Jelena Sofronijevic on the robot who imported the world to Japan and exported Japan to the world
Listen to Jelena Sofronijevic read their Slow Review of Mighty Atom
If Osamu Tezuka was the “Father of Manga”, then Atom was his most famous – or, for some, infamous – child.
But in the books, this android adolescent with human emotions had a different type of father-creator: one who was mourning the loss of his son. Subsequently abandoned in a robot circus, Atom is adopted by Professor Ochanomizu, who creates for him a robotic family and helps him to live an ordinary human life – extraordinary adventures aside.
Serialised in the Japanese periodical Shōnen between 1952 to 1968, Mighty Atom was later collated into 23 tankōbon volumes. Selling over 100 million copies worldwide, the comic spawned various anime TV shows, which have themselves become globally popular under the name of Astro Boy.
Atom’s defiant gaze adorns everything from film standees to figurines to food packaging. But his ubiquity obscures his true radicalism: this poster boy of post-war Japan pushes back against stereotypes of the time – and of now. He is the nearly perfect robot striving for imperfect humanity, and a challenge to any notion of the so-called Japanese character as cold and economic.
When Mighty Atom was first published, Manga itself was scarcely new. Buddhist monks’ emakimono, Hokusai’s street sketches, and Kitazawa Rakuten’s Punch-like Tokio Puck… all paved the way for Momotarō no Umiwashi (1943), one of Asia’s first animated feature films, stamped with the Japanese Imperial Navy’s seal of approval.
But Tezuka’s cartoons occupy a moment of more complex cross-cultural flows, combining European film and live theatre with animations from within and outside Asia, all in a mutually influential swirl. Take The Adventures of Tintin: they were likely an influence on Tezuka’s work, but Tintin’s creator Hergé was himself influenced by Hokusai, who had in turn been influenced by the French and Dutch art that flooded through Dejima in the preceding century. And on and on and on…
Neither unidirectional nor linear, these flows have hotly contested legacies. Tezuka’s manga Jungle Emperor (1950-1954) – or Kimba the White Lion – is still championed as the original The Lion King (1994). Still, Tezuka was undoubtedly humbled when Walt Disney, his childhood hero, admitted his aspiration to “make something just like” Atom when the two met at the 1964 World’s Fair.
For some Japanese people, this smacked of collusion. Tezuka was charged with being too conservative, not critical enough, and too Western. He was labelled bata-kusai – literally stinking of butter – a derisive term first levelled at the 17th Century foreign traders for their foul tastes.
And yet, in the States, NBC ended up censoring episodes of an anime adaptation of Mighty Atom – swapping the word “dead” with “unconscious” and cutting out guns.
Such are the ironies and contradictions of Mighty Atom. He is now a cultural icon for Japanese people to champion, to club around, and to contest visions of Japan’s future. But he’s also a reflection of Japan’s often contrarian post-war identities; the risk-taking renegade who would be named Japan’s envoy for overseas safety.
Waiting for the train to depart Niiza Station on the Musashino Line, you still hear the Mighty Atom theme tune. A fitting tribute to a figure grounded in contemporary Japan, still firing into its future.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill
Jelena Sofronijevic is an audio producer. Their podcast EMPIRE LINES follows the unexpected, often two-way flows of empires through art.