Japanese animation (anime) is something that is rarely shown on British TV, mainly due to bad press coverage and misunderstandings of the medium. In this column I plan to introduce a different series each week, explaining in a way that anyone can understand why anime should be something worth delving into.
To start with let’s look at the most important anime series of them all. Astro Boy originally started as a manga (comic strip) back in 1952, created by the “Godfather of manga” Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). Astro Boy is mostly famous for being the first manga to be given a TV adaption, which ran between 1963 and 1966. As such, this year marks Astro Boy’s 50th anniversary on the box.
The series is set in a future in which robots live peacefully alongside humans. In Japan’s Ministry of Science, the head, Dr. Astor Boyton II (originally known in Japan as Dr. Tenma), suffers a terrible loss when his son is killed in a car crash. The doctor decides to replace him with a robot version in his son’s likeness. While at first the relationship goes well, the doctor discovers that the robot will never fully replace his son and will never become an adult. So he leaves his job and sells his “son” to an evil circus ringmaster.
Later, the new head of the Ministry, big-nosed Prof. Elefun (Prof. Ochanomizu) discovers the robot at the circus and manages to convince the ringmaster to give the robot to him. The professor becomes the robot’s new legal guardian, calling him Astro Boy (Atomu). He cares for him, creating a robot family for Astro to live with, and also fitting him with a remarkable range of abilities and tools. Astro is thus often called upon whenever something is going on and regularly finds himself fighting the forces of evil, while also trying to overcome human prejudices against robots. His abilities include have super strength equal to 100,000 horsepower, flying jet engines, firing lasers from his fingertips, and also firing guns from his buttocks.
The main reason for watching the series is simply because it was the first manga to be given an anime adaption. It was ground-breaking, laying the path down for anime to take off the way we now know it did. It is comparable to something like Hancock’s Half Hour and the impact it made on British sitcom.
Admittedly Astro Boy is not without its faults. Given the time it was created, some attitudes of the time considered acceptable back then are now rather dated. Chief amongst these are some politically incorrect depictions of different races such as black people. Tezuka himself was not racist, it was just that was the attitude back then.
The main problem however has been the release of the series in the west. DVDs are available in the USA where the original series went televised, and soon an Australian release, but never a UK one. The closest to a release we have had is the 2009 CGI American / Hong Kong animated film version (given mixed reviews) and a “best of” compilation of a 1980s colour remake of the series, featuring some rather shoddy animation and odd episode selections. One episode picked is “The Greatest Robot in the World, Part 1”, but the collection does not feature Part 2.
This opening column is therefore both an expression of wanting to spread the appeal of this series, as well as an appeal to DVD distributors in the UK to try and release the original 1963 creation, as it celebrates its golden anniversary. Yes, it may be in black and white, but this is arguably the most important anime series of them all, so please release it.