I was around 9 when I first watched the first 10 episodes of Astro Boy on VHS. I had no idea at the moment that it was the 80’s remake of an older show, which in turn was actually a legend in the field as it revolutionized how anime look and feel decades before we had the internet to hype everything with little effort. And here I am some decades later myself, making a small essay on the damn thing. So there is no better place to start than the very beginning. Here comes a history lesson and I hope it will be more interesting that those you have to endure in school.
TIME TRAVEL MODE!
You may have heard from time to time about a series that begat a whole new genre, such as Tetsujin-28 being the first mecha series that began the trend. Other times you may have heard about a series that defined a whole generation, such as Dragonball Z being the most renowned series of the 90’s. Well, Tetsuwan Atom is THE series that begat and defined ALL anime. Why? Because it is the VERY FIRST anime ever made!
There are of course older animated movies that were made in Japan, way before Atom. The anime was made in mid 60’s the manga was around a decade older, but there already were animated features made even as back as 1910. The thing is all those cannot really be called anime in the traditional sense because the style of animation was not the same and neither were its themes to the most part.
You see, up until the 1950’s, animation and graphics were made to look in a very Japanese way to the most part. If you look for classical paintings of Japan’s past, you will find a lot of pictures that depict their way of artistic expression, up until that time. Their trademarks were the almost extinct perspective and the expressionless faces of the people, which were very realistic and reminiscent of the average Asian morphology. Nude was forbidden, as was any form of romance and emotional grimace. Many short features were copying the style of the west of course but those were still seen as foreign influences, not traditional in the broader sense. Also, all western-looking characters of that time were all anthropomorphic animals, while human figures were kept Asian-looking all the way.
When Japan lost in World War 2, the new generation tried to get stronger by mimicking the winning side and amongst them was Osamu to try something entirely new. Seriously you guys, he was not only the first to use cinematic effects in his works, such as different camera angles in each scene or the use of light and sound effects in order to build up atmosphere. He was also the first to turn even human figures to a more western look, which allowed for emotions to be shown a lot easier thanks to those huge eyes of theirs. Frankly speaking all Tezuka did was basing his drawings and storyboard methods on those of Walt Disney’s and being highly influenced by western films, such as the original Metropolis made in 1927. The result of all that was anime.
Sounds like he didn’t do anything much but in reality he took his initial influences and raised them to a whole different level. From now on, there was detail in perspective, faces reminiscent of cartoons and not realistic, but also abundant in emotions and grimaces. Nude was allowed, and so was romance, death and dread. Such things were not present before, at least not in a mainstream series.
So one will probably now ask why is this an essay on Tetsuwan Atom and not Tezuka himself. The reason is simple, Tezuka’s legacy is too huge to fit into this cranny text. Also you may ask why I picked Astro Boy out of all the various works he made over the years. Again, the reason is simple. It was the first to be animated and began to spread the word. It is the very first manga that was adapted with this new style and needless to say, IT WORKED!
First of all do not try to judge the show based on its visuals because chances are you will dislike its retro style. If brand new animation is what you like, you can always try one of its various remakes, one in the 80’s another in the early 2000’s, there is even a 3D animated American movie in 2009. One wise enough must look past the superficial looks and just stare at the joy with which it was made, the vividness and the attention it was given. Here, let me give you the first part of the first episode. You can thank Youtube for this.
So I ask you now, animation and colors aside, isn’t this far more exciting than most modern anime? Doesn’t it thrill you to keep watching? Would you expect that from the first official anime ever made? This is what helped the medium to move forward and we can thank Tezuka for spending his life perfecting it.
But even past its artistic and grand attention aspects, the story itself is damn mature for its time and up until the 90’s there were very few animated works who could be considered more mature than it. Just try to see its themes and how serious they were for its age. It’s a fairy tale at first glance that blends drama, science fiction and action. Quite a lot for an early work.
The protagonist (and essentially the only character you really get to care a lot) is Atom (or Astro in the dub), a human boy who was killed but remade as a humanoid robot by his father. Seen as a replacement for his creator’s dead son and as an effective new weapon, Atom practically fails at both the prime purposes he was made for. His body doesn’t age like a human so his father does not see him as a son and his feelings constantly prevent him from ruthlessly obeying orders from megalomaniac leaders and using his advanced weaponry to destroy societies. At the same time he is made to care about everything and everyone, using his abilities to protect what he cares for. Every episode is a test of strength or courage Atom faces in a mechanized, and rather dangerous and deprived society. He faces people with cruel hearts and inhuman behaviors, but is also aided by good-hearted people and robots. Every episode features a battle with an evil robot or human that attacks an area or goes against Atom’s moral code. Sometimes he is forced to fight a battle he finds unnecessary (taking orders and such) but does so anyway, just to prove himself useful to his father.
