Astro Boy Retrospective — Osamu Tezuka: Creator of Astro Boy and Father of the Manga/Anime Revolution

Schodt Astro Boy Figure

Managa scholar Frederik L. Schodt and the figure of Astro Boy in Japan. (Courtesy of Frederik L. Schodt)

The latest version of animation film Astro Boy will be released on Oct. 23, 2009 nationally. Nibei Foundation’s Japan Study Club invited Frederik L. Schodt of San Francisco, Manga author and scholar, to hear his lecture on “Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy and The Manga/Anime Revolution” on July 14, 2009 at the Nibei Foundation in West Los Angeles.

This article is appeared at the Cultural News, 2009 October Issue.

The following are excerpt from the transcript which Cultural News has recorded.

Young American was fascinated with manga books in 1970’s in Tokyo

Frederik L. Schodt is an American translator, interpreter and writer. His father was in the US foreign service and so Schodt spent his growing years in Norway, Australia, and Japan.

He first arrived in Japan in 1965 when he was fifteen and graduated from Tokyo’s American School. After entering the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1970 Schodt returned to Japan, and studied Japanese intensively at International Christian University (I.C.U.) for a year and half.

He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1972, and after a brief bohemian stint at a variety of jobs and traveling became a tour guide in Los Angeles for Japanese tourists, also escorting them to Canada and Mexico.

After trying to interpret for a group once at Sunkist, he realized that he could become an interpreter, but needed further training. In 1975, he was awarded a scholarship from Japan’s Ministry of Education, to return to I.C.U. and study translation and interpreting.

After finishing his studies at I.C.U. in 1977, he began working in the translation department of Simul International, in Tokyo. In mid-1978 he returned to the United States, and since then has worked in San Francisco as a free-lance writer, translator, and interpreter.

Schodt is especially well known in the manga and anime world for his translations of Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix and Astro Boy.  His Manga!  Manga!  The World of Japanese Comics, published in 1983, with an introduction by Tezuka, won the Manga Oscar Awards in 1983.

He has been most instrumental in triggering the popularity of Japanese comics and manga in the English-speaking world and in 2000 was awarded Asahi Shimbun’s most pretigious Osamu Tezuka Culture Award.

His latest work is The Astro Boy Essays:  Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolultion which was published in 2007.

In 2009, for his contribution of helping to promote Japan’s popular culture abroad, he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette (Kyokujitsu Shojusho) award by the Japanese government for his contribution of promoting Japanese contemporary popular culture in the United States.

Manga occupies one segment of American teenagers’ brain

Mr. Schodt opened the evening with a slide from The New Yorker magazine dated September 4, 2006.  The cover depicted a “typical” teenager’s brain that was broken up into segments of thoughts. Of course, one of the boxes was dedicated to “girls” and such, but, interestingly enough, one segment was also been devoted to “manga.”  Yes, manga has taken America by storm and Mr. Schodt is definitely one of the catalysts in this pop culture revolution.

Manga books and manga magazines comprised as much as 40% of the overall book and magazine sales volume in 1996 in Japan; In the United States, comic books have never been more than a few percentage of the total, but translated manga books have become one of the few bright spots of the industry.

The Astro Boy character made Osamu Tezuka’s first appearance in a manga in 1951 as Atomu Taishi (Ambassador Atom).  At that time, this character played only a cameo role, but it was later elevated to the status of main characters itself.

Astro Boy, or Tetsuwan Atomu (literally “Mighty Atom,”) was both a Japanese manga series and television program. The latter was first broadcast in Japan from1963 to 1966.

The story is based on a fictional character named Astro Boy, who is a powerful robot created by a man named Doctor Tenma, head of the Ministry of Science.  Doctor Tenma’s undertaking was propelled by his desire to replace the son, Tobio, that he had lost in a car accident.

But the doctor was later disillusioned by his realization that his “son” was no more than a machine without human emotions; he therefore rejected the boy and sold him to a cruel and mean circus owner named Hamegg.  The story does later take on a more positive turn with the entry of a new head of the Ministry of Science, a Professor Ochanomizu.

Under the new Professor’s care, along with love and kindness, the results were amazing.  It is soon apparent that Astro Boy not only has incredible super powers, but that he also is capable of experiencing human emotions.  In fact, Astro Boy’s passion is to be more than “robot;” it is to be more “human.”

Astro Boy then becomes a boy superhero that fights crime, evil and injustice in the world.  But it is particularly interesting is that many times his battles involved fighting other robots who had turned against the very humans who had created them.

