Timed to match the arrival of the new "Astro Boy" movie in theaters, Sony has re-released all fifty episodes of the character's 2003 cartoon series in a series of five individual discs. (The studio's previous collection, a complete series five-disc box set released in 2005, remains available.)
As I'm only slightly familiar with the Astro Boy universe, I turn to my daughter, a self-professed fourth grade scholar in all things Astro, her professorial knowledge ranging from Osamu Tezuka's original manga series to the various television adaptations to the recent CG film. I am informed that this 2003 series, produced in association with the Japanese satellite network Animax to celebrate both the fortieth anniversary of the original TV series and the "birthday" of Astro Boy as mentioned in the original manga (it's past 2003 now - where's my flying robot, Tezuka?), changes up a few key elements of the origin story - most notably turning Dr. Tenma into an enigmatic, villainous figure lurking around the edges of the plot - yet overall remains faithful enough to the franchise to avoid disappointment.
Most other changes are generally cosmetic. Astro's robot superpowers have been upgraded to go with the modern times (more weapons!), as has the overall look of the series, which now glows with a zingy anime crackle that's far beyond the simplified animation of the 1963 series - as evident right from the start, with the opening credits' techno swoop and rapid-fire editing.
And while the tone of several episodes is noticeably darker than the optimism of past efforts, the overall mood here is true to Tezuka; commentary on class relations, pacifism, and forgiveness remain strong throughout the series' run.
More controversial to fans is the American re-editing of the show. While dubbing the program into English (the voice work is excellent, by the way), Sony reworked some bits the dialogue, cutting out some of the more child-like comments from Astro while giving him action-oriented catchphrases like "let's rocket!" Incidental music got replaced, including a different theme song. Several shots featuring violence have been removed entirely. And for reasons never quite clear, some names remain Japanese while others are Anglicized; Dr. Ochanomizu, who was rechristened Dr. Elefun in previous cartoons, is now called Dr. O'Shay. (Note: As of this writing, the Japanese versions have never been released Stateside, and the imported discs don't feature English subtitles, making these U.S. versions the only way non-bilingual fans can feed their Astro jones.)
The most bizarre aspect of the American reworking is a shuffling of the order of several episodes. It all seems so random, moving stories around here and there without rhyme or reason, and it results in some awkward continuity in which characters are "introduced" several episodes after we've first seen them.
And yet I will defend the American version, as it maintains most of what makes the franchise work. Many episodes feature no cuts at all, and those that do remain very close to the original. Through it all, the spirit remains. Even with catchphrases added and the darkest bits subtracted, "Astro Boy" is an engaging, imaginative, and delightful slice of sci-fi adventure. It's smart and exciting entertainment for kids and parents alike.
As with the 2005 box set, the episodes here are their American versions, and are presented in the order of their original U.S. broadcast.
Volume One collects episodes 1-10:
1. "Power Up!" What a way to start! Thanks to Dr. O'Shay, the wonderful (if oddly shirtless) flying robot boy Astro reawakens, blessed with "kokoro" - free will, emotion, and an ability to think like a human. But it's not until a giant robot threatens Metro City that Astro realizes he's meant to be a hero. Action is brisk and the origin tale daringly relies on plenty of mystery and hidden plot points, but the best part is the message of peace and understanding: unlike the human authorities who wish to blast the giant robot into oblivion and never mind the awful consequences, Astro, understanding the robot threat might be accidental, takes the time to work out a peaceful solution.
2. "Rocketball" A clueless Astro interrupts a championship game of professional robot Rocketball - just as he was beginning to learn the proper rules about society. The notion of a program-less robot with free will makes most of the city nervous, especially Inspector Tawashi, who knows plenty of Astro's history as a creation of the gone-mad Dr. Tenma. As the plot thickens, it grows clear we'll be headed toward a battle between O'Shay's everyone's-equal optimism and Tenma's robot-supremacy pessimism as the key to the future.
The main plotline, in which Astro ultimately ends up facing off against Rocketball champs, is only so-so; I'm not a fan of "let's put some sports into the plot for easy action and conflict" cartoon storytelling. But the Dr. Tenma subplot holds up well enough to make the episode work overall.
3. "Atlas" This one aims right for the heart of the Astro Boy moral: the peaceful Astro finds himself defending the humans who don't like him when another of Tenma's creations, the wicked, angry Atlas, wrecks havoc. Flashbacks to both Astro's and Atlas' human childhoods reveal a similar sadness, but each boy (their minds implanted into new robot bodies) took his own path. Will Astro ultimately give in to Tenma's demands for violence?
What could have been preachy and obvious becomes instead very compelling, easy enough for kids to follow but complex enough for older viewers to enjoy, too. The action remains vigorous, and Atlas' modern anime design (a nice contrast to the old school flair of Astro) makes for great visuals.
