Astro Boy: The Complete Series Review
When Tezuka Osamu created Tetsuwan Atom in 1951 he introduced something very special to Japan. Of course Manga wasn’t an entirely new concept at that time but he did manage to change the face of it and in turn capture the hearts of a generation overcoming the Second World War. Mighty Atom became so popular that in 1963 he made the transition to television where he stayed until 1966 with an impressive 193 episode run. The series was later aired in the United States, sparking off worldwide recognition as Tezuka continued writing the Manga series for many years to come. In 1980 the television series was revived with Shin Tetsuwan Atom, of which 52 episodes were made and again distributed in the West, under the name of Astro Boy. In 2003 young Astro returned once more, in a celebratory 50-episode series, co-produced by Sony with international distribution rights on its mind. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment presents the latest incarnation here with Astro Boy - The Complete Series
Astro Boy takes place in the future where mankind has reached the technological heights that enables it to create advanced robots. When Dr. O’Shay revives a robot left to die at the Ministry of Science he discovers that this boyish creation is more than just a machine designed to obey man. Naming it Astro he takes the robot to live at his house where he decides to raise him like a human son; here he begins to see Astro’s true qualities and whenever a machine goes berserk Astro is there to help. It seems that Astro is faithful to both man and machine, looking out for each other’s interests and in turn becoming a hero to all. Meanwhile, Dr. Tenma - a former research scientist is plotting a scheme that will see robots rise above man and take over the world. Many years ago Tenma’s son, Tobio died in a car accident. Distraught by his loss, Tenma created a machine in his son’s image. That machine is who we now know as Astro, and Tenma has big plans for him indeed. The revolution is about to begin.
There is a fine retro appeal about Astro Boy that harks way back to its sixties roots and gave us in 2003 an animated series that looks like nothing else of recent years. While animators have always been influenced by Tezuka Osamu’s creation there have been few who have tried to emulate his style exactly and that is what makes Astro Boy a fresh looking series to this day. If we look at Astro he hasn’t changed a great deal; he’s still the same youthful bot, with pointy hair, big boots and nothing but steel underpants for clothing. His diminutive size makes him an underdog, yet we see this means nothing which in turn makes him a fine example of proving the point that size doesn’t matter; that you can face up to bigger challenges and succeed, though Astro does have a few tricks up his sleeve. And this brings us to some slight changes in Astro’s character. The folk over at Sony America asked for a few alterations to the series (of which I‘ll discuss in more detail later) so where back in his day Astro used to have a little laser gun this has now been removed entirely in favour of a laser finger and a cannon arm. I guess children can’t emulate that one right? Nevertheless the actual character changes are few and most of Osamu’s original designs come across in the same way as they always did. Before girls were being animated with huge bouncy breasts big noses were the order of the day; gigantic conks that can be seen on the faces of O’Shay, Tenma and Chief Inspector Tawashi (who has some kind of shoe polishing brush thing going on), while the youngsters have cute button noses. Some of the recurring robots have also been tweaked, notably Atlas who is quite a departure from his 80’s get up.
Animation wise the series is pretty much what you’d expect from a 2003 product though in order to move things forward the decision to include computer aided technology was made. This is an almost successful quality in that the combination seems to work though I found its use to be uneven. For the most part we’re treated to some good old fashioned hand painted animation, that judging by these discs has been deliberately saturated a little, but then suddenly we’ll see a computer rendered spacecraft for no more than a second or two before a long gap between any other CG work. This makes the move a little redundant; it’s sporadic, therefore more obvious and not an entirely engrossing aspect of the animation process. With the animation in general there also tends to be a lot of repetition, not only in terms of Astro’s occasional transformations but also with general dialogue scenes and background information. If I didn’t know better I’d think the budget was a whole lot less, as while production values are nice some episodes appear rushed with some blatant cutting of corners. But these complaints are few and once you get used to how things work you’ll find many points of interest, as well as some neatly fluid animation from time to time. It looks as if a lot of the budget went into the series arc based episodes, which are largely spectacular affairs. It’s just a shame that with so many filler episodes there can be a long wait between signs of true quality.
So this brings me to Astro Boy‘s storytelling. In our new millennium Osamu’s work is reflected upon and recreated with its purest of essence intact. Osamu seemed to have a great fascination about utopian society and the values between those who inhabit it. As we see here his particular interests, messages and metaphors hold as much relevance today as they did all those years ago. In a world where peace seems an impossible achievement Astro Boy tries to address and fix the problems that mankind faces. If anything the series tells us how it is and how it should be; an escape from our own reality where everything seems a whole lot easier said than done. Astro’s ongoing objective is to find himself and discover his role within the world. His curiosity leads him to many places and his evolution can be traced through the eyes of Dr. Tenma. We begin to see prejudices surface and learn about acceptance in a world ready to shun those that it doesn’t understand. Astro even gets to fall in love for just a brief moment. And love would be an important part of the series, of that there’s no denying. As it is often addressed the robots in particular are creations with “kokoro”, allowing them to have true feelings. Kokoro is simply the translation for “heart” and throughout fifty episodes this sentiment is carried strongly. The problem with fifty episodes though is we get a large amount of filler, and when these episodes carry a familiar message each and every time it soon becomes a little more tedious than one would like. We’re basically being told repeatedly that humans and robots should respect each other, or that we should look after our eco-system over the series 1010 minute duration. Despite this they have a relative charm but when we get to the real nitty gritty the series really turns itself around. Astro Boy is at its most compelling when dealing with the arc situated around Astro and his creator, Tenma. In fact the writing is considerably better, as is the animation. Twists are more in abundance and the subject matter becomes a whole lot darker. It helps that Tenma is without a doubt the most intriguing character in the series, so much so that when he doesn’t appear in an episode he is sorely missed. These episodes bring us more philosophy and issues of evolution, along with a developing father and son relationship that ensures you’ll be glued to the screen, and with a superb five episode finish it makes up for any kind of prior lapse.
