Helen McCarthy on how Astro Boy changed the world
In the Tokyo suburb of Nerima, the Tezuka family watched the first episode of Father’s first animated TV series. Father was “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka; the series was Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy,) made in his purpose-built studio next door. Everyone on the crew was hoping for success, but not even Tezuka could have foreseen what was to come.
Astro Boy wasn’t the first domestic animation, or animated series, on Japanese TV. But it was the game-changer, kick-starting the TV anime boom and setting up the paradigms and problems that would dominate the industry for half a century.
Throughout the 1950s, Japan struggled with the after-effects of defeat and occupation. High-value items like TV sets were out of most people’s reach. In 1959, though, every Japanese family that could scrape the money together bought a TV to watch the Royal wedding of Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito. Rising audience figures meant more demand for programming. Tezuka, who had always wanted to make animation, saw his opportunity.
Most cartoons on Japanese TV were bought from American networks. Analysing the limited animation of shows like The Flintstones, Tezuka knew he could make cartoons locally, based on his own comics. He also knew there was an emerging foreign market for Japanese animation. Toei Studios set out to sell animated features overseas, starting with Hakujaden. Their film of his manga Saiyuki appeared in the US as Alakazam The Great in 1961.
American shows were offered to Japanese TV at low prices because they had already earned back their production costs at home. Tezuka decided to undercut them. Successful character merchandising based on his comics, plus the prospect of foreign sales, convinced him that he could make enough profit on spinoffs to cover his losses on production costs. He adapted the standardised systems he used to boost output on his comics to animation, cutting costs back to the bone.
The success of Astro Boy sent established and new studios scrambling to follow Tezuka’s example. It was a massive gamble, and it didn’t really work. Tezuka spent most of his income from manga subsidising anime, but his first company still went bust. The anime industry has never broken the pattern he set. Networks expect to pay low prices and studios have to hustle to bridge the gap with sponsorship and merchandising. Quality and originality come behind riding the current trend to profit, or at least financial viability.
But watching Astro Boy, none of that matters. What Japanese audiences saw on New Year’s Day 1963 is still magical. Halfway round the world and half a century on, the sheer power of Tezuka’s story of discrimination, cruelty, love, innocence and courage makes his child robot a hero fit for the scientific age to come, as well as the one we’re living through.
So maybe Tezuka’s gamble did work, after all.
Happy anniversary, Atom. Happy New Year, anime.