Insights from the Author of 'The Astro Boy Essays'
On October 23, an icon of Japanese pop culture and manga will make his way to the big screen. Astro Boy, product of "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka, was created in the early 1950s and has remained adored by Japan ever since. The Sci-Fi Block was able to steal some time from Tezuka expert Frederik L. Schodt for an in-depth phone interview back in August. Schodt is, among other things, a manga translator, the author of The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution, and the recent recipient of Japan's Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette award. Schodt provides some insight into Tezuka, Astro Boy, and the popularity of the beloved character.
SFB: Hi, Fred. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.
Frederik Schodt: Hi, Robert. Thanks for calling.
SFB: Astro Boy is something of a phenomenon in Japanese pop culture. Why is it that this character appeals so greatly to readers? How has he been able to last so long?
Frederik Schodt: I think there’s a lot of elements to that. In Japan of course one factor is that it was one of the first sort of nationally popular characters right after the end of World War II, so it has this sort of pioneering quality. And then it was also not only one of the first manga characters to achieve that kind of national popularity, but it also was turned into Japan’s first weekly animated thirty-minute television series, so it was also pioneering in that regard. And then above and beyond the pioneering aspect, of course, there’s the popularity of the character design; I think there’s something about the design of the character that people love. It’s really appealing, just the way it’s composed. And it’s cute, but it’s also different. It looks like a little boy, but it’s also a machine – it’s a robot – so it’s a very unique character. And then, I think, the third thing is that the story itself is very appealing to a lot of people – especially children.
And, of course its popularity has grown over the years as more and more people are exposed to the story and it’s recycled in different formats as the generations have turned over so that at this point Astro Boy – or in Japan, of course, he’s known as Tetsuwan Atomu, or “Mighty Atom” -- he’s really sort of a national icon, you might say, on the scale of Mickey Mouse, or Donald Duck, or our most popular comic and animations characters here. So, children, for example, when they go to school, they’ll often go to sporting events, and they’ll play the theme song for the Astro Boy animation and that sort of thing. It’s something that people – even if they’re not familiar with the details of the story – they know the character, and they’re very familiar with the overall construct of the story.
SFB: As you said, part of his appeal is his character. He’s a young boy, he’s a very innocent character. That highlights the fact that he was created for a very young audience, but as we’ve seen, people of all ages have fallen in love with him. Do you think that this is a character that’s best appreciated by young children and that adults sort of just like him for the cuteness factor, or is there something really there for mature audiences?
Frederik Schodt: You know, the audience was obviously boys who were around – I think Tezuka started creating the manga series around 1951-52, and the target age was probably around ten-, eleven-year-old boys, and it has broadened beyond that, of course. When it was animated for TV in 1963, then of course it became really popular not just among boys but girls and family; it became a very popular sort of family show. But I think that now there’s several elements to the popularity because it’s still very appealing to small children, but actually it goes much beyond small children just because of the longevity of the character. You have generations that have turned over, they’ve grown up with it. And there’s kind of a nostalgic component for people who were watching television as young children, or even teenagers, in 1963 or ’64. Now they’re adults, and they have their own children, and they’re passing on their like of the Astro Boy story and character to a new generation.
And then I think there’s also this element where – actually if you go back and you read the original stories that Tezuka created, you can see that he was trying to entertain himself while he was creating these stories, so many of them are actually multi-layered and multi-leveled in their sophistications, and they can be enjoyed by small children, but many of the themes that he was pursuing were actually very sophisticated, and surprisingly so, given that they were targeted at nine-, ten-, eleven-year-old boys. Many of the themes are very provocative, I think, even for adults today. The style in which the story was drawn, if you go back and read them now it sometimes seems a little bit cramped and dense in terms of text because it was almost sixty years ago. But many of the stories, the episodes that he wrote and drew, have a lot to say to us today about things that you wouldn’t expect, things that transcend what you would expect in children’s manga or children’s comics because he’s talking about very serious issues, such as coexistence between man and machine and ethical issues, ecological issues. There are even episodes that sort of hint and foreshadow some of the problems we have today with terrorism. So, that’s one of the things to me that actually is so remarkable about the story – is that if you go back and read the original manga – and I’m not speaking of the animation, which most people are familiar with – but if you go back and you read the original stories that Tezuka created, many of them are quite shocking in their sophistication.
