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Astro Boy

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Astro Boy #1 © 2002 Tezuka Productions. COVER ART BY OSAMU TEZUKA.


Doctor Osamu Tezuka was not the first person in Japan to work on manga; nor was he the first person to create an animated work in Japan. Likewise, his most well-known character, Atom—renamed Astro Boy in the United States—was not his first creation. Nor was Astro Boy the first robot character created in Japan. Despite this, both Tezuka and Astro would go on to redefine manga and animation in Japan, influencing future manga artists and creating a new era of Japanese animation that would continue into the twenty-first century to worldwide accolades.


Born in 1928, Tezuka began his career as a manga artist during the post–World War II years in then-occupied Japan. Although a medical student, he was also an artist, a passion he had nurtured since childhood. He counted among his influences American movies, especially the animated works of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer. Tezuka would frequently cite the films of these men—the classic 1942 Disney film Bambi, for instance—as factors in his decision to pursue comics and later animation. He would go on to receive his medical degree, but would never practice. His first major work was 1947's Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), a Japanese sensation with an art style that gave readers the impression they were watching a movie, not reading a comic. Tezuka's works over the next forty years included Metropolis (1949), Jungle Emperor (1950), Black Jack (1973–1978), Hi no Tori (The Phoenix; begun in 1954), and Adolph (1983). He worked in all genres, from horror to science fiction to comedy, and he even created the first full-length shojo (girls comic) title in 1953—Princess Knight.


Despite the large volume of his works, whether manga or animated, none became as popular as Tezuka's creation Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom). In 1952, Tetsuwan Atom appeared in the comic magazine Shonen. The story opens in the year 2003. Atom is a robot boy built by Dr. Tenma; the grieving scientist is attempting to replace his son Tobio, who was killed in a tragic car accident. Sadly, despite the robot's efforts to become more human, Tenma rejects him. Sent off to a robot merchant, the robot is sold to a circus and given the name Atom. He is later found and adopted by the kind Professor Ochanomizu, and here begin his adventures.


Tetsuwan Atom ran for sixteen years and its success was immediate. In late 1962, Mushi Productions—the animated studio founded by Tezuka—began work on an animated series for Tetsuwan Atom. The black and white series first premiered on January 1, 1963, on the Fuji television network and ran for 193 episodes. It was not the first animated series to appear on Japanese television (that honor belonged to Otagi Cartoon Calender), but it would become the first animated series from Japan to be broadcast in the United States. The man chiefly responsible for this was producer Fred Ladd, who worked on adapting 104 episodes for NBC. Ladd would be instrumental in bringing over several series from Japan to the United States, including Gigantor. One of Ladd's assistants in the endeavor was Peter Fernandez, who would later go on to work on the anime classic Speed Racer. The series was renamed Astro Boy and began airing on American television in September 1963.


As a robot character, Astro ushered in a new era of robots in both manga and anime, and led to a new love and acceptance of robots in Japan. As a robot, Astro followed ten laws, similar to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. His powers came not from magic but from technology (no doubt Tezuka's scientific background was a tremendous asset). He could fly using jets in his feet, and could also journey into space; he could speak sixty languages and had searchlights for eyes. While he was a peacemaker first, Astro could defend himself with superstrength and machine guns in his rear. His heart was a computer, but his power came from an internal atomic fusion reactor. In a country forever in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tezuka took the initiative of using nuclear power for peace, not destruction. His strong respect for life was evident in Astro's mission of working for peace; this went beyond typical good versus evil battles. With his big eyes, black trunks, red boots, and metallic hair, Astro had a distinctive look that intrigued Japanese and American viewers alike (and was even the subject of one episode of Bill Watterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes).


Astro's success in his native land caused Tezuka's stature in Japan to grow. His tremendous output and influence earned him the title of manga no kami-sama—literally, God of Comics. In 1980, Tezuka won the Ink Pot Award at the San Diego Comic Convention. Astro's animated adventures featured the early efforts of several animators who would go on to successful careers as directors. Among them were Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam), Rin Taro (Galaxy Express 999), Osamu Dezaki (Space Adventure Cobra), and Noburo Ishiguro (Space Cruiser Yamato, Macross). Tezuka also influenced new generations of manga artists; some of whom worked with him as assistants. Among them were Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009), Reiji Matsumoto (Space Pirate Captain Harlock), and Buichi Terasawa (Cobra, Midnight Eye Goku). Even American artists such as Wendy Pini (Elfquest) and Scott McCloud (Zot!, Understanding Comics) count Tezuka as a major influence.


In 1980, Tezuka brought Astro back to television, this time through Tezuka Productions (Mushi Productions had gone bankrupt several years earlier). This time, Noburo Ishiguro would direct the fifty-two-episode series, now in color and called Shin Tetsuwan Atom (New Mighty Atom). The show was now set in 2030, and Tezuka had a more direct hand in the scripts. A new character was added, a robot girl named Uran (Astro Girl in the American version). During the 1990s, the anime distributor The Right Stuf International released the original black and white series on video in the United States. Manga Entertainment released the newer series in 2002 under the title of Astro Boy New Adventures. A new animated series produced by Sony Pictures and Tezuka Productions began airing in Japan in April 2003 (to coincide with the date given for Astro's construction—April 7, 2003), with a dubbed version airing in the United States on the Kids' WB! network in early 2004. An all-computer-generated, American-produced Astro Boy movie has been discussed since 1999, but still had no definite release date as of early 2004.


While there had been an Astro Boy comic released by Gold Key in 1965, it had been heavily redrawn and reedited from an original Tezuka story. Now Comics published a monthly Astro Boy series in 1987 with Michael Dimpsey writing and Ken Steacy (Tempus Fugitive) and Rodney Dunn providing the art. Fred Patten also assisted with the plot. It was not until 2002 that the original Tetsuwan Atom manga was released in the United States through Dark Horse Comics and Studio Proteus. Now titled Astro Boy, the translation was done by Frederick L. Schodt (Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics), who had been a close friend of Tezuka's and worked as a translator for him. The translated manga ran for over fifteen volumes.


Sadly, Tezuka would not see this new flurry of interest in Astro Boy in the American popular culture; he died in 1989 from complications due to stomach cancer. However, Tezuka's legacy has lived on in new animated works based on his manga—including Astro Boy. And in the actual, real-world field of robotics, Astro has also had a profound effect. In Japan, many entered the field because they had seen or read Astro's adventures as children. Both America and Japan have pursued the construction of new, advanced robots, but in Japan, there has been a movement toward more humanoid-shaped machines. Among the results of this effort were the P-series robots built by Honda; the successor of these robots was Asimo, a fully mobile, walking humanoid robot that was unveiled in 2002. In August 2003, the Atom Project was proposed by a group of Japanese researchers, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a humanoid robot with the emotional, physical, and mental capacity of a five-year-old human child. —MM

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