with the show. In translating his manga for television audiences, the producers of the original television series shifted away from Tezuka's idealism, the philosophical underpinnings of his work, in favor of straight-up adventure tales. Two decades later, Tezuka wanted to try again.
Shin Tetsuwan Atom ("New Mighty Atom") premiered in 1980, with the same actress (Mari Shimizu) playing the lead role (Hisashi Katsuda also returned as Astro's mentor Dr. Ochanomizu, or "Dr. Elefun" in the English version). While the show only ran 52 episodes, it stayed closer to Tezuka's intentions: action and adventure tempered with a humanitarian ideal to "love everything that has life."
The premise is deceptively simple. In 2030, the future is a shiny, happy place. Hover cars whir through the streets. The Ministry of Science makes our lives better. Dr. Tenma tries to recreate his dead son Toby in the form of a boy robot. But the boy robot is a klutz, and his creator rejects him. Depressed, the poor child signs up for the circus. (Yes, the Pinocchio comparisons are obvious.) Later, Dr. Ochanomizu takes custody of the newly dubbed Astro Boy. Astro is sent to a school run by the supportive Daddy Mustache, where the kids teach him soccer and how to flush the toilet. Dr. Ochanomizu builds Astro robot parents (and later a precocious sister Uran). But robot racism is everywhere, and Astro must prove his good intentions time and again by helping the defenseless and shooting bad guys with his butt cannon.
Marked by simple character designs and cheery colors, the 80s incarnation of Astro Boy makes no apologies for being a throwback to an earlier era. Imagine if Walt Disney walked into his old studio tomorrow and announced that he wanted to make an old school Donald Duck cartoon. Wall Street might laugh, but how many veteran animators would line up just to work with their idol? The synth-heavy disco score sounds odd, and those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Tezuka's work may find the character designs very cartoony compared to newer anime styles. But the loving approach of Tezuka and his crew are evident in every frame of the series. Because of Tezuka's stature (and the fact that he had greater creative control and could command a higher budget), the fluidity of the animation is comparable to many of today's anime kid shows. Where most 80s anime shows look very dated now, with their low frame rates and cut-rate art design, Astro Boy might have been made yesterday. Few television shows really qualify as "timeless," in spite of how much that word is thrown about. Astro Boy passes the test.
While Astro Boy has what the Japanese dialogue occasionally calls "7 super powers" (including rocket feet, laser fingers, and a cannon mounted in his butt), his most noticeable trait is his ability to make his enormous eyes cover a range of expressions from friendly-cute to pouty-cute to angry-cute. He might be able to defeat any villain around, but he cannot seem to appear more threatening than a stuffed bunny rabbit. I suppose this is a good thing for a kid show though.
There may be happy moral lesson to be learned in many episodes (especially about tolerance), but Astro Boy does not skimp on the action. The two part "The Greatest Robot in the World" features a tag-team battle with a host of interesting super-robots who might all deserve regular appearances. But Tezuka has such a surplus of ideas that he can discard all these interesting characters when he is through with their fight. It is remarkable that in 51 episodes, the show never recycles—and often crams a dizzying amount of plot into each half hour. For example, in one tale ("Astro Fights Aliens"), Astro is tapped as captain of a Mars mission, but he meets with prejudice from the crew. He fights a mutiny by Lt. Ketchup (changed to Blackstone in the English version), then he beats back an alien invasion. Other kid shows would focus on the idea of Astro being accepted by the crew. But Tezuka does not overplay the prejudice theme, since it runs throughout the series. Instead, the action appears to take center stage (although the moral lesson is worked in as a plot point organic to the story). The aliens are not misunderstood, and sweet little Astro has no qualms about wiping them out.
Astro is not infallible though, in spite of the slightly messianic tones of the theme song (he is "brave and gentle and wise" in the English version; outright "righteous" in the Japanese). People are killed all the time. Lt. Ketchup sacrifices his life to destroy the alien mothership. In another episode, Astro is brutally shot in the chest by a villain working with persistent corpse-skinned criminal Skunk. Astro's frequent nemesis, the evil robot Atlas, has designs on conquering the human race. And consider that, while the show reminds us over and over that robots are sentient, have civil rights, and should be treated as people, Astro himself spends a lot of time beating up and even destroying bad robots.
The result is a show that might be hard to pin down in terms of its audience, at least for American viewers. The idea of a little boy robot might appeal to small children. But the show is too violent for them. And adults may find the retro design a little strange. Like much of Tezuka's work, Astro Boy combines the cutesy and the complex, the cheerful and the solemn, in equal measure.
Manga Video has released the entire Shin Tetsuwan Atom series in an 8-disc collector's set. While the episodes are placed in their Japanese running order (a list in the booklet gives running order for both English and Japanese broadcasts), this is the English-dubbed version with only 51 episodes. The first appearance of the nefarious Atlas (the second episode of the series) is inexplicably missing, which makes his appearance in episode 4 quite puzzling to first time viewers (and the flashbacks do not help much). The prints are in fine shape, but there is no reason for them not to be, considering Tezuka's reputation.
Extras on the set are modest. We get 7 minutes of deleted scenes, including a musical number with sister Uran and Osamu Tezuka himself in a live action segment introducing the series' final episode ("Astro's First Love"). There is a short side-by-side restoration comparison to show how bright the colors are on this DVD release. We also get several art galleries: storyboards for the opening credits, character designs, and a cover gallery. The collectable booklet includes plenty of background information on Tezuka's career.
While the 1963 version of Astro Boy is well known internationally, and the 2003 incarnation was an unexpected flop (the W.B. network canned it after only a few episodes), American fans of Tezuka's work will find the 1980 take on Astro Boy a nice balance of nostalgia and new technology. It is not as dated as the 60s version, and it does not suffer from Tezuka's absence like the most recent version. It is not the most memorable or profound anime you will see this year, and the kids may find it a little puzzling at first. But the 1980 Astro Boy series may be the closest one to Osamu Tezuka's true vision for the character. As the closing theme tells us, little Astro will be "sharing dreams and bringing joy for all" for many years to come.
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