Out of a War-Torn World

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2003

Young Osamu Tezuka's wartime experiences forged the basis for Astro Boy.

by Dominic Al-Badri

THE HOT-SPRING RESORT town of Takarazuka is an incongruous birthplace for one of Japan's most enduring modern icons, Tetsuwan Atom, better known to his Western fans as Astro Boy or the Mighty Atom. It was here, in this genteel environment a short train ride from Osaka, that Osamu Tezuka, the single most important figure in the world of Japanese comics and animation, spent his formative years prior to the outbreak of World War II. The war rudely hijacked his adolescence, and the barbarities and ensuing hardships formed the basis on which Tezuka's resolutely anti-war vision was founded. Forced to work in a munitions factory, and a witness to the firebombing of Osaka by American bombers, Tezuka created an entire oeuvre espousing the core themes of peace and humanism.

Astro Boy's "biggest area of
influence was not in character design
or narrative construct; it was,
instead, related to economics"

By the time Tezuka created Astro Boy in 1951, he was already an established artist, heralded for his innovative drawing style and complex tales. Astro Boy was an instant success in a nation slowly rebuilding itself after the madness of the previous two decades, during which militarism had swept the land. A fantastic homegrown hero, Testuwan Atom, with its storylines of robot as human friend rather than mysterious techno-foe, was fundamental to the positive way in which robots are perceived to this day in Japan.

April 7, 2003, marked the date the little robot boy was born in the original comic strip, which made its first appearance just as the "Atomic Age" was getting under way. As an icon today, Astro Boy serves as a reminder of that bygone age, when the harnessing of atomic power was seen as a hugely positive achievement, one that, after the witnessing of its dark side in the twin horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would henceforth be used for the ultimate benefit of the human race. Slogans like "better living through chemistry" and "our friend the atom" hallmarked the immediate postwar Eisenhower era of technological progress and glorification, all fueled by the seemingly endless supply of atomic energy.

A huge success from the outset, Astro Boy's stock grew further in the 1960s with the advent of a black-and-white animated version of his stories, which was as popular in the US as it was in Japan when it aired on TV from 1963 to 1966. Contrasting markedly with the likes of Disney characters, Astro Boy was a robot boy with rockets in his legs, guns in his rump and eyes the size of saucers, while the show's storylines often alluded to serious social issues, like the struggle for civil rights in the US. Tezuka himself often struggled with the censorship problems of American -- and, indeed, Japanese -- TV stations, which deemed the cartoon show too violent.

Frederik L. Schodt, a San Francisco-based writer and translator, as well as Tezuka's personal interpreter when the artist traveled to the US, says, "Many people today remember that the show was very different from other shows at the time. Instead of an entirely gag-based show, it had a fairly serious narrative and message, and it starred a robot. At the time, almost all other shows featured furry animal characters or goofy humans."

The show's impact on the then-nascent baby boomers who tuned in religiously is one thing. But perhaps more important was the effect the show had on US TV programming as a whole. Schodt, who is currently translating the entire canon of Astro Boy comics into English, explains: "The biggest area of influence was not in character design or narrative construct; it was, instead, related to economics. Astro Boy was made on a shoestring budget compared to shows in the US at the time, and it was made in an extraordinarily short time frame, making it possible to have a weekly show on US TV. It was a result of Osamu Tezuka having refined the techniques of limited animation. Full animation, of the sort we are used to in many Disney classics, requires 24 frames of art per second; limited animation sacrifices fluidity of movement for economics and may use 12 or fewer frames per second."

In order to make up for this, Japanese animation producers and scriptwriters had to put much more effort into developing characters and plot so that viewers would not be as distracted by the relatively clunky, or at least less free-flowing images appearing on screen. Japanese animation, or anime as it is referred to by devotees, now has an enormous, worldwide following, yet its central tenet of good stories rather than high-speed animation remains the same 40 years after Astro Boy's birth.

Astro Boy's popularity has never waned in Japan, and his exposure has remained high thanks to a second, color, TV series in the 1980s, as well as his appearance on everything from T-shirts and lunch boxes to bread and bubble gum. Yet, though the little robot is a common feature on Japan's cultural landscape, exactly how popular Astro Boy is is difficult to gauge: The bureaucrats who guard Astro Boy's legacy are unwilling to divulge just how much they profit from the little robot's largesse. How ironic that humanity's friend should be caught up in the cogs of the machine.

To tie-in with his official birth, Astro Boy's high public profile is set for a further boost in the coming months, both at home and abroad. Dark Horse Comics, a leading American publisher of comic books and graphic novels, is in the middle of publishing the English-language versions of Astro Boy that Schodt is translating. Many of Tezuka's works are available in English, but this is the first time Astro Boy has appeared -- officially -- in English. In all, there will be 23 volumes, about half of which have now been completed, introducing the robot boy to a new generation of readers as well as inducing pangs of nostalgia in aging boomers.

In Japan, a new animated TV series airs on Fuji TV, and there is a new tie-in comic series lying in wait to snare yet more new fans. Astro Boy manga have all been released in eBook format for viewing on PCs and PDAs, and work has begun on a large-screen feature-film adaptation, currently penciled in for a late 2004 release.

Astro Boy's popularity may now stretch around the world and onto the Internet (www.astroboy.jp), but his roots remain firmly in his creator's home city of Takarazuka, where the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum is located. Recently completely refurbished in honor of its best-known creation's birthday, the museum now boasts upgraded state-of-the-art facilities, which the museum director hopes will increase still further the appeal of not only Atom Boy, but manga and animation in toto. All hail the Mighty Atom! @

This is the first of a new series of Kansai-based columns in J@pan Inc by writer and editor Dominic Al-Badri.

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