He’s massive in Japan, but many in the West have never heard of the man who once turned down Stanley Kubrick because he was “too busy” and inspired the likes of Sin City’s Frank Miller and Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki. Osamu Tezuka born in November 1928, is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in manga and anime, whose legacy reaches far beyond his own staggering output.
The Japanese artist often referred to as the ‘god of manga’ takes credit for the introduction of several key techniques that are ubiquitous today. Huge, expressive eyes? Check. The use of pen strokes to suggest movement? Check. Panning the camera over static scenes and cutting away to new ones quickly to give the illusion of speed without having to fork out for high animation fees? Yup. All of these elements are today what make anime anime.
One of his most enduring creations is the story of Astro Boy. The first time a cartoon show in Japan was based on a manga, and the first overseas cartoon to break into the American market, the show has continued to evolve in various forms, most recently in the 2009 Hollywood production featuring Charlize Theron, Nicolas Cage and Bill Nighy. While the movie was a flop, the manga has sold approximately 100 million copies worldwide, and those who grew up watching it on TV continue to recall it fondly – particularly the theme tune, which is impossible to get out of your head.
Astro Boy tells the story of an adorable little robot who is created by a ‘mad scientist’ when his own son is tragically killed in a car accident. He soon realises that a robot will never grow up like his own child would have, or exhibit any human characteristics. In one scene, Astro Boy gets way more excited by some mechanical cubes than by a bunch of flowers. The scientist gets angry and sells him to the circus.
Luckily, Astro Boy is saved from a life of spectacle and humiliation by Professor Ochanomizu, who detects his incredible superpowers and – unusually for a robot – emotional intelligence. Under his wing, Astro Boy flourishes as the crime-fighting, jet-pack flying, robot hero we all know and love him for.
Originally conceived in 1952 amidst the backdrop of postwar Japan and set in “the future”, it’s incredible to think that 66 years on so many of the themes which Tezuka explores through his drawings are more pertinent than ever. In Astro Boy, humans are both attracted to and repelled by robots. They rely on them for survival, and yet they resent them for their differences. Much is made in today’s papers about the imminent arrival of robots and AI, coming to “steal our jobs” and challenge the very nature of humanity. Technology’s propensity for both advancement and destruction is a hot topic that even its modern-day creators are looking to remedy. The fact that Astro Boy’s very existence came about because of a fault with a self-driving car was no accident.
It’s impossible not to read further into the ‘humans vs robots’ plot and pull out the clear messages Tezuka plants about discrimination. In the story, humans basically treat robots like property. Astro Boy himself was bought and sold like a slave, held in captivity at the circus until his rescue.
Despite mainly targeting a young audience, Tezuka doesn’t shy away from confronting some darker themes. Showing a child a story about a little boy who dies and is replaced by a robot, only to be sold by his own father, may seem like a strange choice, but it is done with strong sensitivity and is counterbalanced with all the selfless acts of saving the world that cement Astro Boy as the hero in the story. Indeed, with his doe-eyed appearance and intensely human behaviour, it’s easy to forget that Astro Boy is, after all, a robot. Perhaps Tezuka believed that technological advancement can, in fact, make us better humans, after all?
The simplicity of these black and white, good and evil tropes ensure Tezuka’s plot is grounded in a reality that’s universal across countries, races, ages and generations, while the layer of complexity on top makes it a sophisticated comment on the modern, industrialised society we live in.
Through Astro Boy, Tezuka forged a conversation between the East and the West, teaching us so much about artistic technique, different ways of seeing and the constant battle between good and evil that lies at the very heart of human nature.