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 Five collects episodes 41-50:
41. "Avalanche!" Astro joins an expedition to recover a robot that's been buried in a nearby mountain range. But what does the study of a distant planet have to do with all this, and why does a baddie want to hide the robot's memory?
This final disc kicks off with a bit of everything: the action is top notch, the mystery is completely engaging, and there's even an environmental message smuggled into the corners. And it all leads - where else? - to a killer avalanche, an exhilarating sequence which gives us some of the series' most remarkable animation.
42. "Battle of Steel Island" The Blue Knight returns, amping up his liberation crusade by hijacking cargo ships. Overlooking the fact that some of the robots rescued here are of the obnoxious comic relief variety, we're tossed some excellent moral conflict. Is the Blue Knight taking his actions too far, especially when he seems to deny robots the very freedom he claims he's granting them? Meanwhile, we're asked to agree with Shadow, a character we've never wanted to trust before. Things get even hazier once Dr. Tenma sends Astro to interfere, but who's on the side of right?
The whole thing keeps building and building and building, with more villains and more action and more temptation. Tenma becomes something of the devil on Astro's shoulder, an Emperor Palpatine trying his best to lure Astro to the Dark Side. With the Blue Knight now an enemy (although not a villain), Astro stands alone in the righteous middle ground of peace - and for the first time in the series, we're suddenly not sure how long our hero can stay there.
43. "Undercover" Call this one "Infernal Astro Affairs." Klaus, a police robot disguised as a human for undercover purposes, has suddenly gone rogue. A failsafe virus has been put into action, and it's up to Astro to find him before the virus takes effect.
The series is certainly taking more risks in this final lap. The action is coupled with some pretty heavy drama, with Klaus and other robots living as humans posing interesting philosophical quandaries. Talk of prejudice and fear abound, with the script openly asking if humans fear robots because they're so different or because they're the same. (Better still: when faced with all that hatred, Klaus asks, simply, "then why did they make us?") It's not often you get a kids' cartoon asking its viewers what it means to be human.
44. "Into the Dragon's Lair" Well, so much for philosophical quandary. Astro and friends jet off to visit Abby, the princess from "The Legend of Tohron." But something funny's going on with the local robots...
As throwaway episodes go, this one's decent enough for a while, especially with the sweet subplot about how welcome robots are in Abby's land. But then it turns into a big, weird save-the-stupid-kid adventure once Abby's young brother gets into trouble, and the whole thing falls apart.
45. "Night Before the Revolution" Looks like the previous episode was a palate cleanser, as we jump headfirst right back into some serious stuff. A robot is falsely accused of attacking Hannah, the daughter of the warmongering General Red; the ensuing trial ignites tensions all over Metro City. Humans (unaware they're being manipulated by the sinister Drake) fear a robot uprising. Naturally, the Blue Knight is happy to oblige their panic. We're talking full-on race riot here, and the drama is even more intense than you'd expect.
46. "Robotonia" The Blue Knight has started an independent robot nation. Meanwhile, the humans of Metro City are starting to turn against Astro himself, and when war is declared, General Red sets out to destroy our hero. There might be plenty of action and fever pitch drama on display here, but the franchise's pacifist themes never get lost - there's a certain beauty to a scene where Astro rescues a human who tried to kill him, while later, even when it seems the hero is at his most defeated, he refuses to give up his cries that war is never the answer.
47. "Showdown in Robotonia" Robotonia rises! The battle escalates! Astro is captured by Dr. Tenma! Atlas returns! Reno and Hannah outrun the cops! Inspector Tawashi takes action! Drake's villainy is revealed! And other awesome things!
This final story arc has officially reached epic proportions, with long-in-the-making ideas falling into place and old characters returning, making the complete series come together as a satisfying whole. Heck, the episode even makes us like Zoran, so you know it's doing something right.
48. "Journey to Tomorrow" Astro's efforts to stop the war face opposition from both sides. The Blue Knight refuses to compromise, while the sheer madness of war reaches "Dr. Strangelove" proportions when General Red, finally discovering the truth about his daughter, insists that it doesn't matter why the battle began now that it's underway, as long as he's victorious in the end. Meanwhile, Tenma reaches his own heights of insanity, revealing his ultimate - and totally nutty - plan for the future.
And just when we think the series is starting to wrap up early, along comes one of the ballsiest cliffhangers I've ever seen in a cartoon. (Too bad the next episode title doubles as a spoiler.)
49. "Astro Reborn" Dr. O'Shay struggles to save Astro, only to have to place his trust in Tenma - a trust the mad doctor abuses with ease. And then, well, the whole thing becomes kind of a letdown. After four straight episodes of nonstop action and grand drama, this one feels like a cheap epilogue, cluttered with too much cutesiness (Astro's friends try to rescue him, resulting in limp comic relief) and underwhelming resolution (the payoff for the Drake plotline doesn't entirely gratify). I suppose the feel-good nature of some scenes has been earned after all that tension, and yet, well, meh.
50. "The Final Battle" Dr. Tenma invades the Ministry of Science, and brings some flashbacks with him. (There seems to have been some inventive dialogue changes in the dubbing process, weaseling around the facts of Tobio's backstory; one key flashback is altered into total meaninglessness, which sort of misses the point of the whole franchise.)
That idiocy aside, this episode marks a bittersweet resolution to the series. Tenma's maniacal tendencies are matched only by the sadness of his final actions. And it's fitting that this final episode goes by with minimal action - it's talk, not battle, that ends up moving us toward the optimistic last few scenes.
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.
After four barebones discs, we finally get some bonus material. But don't get too excited: all we get is the lame "Remaking of Astro Boy" (8:23; 1.33:1), which collects several Japanese EPK-style featurettes, dubbed into English. The first is a quickie behind-the-scenes tour, with much mentioned about how the show's producers had to deal with interfering American advisors, all in hopes of making the series a Stateside success - and then the show flopped over here anyway. (You also get to see the original opening titles, letterboxed to its original format. Nice!) There's also a short "how to draw Astro" bit and a rundown of the character's history.
An outdated batch of previews for Sony releases (leftovers from the 2005 box set) is also included, in case you want to see what titles the studio was hyping four years ago.
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 - with the added suggestion that if you're just planning on picking up one volume, this collection of the series' finest episodes is definitely the one to pick.