When we look at the way Sony tackled the production we can see how a lot of Osamu’s original ideas have been thrown out of the window. For example when Osamu created Astro he placed him in a school, surrounded by friends in a more natural environment where he spent a substantial amount of time. As we learn in the “making of” feature the new series was intended to be more action based, so the American producer’s input informs us that we don’t need to see Astro’s school life in any detail. There’s a moment when you can feel tension in the air. This clearly goes against what the Japanese animators strongly believe in but it had to be done. We do get to see Astro at school hanging out with his friends but only during a few episodes, leaving very little insight into how he gets on with his education and is perceived by those around him. Any other time that his friends are involved in the action is when some caper is going down and some light comic relief is needed. Secondly we have the issue of violence. The most notable thing about the series is that not one single person is killed or robot destroyed. For a children’s show that may be considered normal but there’s also a hopelessly unrealistic element that can quite easily give a false impression to a child. Robots and humans sacrifice themselves for the greater good, falling into dire predicaments that no one could ever possibly escape, yet here they do and on a regular basis. The world is meant to be portrayed harshly but there’s a little too much hope. In reality people die during war, not everything ends how we would like it to but there are times here when we’re patronised and there are some things that just shouldn’t be. Children should be taught that not every situation is easily rectified and as a balance between the show’s messages to uphold many strong beliefs this treatment is unsteady.
Columbia Tristar presents Astro Boy in this five disc collection. Each disc comes in a slim thinpak case and these are housed in a card slip cover.
Before I get onto to the audio and visual side of things I’d just like to address the treatment of the series here. These episodes have been presented in their original broadcast order, though in addition we’re seeing 29 episodes that were never aired on US television. Unfortunately that leaves us with a messy release and one that could have been easily rectified. As it stands the unthinkable has occurred. Episodes are presented out of order, to a great deal of frustration. For example: early on we see Astro attend school, only for him to start his first day several episodes later. When we get to episode 13 Astro suddenly has a little sister named Zoran. No explanations are made and we don’t realise the problem until episode 23 when O’Shay creates her! This is unforgivable and only two examples of very shoddy work at play. Also these episodes are edited quite poorly. There are too many abrupt scene shifts that mess with any kind of build up. If you can get past these issues you should find some enjoyment but amongst purists this will cause (quite understandably) much annoyance.
Astro Boy is presented in a horrendously cropped 4:3 ratio. The series was originally designed for widescreen (1.85:1) so it becomes apparent very early on that we’re seeing a false presentation. Characters get their heads lopped off and composition is awful with many occasions where characters are shown standing side by side only for them to not all fit onscreen. This is probably the most disrespectful release for an important anime series that I’ve seen as what might have been fine for standard television broadcast is simply not on for DVD. It would seem however that when the series was edited and dubbed it was cropped too so we really are seeing it as it was broadcast and I have doubts that Columbia have access to the original materials after such extensive editing during its conversion for American audiences. Worse still the transfer is also marred by some very bad edge enhancement; serious enough to be visible on a 28 inch screen this is going to look awful on anything bigger. Compression faults are also evident, with some mosquito noise and slight blocking while colours are yet another issue. The opening titles are vibrant and it looks as if they’ve been coloured digitally. The episodes themselves look a lot more washed out with a visible amount of grain and more natural hand painted colours. After a while they become easily accustomed to but without a comparison to the Japanese and Korean releases I can’t tell just how colourful the series is meant to look. Overall this is something that could have been greatly improved.
For sound we get an English 2.0 dub as intended for the U.S. market. Although a Japanese language track was also produced Sony re-edited the series for American audiences which means the inclusion of the Japanese track here is impossible. Once you get past this fact things aren’t too bad. There are some familiar voices at work here with the likes of Susan Blu and Gregg Berger. Candi Milo plays Astro with relative conviction but it’s Dorian Harewood who steals the show with his superb portrayal of Dr. Tenma. Harewood has a very distinct and commanding voice which draws you into to his character each and every time, and when he needs to be emotional he handles it just as well as being cold and calculating. As for surrounds, things are mixed. Dialogue is generally fine but for an action series there just isn’t any solid use of the speakers in terms of special effects. Everything is so very subdued and under whelming that the mixing process comes across as being a very poor effort.
We don’t get much but at least Sony gives us something to prove just how disrespectful they could be in handling the series. Very bold of them. Aside from the following there are only trailers for some of Columbia’s other anime releases.
Remaking of Astro Boy (8:23)
This little feature takes us to the Japanese production offices where we meet the developers. We hear that they wanted to treat the series with respect, to reflect Osamu’s original work and while we do believe them it soon becomes obvious that their hands are forced. The faces say it all really, when told by an American representative how the series is to be handled for an overseas audience. This is shocking, it’s like they want to show us just how far they’d go to ruin a classic. The Japanese try to maintain some enthusiasm but watching them try their best at a conference table to make suggestions is just painful. If anything I hope they learned never to do something like this again.
Astro Boy is a very good series with some brilliant episodes in amongst the otherwise enjoyable filler. The dub is even good enough to see you through fifty episodes but unfortunately things go way deeper than this. Sony’s total lack of respect and constant interfering makes this a mixed release. A/V is disappointing and the extras are a joke. For the asking price it is still good value for money and kids will undoubtedly love it. I found myself enjoying it on many levels but we know there is more to this series than can be seen here.