Astro Boy in action.
SFB: Obviously, Astro Boy is much bigger in Japan than in the U.S., mostly because that’s where he was created. Do you think the character’s appeal is something that only the Japanese can really “get,” or do you think that if, given a fair chance, Astro Boy could be just as big in America as he has been in the East?
Frederik Schodt: I think that, you know, Astro Boy is always going to be bigger in Japan, just as Mickey Mouse and Donald duck will probably always be bigger in the United States than they will be in, say, China or Japan. But Astro Boy is a very global character at this point, and it’s one of the more successful exports of manga/anime characters that Japan has. You know, it’s quite well-known in China, certainly Hong Kong, [and] Thailand. People are very familiar with it. And also the manga has appeared in France, and there are a lot of Astro Boy fans around the world. That stated, I think that there are certain elements to the story and certain elements to the character that probably will always make it more popular in Japan, though, just because robots are more popular in Japan, and there’s a much longer tradition of this kind of cute android characters in Japan than there is here.
SFB: Do you think that Astro Boy sort of inspired the Japanese robot craze, or was it the other way around? Do you think he was the product of that, or sort of the cause?
Frederik Schodt: Astro Boy was not the product of robot craze in Japan because in 1951, ’52, when he was created, there were very few robot characters in Japanese fantasy. People had been exposed, you know, before the war, to R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and that isn’t a comic or a novel anything, but it’s a stage production, so there were people who are aware of the same sort of robot stories or golem kind of stories that people in the West had been exposed to, but there were very few specifically robot characters in any Japanese fantasy until Tezuka created Astro Boy.
But you could also say that Astro Boy is not really the father of many of the fantasy robots in Japan because many of the fantasy robots in Japan are actually not really robots. People often get confused because they look at something like Gundam, and the Japanese word for “Gundam” is “Robot,” but technically speaking, the sort of giant warrior robots, many of them are not actually robots, but they’re giant exoskeletons, and they have human pilots, so they’re not truly autonomous.
Astro Boy is really the -- in Japan, at least -- the pioneer of the sort of android, truly autonomous robot. And there have been other characters created in that tradition in Japan but not as many as there are of the giant warrior robots which, technically, are not really robots [laughs]. And that may confuse your audience, but when I think of a robot, a true robot would be autonomous, would be able to operate on its own. Many of the giant warrior robots that are referred to as robots are really either piloted by humans inside or they’re operated by remote control in some way, so they’re in sort of a different category.
SFB: I think that’s an important distinction to make: that you have the real robots like Astro Boy that tend to lend themselves toward better stories, and then you kind of have, like you said, the Gundam, quote, “robots,” that aren’t really robots. They’re just giant exoskeletons that are cool and all that, but as far as those elements themselves, it’s a lot more difficult to craft an interesting story because really it’s just a suit.
Frederik Schodt: Yeah, you know, the interesting thing is I think the giant warrior robot genre is so popular in Japan is because it is a giant suit, and you can put yourself inside the suit, and for toy manufacturers, of course, that’s been just a gold mine because they can manufacture all these toys, and little boys can imagine themselves being inside the toys [laughs]. So, Astro Boy’s different in that sense, and, of course, the real challenge with creating an android robot, like Astro Boy, and one of the reasons that there aren’t as many android robot characters in Japan as there are giant warrior robots is that when you create an android, or humanoid robot, if you make it too human-like, then it’s confusing to the reader or the viewer because it looks just like another human. If you make it too machine-like, then people can’t relate to it. So, there’s a real kind of fine line for people who are creating android robot characters that they have to follow. And I think one of the successes of Tezuka, at least as Astro Boy is concerned, is that he was sort of able to hit the sweet spot. Everybody knew that Astro Boy was a robot, but they could also imagine him as a little boy as well.
SFB: As you explain in your book The Astro Boy Essays, every now and then Tezuka would cave into the times and alter the character a little bit to fit in better with the popular tastes of the period, making him more adult-like or more violent or whatever the case may be. This essentially always backfired. On the other hand you have some pop culture characters, in Japan and America, that adjust throughout the years to fit in with the times – Godzilla is an example of that – and sometimes that actually works out. Why do you think readers have been so demanding that Astro Boy stay true to his roots?
