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The Mike Toole Show -The Astro Boy Next Door

by Mike Toole,

I've been watching that new Heroic Legend of Arslan TV series lately. The show was an easy sell for me-- I like the works of original creator Yoshiki Tanaka, who gave us Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I like the Arslan OVA series from the early 1990s, with its sumptuous animation. I like Hiromu Arakawa's Fullmetal Alchemist. So when you present me with a TV adaptation of Arakawa's manga adaptation of Tanaka's famous novels? Yeah, sure, I'll hop right aboard that train.

It's interesting to see remakes like Arslan, which differ so significantly from earlier media. The majority of my friends who've seen the old version have had some praise for the new TV series, but still bemoaned the loss of Yoshitaka Amano's distinctive, beautiful character designs. I like those designs, but I feel like Amano's work is a product of its time-- Arakawa's take on heroes like Darun and villains like Silver Mask isn't as lavish, but the look and feel of the characters still seems natural to me. When a book or comic makes the trip to film, sometimes that evolution is halting or weird or surprising. The first Jojo's Bizarre Adventure felt that way to me-- it was obvious that the creative team wanted to give it a slightly different feel from the original manga, but the shift went against my expectations. I still have a hard time watching Saint Seiya Omega because I'm so accustomed to those good old Shingo Araki character designs from the 80s series. But the truth is, I'm not here this time to discuss those the evolution shows. I wanna talk about how Astro Boy's evolved over the years.

Sure, I've talked Astro Boy before. I did entire columns on black and white TV anime, and on the animated works of Osamu Tezuka. But a few recent projects and leads drew me back to Astro Boy-- back to its various TV iterations, and back to it in some other media, as well. I was reading a Cartoon Research piece by animation historian Charles Brubaker about the “lost” episode of the '63 black and white Astro Boy, an episode I remember buying on VHS something like fifteen years ago. In his piece, Brubaker points out an interesting truth about the episode-- it was farmed out to a subcontractor studio, and for whatever reason, a whole bunch of Tezuka's manga compatriots from Tokiwa Sou, his apartment building/incubator/flophouse for young manga artists, drew keyframes. There's artwork by Shotaro Ishinomori and Jiro Tsunoda, artwork that was never corrected to the character models for the series, so it's easy to tell that it's their work.

Tezuka hated the episode, and it's easy to understand why. If you look at his original Astro Boy manga, his drawing line and eye for detail are both incredibly, outrageously refined and consistent. Even his simple works for kids are evidence that the guy was a genius. And while the 1963 Astro Boy, the first ongoing TV anime ever, can get pretty visually primitive during its sprawling 159-episode run, it usually manages to stay on model, thanks to Tezuka's watchful eye. Thanks to the miracle of modern science, you can watch this episode-- at least, provided you're in the United States or can get around Youtube's geo-locks. Per Brubaker, the “lost” episode was destroyed in Japan on Tezuka's orders, but not until after a copy of the film was sent to Fred Ladd and NBC Films for dubbing into English. That copy survived, and the episode was saved-- later, the images would be synced up with an audio recording of the Japanese episode, so fans of either version could get their fix of something Tezuka really didn't want anyone to see..

I'm glad this is the case, because this episode is awesome. It's cheap, bizarre, and filled with inconsistent animation and design mistakes, yet it's still full of hilarious gags and compulsively watchable. It's kinda like that John Kricfalusi Yogi Bear cartoon, with its constantly shifting character designs. There's an incredibly peculiar depiction of a cattle freakout/stampede, and at one point Mr. Pompous, the show's mustachioed teacher figure, is being briefed about a monster from millions of years ago. “Did they have cigarettes back then?!” he asks querulously, puffing away on one furiously, neatly marking the era in which the series was produced in a single moment.Later, he'd get in a gunfight. Mr. Pompous is awesome.

I suppose Dr. Tezuka was correct and this Astro Boy episode is “bad” from a quality control standpoint, but it's still a ton of fun to watch. If you've never actually watched Astro Boy '63, it still communicates everything that was good and fun about that series. Brubaker's article cites additional missing episodes, but those were eventually located and are included in the 2008 Tetsuwan Atom Complete Box. There's actually a fair bit of “lost anime” out there, but Astro Boy '63 is no longer part of it. There is one part of the Astro Boy pantheon that is kinda-sorta lost, and that's Star of the Giants vs Astro Boy.