Although one can shove of his character as being “too goody” at the same time he can’t deny how he is constantly torn apart by his social demands. Although he is trying to please everyone, at the same time every person expects something different. And although he fits the typical perfect boyscout character most of us now feel bored to stare at for more than a few episodes, at the same time he is not treated with the best of regards by everyone, not-villain people included. Again, for the time it was made this was unheard of.
The story is in a way a dark version of Pinocchio and Frankenstein combined and criticizes the dehumanizing factor of technology and ambition. It was quite interesting to watch up until the 90’s, but I will admit that nowadays there are dozens of series that have done the same in better ways. The Ghost In The Shell series is a fine example that has overshadowed the story of Tetsuwan Atom. One could even say that Neon Genesis does the exact same with the relationship Gendo Ikari and Rei have, which is homage to the one Dr. Tenma and Atom have in this show.
Besides Dr. Temna, Atom’s father/creator (who was funny to watch for nagging all the time at Atom for not being a perfect son or a killing machine), all other characters are definitely less interesting but surely not entirely boring either. But chances are you will not care about them as you will for these two.
Now if you wonder what kind of a story could such an old series have, well it’s pretty much episodic. Besides some secondary characters coming in and out there is no actual development so one could again be bored with it after awhile. Still, its themes remain constant throughout most of the show and for the kids back in the 60’s that was way much more than they could hope for.
So down to it one would easily say that Tezuka may have began as a copyright of Disney but soon focused on moral themes rather than high budget animation and slapstick. It also has its share of action, where Atom gets to fight huge robots and monsters with superpowers, most of which became special attack trademarks of the following super robot genre. The animation is highly flawed and jerky but the actual action scenes are again fine for its time. But unfortunately, time is a cruel judge and all those wonders of the 60’s pale in comparison with even series with lame animation of today, which is what keeps most of the viewers away.
But as I said, it is not as if the franchise ever died or something, unlike most anime and manga out there. Remakes of the show are still being made today and Astro is a national icon of Japan and the anime industry in general. Heck, even the mangaka of the acclaimed Monster and 20th Century Boys sat down to make his own spin-off tale titled Pluto. Atom’s legacy never died. Just faded away because other mecha shows had bigger explosions and less to worry your mind with.
Overanalysis may claim that story continuity and character development are almost non-existent, the plot is very predictable, all this drama and too-goody behavior gets annoying after a while, and its main themes have been made in a far more mature way in later shows. It still has lots of bright moments though and the slapstick humor it implements is actually quite successful even today.
Tetsujin-28. Tetsuwan Atom’s premise next step of evolution.
Ribbon no Kishi and Jungle Emperor. Other famous series of Osamu Tezuka.
Ghost in the Shell and Neone Genesis. The anime which turned it obsolete.
Pluto. An interesting spin-off manga.
Battle Angel Alita. An action manga with cyborgs and lots of existentialism.
Metropolis, Blade Runner, and A.I. Western movies with somewhat similar themes in a lot more grim stories.
Here we have it folks, the single most influential anime of all-time! it's kinda funny because it looks nothing even close to anything coming out nowadays. Astroboy helped developed anime in so many ways from the sci-fi genre, episodic shows, common anime features still used to this day: (enlarged eyes, round features, shading ect.). But still even though it did help shape the eastern animation style in a big way Astroboy actually drew very little on traditional japanese styles; from the Disney-ish art style to the avant-garde sci-fi nuance's of the 1927 classic Metropolis, Astroboy ends up with this strange mix between childish inocents and harsh reality. The show doesn't suger coat much of anything, actually sometimes the reality can be a little to harsh for poor little Astro but threw it all he plays the perfect little boy scout always doing the right thing and trying to save the day. While it may look dated compared to the latest Madhouse show, Astroboy was a ground breaking, innovative and ahead of its time masterpiece that is still a blast to watch 50+ years down the line.
Astroby 1963 is not to bad for a black and white cartoon. Gives a nice futuristic touch but at the same time it could of been better. Wasn't a huge fan of it.