Series Review: Astro-Boy Over The Ages

Mama Fisi
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A friend of mine, Stephen Gilberg, wrote a review comparing the three incarnations of the anime classic, Astro-Boy.  I thought you folks might find it interesting.  I know I sure did, and he was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here.

 

"I just finished one of the TV series, spurred on by Netflix announcing that it would stop streaming on February 1. Until then, I'd been watching occasionally to pass small amounts of time. Since it's all labeled one season, I'd assumed only 26 episodes at most, but there turned out to be 50. Fortunately, each episode takes less than 20 minutes if you skip the opening sequence and end credits, so not as big a binge as it sounds, but still a first for me. And I never thought my first such binge would be an anime.

Which series? The one from 2003. Not quite as popular as the ones from 1963 or 1980, but hey, it was more readily available on the TV. Now I half-wonder why it doesn't have the same popularity. 

Talking about different versions of AB can be tricky, because the character names vary by English translation. The protagonist even drops "Boy" altogether sometimes. The head of the Ministry of Science seems to have the most names: Prof. Ochanomizu, Dr. Elefun, Prof. Peabody, and Dr. O'Shay. I'm inclined to choose the last one, partly because it's simple and not distracting, but also because of my familiarity with the '03 dub. 

My experience with the '63 series is limited to a couple episodes I found on YouTube today. I'd seen B&W TV shows before, but none that were animated, not counting early "Looney Tunes" shorts. Man, I realize that anime was just beginning then, but the movement is only slightly better than in "Clutch Cargo." Fortunately, the makers apparently intended a certain amount of silliness to accommodate Osamu Tezuka's toony artwork -- not what you might expect from a show that begins with a young boy dying in a vehicle accident, prompting the creation of a robot who looks like him. Once you accept this silliness, my main caveat is the slow pace requiring more patience than almost any show from the last, oh, 40 years. 

Viewers who didn't grow up in the '60s seem more likely to prefer the '80 series. Alas, this might be the least available. I rented a DVD of its "greatest hits," which were indeed good but didn't include the second half of any two-parter. Incidentally, both the '63 episodes that I saw were remade into '80 episodes on that disc. I suspect that the latter show in general was largely an excuse to make the original stories more watchable to a later audience. It does sacrifice the cartoon slapstick, tho, and allows for some downright bittersweet moments, particularly when good robots get destroyed. 

The '03 series, the only one to come after Tezuka's death, must take the most liberties with the source material. It doesn't reveal all the details of Astro's origin up front and rather glosses over the fate of his human predecessor. His unhinged creator, Dr. Tenma (a.k.a. Boynton), gets a much larger role than in previous series: Instead of disappearing from the series right after Astro disappoints him as a substitute son, he watches from a distance as Astro takes on more challenges, many of Tenma's own making, confident of his destiny as a ruler of robots against humankind. Yeah, immoral madness might go a bit further this time around, and not just with that one scientist. 

Another change is that Astro no longer has two humans assigned as his "parents." Before his sister Zoran (a.k.a. Uran or Astro Girl) debuts, his closest thing to family is Dr. O'Shay, and I'm not sure how best to describe their relationship. Guardian and charge? I wouldn't say Astro has an owner.

Graphically, the show has gotten crisper and less choppy, tho not consistently. Elements of CG for the more complex visuals highlight the contrast.

Musically, the famous theme song has been replaced with minor-key techno. Less distinctive? You bet. But I for one had gotten tired of that marching band-type earworm. 

Most important is the reduction in silliness. We still get a little humor, but the sci-fi premises and action clearly take themselves more seriously. Astro has plenty of awesome abilities -- maybe enough to defeat Superman -- but no more rear artillery. Plenty of background details suggest a plausible future. And while the first episode in '63 established robots as legally equal to humans, that is clearly not the case for most of the '03 series.

