Astro Boy (1980)
In this remake of the 1963 series (which was said to be the FIRST anime TV series), "Dr. Boynton" (Tenma Umataro in the original Japanese version) creates a robot to replace his son Toby who was killed in an auto accident. Through circumstances that somewhat differ between the 1963 and 1980 versions, "Astro" (as he's usually called in the dub) ends up parting with his nominal "dad", and instead ends up in the care of "Dr. Pachydermus J. Elefun" (Hiroshi Ochanomizu in Japan; the English name is a poke at his nose.) Dr. Elefun, as the new Science Minister, becomes Astro's mentor, employer, and frequent repairman, putting Astro's "100,000 horsepower" to use resolving numerous robot-related crises.
The 1963 first version of the show is, as I'm writing this, licensed for home video by Nozomi Entertainment (Right Stuf's licensing arm), and Nozomi seems to have done a pretty good job of restoring it, if one can judge from their trailer. I DID ask Grampa about it, but these days he can't even remember what he ate for breakfast, much less a show he saw back when HE was a child. So all the basic background in this review is based on what I've been able to find out from other sources (mostly Wiki articles) on the various series and spinoffs from the original. This was certainly manga author Osamu Tezuka's most widely-known creation, though he worked on many projects- and a couple of those found their way into THIS show too. I'll get there later.
As noted above, the 1980 version was the first color remake. Prime has the streaming license. (The U.S. distributor of record is Manga Entertainment according to both Wiki and the Anime Encyclopedia, though Prime (and the show’s own credits) list a firm called Ammo Content.) There's a 2003 version of the series available for home video, but I know very little about that remake, and I’ve been disappointed with the quality of some of the products put out by the company releasing it, Mill Creek Entertainment. There's also a 2009 CG film that seems to be less than faithful to the original story, and features the voice of Nicholas Cage, who is the go-to "big Hollywood star" for people making truly awful films.
Moving into the 1980 show itself, it seems that this version soft-pedals Dr. Boynton's role in his breakup with Astro compared to other versions of the series, and Tezuka's original manga. (In other words, it makes him look less directly responsible for Astro's subsequent fate, and thus less awful.) There's also a self-referential joke near the beginning that just fell flat for me. But let's get to the better stuff:
Robots, and their relationships with humans, are really the heart of the show- and many of Tezuka's feelings on the subject here are also reflected in his manga take on Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Tezuka's robots are moral innocents, but susceptible to exploitation by evil humans using either deception (a green-complexioned gangster named Skunk is a recurring offender here), or through brute-force brainwashing through their programming- though the robots are sometimes able to overcome even THIS sort of compulsion, with Astro's help. Astroboy's robots vary in appearance from comical caricatures of people, all the way to robots that other people think ARE humans; in a few cases, we've robots who think that they THEMSELVES are humans. The discovery that one is, in fact, a robot and not human has long been a popular theme in SF, especially in many of Philip K. Dick's stories, and in shows like Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits episode "Demon With A Glass Hand". But Tezuka has less than half an hour to tell his tales, and so doesn't have time to explore the existential angst of such a revelation. He takes a simpler, much more pragmatic stance: if one THINKS like a human, has human FEELINGS, and is ACCEPTED as a human by other humans, then one IS human, regardless of body composition. (It's still a more stringent test of humanness than the Turing Test, which only requires passing the last one of those three criteria.)
Tezuka's robots might be innocents capable of human feeling, and yet they're second-class citizens at best here- and at worst, targets for general persecution by humans, whenever even ONE robot (almost always through human artifice) is involved in some crime. (In other words, we’re talking classic bigotry here.) Throughout the show, there's a subtext that robots are trying to become accepted by humans, and respected by humans, as equals. (One interesting restriction on them is on travel.)
