When Osamu Tezuka – the man essentially responsible for Japanese animation as we know it today, including those giant eyes – produced the first Astro Boy manga in 1951, it's difficult to imagine what his reaction to the 2009 CGI film starring his beloved Astro Boy would have been. While a “Oh, hell no!” is nice to picture, we really can't be so sure. After all, at the time of Tezuka's death in 1989, Nicholas Cage, who did the voice for Astro Boy's creator in the film, had yet to make any really bad movies.
However, Tezuka's mindset when he created Astro Boy is perhaps not as difficult to imagine. Working in a Japan that had been defeated in the Second World War not a decade prior, it's worth noting that Tezuka first named Astro Boy 'Tetsuwan Atom,' or the 'Mighty Atom.' Though that name could be seen as a reference to the new technology that was sweeping the world during the 1950's, it's not a stretch to see how it could apply to the two atom bombs dropped on Japan, either.
The themes of Astro Boy likewise could be construed as the hopes and dreams for the future of a people battered by war. Set in a future full of robots, the series saw Astro Boy created by a man named Dr. Boyton (Dr. Tenma in the Japanese version) in an attempt to fill the void left when his son was killed in a car accident. As a thinking robot with a soul, Astro Boy often finds himself fighting to bring against evil and, ultimately, bringing both robots and humanity closer together.
These themes carried on into the anime series that was produced by Tezuka's own Mushi Production studio and began airing in both Japan and the United States in 1963. The featured episode, for example, revolves around the kidnapping of Dr. Elefun, a sort of mentor to Astro Boy, by an evil dictator with hopes for world domination and an uncanny resemblance to Hitler.
Searching for the doctor, Astro Boy travels into a land where the people are censored by strips of tape across their mouths and robots programmed for to carry out the dictator's will are employed to hold the populace down. Hidden somewhere in the mountainous land, Dr. Elefun (a bizarre renaming of Dr. Ochanomizu in the Japanese version) and another scientist are being forced to work on an invention against their will by the dictator.
That invention, a “ghost machine” capable of separating the spirit from it its body, enabling it to live forever, has just been completed, much to the remorse of its two inventors. All seems lost until the dictator is killed by that very invention, his lust for power bringing him down in a way as pathetic as Hitler's own demise.
While the black and white animation and rather shoddy dubbing may be a turn off to those raised on the hyper-realistic anime of today, the plot itself is provocative in a manner unlike the stuff currently on offer. This becomes especially true when the fact that the show was meant for children is considered. Similar to how Captain Planet attempted to prime the kids of the 90's to care about the environment, Astro Boy practically implored children to reject evils like censorship, racism and violence. Through plots like Astro Boy protecting the first robot to register to vote and the first robot president, Tezuka preached the importance of tolerance and respect to his audience.
Interestingly, it wasn't just thinly veiled allusions to Nazi Germany or abstract political plots that were the target of Tezuka and Astro Boy. In a 1967 manga, Astro Boy goes to Vietnam and dies attempting to save a Vietnamese village from US bombers. Despite sacrificing his life, the village ends up being destroyed the next day by the bombers, with all of the villagers dying in the process. In one panel, we even see the wrapped up body of Astro Boy floating in the Mekong alongside other casualties of the war.
Though Tezuka – in a move still used and frequently abused by comics today – revived Astro Boy the next week, the message and all that it entailed were still clearly presented.
The anime series finished in 1966, though the manga continued on until 1968. Colored Astro Boy series appeared in 1980 and 2003, while various new comics, short films and features over the years kept the series alive in the minds of both children and adults vigorously enough that movie executives apparently thought it suited for the 2009 big budget, CGI film. Unfortunately, that film can be added to the ever growing list of horrible CGI/live action anime features, and you should not watch it unless someone threatens your life.
That said, enjoy the anime!
Astro Boy - http://www.astroboy.tv/
Astro Boy Online - http://www.astroboy-online.com/forums/
IMDB - http://imdb.com/
Japan in Focus - http://www.japanfocus.org/-Matthew-Penney/3116
Tezuka in English - http://tezukainenglish.com/