Anime series don't come much bigger or more iconic than the 1960s show Astro Boy.
Astro Boy, known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atom, did not emerge fully formed as an animated cartoon. His origin stems from a manga series by Japan's "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka had an incredibly prolific career, penning over 700 different comic titles in his lifetime, but perhaps none of his works have made as much of an impact on anime at large as Tetsuwan Atom.
Here are some of the most enduring anime things that we have Tetsuwan Atom to thank for.
Adapted from the original manga
After the Tetsuwan Atom manga became a phenomenon in Japan, plans emerged to adapt it for television. However, the first iteration of a Tetsuwan Atom show wasn't the 1963 black and white cartoon series so beloved by people around the world. That honor went to a live-action adaptation which first started airing in 1959. The popularity of the Godzilla films spearheaded a type of Japanese live-action entertainment called "tokusatsu," which emphasized action, elaborate costumes, and special effects. Godzilla might have started the ball rolling, but by the late '50s, giant monsters gave way to masked superheroes, and it looked like Tetsuwan Atom would fit right in with those heroes.
As you can probably guess from that clip, Tezuka wasn't satisfied with the live-action version and founded an animation studio named Mushi Productions to help realize his vision of a Tetsuwan Atom television series. This was the very first time a cartoon show in Japan was based on a manga, and if you look at the anime landscape today, many anime series are based on popular manga titles. It's even reached the point to where the shows are only meant to last for a single season and serve as advertising for the original source material, which can get a little frustrating if the original manga isn't yet available in English.
Its visual look influenced all anime shows to date
Originally, the animation industry in Japan looked to films from China and the US as inspiration for rich, fluid, life-like animation. Tezuka changed that all with Tetsuwan Atom. Seeking a unique style that echoed the aesthetics of his own comic panels, Tezuka boiled the essence of animation down to the bare minimum. The studio's use of limited animation was a cost-cutting measure which placed most of the focus not on the visuals, but on the story itself. This allowed the studio to adapt epic comic book plots with a small budget. The recycling of individual animation cels, panning the camera over static cels to suggest movement, quick cuts between scenes, and those lightning-quick mouth flaps which voice actors have to dub over, rather than the time-consuming process of animating to match the voice work. All of these things are elements which, today, make anime look like anime, and all of them first popped up in Tetsuwan Atom.
Take a look at the character of Astro Boy himself. The wide eyes and adorable features pretty much echo a Disney character. Even the spikes in Astro Boy's hair resemble Mickey Mouse's ears. And that's not a mistake. Tezuka always acknowledged Disney as a major influence in his own artwork. Those large, expressive eyes and cute faces are still found on anime characters today.
Sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes.
Yes, Kanon, I'm talking about you!
He's a robot. Duh.
Anime just wouldn't be the same without robots. Gigantic robots controlled by humans, like in the Gundam franchise. Robots that combine with other robots to make even bigger robots, like in Voltron. Sentient robots like in Ghost in the Shell. Robots and anime go together like chocolate and peanut butter. So is it really a shocker that the very first popular anime series would also feature a robot as its lead?
Tezuka definitely had an agenda in making his adorable hero a machine. Despite showing a clean, bright, enlightened future, many humans treat robots like property. Astro Boy himself was bought and sold and practically treated like a slave. It's easy to assume that Tezuka wished the plight of the robots to echo the plight of any number of disenfranchised groups. Anti-robot sentiment can be easily interpreted as racism, for example. And the fact that only the rich are allowed to "own" robots places a spotlight on the one-percenters versus the working class. Many robots in anime now serve the same purpose as Astro Boy did back then: to shed a spotlight on injustice.
It's Pinocchio ... but ... like ... he's a robot?
That's some elevator pitch, Tezuka.
So, a brilliant scientist loses his son in a car accident and decides to build a robot in his image. Unlike Pinocchio, however, the relationship between creator and creation doesn't go very well. The scientist realizes that the robot could never truly replace his dead son (there's a certain human trait called "growing up" which robots can't undergo) and then disowns him and sells him to a circus, where he's eventually found by another genius roboticist who, thankfully, is much more sympathetic than Astro Boy's creator. Astro's rescued from having to fight in a Battlebots-like arena and starts a new life with his new, adoptive father. So, like, it's Pinocchio but he's a robot and also Geppetto's a gigantic douchecanoe.
Tetsuwan Atom isn't the only anime series that's basically a classic story set against a wildly different backdrop. Gankutsuou is just Count of Monte Cristo in space, replete with opulent spaceships and planets. Samurai 7 is an anime adaptation of Seven Samurai but set in a far-off future where the bandits are cyborgs and most of the samurai hired to protect the village have cybernetic enhancements. An anime series called Gilgamesh is influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh, and even the Fate franchise includes a gaggle of legendary heroes (think King Arthur, Hercules, Alexander the Great) transported to the present to fight in gladiatorial combat. Anime's always repurposing the past, but Tetsuwan Atom was the first.
