Astro Boy and the Mark of the Human

by E. John Winner

Astro Boy is a conscious robot, nuclear-powered, with synthetic skin giving him the appearance of a twelve-year-old boy, and plastic hair that sticks out like horns from the top and the left of his head. He has lasers in his fingertips, rockets in his limbs, blasters in his arms, a super-computer for a brain, “100,000 horsepower” strength, extremely sensitive hearing, spotlights in his eyes, and two 50 caliber machine guns in his buttocks.

Astro Boy was invented by Dr. Tenma to replace his own son, Tobio, who had died in a car accident. Tenma eventually discovered, however, that  although designed to look like a boy, Astro could not physically mature. This led Tenma to realize that his robot was really just a robot, and not a boy, and thus could not be his son. Furious (with himself, but projecting it onto Astro), he sold the robot to a sadistic circus ring-leader, and in the process of having to deal with the other robots in the circus, Astro at last began to control his powers while at the same time developing a conscience.

Fortunately for Astro, kindly professor of robotics Dr. Ochanomizu took interest in his plight.  After the passage of the Robot law, liberating robots from their condition of slavery and granting them rights of citizenship, Ochanomizu took Astro under his wing to help him develop his conscience and his capacity for learning.

That’s the basic grounding of the Astro Boy narrative, as developed by writer/artist Osamu Tezuka.   We can see here most of the themes that the further adventures of our hero will address: The difficult relations between humans and robots; the moral corruption and cruelty of which humans are capable; discrimination and the hope for liberation; the notion that consciousness requires both the capacity to learn and conscience (the one to acquire knowledge, the other to acquire insight and judgment).

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The Astro Boy narrative, as a serial manga, began publication in 1952. [1] The series became a sensation overnight, and by the mid-1950s had inspired a live-action television show. Then in 1962, Tezuka himself developed an animated cartoon series for television – writing, drawing, even animating alongside his staff of six (some of whom went on to become notable figures in the anime industry). Due to budget constraints, the series used what is known as ‘limited animation:’ stock backgrounds, stock shots, very limited figure movement, etc. But this actually increases the charm of the series for me; it has a quirky surrealistically mechanical aura in many of the visuals.

Animation had been an interest for Tezuka long before he initiated this series. His father owned a movie projector, and Tezuka was fascinated with American animated films from quite an early age, primarily those by Walt Disney, although the main influence discernible in the Astro Boy series is that of the Fleischer Brothers. The Astro Boy series could not duplicate the gloss of better-budgeted American animated television shows, but it did demonstrate a sophisticated humor and a visual inventiveness well in advance of them.  (Tezuka’s manga were also always in advance of work being done in American comics of the time.)  The series was quite successful in Japan and became the first foreign animation series to achieve any popularity in the United States.  Tezuka appears to have been rather intellectually restless however, his mind working through an idea until it had played itself out, then moving on to other ideas. So at the end of the TV series, he killed off the character by flying him into the sun (taking a world-destructive bomb with him, thus saving the earth).

Fans were outraged, so Tezuka, still engaged in the manga serializations of the Astro Boy saga, came up with a manga story arc about how Astro was saved by aliens.  It’s actually a fascinating story arc, concerning (along the way) problems with social class, the possibility of intelligence evolving in insects on other planets, time loops, the Vietnam War…, but It goes on for 600 pages and gets quite complicated, so I only mention it here.

The point is that like any good robot, Astro Boy simply could not die. After developing a remake of the original series for television in 1980 (with which he had little to do, beyond supplying stories and designs), Tezuka himself effectively retired the character. But fans would not let him go.

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Osamu Tezuka

What is it about Astro Boy that appeals to so many people; an audience that includes a wide cross section of the Japanese population, as well as a substantial cult following abroad?  By the time Tezuka effectively stopped producing more episodes in the serial, there were readers who had been following Astro Boy for decades, well into their adulthood. Even today, adults speak of their memories of the manga and of the animation series, in glowing terms.

Astro Boy was originally designed for Japanese males in their early teens – hence his physical appearance as a twelve-year old boy.  The aesthetic psychology at work here is fairly plain. Astro looked like many of the members of his audience, and despite the absence of any physical blemish, managed to capture the sense of alienation that young people so commonly feel when entering the awkward years of early puberty. He looked human, and yet he was different – he was, after all, a robot.

Nonetheless, there were compensations for this alienation.  Astro Boy was extremely smart, had amazing powers, and always demonstrated a greater conscience than many of the adult humans around him. He wasn’t just different, but superior. Fortunately for the world, he had not an ounce of vanity and  never exhibited smugness or self-satisfaction of any kind. On the contrary, he was always trying to find his way; trying to be both robot and boy, in a world where many could accept him as neither.

So there’s the initial hook for his young audience, the process of identifying with a familiar though superior hero.  But the appeal runs deeper. There are those big, innocent eyes, staring out in wonder at the world of the future. Astro Boy can express a number of emotions, even negative ones, but the two most memorable expressions we see in his face are a fierce determination, when in action and a winning, unambiguous smile – unambiguous because there is not the slightest hint of duplicity or pretense. He is all of a piece – never temperamental or given over to deep doubt; never holding a grudge or engaging in hidden agendas. He says what he means (and frequently takes what humans say all too literally). He is the exemplar of what one might call “sophisticated innocence” – almost a youthful version of Rousseau’s noble savage, capable of theorizing about physics while discussing ethics. “Almost,” because he is still learning. Despite all the action and adventure, learning is Astro Boy’s central preoccupation. Although never appearing pretentiously curious, he questions every new phenomenon that he encounters. And of course he is always willing to help others, frequently at the risk of his own existence.  He is a true hero; in  many ways an ideal human being.  Except – he’s a robot. And that makes all the difference.

