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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Across the Pond and Beyond: Astro Boy

How many of you out there dreamed of having a super power as a child?  I'm sure everyone out there has read a superhero comic book, or watched a super hero movie, or watched reruns of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.  So, I would hope that most of you would have an answer to the following question.

So, what superpower would you want to have?  Would you want to have the ability to walk through walls?  Have the ability to burn things with laser beams shooting from your eyes?  Would you want to have the permanent ability to fly?

It's a question that I always thought I could answer easily, but as it turned out, it's proven much more difficult as time goes on to pinpoint what super power I would want.

At first, I thought that X-ray vision would be the way to go...but I'm not one who likes to be spied on, so I can't imagine others would want to be either.  Then I thought about flying, but with my general discomfort for heights, that one was scratched off the list.  I also even briefly considered having the superpower of super human strength, but I shelved that idea after realizing that I could accidentally hurt someone if I didn't know what my own strength levels were.

In the end, I suppose that the one power I would probably want is the ability to teleport anywhere I wanted to in the world.  It would eliminate air fare, and I could see all of the beauty that the world has to offer in microseconds.  Yeah, teleportation would be cool.

Until then, I guess all that we can do is dream.

Unless of course, we created a robotic version of ourselves with all the super-human qualities that we ourselves might want.  Wouldn't be quite the same, but it would satisfy us for the time being, at least.

Yet that's exactly how Astro Boy came into our hearts almost sixty years ago. 

On this week's edition of 'Across The Pond And Beyond', we visit the country of Japan, where anime and manga are king.  And where a story about a little robotic boy made a huge impact not only in Japan, but all over the world.

Meet Astro Boy.  He really is a nice boy when you get to know him, but if you ever make him mad, he'll use his strength and his power to make you regret it. 

Oh yeah...he's also a robot.

The concept of Astro Boy was brought forth almost six decades ago.  In 1952, a man by the name of Osamu Tezuka drew up the sketch of Astro Boy, and in April of that year, the first appearance of Astro Boy was in a manga volume.

In case some of you are unfamiliar with the term manga, it's basically a Japanese comic book.  The word manga is loosely translated to 'whimsical drawings'.

And Osamu Tezuka was considered to be the 'God Of Manga' back in the day.  In addition to Astro Boy, he would also be linked to other animated series, such as Black Jack and Kimba The White Lion.

The manga proved to be a huge success in Japan.  So much so that in 1963, the manga series was adapted into a Japanese cartoon.  Below, you can see the original Astro Boy opening in Japanese.

Over the years, the show has been made and remade, and dubbed and redubbed so that a wider group of audiences could be entertained by Astro Boy.  The original series was brought to the United States shortly after the 1963 Japanese debut.  In 1980, a second version was made in Japan, and was brought over to North America in 1982 (which is the version that I grew up with).  A third version came out in 2003.

And in 2009, a computer animated version of Astro Boy was released in theatres, with Freddie Highmore as the voice of Astro.  So, Astro Boy is clearly one of those shows that have been seen by generations of kids.

So what was the appeal of Astro Boy?  And how did Astro Boy come to be made?

Due to various dubbings and translations from the original Japanese version, a lot of the origins of Astro Boy have been changed over the years, but the basic plotline remains the same.  Just for the sake of argument (and because there were a lot of changes from the original version and the 1980s version), I'm going to refer to the characters as they were referred in the 1980 series, just because it was the one I was most familiar with.  Though I'm sure if you want the original names of the characters, you could probably find them online somewhere.

Anyway, Astro Boy is set in the future, in a time where humans and robots live amongst one another.  The 1980 television series revealled that the Astro Boy series took place in Tokyo, Japan in the year 2030 (which considering that 2030 is less than twenty years away makes me feel old all of a sudden).  Astro Boy is created by a scientist named Doctor Tenma (though in the version I saw, he was named Astor Boyton II).  To cast a creepy shadow on Astro's creation, the robot was designed to look exactly like the deceased son of the scientist.  When Astro was first created, the man was initially kind and loving towards his creation, and showed him as much love as he could.  However, when it dawned on him that a robotic child could not fill the void of his lost son, he rejected his creation, and sold him to a nearby circus.

(Hey, it was Japanese want strangeness, go watch an episode of Sailor Moon.)

Eventually, Astro was rescued from circus life by the new interim head of the Ministry of Science, Professor Ochanomizu (or Dr. Elefun in America, or Professor Peabody in Canada) saw Astro in action, and decided to adopt the robot as his own.  The professor was a staunch robot-rights activist, and longed for a world where humans and robots lived side-by-side among each other in peace.  As Astro settled in to life with the professor, the professor treated him with kindness and warmth.  As time passed, the professor was surprised to notice that Astro had superior strength and skills, and that he was capable of showing human emotions, going against what Dr. Tenma insisted was an impossibility for a robotic boy.

From that moment on, Astro uses his powers to fight against evil and injustice.  His enemies were mostly robot-hating humans, out-of-control robotic machines, and even space invaders.

To make the series even more soap opera like, Astro was given an evil twin named Atlas.  The conflict between Astro and Atlas was a recurring theme during both the manga series and the television cartoon.

But, Astro had a lot of tricks up his sleeve and down his rocket powered red boots.  With over 100,000 horsepower and seven secret super powers, anyone who tangled with Astro was doomed from the very beginning.

And Astro wasn't exactly alone either.  As a gift to Astro, he was presented with a robotic sister named Uran (Sarah in the English localization), that the professor built for him.  Astro would also have 'parents' introduced to the series as well, to help him really feel like part of a family, which was important to him, since his original creator turned his back on him.

Still, you had to feel for Dr. Tenma.  As someone who is currently childless, I have absolutely no idea of what it would be like to have a child.  The idea of any father losing his child in a tragic way is absolutely horrible.  I can't even imagine how I would feel if I lost a child.

So, I guess I can see why Dr. Tenma worked so hard to try and create an exact duplicate of the child that he lost.  The fact that his son had actually given Dr. Tenma the idea to create a robot boy just before he died made him even more determined, as he was granting his child's final wish.

Of course, Dr. Tenma learned the hard way that nothing can ever replace a loved one.  Still, the way he abandoned Astro Boy was a bit cruel.  I understood why he did it, but I don't necessarily have to like it.

That's why when Astro was rescued by someone kind-hearted and patient, it was really cool to watch him grow and learn about the world, even though Astro was just a robot.  The professor didn't see him that way.  He knew there was something special about him, and he wanted to help him find out what it was.

I guess if there is a lesson that Astro Boy can provide for us to learn, it's that anybody can have an impact on someone, no matter how much of a wall they may put up for themselves.  The truly persistent and caring people of the world can find a way to break through those walls to bring out the greatness and inspiration that someone might not even be aware that they have.

And that's worth more than rocket powered boots in my honest opinion.

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