4. "Astro vs. Atlas" The debate continues: should all robots be denied kokoro since some of them can't handle it? Are robots too powerful? And the revelations continue, too: Astro finally discovers his past as a human named Tobio (and his future - Tenma plans for Astro to rule all), while Tenma's latest client discovers Atlas fumes with revenge for the way robots have been mistreated in the past.
It's no spoiler to say that goodness wins out in the end, but there's some melancholy to the finale, as Atlas realizes the good in Astro cannot be found within himself. Redemption is the theme all around, but nothing's quite so pat - a sign that this series is willing to take storytelling chances even as it deals out its familiar morality lessons.
5. "Destination Deimos" The origin arc takes a rest as we tackle a lighter stand-alone adventure (well, mostly stand-alone). What's causing the robots to rebel on the Martian moon Deimos? The plot delivers a nice mix of mystery and superhero action, and once again, it all leads to a case of authority types jumping to conclusions while ignoring Astro's pleas for a peaceful solution.
6. "Into Thin Air" It's Astro's first day at school, where he gets to learn more about humans. There's also Denku, a girl robot who can turn invisible - and who's working for that nasty gangster, Skunk, but is too stupid to know Skunk's a villain. Or something. There's also a colorful parade.
After five solid stories, we get our first dud. The episode's first half is an obnoxious sort of bubbly, as Astro and his new pals learn all about friendship; their all-smiles trip in a flying bicycle-thingie seems designed for pre-schoolers (and the background animation turns unexpectedly cheap). After the commercial break, the show takes a bizarre turn toward the tense, with Skunk double-crossing Denku, who takes off on a frenzied run for her life while unable to escape the explosives strapped to her (told you: dark). The two halves never match.
7. "Rainbow Canyon" This one involves a canyon where a scientist is growing giant vegetables. It's more adventure for the younger set, as Astro's given a temporary sidekick in the form of a chipper, squealy-voiced kid, and the "veggie-bots" will tickle the imagination. But while the action's snappy enough that it's hard to complain, it's also hard to get thrilled about throwaway stories like this one. (To tide over older viewers, there's some foreshadowing about an impending robot revolution. Hmm...)
8. "Neon Express" Astro and Dr. O'Shay take a ride on the Neon Express, a "robot train" with its own intelligence - and a "hyper-virus" that's caused it to roar out of control. We've settled nicely into a patch of stand-alone stories, and while the action remains kid-oriented (talking trains, happy children, and ice cream-serving robots fill the screen; even the unthreatening baddie uses a clown hologram to deliver his threats), everything's quite clever. As for Astro, it seems most of the humans have started to trust - and even respect - him, as his exploits are cheered on by the masses.
9. "Franken" This is one strange episode: it begins heavy on the creepiness, with a monster robot emerging from the swamp (or something), then swerves into cutesy-kid territory as Astro chaperones little kids on a field trip to an amusement park (or something), then zig-zags back and forth between sinister and friendly until the credits roll. It's all to do with a stolen robot that's merging with other robots into some sort of Frankenstein's monster (look at the title - get it?), and the animators are definitely going for chills in spots. But the little kid factor keeps everything light, even when it shouldn't. There's enough that works, though, to keep the episode afloat, if only barely.
10. "The Venus Robots" Astro discovers a city of abandoned robots eagerly awaiting the return of their former leader - and Dr. Tenma decides they're the perfect pawns for his plan to wipe out humanity. This episode puts the series back on track, just as the disc wraps up. The writing is whip smart, dealing in big, bold sci-fi notions: how do you reason with something that refuses to allow itself free will? The robots are so willing to believe in a (false) leader that they become blind to logic.
There's a sadness in the backstory, where we learn why they were abandoned. And while the episode's final shot is meant to be uplifting (spoiler alert: the robots, still eager to worship blindly, start a new city dedicated to their new idol: Astro), there's something discouraging about their new life, as if they've failed to learn a lesson.
Video & Audio
While I don't have the 2005 box set for comparison, these appear to be the same transfers. Colors pop and detail is gorgeous, especially once the animators show off with complicated backgrounds that make you want to pause the image.
The series' intended aspect ratio is a bit of a sticking point here. The show was produced in 1.78:1 widescreen for Japanese television, but cropped down to 1.33:1 when reworked for American screens. It's presented here in 1.33:1, which, technically, is the "official" format for the U.S. version - but knowing there's more image out there is quite a letdown.
While the original Japanese soundtrack remains unavailable (they wouldn't fit the re-edited American cuts anyway), the English dub sounds just fine in Dolby stereo. Dialogue is clear, while effects have a nice depth to them without being overwhelming. It's not a complicated mix, sounding about what you'd expect from a cartoon series. The alternate Spanish and Portuguese stereo dubs also sound just fine. No subtitles are provided.
It's tough to recommend these individual releases, inexpensive as they are, since the earlier box set remains available (and at a lower price then these five volumes combined). For that reason alone, I'll suggest you Rent It to see if this reworking of Astro is to your liking.