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There are fairly few characters and stories in the annals of Japanese anime that are as recognizable and beloved as Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, know in the West as Astro Boy. When released in 1963, based off Tezuka’s manga of the same title, the original anime series immediately became the flagship of the emerging anime industry, defining the genre’s early aesthetics and tropes, and was the very first anime series to make a splash with Western television audiences. Subsequently, since the end of the original 193-episode run, the Astro Boy intellectual property has become one of the most successful and influential franchises in the world, reigning as the tenth best-selling manga series of all time, and has spawned countless spin-offs, tie-ins and reimaginings. The story would receive a 52-episode colorized remake in 1980 helmed by Noboru Ishiguro, and a reimagined 50-episode series directed by Kazuya Konaka in 2003, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original show.
Set on Earth in 2043, robots are common tools in service of humanity, especially in Metro City, where Doctor Tenma attempts to construct an artificial intelligence with a new technology named Kokoro, which basically equates to robotic variations on human emotions. Tenma seems to inexplicitly go insane, attempting to burn down the Ministry of Science, and is forced to flee from authorities. His abandoned AI is soon discovered as an inert boyish robot, and is brought to life in secret (though it requires a massive blackout of Metro City in order to accomplish it). Upon awakening, and taking the name Astro, the robot soon discovers his built-in rocket boosters, superhuman strength and laser cannons, becoming the main line of defense for the city’s citizens. He struggles against gaggles of rogue robots, prejudiced humans, and the politics of Metro City, being recognized as a hero by human and AI alike. However, all the while behind the scenes, Tenma continues to stalk and test Astro, the recreated image of his deceased son Tobio.
When originally released on Animax, the 2003 series garnered a hefty amount of praise from critics and fans alike, mainly directed at the show’s massive animation budget, vivid color pallette, and refined character designs. Criticism was lobbed at the show for lacking the overt optimistic tone of previous incarnations, and for altering (or removing) several significant characters and key plot elements from the original narrative. When released in the West, the series’ subpar voice dubbing was a key reason for its initial failure to grip audiences, along with the multiple re-edits forced upon the series by Western distributors. However, I honestly would not consider these departures to be complete deal-breakers - the main issue is with the actual progression of the narrative.
Most of the episodes in this massive series can be considered isolated stories, most with fairly little connection to the overall arcs that are being carried out. As a result, the whole series feels like it’s wasting time by constantly repeating the same moral argument about the disparities between humans the growing sentient robot underclass. Often scenarios include Astro and/or his friends and family being dragged into a confrontation, where people either have to check their discrimination against robots, or that Astro must convince warring sides to hug it out. While the series’ two main interwoven arcs (Tenma’s scheming, and Astro’s fight for civil rights) are prevalent in some degree at all times, the payoff at the conclusion of the series is underwhelming to say the very least.
It is true that this interpretation could very well be due to the quality and alterations of the Western releases. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment sported the heavily edited version of Astro Boy in its DVD boxset release, which was echoed in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2015 re-release. The DVD set has no supplemental features, no subtitles or closed captioning, and is equipped only with the English-dubbed audio track. This lack of options results in a massive challenge when attempting to appreciate the series for what it is, and much of the praise heaped on the show upon its debut doesn’t seem to hold much water when analyzed today. Character motivations are mostly clear, but progress towards anything resembling a plot point is often buried under massive amounts of filler that only manage to get more tiresome as the show pitters about in the final arc. The final four episodes are downright infuriating, because the plans within plans that have been alluded to the whole series end up being logically ridiculous and (honestly) overly silly - not to mention, they don’t make the slog through some of the more meandering sub-plots worth the extended sit.
The series is visually impressive, and has copious throwbacks to its source material while still resonating with its own distinct charm, but it undoes all of its efforts with a completely lackluster finale and a hodgepodge attempt at wrapping up all its loose ends in a series of rapid flashbacks throughout the final confrontations. Complex characters become one-note and flat, and the final stretch of the experience is robbed of any conciseness by the limitations and short-sighted nature of its own story. It remains an interesting snapshot at the evolution of Japanese anime in the early 2000s, and how the art form successfully stepped up to the international stage, but it manages to do less in fifty 22-minute episodes than in the two hours of Rintaro’s 2001 feature film Metropolis, both focusing on similar subject matter (and both originating from a manga by Tezuka).