Now a few robots HAVE, in fact, been driven, through mistreatment by humans, into open rebellion; the most powerful (and chronic) example here is Atlas. Atlas was re-imagined from his role in the 1963 version of the show, where he was created by an Inca scientist who hated slavery; HERE Atlas was created by a character called Valporgis, and after suffering both personal abuse, and witnessing the abuse of a female robot named Livian, he apparently escaped with Livian. Why "apparently"? Well, when we first see Atlas with Astro, it's apparent they'd already HAD an encounter, and we're given some brief, contextless flashback scenes. From my research it seems the reason this remake only runs 51 episodes (instead of 52, as the original did) is that Atlas's first encounter with Astro (and we would assume the backstory) was simply cut. In the 1963 original there was a character named Jetto, who was supposed to be Astro's "brother" (in the sense of "made from the same design"); in this 1980 version, Atlas is given this "familial" connection, even though he doesn't look a bit like Astro. (In those now-contextless clips from the "cut" scenes, we see that Atlas did originally resemble Astro more at an earlier stage.) In any case, Atlas's grudge against Valporgis has become a generalized loathing of the entire human race, and he's much more powerful than Astro (and apparently nearly impossible to destroy), so he's a recurring menace.
I should say a bit more about Livian here, since I've commented about Tezuka's females before. She's sweet and good-natured, so one wonders why she stays with such an awful jerk as Atlas. (In fact, in my notes there's a quote from a character in the show asking just this question.) Oh, like many abusers, he tells her he won't LET her leave him- but she really seems to have no actual desire to. She DOES do things to undermine his evil schemes- mainly minor interference, but at least once she tried to spill the beans about one of his particularly horrible plans to Astro and Company. But she ALWAYS goes back to him, and ALWAYS loves him. Tezuka never struck me as being much of a champion of feminist self-respect.
While we're on the subject of Tezuka's females, I suppose we should mention Uran. (That's pronounced "You-Rain", as in uranium.) Dr. Elefun wants to give Astro something like a traditional family, so he creates robot parents for him (who are about as bland as parents of the period are always portrayed.) He also gives Astro a robot "little sister" named Uran, who looks like a slightly feminized version of Astro, has only "50,000 horsepower" (she's a "mere female", after all), is a TOTAL BRAT who often gets in trouble (which her brother always has to rescue her from), and wears a dress that is so short we can almost always see her underpants, thus anticipating by decades the school uniforms worn by teenaged girls in harem sex animes.
While doing the background research I ran across some coments to the effect that this (1980) version of the show was particularly "dark". Certainly there are a lot of tragic ends here- mostly for the robots, though one non-robotic character commits suicide out of "honor", and another "dies" (sort of) from despair. But in the episode "The Wreck Of The Titan" we see a character get a "tragic" fate that is actually a bit of satisfying wicked irony, very much in a Tales From The Crypt-ish vein. I wish Tezuka had done this sort of story more often. (Patrick Drazen notes this particular story in his book Anime Explosion!). Another episode, titled "Goliath's Head", IS in fact about the head of a robot named Goliath, and I found to be hysterically funny black comedy; I'm not at all sure if that was Tezuka's intention though. (If he didn't INTEND it this way, maybe it's even FUNNIER.)
ON THE OTHER HAND, I was much LESS impressed by the episode "The Time Machine", a silly crossover mashup bringing the lead characters from two of Tezuka's other creations, Black Jack, and Princess Knight, into a convoluted script. Since a doctor was involved, I would have expected a better job of stitching things together. (Tezuka sometimes put his stories together from parts that don't mesh well. At least his robots seldom have that problem.)
Grampa, by the way, says my comment at the beginning of the review is very unfair- he's pretty sure he had scrambled eggs- and that he hopes to be around to watch the NEXT remake of this show.
Yes, it's a show that anticipates the themes of numerous robot animes that followed it (some are in the Recs), but since the show's geared to a kid audience it's frequently just silly, and there's a lot of formula (and filler) in between Tezuka's bouts of brilliance. It's a more substantial show than, say, Speed Racer, but since it's aimed at the same demographic, it has some of the same limitations for an adult audience. Still it's a pioneering show, and has some excellent sociological commentary on human foibles that has stood the test of time, so even for adults it still has its charms, even beyond the perennial one of nostalgia. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Right Stuf rates the 1963 version ALL (for all ages.) Amazon, on the other hand, for some reason rates this 1980 version 13+. It certainly has more tragedy, and unhappy endings, than "kid's shows" usually do, and there's a bit of violence (including decapitation), though almost all of that is against robots. And Uran, in one scene, is topless. But there's NOTHING to see there. REALLY. NOTHING. The Anime Encyclopedia rates the 1980 series as having No Objectionable Content. I’d maybe split the difference and call it PG (mild violence).
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Review Status: Full (51/51)
Astro Boy (1980) © 1980 Tezuka Productions.
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