Astroboy: Animated Chiaroscuro
This is a post from a few years back, refreshed and extended. I have a love-hate relationship with anime, the Japanese animation style, leaning more toward the negative. But I greatly admire Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the granddaddy of the style. As far as I am concerned, Astroboy is a kind of Ur-text. See below.
I was born at the end of 1960. Among my earliest visual memories of media experiences are televised coverage of the Kennedy funeral procession—specifically, the flag-draped horse-drawn coffin and oblique overhead view of the cortege—and images from Osamu Tezuka’s animated television show, Astro Boy. Both can be dated to late 1963.
(Recently–that is, in 2014–I have been thinking about 1963, quite specifically. On reflection–and this is almost certainly not an original thought–I think that's the year "the Fifties" ended: Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique; MLK's Letter fro a Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington, and of course, the assassination of JFK. Plus, Sonny Liston on the cover of Esquire as "Black Santa.")
Specifically, images from the Astro Boy title sequence were emblazoned on my brain. A few years ago (a euphemism; try 2007) the entire series became available on DVD through Madman Entertainment in Australia. I bought the first 52 episodes in a boxed set.
At the time, because I was spending lots of time with students talking about screen sequences, I got a couple of DVDs out to watch a few episodes.
First, the forced discipline of black and white does a lot for these things. The value scales are nicely controlled, and the interplay between line and shape is handsome. In fact, I am struck by the fact that some of my own graphic concerns are presaged in these early visual memories—especially line-shape relationships and value structures. This is geekery, but still, it's fascinating.
Meanwhile: what is it about anime and audio? The voice actors and sound designers in anime shows always drive me bonkers, and this is the granddaddy of them all. At the time I acquired the series, my older son Danny was very fond of Naruto, the sound of which I found excruciating.) How is it possible to deliver a track that is both stentorian and infantilizing? And of course the visual style can mimic this as well, but Tezuka has a terrific range of characterization. From my perspective, the visuals are best enjoyed with the audio on mute. But I’ll also confess that the pacing is such that whenever I actually do sit down to watch an Astro Boy episode—with or without audio—I almost always fall asleep in the middle. (Seriously: I have tested and re-tested this many times since. The result is always the same. Zzzzzzz.)
All that said, the TV show title sequence holds up very well! Worthwhile viewing for story artists/screen composers. Especially since the animation is pretty limited in spots. The limitation of pure value–no hue, or "color"–can be a gift. Animated chiaroscuro!
Synopsis: Astro Boy is introduced via tight shot in front of a pulsating background, then takes off to begin his adventures. Over tbe course of several shots he fights Colosso, a giant robot who makes an appearance in Episode Two.
Subsequently he crushes a tentacled ball writhing in the sky; dives beneath the waves to take on some sea monsterish thing; battles a goofy bug-like robot with whale teeth by flying through his electro-breath all the way into his mouth, then richocheting around inside him and zipping back out [resulting, miraculously, in a series of cartoon bandages instanteously applied to said bot’s head] after which a borer machine roars up out of the ground to drill the now-compromised robot straight through, only to be dispatched itself by our boy.
Subsequently Astro Boy punches out a row of bow-tied Klansmen like a row of dominoes; faces a battery of criminals with rayguns, plus a few more in tophats and tuxedoes, upon whom he drops a small jailhouse. Finally he zooms across town to pose for the closing shot.