Osamu Tezuka is one of the great creative forces of the 20th century. Known in his native Japan as the “god of manga,” Tezuka was mind-bogglingly productive, cranking out around 170,000 pages of comics in his 60 years of life. He almost single-handedly made manga respectable to read for adults, creating tales that were both universal and emotionally complex. And he worked in pretty much every genre you can imagine from horror, to girly fantasy, to an epic series about the life of the Buddha. Yet of all of Tezuka’s many volumes of comics, his best beloved work was Tetsuwan Atomu, otherwise known as Astro Boy.
In 1962, Tezuka fulfilled a childhood dream by opening an animation studio. One of his first projects was to adapt was Astro Boy. The television series premiered in 1963 and proved to be hugely popular in Japan. It wasn’t long before American TV started airing dubbed versions of the show. You can see the very first episode, “Birth of Astro Boy,” above.
After his son dies in a freak car accident, scientist Dr. Astor Boynton is driven mad by grief. He develops an insane laugh and, with it, an equally insane plan to build a robot who looks just like his dead son. After a Frankenstein-esque montage, Astro Boy is born. All seems well for the adorable, sweet-natured robot, until Boynton freaks out over Astro Boy’s lack of growth. “I’ve been a good father to you, haven’t I?” he whines. “Well then, why can’t you be a good son to me and grow up to be a normal human adult?” How’s that for a parental guilt trip?
So Dr. Boynton casts Astro Boy out, selling him into slavery to The Great Cacciatore, an evil circus ringleader who forces him to be the world’s cutest robot gladiator. Fortunately, Dr. Elefun, a colleague of Dr. Boynton, takes pity on Astro Boy and works to free him from his bondage.
The whole story plays out as if Mary Shelley and Fritz Lang collaborated to make Dumbo. Tezuka throws in a lot of wacky slapstick comedy, which just barely takes the edge off the story’s Dickensian melodrama, which relentlessly mines all those primal fears you thought you got over. In short, it’s brilliant.
The series ran for two years in the States and then continued on re-runs thoughout the decade. One of the shows fans was apparently Stanley Kubrick. During the mid-60s, Kubrick sent Tezuka a letter asking if he would be interested in helping with the art direction and design of his new movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The offer would have required that Tezuka spend a year or more in London. Though greatly flattered, Tezuka turned the offer down. The workaholic artist simply couldn’t spend that much time away from his studio. One has to wonder what Kubrick’s masterpiece would have looked like seen through the prism of Tezuka.
In 2001, Steven Spielberg premiered a movie that was a long gestating project of Kubrick’s – the wildly underrated A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The parallels between that movie, about a robot child cast out by his parents into a cruel world, and Astro Boy are striking. Kubrick, as it turns out, might have been even a bigger fan of the God of Manga than previously thought.
Here’s the trailer for A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.