Schodt Book

At the venue of the Japan Study Club of Nibei Foundation in West Los Angeles, a fan of Frederik L. Schodt asks him his signature to her own copy of “Dreamland Japan,” Schodt’s earlier work on Japanese manga. (Cultural News Photo)

Osamu Tezuka revolutionized manga drawing

Prior to World War II, most Japanese comic were drawn in perspective that looked more as if the characters were performing on an actual “stage,” but Osamu Tezuka introduced a more experimental, film-style approach. He also expanded the comics from a few pages to thousands of pages to form a more cinematic approach where the characters seemed to be actually moving.  The frontispiece for his “Mad Machine,” episode in the Astro Boy series seemed to jump off the page.

Besides his unique and innovative art work, the subjects of his story lines were also progressive in nature.  Although Astro Boy seemed most targeted for the 9-10 year old audience, Tezuka brought forward more sophisticated themes that were unknown to the comic world at that time.

Themes such as renegade robots that had to be subdued.  The preservation of natural resources. The respect for nature from both aesthetic and ecological standpoints. Tezuka was definitely a man ahead of his time.  In the 1960’s he also displayed his anti-Vietnam sentiments as Astro Boy himself goes to Vietnam and tries to protect the villagers from the onslaught of war.

The desire for peace and respect for humanity were common themes that ran through much of Tezuka’s works. Tezuka’s background played a major role in the production of his vast array of books and manga. He was born in 1928 in Toyonaka near Osaka and raised in Takarazuka.  The Takarazuka area is known for its famous girls- only theater company “Takarazuka Kageki.”  Therefore, from an early age, Tezuka fell in love with the theater.

He attended Kitano Middle School in Osaka and later entered the medical school at Osaka Imperial University.  Yet even before he entered college, he was greatly influenced by the havoc of WWII and was already drawing comics for himself with titles like “Until the Day of Victory.

He was too young, and with his medical background, too valuable to be drafted.  After the U.S. bombing of Tokyo, he personally witnessed the results of the bombing in Osaka and the deaths of scores of people.  This experience encouraged him to take a life-long stand against militarism.

Tezuka, with his superb creativity, coupled with his formal medical training, came up with an Astro Boy that in all his technological brilliance, still had a sentimental heart.

Schodt Lecture Nibei

Nibei Foundation’s Japan Study Club invites Frederik L. Schodt (left) for the July 2009 lecture. Dr. Shigeru Nakayama (center) who had known Osamu Tezuka from his middle school days, says a few words. The image projected on the wall is the cover of Schodt’s latest book “The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Managa/Anime Revolution” (Cultural News Photo)

Astro Boy debuted in the U.S. in 1960’s

In the 1960’s, America’s NBC Enterprises produced an English version of the Astro Boy animated series.  Then in 1965 NBC Enterprises published a comic book version of “Astro Boy” in the United States based on the English version of the TV series.  With Astro Boy’s growing popularity, Tezuka was often referred to as “Japan’s Walt Disney,” and he in fact, did idolize Walt Disney, whom he later met at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Tezuka’s art style was influenced by Walt Disney, but the Astro Boy story is the result of a combination of influences, including the traditional children’s story, Pinocchio, with its theme of a man who longed to create a “son.” But above and beyond this, Tezuka always focused on his dream that manga could serve as a “global language,” to look outside Japan and communicate with a global readership.

Astro Boy is still very much alive and well in Japan.  He is often visible through marketing efforts, which license his character image to sell such products and services, ranging from toys to bank securities.

Also, a Hong Kong and Hollywood-based company, Imagi, is scheduled to come out with a full length feature film on October 23rd  of this year called “Astro Boy.”

Tezuka died in 1989 at the age of 60.  The city of Takarazuka will forever honor him.  In 1994, the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum, (Tezuka Osamu Kinenkan) was opened there to celebrate this “god of manga.”  His grave, however, is in a Zen Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The stone memorial to him there has Osamu Tezuka’s pen name, which includes the character for “mushi,” or “bug.”

What is interesting is that in this engraved Chinese character, and in fact in most of Tezuka’s signatures, a set of playful eyes is added for humor. This most fitting of tombstones also depicts Tezuka’s other well-known characters, a drawing of Mr.Tezuka himself, and — most prominently of all-the character he had made so famous, Astro Boy.

The evening ended with Dr. Shigeru Nakayama, who had known Tezuka from his middle school days, saying a few words about the unique town of Takarazuka and what a special person Mr. Osamu Tezuka had been.

(Naomi Otani contributed the script of the Schodt lecture)