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Astro Boy: Deluxe DVD Collection is a Japanese animated series presented here in its 1980s incarnation, which differentiates it from an original version done in the 1960s and another again in 2003. This eight-disk set begins with the origin of Astro and follows his many adventures over the course of 51 half-hour episodes. Also included are deleted scenes, a ‘restoration comparison’, character art, and a few examples of cover art from the Astro Boy manga (the Japanese comic book).

Astro is a robot made in the form of a small boy and who lives in Tokyo of 2030. Being a small boy, he is without guile and menace but he’s been given the ‘seven powers’ and ‘a strong sense of justice’ not to mention ‘100,000 horsepower’. He usually ends up battling other, bigger evil robots and saving his human and robot friends. But he doesn’t start a fight without first trying reason with his opponent because, if there’s one thing Astro wants, it’s to be your friend. To quote Elvis Costello, ‘What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?’

On the surface, Astro Boy is a competent Japanese TV show for children, and, 20 years later, a bit of nostalgia for those children now grown up. Yet there is more here than just another Saturday morning cartoon.

Toons’n’bots

What is it with the Japanese and robots?
What is it with the Japanese and robots?

What is it with the Japanese and robots? And what does one say about a cute boy robot with laser fingers and machine guns that fire from his butt? This would be weird even on Adult Swim. How to get a handle on Astro Boy?

For one thing it’s coming from a culture where the cartoon characters of Tom and Jerry are used seriously as the corporate identity for a commercial bank. A culture where comic books are serious forms of adult entertainment and artistic expression — and have been for 60 years. A culture where, the sincere artist-creator (Osamu Tezuka) was allowed a considerable degree of creative control.

Maybe it’s not so strange after all. The final result is a likeable character in an engaging series for children as well as adults. Perhaps the closest example today (and in the U.S.) would be SpongeBob SquarePants, a show first and foremost for kids but written so well that adults can be entertained too. At this point, I see SpongeBob making the ‘imagination’ rainbow over his head to encourage us to use a little bit of imagination ourselves.

Barks Like a Duck

The Japanese have a history of borrowing from other cultures and Astro Boy’s revered creator Tezuka knew his comic art and animation. Indeed there is a strong affinity with the American cartoonist Carl Barks, the quiet company man from Disney who created the Duckburg world of Donald Duck, his nephews and uncle Scrooge. Astro has a foster robot ‘father’ who is drawn directly from that world.

Astro Boy borrows other aspects from Betty Boop, Mighty Mouse and traditional Japanese ‘big-eyed’ animation. But it was Tezuka’s way of writing a pleasing story that keeps reminding me of Barks and his memorable little tales. Along with the robot-battling action, there is always a message and/or moral as well as some kind of thoughtful ending. This probably saves the character of Astro from being simply creepy by way of being too cute for his own good.

Lingua Franca of Astro Boy

Astro Boy is best viewed in the original Japanese with subtitles on. I found the English dialog really flat, whereas the Japanese vocalization was much more interesting, even if I couldn’t understand it. This may be similar to the awe of hearing an opera in the original language, whereas hearing the actual, stilted words in English can be distracting. If you show Astro Boy to a little American kid, they’ll be OK with the English if that’s the only alternative.

Also for the kids, there is a short, written descriptor of each episode, presented as though Astro were telling you what is going to happen. I wonder if this was included because the producers thought that the young English-language audience would not be able to follow the story line — not that the story line is overly complex. I skipped past this descriptor as it only served as a spoiler.

DVD extras

This set has a reasonable selection of extras, including a nice set of original character art. These are the drawings that the animation would have been based on. They make for an interesting look behind the scenes. There is also a split screen comparison of the original vs restored image. I’m not sure how earthshaking the restoration was, as it seems to be mainly a decrease in gamma and an increase in saturation. Still, we should give the producers credit for trying.

There is one story board (the opening sequence) and a section profiling the main characters. The accompanying booklet lists both the English and Japanese broadcast order, perhaps to demonstrate how far out of order the English versions were shown. But this eight-DVD set is still missing quite a bit. It ought to have a sample of the original black and white Astro Boy from the 60’s (problems with copyright?), credit lists for the other animators, credits for the voices, and the show dates. I also would have liked to have seen more storyboard art.

Picture and Sound

The set is billed as a restored version, and the color is crisp and vivid. The sound was clean but as noted above, the English language dub is not as dramatically dynamic as the original Japanese. This is not the fault of the DVDs, but lies in the original lackluster export to English.

Overall

If you are a fan of the Astro Boy series, this set is a must have, but then you knew that already. If you don’t know the series but are a fan of animation, it’s worth checking out. I was surprised at the high (for a TV series) animation quality. There are 25 hours of good-natured non-cynical entertainment here that a child or adult can enjoy, though perhaps for different reasons.

At the price of around $40, this is a pretty good deal. And as the sticker proudly proclaims on the set box “Way more compelling than Pokemon.”

Absolutely.