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Jonathan Clements reviews an insider’s account of Astro Boy

Like its title, Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of a Pop Culture Phenomenon is a game of two halves. The first is a riveting first-hand account of life in the broadcast media by the producer who stumbled from radio into television just in time to be part of the scramble for syndicated content in the 1960s. Fred Ladd was a man with many irons in the fire, hacking together Eastern bloc hokum to make throwaway six-minute sci-fi serials, tinting monochrome movies to meet the demands of the gaping maw of colour television, and repurposing old wildlife documentaries to make cheapo jungle stories. He also carefully rewrote and cut up a black-and-white cartoon show from Japan, inadvertently becoming one of the pioneers of the modern anime business. This book is the closest thing we will get to his autobiography, and presents a gripping account of forgotten technologies and faded films.

More than aware of the cheap nature of the visuals, Ladd deliberately pepped up the soundscape on Astro Boy with traffic noises and offstage business in order to create a busier illusion of action – I don’t doubt this claim for a moment, but note that Astro Boy‘s creator, Osamu Tezuka, said that he did similar things at the Japanese end: was this something that Tezuka learned from Ladd, like the idea to have lyrics to the Astro Boy theme? With a budget of $1800 per episode for dubbing, Ladd hothoused his staff until they could do an episode a day, running two projectors in tandem in order to scrape vital minutes when film would otherwise be loaded by union jobsworths while the actors wait. Ladd also saw Tokyo and Seoul for himself, delivering invaluable slice-of-life accounts of the Asian animation industry at home.

This was the age when foreign cartoons were so much ballast – often literally, since they were bartered in lieu of hard currency, which some foreign countries were unable to export, in return for American TV programming. We get Ladd’s first-hand perspectives of the birth of Gigantor, Battle of the Planets, Kimba the White Lion, and Marine Boy, each arriving in a chaotic whirl of meetings and negotiations, compromises and disasters, skulduggery and gazumping. Although modern anime fans might reel in horror at Ladd’s attitude towards the original Japanese, he was still a master of his craft, and a loving shepherd of these shows into their English-language forms. Like Carl Macek in the generation that followed, his invasive rewrites are what made the broadcast of the English versions even possible in the first place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ladd’s face-to-face crisis meeting with Osamu Tezuka himself, where he talks Astro Boy’s creator through the changes that have to be made in dubbing and editing in order to get around the American censor. Here we hear not only of the notorious unbroadcast episodes, but of several others that would have been banned without Ladd’s careful attention.

It’s fascinating to see Astro Boy’s story told from the American end of production, particularly in the form of US issues over censorship and technology, which would end up steering Tezuka’s production thousands of miles away. Ladd is a witty and lucid memorialist of anime’s first steps into foreign broadcast media, aided by his amanuensis Harvey Deneroff, who pops up occasionally to offer crucial notes on context. It’s Deneroff, one presumes, that we have to thank for many of the incisive asides that correct common fallacies about the international animation business, including the vital semantic distinction between Astro Boy’s widely reported sale to NBC, and its actual sale to the very different entity NBC Enterprises. Sometimes, however, one gets the feeling that genuine recollections have been spruced up with unwelcome trivia from doubtful sources. Someone, for example, has added the notion that Nippon Sunrise sprang up in the 1960s amid the first flush of Astro Boy’s success, which Ladd cannot possibly remember, since Sunrise wasn’t founded until 1972, after the collapse of Tezuka’s studio. Similarly, entertainingly lively accounts of certain events come with problematic dates – why does Ladd claim to be sorting out the first 12 episodes of Astro Boy in Japan in mid-1964, when they had surely already been broadcast in America almost a year earlier? And although there is much information in this book that will surprise readers even in Japan, the authors’ linguistic knowledge is wanting – throughout the text, they consistently fail to spell Astro Boy’s Japanese title correctly.

The book is published by McFarland & Company – an outfit with academic aspirations that even extend to the paperback cover price. But Ladd’s reminiscences are so essential to understanding the 1960s anime business, it is well worth it for those alone. Unfortunately, Ladd’s contribution appears to comprise a novella-length 100 pages, and Deneroff’s additions, while genuinely useful as a focus for Ladd’s early testimony, also bulk it out with padding for the latter half of the book, seemingly salvaged from a bunch of old articles. Far from presenting an “insider’s view of a pop culture phenomenon”, the back-end is more like a baffled description from the sidelines, reeling off names and brief synopses of dozens of newer shows simply, it seems, because they are there. Present-day errors reach far greater proportions: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is inexplicably included in a run-down of Korean films, and the outrageous claim is made that animation in Japan was “virtually dormant for almost half a century” after 1918. But this should not detract from the undeniable value of Ladd’s horse’s-mouth reminiscences, or Deneroff’s efforts in guiding them into print: an irreplaceable narrative of anime in the 1960s.

Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of a Pop Culture Phenomenon by Fred Ladd with Harvey Deneroff, is available in paperback and Kindle versions.

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