See that image above? Yep, that's Hyuma Hoshi, doing baseball stuff with Mighty Atom himself. As part of a 1969 TV special, 20 minutes of Astro Boy squaring off on the baseball diamond against the famed Yomiuri Giants was created. The Anime Encyclopedia says that this special was dubbed and included in overseas broadcasts of Astro Boy, but I can't find any evidence of this. What I can tell you is that this film still exists, in Tezuka Productions' vaults. They dust it off and do screenings of it every once in a while, reminding us all that it still exists and we can't have it. There's actually a lot of stuff in the Tezuka vaults like this-- one-off specials, unsold and unfinished pilots, that kinda stuff. I guess what I'm saying is, if someone wants to collaborate on a heist of their film vaults, count me in.

Almost twenty years after Mushi Production's fumbling, trailblazing original, Tezuka Productions kicked out a full-color re-imagining of the popular boy robot hero. Tezuka had actually already crash-landed a new color Astro Boy a few years prior, when a planned TV series hit the skids. He actually managed to bang the wreckage of that show into the quite serviceable self-made knockoff Jetter Mars. But a few years on, in 1980, the Astro Boy revival happened for real. The show's not a perfect ten-- it's awfully talky and preachy at times. But if you balance it against pretty much everything coming out at the time, it's one of the most consistently good-looking TV anime of the 1980s. Other shows of the time occasionally have off episodes, or animation mistakes, or recap episodes, but not Astro Boy 1980.

One thing about Astro Boy '80 stands out, and that's its two-part adaptation of Tezuka's manga story “The Greatest Robot in the World,” which would later serve as the basis for Naoki Urasawa's Pluto manga. If you've read that superb manga, seek out and watch this two-parter immediately-- it's a very good adaptation of Tezuka's original manga chapters, full of exciting battles and a vivid depiction of the antagonistic robot's flawed, troubled character. This good-looking series has been digitally remastered, and you can tell-- the official videos from Viki look damn good. But why is this Astro Boy cartoon on my mind lately? Well, I've been looking for the dubbed version.

No, not the dub that came on the DVD version, I've had that for ages. That's a good, solid dub, with minimal changes and fun adaptations of the opening and ending tunes. It took me years to figure this out through conversations with frustrated pals from up north, but Canada actually got a completely separate dub of Astro Boy 1980. Maybe this was to satisfy those Canadian Content requirements? Anyway, this completely divergent dub (episodes are fairly faithful but full of name changes-- Uran is called Cindy, and Professor Ochanomizu is Professor Peabody, for example, and there are a lot of weird little edits) aired on CBC and later Global TV, and then seemed to vanish completely. In a world awash with tape-traded home video recordings, commercial releases, and youtube leaks, these episodes are a humongous bitch to find. You can hear why Canadian fans are so anxious to find this dub-- the voices are awfully charming, complete with a real, authentic little kid voicing Astro Boy himself.

Astro Boy was remade in color for obvious reasons-- there was an appetite for it. The show did well on Japanese TV and was successfully packaged for export and aired all over the world. But it turns out that this wasn't the only color Astro Boy that came out decades after the original black and white. In 1994, a production company was enlisted by parties unknown to colorize the original TV series. This was smack in the middle of a period when colorization-- taking old black and white film and TV and adding color to the film to make them seem like they're IN LIVING COLOR-- was really in vogue, which was fascinating to watch unfold because colorization is generally a hideous and destructive process. My favorite example is the “Moroder cut” of Fritz Lang's legendary Metropolis; sure, the soundtrack is great, but the attempt to color this classic of black and white cinema looks like crap.

Anyway, bits of the colorization test eventually found their way onto Youtube. Honestly, this version doesn't look too bad to me, but it still doesn't justify heavily altering the original. This video is an interesting little mutt of a product, though. Colorization isn't cheap, but someone must've thought that original series had some mileage in it. Right Stuf eventually got the entire series out in its crackling, dynamic black and white, which is probably for the best.

My favorite version of Astro Boy is the one that's the biggest pain in the ass to get-- the 2003 TV series that was hugely hyped and aired all around the globe. Remember when it was on TV in the United States? It was on Kids WB! for about five or six weeks, then quietly dumped on Cartoon Network, and then moved out to pasture on the old Jetix channel. The show's gorgeous 16:9 presentation was chopped to 4:3, the orchestral soundtrack was replaced with dreadful DOOMP DOOMP DOOMP techno, dialogue was rewritten to Sony's weird specifications (example: Astro Boy is a hero, and so can never be wrong or exhibit doubt about anything!), aired out of sequence, and never actually finished. Firefly fans might get salty about their show getting the boot from TV, but this show is what I get salty about.