Frederik Schodt: Well, I think it’s because the character has been established and that it caught on in a certain mold, and people became attached to that particular design, and they didn’t want it to change. And when Tezuka tried to change it and make it more adult, or whatever, then he often ran into trouble because people just didn’t find it as believable or as appealing.
He really hit the sweet spot at a certain point in Astro Boy history when he was drawing the manga, where it had just the right level of cuteness and just the right level of realism. In the very, very beginning, it wasn’t as appealing because it was a little bit clunky-looking, a little more amateur-looking, but there was a certain point in the ‘fifties where his design really hit a sweet spot where it just sort of appealed to a very broad audience’s taste and liking, and I think once you do that with a character, it’s very hard to diverge from that sort of essential design that successful because obviously the fans don’t like [the change].
SFB: Do you think anything good ever came out of any of these changes?
Frederik Schodt: Well, I think Tezuka learned that he needed to maintain a certain look and a certain dimension, and, you know, as an artist of course it’s hard because on a piece of paper it’s very easy to sort of deform your drawing a little bit over the years, make it bigger, smaller, fatter, whatever, but it helped him sort of calibrate and achieve that sweet spot in the design. Because he did get feedback from the readers when he tried to make it more realistic or more serious, and people were protesting, and they said they like the older design, or if he made it too cute then they would say, “Go back a little bit more realistic,” and he was very aware of what his readers thought, and he always wanted to keep them happy.
SFB: Tezuka has been referred to as the “Walt Disney of Japan.” We know that he was heavily influenced by Disney, but do you think this is a fair comparison, or does it take away from Tezuka’s own abilities as an artist and a writer?
Frederik Schodt: It’s only fair in the sense that it helps Americans, I think, realize his status in Japan because Tezuka achieved this god-like status, and in fact he was referred to as the “God of Manga” in Japan because he created this template for the whole manga and anime industry as it exists today and which has become so gargantuan and expanded around the globe. But he really was very different from Walt Disney in the sense that Tezuka was very actively involved in drawing his own manga, creating his own stories far more than Walt Disney was involved in drawing and creating his own characters.
Tezuka was really an artist; above anything else he was really an artist. He just loved to draw, and he would draw and create stories constantly. And all of the characters in all of the stories that he created -- even if he used assistants and even if he had help from other people -- they were very much his own characters and very much his own stories, so that was a big difference. And I think, finally, Tezuka was not much of an entrepreneur whereas Walt Disney was a very good entrepreneur, so there are just very big differences.
I think the reference in the United States [that] he is sort of Japan’s Walt Disney is really only useful because it helps Americans understand what sort of status he might have in Japanese society -- and only partially because his status in Japan may be even larger than Walt Disney had in the States.
SFB: So far there have been three television adaptations of Astro Boy. Which of these do you feel remained most true to the character?
Frederik Schodt: Well, I guess you’d have to say the first one. But the first one was hampered by a lot of constraints that Tezuka had. It was Japan’s first animated, TV, thirty-minute series, and he was operating on a cutthroat budget and also a really difficult timeline and production schedule, so there were a lot of things that Tezuka was dissatisfied with about the first animated series. In the second series, he tried to go back with a little bit larger budget and a little bit more time and tried to correct some of those deficiencies in the first series, but I think that, in terms of the storyline, he maybe disappointed some people because maybe the storyline seemed a little weaker than in the original.
It’s hard to say. The stories are probably closer in the first animated series in 1963 to the original manga. The second series looks better technically, it has more money lavished on it, and it’s in color, but it was a little bit further removed from the original stories. And the third series, of course, which was created in 2003, was created after Tezuka had passed away, so it didn’t have his direct input at all, so that’s quite a different theory.
Tezuka drawn by Tezuka.
SFB: In your book, you also explain that Tezuka had ambiguous feelings about Astro Boy at times. Sometimes he was very proud of him, and every once in a while he would kind of feel that the character was too simplistic to really be as important as everyone was seeming to feel that he was. Having known Tezuka personally, what do you think he felt for the character deep down?
