As an enthusiast of several artistic mediums, I have been a part of many varying fandoms and written about them over the years. One common element in these fandoms is an appreciation for the older works in certain genres. This is something I have found very different when it comes to anime fans. Shows become less sought after the older they are and fans tend to stay in their comfort zone gravitating to the newer and more talked about shows whose art styles are clean and modern. Many shows from the early 2000’s that were staples when I first became an enthusiast seem to be lost on newer fans and aside from a few nostalgic titles from the Toonami era the 90’s are hardly touched. So what about the 80’s, 70’s or even the first wave of black & white televised anime in the 60’s? While I complain about this ignorance in the fan base, I have yet to dig too far into this area of anime myself. So I decided to take a journey and explore the origins of this medium I hold so dear.
What gets the honor of being considered the first anime? If you look hard enough there are plenty of shorts dating as far back as the 1910’s all the way through World War Two propaganda pieces that use primitive animation techniques that are by definition “anime”. There are several movies, even some in color, that were being produced by studio giants such as Toei through the late 50’s and early 60’s such as “The Tale of the White Serpent” & one of my personal favorites “Alakazam the Great”. In 1961 there was the first Japanese animated television program “Otogi Manga Calendar”, which aired short 3 minute episodes daily for almost a year. Yet when it comes to anime as we see it now, we have a lot of respect to pay to the original 1963 run of Astro Boy.
Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu), which was written and directed by the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka, founded the base of anime as we see it today. One of the more noticeable of these is the adaptation of an original manga into an animated series, manga adaptations are still to this day where a good portion of our anime comes from. The structure of animation studios and how shows are produced from the idea of weekly episodic stories to opening and closing can see their seeds here as well. While there were a few oddities that had television airings before, after Astro Boy is when you start to see shows get aired on television on a regular basis with several greats airing shortly after such as Gigantor and Prince Planet and anime has continued on television for over 50 years later. For these reasons it can be safe to call Astro Boy in many respects the first modern anime. So now that we got why I’m starting with Astro Boy for this discussion let us get to what the show is.
Astro Boy first hit Japanese airways on new year’s 1963 and lasted almost 4 years with 193 episodes. Astro Boy also made short work in making its way over to the west by airing a very interesting and faithful English dubbed version created by Fred Ladd for national television on NBC starting in 1964 lasting 104 episodes. The show is more akin to what we see in traditional cartoons in many ways, but has a very dark undertone in many of its jokes that can be both psychological and social commentaries. The first episode deals with the death of the kid that Astro Boy was modeled after (cleverly named Astor Boynton) and the obsessive working of the boy’s father to create a new son in his image. When this new son named “Astro Boy” doesn’t grow or act as the other kids his father sales him into an implied slavery by a circus owner who mistreats his robot workers till the episode ends with civil rights given to robots. The mature themes do not stop there as with episode two Astro Boy has a scene that can be described as a psychological breakdown with him questioning both his humanity and abandonment issues to later on be discriminated against for committing crimes just because he is a robot. While these issues stuck out to me they are still presented in a very cartoony and comedic fashion leaving any dark undertones to be found under the surface. The creators of the English version opted out of several episodes due to being too “cruel or grotesque”, considering what was aired I really want to see what had to be cut. As of yet in my viewing there is no overreaching story arch and each episode keeps with the theme of a standalone adventure where Astro Boy saves the day, sometimes with a cheesy fourth wall breaking line to end the show such as “Time to move on to my next adventure!” or something along the same lines.
Even though the show is very much a cartoon it is one of the best ones I have seen, featuring very artistically creative designs in both the robots and humans he encounters, a trait that is common through most of Tezuka’s works. The settings per episode also feature amazing art direction and range from a journey through space and Mars to a Middle Eastern desert. Characters act wacky and your suspension of disbelief pretty much has to go out the window when people hilariously survive gun shots to the head Looney Toons style. The animation chugs in quality throughout leading to very funny and humorous fight scenes with the bad guy of the week or simply lazy looking still frames. Being a very early analogue show the quality of the digital transfer varies per episode with some looking clean and crisp while others, particular when it comes to audio, are a lot muddier. Yet while mainly being a kid’s show, I can see how the next generation of animators, writers and directors who grew up with shows such as this took the underlying themes presented before to make the more mature style of anime we see today.
The original 104 episode English run of Astro Boy is currently streaming legally on Manga Entertainment’s YouTube channel and has been released on two limited edition dvd sets by Right Stuf which include several episodes in Japanese including one, the last, non-English run episode. What shocks me the most though is while the complete run in Japanese has had a dvd release, there is no notable complete fansub to my knowledge. For a show that holds so much history one would assume this would be a project worth completing for anime historians especially in a day and age where anything current no matter the quality has at least one group subbing it. The massive 193 episode count can be the reason for this as well as what hinders most fans from checking it out. While the first two episodes took a little while for me to get interested I have since been enjoying a fun adventure here and there. It is by no means a show to be marathoned, but I plan on seeing it in full at a pace of an episode a day or so. It might not be why you got into anime but it is definitely worth at least checking out an episode if for nothing more than historical context.
Astro Boy as a franchise is still coming back occasionally with remakes of the series in 1980 and 2003 as well as an American made cgi film in 2009 that while good unfortunately bombed in the box office. The same English version of the show from 1964 aired in part on Adult Swim through 2007-2008 and had one episode played to end Toonami’s april fool’s revival.
Depending on how things go I am contemplating continuing this as a series of articles, no promises!