Friday, October 23, 2009

The Evolution of Astro Boy: From the imagination of Osamu Tezuka to CGI film

by Chris MaGee

The concept of creating and breathing life into an artificial human has been with us since we could first tell stories. From as far back as the 1st-century Greek poet Ovid and the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion who creates a statue of a woman who, with the help of the Goddess of Love, comes to life people have been fascinated by, for lack of a better term, playing god. Sometimes these stories go tragically wrong, like in Mary Shelley's classic gothic novel "Frankenstein", while other times the result of these experiments not only charms its creator, but generations of readers like in Italian author Carlo Collodi's 1883 children's tale "The Adventures of Pinocchio". In that famous story the grumpy puppeteer Geppetto craves a boy out of a piece of pine. Soon after he's finished the boy comes to life and quickly becomes Geppetto's wooden son. Nearly 70 years later and 6,000 miles east the core of the "Pinocchio" story would be transformed by a bespectacled artist and animator into one of the most iconic pop culture figures of the 20th-century, Tetsuwan Atomu, "Mighty Atom", or as he's better known worldwide, Astro Boy.

This contemporary, robotic Pinocchio first appeared as a supporting character in the serialized manga "Captain Atom" published in Kobunsha's Shonen Magazine between April 1951 and March 1952, the brain child of the then 22-year-old "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka (below). That serial chronicled the invasion of Earth by a population of human "doubles" that arrive from outerspace. While this storyline varied from the standard Astro Boy mythos it did include the basic kernel of the narrative that many of us have come to know like the classic origin of Atom: after 10-year-old Tobio is killed in a traffic accident his grief stricken father, Dr. Tenma, head of the Japanese Ministry of Science, decides to cheat fate and create a robotic Tobio replacement.

When Tezuka rebooted and retitled the manga later in 1952 he positioned Atom at the center of the story and expanded on his creation. Despite his remarkable "seven special powers" as Tezuka called them - highly advanced computer brain, 1,000,000 horsepower engine, jet flight, super-hearing, super sight, laser weaponry in his hands, (and lesser known) a machine gun in his behind - Atom just couldn't replace Dr. Tenma's late son, and so the doctor abandoned his robotic creation. Orphaned Atom is taken in by the cruel Ham Egg, the ring leader of a robot circus, and it's here that he's discovered by Dr. Ochanomizu, Dr. Tenma's successor at the Ministry of Science. Ochanomizu frees Atom from the circus, becomes his new father and the rest is history. Atom/ Astro Boy spent the next 16 years keeping the peace between humankind and robotkind in the pages of Shonen his own manga serial, but his real-life creator wasn't satisfied to leave "Tetsuwan Atomu" at that.

First in 1962 Fuji TV took Tezuka's creation as inspiration for a 65-episode live-action TV series (below right) and then through his own Mushi Productions Tezuka adapted Astro Boy from manga to anime with a 193-episode animated series that premiered on Fuji TV on New Year's day 1963. The combination of these two series took what was an already astoundingly popular character to even greater heights with everything from menko trading cards and die-cast toys (below left) of the little robot boy marketed to Japanese children to his image emblazoned outside Kyoto's main train station .... but what was it about Astro Boy that struck such a cord with people across Japan?

In the early 1950's Japan was still struggling to rebuild after the horror of the Second World War and "technology" conjured up different images than it does today. B29 bombers and of course the atomic bomb, two awe-inspiring technologies devoted solely to death and destruction, had literally burned themselves into the Japanese psyche and ended up spawning the other great pop icon of Post-War Japan "Godzilla". Tezuka, always committed to promoting peace and understanding with his work, separated the "atom" from the "bomb" and combined it with the archetypal story of the building of an artificial human to produce a science fiction character of hope and renewal whose very existence would change the way the Japanese would view modern technology, and in some small way may have contributed to the economic and miracle of the 60's, 70's and 80's. Astro Boy certainly became a symbol of modern Japanese technology as well a poster boy for manga and anime culture around the world, eclipsing other Tezuka characters like Kimba the White Lion, Black Jack, Dororo, and Princess Sapphire.

In the fall of 1963 NBC producer Fred Ladd had 104 episodes of the Japanese "Tetsuwan Atomu" dubbed into English so they could be syndicated as "Astro Boy", and he made history while doing it. When the English dub aired on American TV it marked the first time "anime" made the transition from East to West. Since the 60's Astro Boy has continued his adventures in two more animated series (1980 and 2003), translations of Tezuka's original manga into dozens of languages, animated features films, video games, and even a stage play mounted by Chicago-based theatre company Live Action Cartoonists.

The latest incarnation of Astro Boy, and the one that may help launch the character into the 21st-century, is Imagi Animation Studios big budget CGI-animated film simply titled "Astro Boy". Directed by David Bowers (Flushed Away) and featuring an all-star voice cast that includes Freddie Highmore (as Astro Boy), Kristen Bell, Nicholas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, and Aya Ueto (as Atom) and Koji Yakusho for the Japanese release, the film dials back to Astro Boy's creation but combines it with a battle between good "blue energy", evil "red energy" and a robotic invasion of Astro's hometown of Metro City. You can can check out the full theatrical trailer below.

Almost 60 years after appearing in the pages of Shonen Magazine, and 60 years since the days of Post-War Japan, will this new Astro Boy redefine the character for a generation of young moviegoers, or will it be logged as just yet another installment in the long legacy of our favorite robotic child. With the film opening this weekend I guess that still remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure - Astro Boy will continue to inspire comic artists, animators, writers, robotics specialists, and the child in all of us for decades to come.

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