Birth of the Atom

Manga and anime are Japanese art forms that have become synonymous with Japanese pop culture, and have reached international appeal. Known for their colorful characters and unique art style, these mediums, like any other, are the basis for truly thought-provoking and groundbreaking stories. This column will aim to shed some light on these praiseworthy works and the deeper themes they touch upon. Like most stories, the best place to start would be at the beginning.

While Japanese comics have existed in some form since the turn of the twentieth century, what we now recognize as manga did not really take off until 1952, when Osamu Tezuka created “Mighty Atom,” or, as he was later known in the U.S., “Astro Boy.” Astro Boy was one of the first major science fiction manga, focusing on a nuclear-powered robot named Astro who fights crime. Like many science fiction stories after it, Astro Boy deals with the effects science and technology have on daily life, and how they can help solve the greater problems humanity faces.

In Astro Boy, Tezuka expressed both hope and fear for what kind of future science would bring. On one hand, the manga portrayed a future where robots and humanity lived in harmony; Astro even went to school with other human children. On the other hand, many villains were scientists who succumbed to the temptation of using science without conscience, going beyond moral limits in their experiments and creations. This was where Astro came in, not simply subduing these scientists like a comic book hero, but instead getting the villains to apologize for their mistakes, and oftentimes join Astro’s side. Tezuka’s lesson was that science alone should not fix everything; science also needs the guidance of human morality and understanding1.

Astro Boy’s attitude towards science and technology is no coincidence. Looking at Astro Boy’s original name, Mighty Atom, it is clear Osamu Tezuka wanted to bring up the impact of an atomic world on Japanese society. At the time of Astro Boy’s initial publication, Japan had just suffered the effects of science going too far as the victim of two atomic bombings. From the American occupation in 1945 until about the 1970s, openly discussing the atom bomb was highly discouraged, leaving a vacuum for manga artists like Tezuka to use fictional stories to express their opinions. Tezuka definitely believed in the peacetime application of science to better people’s lives, but he also wanted to use Astro Boy to critique the abuse of science to solve everything. Unfortunately, his critical views were suppressed by the publishers and instead Astro Boy showed largely an idyllic future2.

However, Tezuka’s idyllic vision of the future proved to still have a profound effect on Japanese society, as Astro Boy would go on to become the first anime of all time and inspire future creators to express their ideas through the lens of manga. One example of such a work is Pluto, written by Naoki Urasawa as a direct adaptation of an Astro Boy story arc (The Greatest Robot on Earth). Urasawa reinterpreted Tezuka’s story in a darker tone to expose the repercussions of technological development—something that Tezuka never could.


References:

1F. M. Szasz and I. Takechi, “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945–80,” Historian 69, no. 4 (2007):728–752.

2J. Matthews, “Anime and the Acceptance of Robotics in Japan: A Symbiotic Relationship,”(undergraduate dissertation, University of Leeds, 2004) n.p.

image of Astro Boy from Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy, vol. 1, trans. Frederik Schodt (Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 2008), 32.

Ankur Dhar is a third-year PhD student in the Quantum Wave Microscopy Unit, using electron holography to study spin ice. Outside of the lab, he enjoys reading copious amount of books from all over the world, as well as assembling Gundam plastic models to adorn his bookshelf and office.