Director: Kazuya Konaka
Creator: Osamu Tezuka
Scenario Writer: Chiaki J. Konaka
Studio: Dentsu and Tezuka Productions
I always have a difficult time writing about Astro Boy, since I never know how much my readers know about Astro. Tezuka built a large cast of characters and baked in several unique in-jokes.
So, if you’re not familiar: In the future, a scientist named Dr. Tenma loses his son in a traffic accident. As the head of Japan’s Ministry of Science, Tenma directs them to build a sentient super-robot which just happens to look exactly like his lost son. Upon completion, the robot–Atom in Japanese, Astro in the English adaptation–is not human enough for Tenma, who disowns Astro and disappears. Astro then lives a dual life, both trying to have a normal boy’s life of school and play, and fighting larger-than-life monsters, aliens, and criminals.
What makes it Thinking Anime?
As with so many Astro adaptations, much of this series focuses on villains-of-the-week, many of which introduce themes of injustice, bigotry, and greed. The last third of the show develops and focuses on a few major themes. The writers revisit themes that Tezuka explored, but in ways rarely seen in animation.
This version manages to capture all of the franchise’s major themes: prejudice, justice, moving forward with one’s life despite (and because of) adversity, and what it means to be human. Every episode has a moral, of course, but the major story arcs of the series build an overarching plot that probes those major themes in some detail.
And about those story arcs: Astro is stuck in the middle of all these problems (as usual). A group of robots decides to start a robotic freedom movement, creating their own independent state, led by a charismatic robot called the Blue Knight. This can be fruitfully compared with the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam: a frustrated, oppressed people are led by vocal, eloquent, and violent leaders to demand equal rights and, in the extreme, a separate state. (Not to suggest that the writers of Astro Boy had the Black Panthers in mind; just that parallels exist.)
Moreover, each side is represented by a large range of characters. Some humans are kind, some indifferent, and some evil. So, too, with the robots, most elegantly portrayed in episode 38.
Episode 38, “Battle-Bot,” deserves special mention. I call it their Gundam episode, as it includes many common Gundam story and visual motifs. A set of robots built as a family (to simulate family dynamics) is essentially scrapped. The daughter escapes, is recruited by the Blue Knight, and decides to have weapons grafted onto her body so she can fight to rescue her family. Astro pleads with her to avoid the procedure, as doing so will irrevocably change her. She goes ahead with the procedure anyway, leading to a poignant final scene in which we see that she is no longer their daughter. Her robot family still loves her, but she’s something different now; she’s not what they loved before. Which is a beautiful metaphor for growing up, but also for the terrible price that has to be paid for becoming a weapon. To preserve her family, she destroyed something vital to it.
(Of course, the family can continue in a different way now, but she was fighting very much for the family she remembered. Which would never be the same.)
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s the most satisfying, complete ending to any Tezuka work I’ve seen or read. Granted, Tezuka often didn’t want his endings to be particularly satisfying. His stories often end with tension and uncertainty about the future, which is part of his genius.
The 2003 series is smart enough to understand that it’s not a manga; the writers knew exactly how many episodes they were going to produce, so a concrete ending is appropriate. And what an ending.
Astro Boy 2003 not only adapts the Astro Boy story effectively, it does so with power and a unique take.