Why? It's damn good, that's why. Astro Boy 2003 boasts a team of all-stars in production (Osamu Dezaki drew all the storyboards! Guys like Chiaki Konaka and Sadayuki Murai wrote the scripts! Chiaki's brother Kazuya directed!) and a zippy, playful, action-packed tone as a result. The first couple of dozen episodes-- which is all I've seen to date-- are a remarkable mix of adventure and comedy for kids, surprisingly biting social commentary about robot rights, and some real conflict. With the official home video release reflecting the above changes, I ordered the first couple of discs from South Korea because they were largely uncut and had English subtitles. I never did have a chance to order any more, though-- the DVDs had vanished from the primary market by the time I came around to collect more. It's funny; every time a version of Astro Boy goes to TV, some sort of monkey business, be it “lost” episodes, an alternate dub, or a shoddy adaptation, happens. I still want to see the rest of the series, too. I've had some pals who hunted the whole thing down complain that it gets a little too dark late on, but I dunno, man-- I've got all 23 volumes of Dark Horse's Astro Boy manga release, and if you ask me, that darkness is right there in the pages.

There's also that 2009 Imagi CG film, which remains fairly well-known as the movie that bankrupted its studio. As a product, the 2009 Astro Boy is a fascinating mess, a Hail Mary pass in movie form, meant to succeed and bring Imagi out of their financial woes. There's an alternate universe where Biff stole the sports almanac and rules the world, but in that universe, Astro Boy was a runaway hit, leaving Imagi to go bankrupt only after completing their proposed Gatchaman and Gigantor CG films, which flopped instead. Honestly, it's not such a terrible film. Not only does it feature Nicolas Cage as Astro's “dad” Dr. Tenma, I think its plot and visual quality are fine. It still “feels” like Astro Boy. The movie's problem is in the script, which is an absolute disaster. Every character talks way too much in this film, even the ones with no dialogue at all. If you can stomach that, at least this Astro Boy is easy and inexpensive to track down.

Know what happened last year? An all-new version of Astro Boy aired on television, in English. Titled Little Astro Boy” this almost completely unheralded 8-episode children's cartoon was produced by Tezuka Productions and the Nigerian TV station Channels Television, and aired last March and April. I watched a single episode on Youtube back then, and found a zippy, fun cartoon that makes Astro himself an even younger robot boy (in the regular series he seems 11 or 12; here, it's more like 7 or 8) and puts him into all sorts of zany adventures with both Tezuka regulars like Hamegg and a bunch of new characters. When this series came out, I figured it wouldn't be too long before there was a TV airing or DVD release in this neck of the woods. It was put in the shop window at MIPCom, the international TV licensing show… and then vanished without a trace.

Actually, there are a few traces out there, mostly in the form of tumblr postings and this discussion thread courtesy of a tight-knit, vibrant community of Astro Boy fans, who talked about the series at length as it aired. Yomiuri TV and Tezuka Productions are on the committee, so this is actually a series that could've ended up on the recently-shuttered AnimeSols streaming service, but it hasn't happened. Will Little Astro Boy get the international release it deserves, or be consigned to the growing pile of stuff that Tezuka Productions never quite gets around to releasing? I'm hoping for the former.

That brings us up to now, and a proposed live-action Astro Boy feature film. I'm skeptical, not just because of the excited comparisons to Iron Man (Astro Boy is nothing like Iron Man), but because there's no director, cast, or script, and photography hasn't begun yet. I've weathered a lot of live-action anime films in my day, most of which never materialized. I'm certainly not sure this one will. But despite that, I'm happy that there's interest, and grateful that Astro Boy endures. In the press materials for Little Astro Boy, Tezuka Productions described their famous hero as sort of an embodiment of Esperanto, a character that crosses cultural borders. That's a terribly weird comparison to make, but I agree with the underlying premise: Astro Boy himself has become something of a common language, an idea that carries over across global culture. Each successive iteration brings visual and storytelling changes, but the underlying idea of an immensely powerful robot kid who just wants humans and 'bots to co-exist in peace endures. Whatever form it might take, I'm looking forward to the next version of Astro Boy we get!

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