The reluctant hero
As Astro continues with his adventures, he eventually grows disillusioned by his very existence. Why should he keep on helping people, if bad things continue to happen to them? Why is he the only one who seems destined to fight? He was created as a replacement for a human being, so why does he even have weapons? Why do so many of his fellow robots he encounters turn out to be evil?
His own misgivings about his super powers gave rise to a plethora of reluctant heroes. From Amuro Ray in Mobile Suit Gundam to Neon Genesis Evangelion's Shinji Ikari, anime is filled with characters who would rather be doing anything else than the thing that they're destined to do. Thanks, Astro Boy, for inspiring generation upon generation of the angsty anime protagonists.
We are all very lucky that these young men tend to suffer so prettily.
This is kinda dark for a cartoon, isn't it?
Although Tezuka's original manga and anime series were aimed at young audiences, that didn't stop Tetsuwan Atom from getting pretty dark. And while Astro is always shown saving the day, the fact that awful, violent things still happen to good people in the bright and optimistic future of 2001 made the show too intense for 1960s kiddie fare, at least in the U.S. The American distributor only dubbed about 100 episodes of the nearly 200 episode series because the company didn't know how these episodes could air on American television stations without heavy editing and alterations.
In fact, Tezuka was initially surprised when his animation studio started to receive notes from the American distributor since he had no idea that television standards and practices were different between the two countries. Anime, ultimately, isn't just for kids, but it took a pretty long time for American distributors to figure that out.
Which brings us to ...
The overseas adaptation
Tetsuwan Atom was the first overseas cartoon to break into the American market, most likely because it touched on a lot of the concerns and interests of the time. The space race was going on full steam ahead, and science fiction was capturing young kids' imaginations. And, come on. Astro is a robot kid who flies around rescuing people and having adventures. That kind of premise easily crosses borders and cultures. It definitely wouldn't be the last time an American distributor would take a Japanese cartoon and adapt it for the US market.
The man responsible for Astro Boy's success in America, Fred Ladd, went on to help bring other old-school anime classics to the US. These include Jungle Emperor (which became Kimba the White Lion in the US, and the inadvertent inspiration for Disney's Lion King), Tetsujin 28 (which became Gigantor), Mach Gogogo (which became Speed Racer) and even the first Sailor Moon anime back in the '90s. Astro Boy sparked America's fascination with anime, which continues to this day.
The advertising mascot
Tetsuwan Atom isn't just the first anime series to become popular; he became a phenomenon, an icon, and a symbol for progress which still resonates in Japan today. The original Tetsuwan Atom series was sponsored by the Meiji Confectionary Company, and eventually, the anime became so popular that Meiji started inserting Tetsuwan Atom stickers into their boxes of candy, Cracker Jack-style. This is probably the first instance in Japan of having an anime character help sell a brand, but it wouldn't be the last. Character advertising grew to such an extent that Sanrio, home of Hello Kitty, made a name for itself just on the strength of its adorable characters with no anime or manga to fall back on.
The Tokyo Olympics is ramping up for their turn in 2020, and as such, Japan is co-opting its most popular cultural export: anime. Standing tall among other Japanese anime ambassadors like Sailor Moon, Monkey D. Luffy, and Naruto Uzumaki is Tetsuwan Atom. Good old Astro Boy. He's only anime ambassador from a franchise earlier than the '80s, but he is still so beloved and well-known around the world that there would probably be lots of angry Internet think pieces if he'd been left out.
They. Just. Keep. Making. More.
2017 marks the 65th anniversary of the Tetsuwan Atom manga series, but the character still connects with people today. He's the unlikely anime hero. He's the robot who yearns for humanity. He's taught us the meaning of being human for decades, and he's not entirely done with that message just yet. Atom: The Beginning is a brand-new anime series which premieres in April 2017 and suggests a revised origin story for our favorite robot boy. Astro's Disney-esque features are gone, replaced by an unfinished frame more reminiscent of a certain Star Wars protocol droid. Only a few of the most enduring anime series are worthy of a franchise that's still going strong decades after it started. Gundam did it. Lupin III did it. Ghost in the Shell did it. But Tetsuwan Atom did it first.
You'd assume that with several different anime series under his belt that there would be no new angles to his story, but you'd be wrong. Atom: The Beginning asks a simple question: should robots be our friends, or should robots be our gods? Two scientists on opposite sides of the question collaborate to create a robot that would answer it, and Atom is the result. He's no longer boyish, but he still retains his heroic heart and his love of humanity. He seems to be a singularly unique creation in this series since all the other robots shown in the trailer are doing menial jobs and not saving the world. Here, Atom represents a scientific leap of faith, the next iteration of robotics, and the ushering in of a golden age for humanity.
So the next time you settle in to watch a Japanese anime series, be sure to spare a thought for everyone's favorite kid robot, Astro Boy, and know that he loves you too.