Review: Astro Boy, “The Birth of Astro Boy” and “Adventure on — Mars”

Birth of Astro Boy

By Noel Kirkpatrick

Astro Boy
Episodes 1 and 3: “The Birth of Astro Boy” and “Adventure on — Mars”
Original airdates (Japan): Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, 1963
Original airdates (U.S.): Sept. 7 and Sept. 15, 1963

*A few quick notes: I’m supplying the Japanese episode numbers and titles and then both Japanese and U.S. airdates when possible, and I’m watching the dubs from legal sources. This week, the episodes are from Amazon Instant Video (Netflix had a delay on the first disc), but the remaining episodes will be viewed on discs from the Astro Boy Ultra Collector’s Edition sets released by Right Stuf in 2006.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) on Fuji TV. After years as a successful manga, the series from creator Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, pulled in a 27.4 percent rating on Jan. 1, 1963. It showed, within Japan, that animation was a viable source of television programming. Merchandising and sponsorship (a confectionery company, of course) was secured before the series began, and it wasn’t long until the series was being shopped overseas, particularly to the United States.

NBC Enterprises titlecard on Astro BoyIt caught the eye of NBC Enterprises executives looking for content to sell to stations around the country in syndication (Astro Boy wasn’t nationally broadcast by NBC). They contracted Fred Ladd to direct and adapt the series, including work-around issues that would violate NBC’s standards & practices while those instances were still perfectly acceptable in Japan, including violence, occasional eroticism, and culturally-specific humor. Ladd’s book chronicles some of the early going on this process, including the speed at which the episodes were written and dubbed in New York, the struggles that Ladd faced in adapting episodes to meet standards & practices requirements, and his initial troubles while dealing with Tezuka and the other Japanese animators in explaining why changes were having to be made to the series. Tezuka thought Ladd was an NBC spy at first, but the two quickly became close friends, with Tezuka eventually declaring Ladd the godfather of Astro Boy for all the work he did to make Astro Boy successful in the U.S.

While not the first bit of animated program to air on television in Japan (that would be Instant History‘s  brief segments in 1961–1962), Astro Boy was the first weekly series to be produced, and was the first of many imported Japanese animated programs to air in the U.S. The series, as a result, carries historical significance for two countries, and I thought it deserving of a month-long look at some of the episodes from its over 100 episode run. For this week, I watched “The Birth of Astro Boy” and “Adventure on — Mars.” The first is, obviously, the “pilot” episode of the series, thus making it vital. “Adventure on — Mars” was selected since Ladd used it to convinced NBC Enterprises executives of the series’s value as a property. 

Both episodes also demonstrate Tezuka’s  imagination and desire to showcase Mushi Production’s ability to put out a quality product. To put out that quality product required cutting corners in the animation. Doing full animation—think Disney—just wasn’t possible; it would’ve required more animators than Japan even had in the early ’60s, and it would have cost so much that Mushi would never see a profit. So Mushi employed limited animation, cutting frames out of every drawing, only animating certain parts of the drawing, and so on. (Upon seeing  the first few episodes of Astro Boy, Ladd recalled to author Frederik L. Schodt that it “was LIMITED animation run a-muck!” [sic]) While limited animation is commonly associated with anime, and Mushi’s use of it popularized it throughout Japan, it’s worth noting that they weren’t the first ones to employ it. United Productions of America and Hanna-Barbera both used limited animation in their cartoons in the 1950s and 1960s, though probably not to the extent that Mushi did.

I’ve talked about limited animation during my coverage of Oniisama e…, so I won’t belabor this point, but the animation techniques are important in understanding the approach of many anime series produced during this time. Limited animation closes off the opportunity for “realism” and instead, as Schodt notes, “the emphasis was placed on story, character development, and emotional impact.” Certainly we saw this idea very fully realized  in Oniisama, but in Astro Boy the animators were still learning how to make those ideas make sense first on the page and then on the screen.

Tenma brings Astro Boy to lifeBoth episode for this week show how far Tezuka and the rest at Mushi were trying to push themselves in those regards. “The Birth of Astro Boy” begins with the death of Tobi Tenma (Astor Boynton III in the English language dub) due to a car accident. So consumed with grief over the loss of his son, Dr. Tenma (Dr. Boynton) constructs a replica of the boy using all the resources of the Institute of Science and christens him Astro Boy. Starting off with the death of a child isn’t exactly the most uplifting beginning to a story, the episode allows this origin story to continue to play that thread of darkness out for the entire episode. Tenma/Boynton is clearly grief-stricken, but it’s the realization that his robotic son will never be a real boy that locks in the darkness of the episode, going so far as to sell Astro to the robot circus, complete with contracts and a denouncement of Astro as his son.

This isn’t your typical kid-friendly, gag-centric writing that you might expect from animated programs in the 1960s. While we do get some humor as Astro adjusts to his life as a robot boy, including torn curtains, smashed alarm clocks, and calculator eyes, it’s almost easy to forgot that those little moments of humor even happen due to the severity of Tenma/Boynton’s rejection of his own creation. When you talk to people who enjoy anime, or ask why they started watching, a comparably more mature style of storytelling is a fairly common reason, and with “The Birth of Astro Boy” we see that the impulse was present even at the start of the medium (thanks in no small part to years of manga being just as bold).