Frederik Schodt: I think he loved the character and he was very proud of it. I think the big frustration for him was that – and this happens to many artists, I think, not just comic book artists and animators but also actors and writers and novelists and whatnot – is that you create one hit, and it becomes extraordinarily popular, and after that you probably want people to pay attention to your other works as well. Tezuka had many other characters that were popular and huge successes in Japan and remain even sort of national icons. But, nonetheless, Astro Boy, or Tetsuwan Atomu -- “Mighty Atom,” as he’s known in Japan -- was more popular than anything else, and it was frustrating for Tezuka because when he was dealing with the media in Japan, they were constantly asking him about Astro Boy, and they were constantly referring to Astro Boy, and he wanted them to look more – especially the media, not just his fans but the media – he wanted them to pay more attention to his other works. So, that is one of the reasons he sometimes had ambivalence, I think, about the character, and he also felt at one point, I think, because he created the character over many, many years, that he was almost in thrall or a slave to the character at one point [laughs]. He was probably a little bit tired of drawing it when he did finish it.
SFB: You’ve said that nowadays the Japanese are more familiar with the character of Astro Boy than with his story. Do you see any chance of a revitalization of interest in the character’s story, particularly with the upcoming film in mind?
Frederik Schodt: I don’t think the feature film will probably revive that much interest in Japan. Obviously there’s this huge body of fans, in Japan, of Astro Boy already, and the story is far better known in Japan than it ever will be in the United States or around the world. It is a national icon, and even young children who are not that familiar with the individual episodes or the details of the story, many of them know sort of the general plot framework. The theatrical feature will probably, you know, help spike a lot of interest in the media. I don’t think that it will change things dramatically, though.
SFB: Where do you see the character ten or twenty years from now. Do you think that it’s best that his work possibly be carried on by someone else, or do you think it’s better that we let his stories rest with Tezuka?
Frederik Schodt: Well, I think Astro Boy will be reinterpreted by other people. For example, right now in Japan there’s a manga series which is quite popular, and it’s received a huge amount of acclaim in critical circles. It’s called Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa, and that’s being published in English right now by VIZ Media in San Francisco, and I am actually translating that with a friend of mine in L.A., with Jared Cook. And Pluto’s fascinating because it’s actually based on one episode of the original Astro Boy manga series called “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” and for those who are interested, if you read the Astro Boy manga translations that are issued by Dark Horse in the United States, it’s in volume three, so you can see how Urasawa, who is a very modern, adult, and sophisticated comic artist, is able to reinterpret the story that was created by Tezuka decades ago.
So, I think there will be other artists who will come and reinterpret the story, and I think the story is actually not going to disappear. If anything there’s going to be more and more interest in it because Astro Boy is speaking to us. Many people are not aware of this, but although Tezuka created the story in 1952 or so, he actually set the story in our time. Actually Astro Boy was born, in the storyline, April 7, 2003. So, the story is depicting our time, and even though the era that Tezuka is depicting is different from our era, in the sense that he foresaw a world where humans would be interacting with humanoid robots on a daily basis -- and that obviously hasn’t happened -- nonetheless, in a very real sense we are surrounded by robots. We don’t think of them as robots, but when you go to your ATM these days and you withdraw cash, you’re actually dealing with a pretty sophisticated robot. Our computers at times are robots. When you’re interacting with your phone system, you’re interacting with a robot-like function, nowadays, when you have voice recognition. So, we live in a world of robots already, but they don’t look like humans.
But if you read the Astro Boy stories -- the original stories -- you can actually start to think about some of the issues that we need to think about as we go further into this age of automation and further into this age of robotization of human function. So, I think that, as time goes by, actually there will be more attention given to the Astro Boy story because it really speaks to us now.
A screenshot from the Astro Boy movie.
SFB: And, last but not least, any thoughts or hopes about the upcoming movie?
Frederik Schodt: I really hope the upcoming movie is a big success. I know that what the producers and the director of the movie are trying to achieve is very difficult. It’s very difficult to balance the interests of fans in Japan and also the rights holders in Japan with the likes and dislikes of fans in the United States and Europe and also to be creative at the same time and to try and do something new. So, what they’re trying to do is very, very difficult, and I really hope it’s a success. So far what I’ve seen looks pretty good! I can’t wait to see the film. It’s coming out October twenty-third, so I’m ready to line up [laughs] ‘cause I love the character and I hope that the film encourages more people to go back and read some of the original manga stories that Tezuka created and also just to become interested in some of the things that he was trying to say in his work.
SFB: Fred, thanks again for talking with us.
Frederik Schodt: Thank you very much, Robert.