Although “New Treasure Island” was a sizable hit for a debut, and “Jungle Emperor Leo/ Kimba the White Lion” had roared off the gate in 1950, it wasn’t until 1952’s “Tetsuwan Atom”/”Mighty Atom”/”Astro Boy” that Osamu Tezuka found the perfect mascot in a lovable little robot that looked an awful lot like Betty Boop and could fart death rays from his butt… or something.
From ’52 to ’68, “Astro Boy” delighted (and traumatized) Japanese readers, because it’s basically the story of a scientist who builds an android to replace the son that died in a car accident, and the horrible things that happen to that “100,000 horsepower” android as he deals with the despair and disappointment of existence, robotic or otherwise.
“Astro Boy” had it all: memorable characters that would form the core of Tezuka’s famous “Star System”; dramatic robot fights that would inspire mecha manga for years to come; and unabashedly depressing stories. It takes big anime eyes to cry the biggest of tears. Even if Tezuka’s heart wasn’t always in the overtly commercial material (as the author himself admits in his charming intros to the Kodansha editions) you would never know it from the surfeit of sentiment on display.
The manga’s impact wasn’t limited to impressionable kids growing up on post-war Japan and dreaming of becoming “otakus” before the word had come into popular use: otaku might as well mean “loser who likes things like ‘Astro Boy.'” The exported show introduced most of the civilized world to anime, (it was the first such thing on American television, even as it was heavily edited for our sensibilities.) There’s never really been a stop to the flow of Astro Boy material; every decade since the 50s has seen some sort of revival, spin-off, adaptation, or reincarnation. The 2009 big-screen version was shiny-looking but empty of intellectual circuitry; we’re now being threatened with an American 2016 live-action reboot from the scriptwriters of “San Andreas,” who clearly know something about disasters.
I actually came to “Astro Boy” through the off-brand “Jetter Mars,” Tezuka’s half-hearted attempt at colorizing the “Astro Boy” story for a late-70s audience, which I saw somewhere in the mid-to-late-80s. The re-designed Astro, there dubbed Jetter Mars, was virtually indistinguishable from the original: a fashionable red cape was added, and the ears were retouched for that “Batboy” look. The story was darker (“even darker,” I should say) and young me was quite traumatized by at least one episode dealing with the fun topic of parental death. If I recall correctly (I try to block these things) it was called something like: “Where did my Daddy go?” Thank you, Tezuka.
“Jetter Mars” wasn’t the only attempt to prolong that “Astro Boy” magic. Much like Superman got to collect Krypto the Superdog’s poop, Astro had to deal with an “Astro Cat.”
If only those bent on remakes and reboots would consider a new angle: that was what Naoki Urasawa did with “Pluto,” creating an acclaimed adult mystery out of Tezuka’s famous “World’s Greatest Robot” arc. Why not adapt THAT, instead of trusting the story to culture-appropriating gaijin?!? Urasawa is the greatest working mangaka for my yen, and I hope to get to his series in the near future. Before the robot overlords gain consciousness and enslave us all. MEMORY INPUT: MUST READ ALL OF “PLUTO” SOON.