Astro meets the poorly treated robots of Hemegg's circusOnce arriving at the circus, Astro is pitted in gladiator-style combat against another, much more massive robot. Astro’s peaceful nature causes him to be beaten for a bit until he eventually is forced to defend himself and defeats the robot, though he stops just shy of destroying it. Interrupting this fight is Dr. Ochanomizu (Dr. Packerdermus J. Elefun), the new head of the Institute of Science. Ochanomizu speech toward the circus’s owner, Hamegg (Cacciatore), begins will be a recurring theme within Astro Boy, that of robot rights and discrimination.

Again, the series puts forward more complicated thematic issues than were present in most other animated fare at the time. Between the contracts and legal standing that Hamegg cites to justify his use of the robots in his circus and the horrible condition his robots live in, often without enough power to fully function, it’s easy for an American audience to drawl parallels to slavery; the series is more broadly aiming to highlight the broad issues of discrimination and prejudice, both from individuals and civil institutions than anything so specific though. By the end of the episode, Ochanomizu has managed to champion a robot rights bill to the government of the world, freeing robots from being considered property.

But this issue of discrimination returns in “Adventure on — Mars” as Captain Daring refuses to accept Astro Boy as the commander of the second manned mission to Mars. Daring routinely undermines Astro by ignoring orders, generally grumbling, and cutting Astro Boy’s tether to the rocket ship, leaving him stranded in space. Eventually he leads a successful mutiny against Astro, going so far as to remove Astro’s activator tube, leaving the robot without any power. Darling does eventually realize the error of his ways, and sacrifices himself to save Astro and the rest of the crew when intergalactic aliens invade Mars. Astro even gives the fallen astronaut a proper salute as he speeds off into the Martian horizon, ending the episode. 

While something like Super Friends tackled pressing social issues in a heavy-handed sort of way (as Andy and I routinely noted), Astro Boy incorporates such issues in subtler ways—and a whole decade earlier, too. They’re less PSAs and more themes for the series to explore using robots as a stand-in for the less privileged. It’s classic science fiction extrapolation, and Astro Boy excels at it.

Alien invaders in "Adventure on -- Mars"It also wouldn’t be science fiction without some sense of wonder and whimsy. Both episodes have small showcases that add some humor to the episodes, but also attempt to show off Mushi’s animation. The robot circus parade in “The Birth of Astro Boy” is filled with small delights, and the visions of life throughout the  galaxy in “Adventure on — Mars” contains all sorts of bizarre creations that are really just there for the sake of humor since none of the aliens ever resurface in the episode. Indeed, “Adventure on — Mars” has many such scenes, including the launch from Earth that flatten the entire crew (save for Astro, of course), and then they have to be pumped back full of oxygen like balloons, often with amusing results. 

Both episodes offer plenty of action, though “Adventure on — Mars” is filled to the brim with great set-pieces, making it an exciting episode (it’s hardly surprising that Ladd would use it to show off the series’s strengths).  Despite the limited animation, the quick cuts and rapid speed at which Astro moves about the frame give the scenes a sense of real energy, whether it’s our hero fighting the invading aliens or the robot tank blasting their ships into smithereens. 

Next week:  “Time Machine” (episode 11 (Japan) / 18 (U.S.)) and “Führer ZZZ” (episode 30 (Japan)) / “Secret Agent 3-Z” (episode 15 (U.S.))

***

While I was all set to do another animated series following Astro Boy, my own interest and easy availability (read: streaming and/or cheap DVDs) made the selection a bit more challenging than I would have liked. So I decided to delay the idea of doing another animated series in favor another option. After reading my friend Charlotte Howell’s blog post about why we need Wonder Woman, it got lodged into my brain that doing a look at the late 1970s Wonder Woman series could be fun and productive.

Wonder Woman season 1 title card

To further shake things up, I asked our Teen Dreams columnist Kerensa to join me in watching it.  She has excitedly agreed to do so, and I’m very eager for us to start watching. Kerensa has only seen the pilot movie that was aired in 1975 on ABC (not be confused the 1974 pilot movie with Cathy Lee Crosby), while I’ve only seen a smattering episodes from the CBS years.  But Kerensa is a big Wonder Woman fan, and while I always enjoyed the character in Super Friends and Justice League, I’m only now getting a better understanding of the character by reading her in her current depictions in the new 52 comics and in older issues. I think I speak for both of us when I saw we’re very enthused about getting to know this iconic character through the lens of 1970s television (cough jiggle TV cough) and culture.

The even better news is that if you don’t have the DVDs, or want to rent them or buy them (though they’re pretty cheap!), you can watch almost the entire show for free (no doubt depending on your location) on TheWB.com! They are missing a few episodes from season 3, but that’s a ways off, and I’m not sure how far Kerensa and I will go. Certainly we’ll do all of season 1, and after that, we’ll evaluate our respective interests in continuing with the series (though certainly a network change and retooling would warrant at least a quick peek at at what season 2 started!).

To help us along the way, Kerensa and I will also read Elena Levine’s Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s America Television. How often we refer to the book is up in the air, and you certainly don’t need to read it  to watch Wonder Woman along with us (it won’t be like the book club coverage we’ve done in the past on the site). We’re reading it to help fill in some gaps in our knowledge and to contextualize the series for our own edification.

Wonder Woman coverage will start on Feb. 5 with The New Original Wonder Woman,  the 90-minute made-for-TV movie that aired on Nov. 7, 1975.

3 Responses to “Review: Astro Boy, “The Birth of Astro Boy” and “Adventure on — Mars””

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