Actually, that right there is a huge part of my enjoyment and the main reason I stuck around. Explorations of human-robot relations bring a strong Asimov flavor. And much like in X-Men and the Fire Emblem Tellius games, there are three basic sides to the simmering conflict, with the heroes on the side trying to get the other two groups to get along.

What I like about every version: the character designs, apart from the police detective's mustache jutting out far enough to look like thick nose hair. Not only do the goofy designs enhance the light-heartedness, but the style stands out from non-Tezuka anime, which has the general reputation of too little visual variety. Also, while I never noticed before seeing any episodes, Astro is even cuter than I would have guessed for a robot who resembles a preteen boy. Exact cuteness depends on behavior and voice; for the latter, my personal preference is in the '03 dub, where it vaguely approaches Cathy Weseluck's Spike (the dragon from "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic").

What I dislike about every version: Zoran. Sure, she's Astro's equal in cuteness and brawn, but that's about it. No matter which stage of feminism we're at, she's nigh inferior to him in abilities, knowledge, and wisdom. Her only advantage that I know of is in Dr. Dolittle communications, at least in '03, and that shouldn't satisfy her when she spends more time as a nuisance and/or damsel in distress than as a heroine. In 99 cases out of 100, Astro's more useful.

To be fair, Astro borders on a Marty Stu. In addition to being possibly the most powerful robot in the known universe, he doesn't take long to be so smart that he rarely does anything foolish. Despite obvious differences, he can hang out with human boys and befriends all but the most hardened robot haters. And his ethics rarely come close to faltering; no matter how tough the situation, he won't harm any humans and rarely harms any robots. (The '03 series, in fact, talks about human deaths only when they happened years ago, with no major injuries in the course of the story, and even enemy robots rarely suffer beyond repair.)

I should mention that the '03 series, for all its standalone episodes, becomes more of an epic saga toward the end. (Netflix got a few episodes out of order but didn't confuse me too badly.) Unfortunately, the more it focuses on the serious side, the more the weaknesses shine thru. For one thing, certain action sequences get repeated more often, or at least I noticed more often. Many characters who aren't designated nitwits still act pretty stupid, probably to keep things simple for younger viewers. You'd think the general had no prior experience, unless he's supposed to be too overcome with personal emotion to think straight. 

The eventual addition of Mr. Drake is worth a mention. He opposes A.I. so zealously that he'll endanger any number of human lives to get rid of it. But his backstory sounds like it should've made him just the opposite! No robot had ever wronged him, and one had saved his life. The turning point came when he couldn't save his savior, and his comforters told him that robots can only simulate feelings and whatnot. He must have become so determined not to feel sad or guilty that he swung to the reverse extreme. The show indicates that that one robot survived and returned to civilization, but they never meet again.

I was going to fault the writers for a villain so hard to relate to, but then I thought, "Why must that be a bad thing? They thought outside the box!" Let's face it: Experience alone need not determine what we think, feel, or do. Just because the show takes a rather pacifistic stance doesn't mean it has to portray everyone as a victim of circumstance with whom to make an emotional connection. I'd also been disappointed that he never saw his former friend again, which just might have put him on the path to redemption, but again, way to avoid predictability. Besides, he might have gone too far already to change his mind on that basis. 

Then there's the matter of ethnicity. In all likelihood, '03 offers the most token diversity, albeit ambiguously. Astro's human friend Kennedy, for example, looks and sounds as tho some executive had intoned, "...but not too black." And two episodes concern the brown-skinned royalty of a fictitious nation on an unstated continent. The only character whose voice actor in English I know to be black, oddly enough, is Dr. Tenma, whose rasp suggests a man much less pale and skinny, no doubt to make him creepier. I dunno; maybe he loves robotics so much that he altered his voice electronically.

 

I don't expect many of you to share my feelings on the relative merits of each series. Maybe none of you ever watched more than one. Maybe you prefer the manga. Probably not the 2009 movie. Whatever, I welcome a discussion."  --By Stephen Gilberg

 

Steve's got a webcomic: http://downscale.comicgenesis.com/

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