Our favorite android boy, Astro Boy, returns for the next generation to enjoy.
In the 1960's, Tezuka Osamu created what would become the ground-breaking anime of the West: Astro Boy. With the simple story of a naive robot boy learning through experience and misbehaving with good intentions, Astro Boy was readily embraced by both Japanese and Western audiences. Broadcasted on Saturdays and Sundays, along with traditional cartoons, this anime was the ripple before the tsunami of Western interest in anime that hit in the 1990's.
With nostalgia for the 1970's and 1980's running high, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to update Astro Boy for the CG era.
The new iteration of Astro Boy is not merely a rehash of the original, with fancy graphics. It opens with a very energetic introduction. Electric guitars and a strong, fast beat compliment the animation of Astro's reawakening in Dr. O'Shay's lab, a sharp contrast to the campy opening song of the original Astro Boy. This is not a rehash of the old series by any means, and Astro Boy asserts this from this point onwards.
The origin story of Astro in this new anime is much more darker than the energetic 'let's make a robot boy, powered by atomic energy and with a heart, because we can!' tone of the original. This version of Astro is built by the genius Dr. Tenma, who seems to have had pure intentions in his work to make a robot as "real" as possible, treating Astro, named Tobio by Tenma, as his own son. However, Dr. Tenma afterwards begins to lose his mind, and he destroys all of his research notes and the lab, but only places Astro in a sleep state.
Enter Dr. O'shay, who finds Astro and the remaining scraps of Tenma's notes. The white-haired scientist uses the entire power grid of Metro City to reawaken Astro, who has lost all of his memories of his previous life with Dr. Tenma. O'Shay gives Astro his name from a word on a piece of lab equipment, and the boy robot begins to learn about the world around him.
Astro's curiosity often gets him into trouble, but he always make it out at the end of the day. Astro is not helped at all by Dr. Tenma, who mysteriously reappears with strong robots to test Astro's skills, claiming that he created Astro in order to rule the world -- the world of robots that Astro will herald. However, Astro has a heart and a free will, and he isn't exactly Tenma's creation anymore.
Astro attends school with human children, befriending them and proving through example that a robot with a free will is not an evil thing, provided that the robot knows right from wrong. This modern take on Astro Boy emphasizes the dilemma raised in Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot". If a robot must obey all human commands, then it is merely a tool, a machine. But if a robot has free will, then does it have the same rights as a human?
Public opinion in Astro Boy's Metro City shifts back and forth as other free-will robots cause destruction and chaos. However, oftentimes the acts of the robots are a direct response to being treated as a slave by humans. As the series progresses, the battle lines between pro-robot and anti-robot groups spring up, culminating in a robot revolution akin to the backstory of The Matrix found in The Animatrix. Astro, only naturally, plays the role of peacemaker, believing that humans and robots can co-exist.
The episodes themselves progress in the same manner as the original series, with a "Fight of the Week" and a little advancement in the plot. This format may seem rather simplistic, but it makes Astro Boy extremely accessible for children, the intended audience for Osamu's work. However, older children and adults will enjoy Astro Boy for the philosophical questions about robots that the series raises.
The animation quality is excellent. The robots in Metro City are quite stylized, with worker ant robots constructing buildings and a retro-style Rosie household robots. Even household items such as TVs are detailed to fit in the pulp giant robot science fictional world of Metro City. It is clear that the art director was using the original series as a basis, as many of the backgrounds are modernized CG copies of the original cels.
The character designs maintain Osamu's style of big noses and Disney eyes, but the lines are much sharper and darker than what was possible in the 1960's. Astro Boy is very colorful, ranging from pastel buildings to sharp robots and Astro's trademark bright red rocket boots. Much of Astro's battle moves will be familiar to viewers of the original series, but the laser gun arm is still very impressive, although gun arms are an over-used prop in robot/cyborg anime series.
Astro is joined by allies along the way, most notably his little sister, Zoran, created by Dr. O'Shay to give company to Astro. Zoran ends up playing a rather pivotal role in the concluding episode, which is good to see, as there's nothing worse than supporting characters who merely serve as background fodder.
Astro Boy is now available in a five-DVD collector's edition that includes all fifty episodes of the series, the majority of which have never been aired in the US. This is a great series for children; with loads of action scenes, the series maintains its position on non-violence and finding peaceful solutions to conflicts. Astro Boy is a must-see for fans of the original show, who are eager to relive their childhood again.