There’s a moment in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when John Connor’s mother looks at him playing with the bodyguard robot and thinks to herself that the robot would make the perfect father.  Certainly, part (though not all) of the hope that humans have for conscious robots is that human intelligence might produce, through science and technology, what apparently god could not – perfection.  A conscious robot would be physically stronger than us and thus, in comparison, the “strongest.”  It would be more intelligent than us and thus, in comparison, the “most intelligent. To achieve true mimicry of human consciousness, and yet surpassing it, the conscious robot would need a conscience – in comparison to us, it might be the kindest, the wisest, the most loyal, and the most just.

Alas, we tend to forget that imperfection cannot produce perfection, because perfection is a matter of perspective. We seem imperfect to ourselves, because we have aesthetic standards by which we judge ourselves.  And we are always making mistakes.  Of course, as we learn more, our perspectives on these mistakes change. They offer opportunities to learn, to reconsider our standards, and to change.  Imperfection – in ourselves and in others – is something to live with, not to eliminate.

Astro Boy, the abandoned child, actually has four fathers. Dr. Tenma, his inventor (who is quite mad), desperate to replace his dead son; Dr. Ochanomizu, the somewhat bumbling, temperamental roboticist who becomes his guardian; “Dad,” the robot Dr. Ochanomizu builds for him – who, it must be said, is little more than a parody of fatherhood; and of course, writer and artist Osama Tezuka, who created him as a fictional character.  The flaws of the fictional fathers are underscored. Those of Dr. Ochanomizu are the least noticeable, only because they threaten the least possible harm. Dad’s flaws are treated as comic, but were he a real father, we should be concerned for his children. And Tenma is mentally unstable.

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What about Osamu Tezuka? What of his flaws? We get a glimpse of the answer when Tezuka makes an occasional appearance in his manga as narrating character.  “‘Once upon a time’ Astro Boy tales, part 1” [2], is an interesting case in point. Tezuka appears himself, to introduce a prolonged story arc for his character.  Tezuka draws himself with big nose, big glasses, droopy shoulders, fat fingers, wearing loose clothing and a floppy beret – not the most debonair of appearances. He basically admits that he made a mistake, disappointing audiences by killing off Astro Boy at the end of the television series, while reminding his readers that the show was never intended to be integral with the manga. However, he admits that, in response to fan complaints, he carried on the television narrative in a comic strip appearing in newspapers. But now the newspaper series is out of sync with the magazine series! So, he will just have to start the story over again.  Tezuka made a virtue of his seemingly flawed story-telling.

This sounds like an outrageous interpolation of the author’s personality into his own fiction. Yet, strangely, it’s in keeping with the principle themes of the Astro Boy narrative.

Astro Boy seems to be an ideal human – but this is merely appearance; being a robot, he can represent that ideal, but not being human, he can never achieve it. Not programmed to achieve any ideal, he is continually trying to learn how to function as humanly as possible. This is his greatest personality flaw: failure to accept himself as a robot. Yet it’s also the source of his greatest character strength, namely, his ethical commitment.

Let’s put the matter in its own context. In the Japan of the future, as Tezuka imagined it, robots, developed as tools of use, have achieved something like consciousness. But since they are the result of gradual innovations on previous models, they don’t all share the same level of consciousness. Some are very much like ourselves; some are condemned to following their programming without variation; still others remain remote controlled machinery. Since the humans of this world were engaged in the innovations responsible for conscious robots, and having grown accustomed to using robots as tools, many of them cannot see the issues arising from sharing the same environment with a separate species of conscious intelligence. Initially, only a handful of humans are sympathetic to the yearning of the conscious robots to be allowed the rights and respect of citizenship.

However, through the intervention of intelligent microbial visitors from another planet, the humans are at last made aware of how much they owe to robots and the respect with which robots ought to be treated. This leads human governments to establish the Robot Law, which has ten Articles, including, notably:  Article 1 — Robots were created to make humans happy; and Article 2 —  In fulfilling the above, all robots shall have the right to live in freedom and equality. [3]

Notice the internal tensions in these laws. Article 1 defines robots, ontologically, in terms of the function for which they were invented. As the first article of the Robot Law, it’s designed to limit the possible interpretations: no interpretation can ever be allowed to redefine robots as having a fully independent existence, separate from the humans that invented them.

The second Article is even more limiting.  While it grants robots the right to freedom and equality, it effectively makes this right dependent on the robots ability to realize their existence as defined in the first Article. Where is the “freedom and equality” in this?

Tezuka was apparently aware of the tensions built into the laws he had the humans of his story enact. As more than one story makes clear, the robots’ enjoyment of their “rights” is entirely contingent on their ability to conform to human expectations. This is really not a right but a privilege – a grant from the state that can be revoked without much recourse to legal defense, rather like drivers licenses granted in the US.

Yet it’s doubtful that the government could have gone much further without considerable push-back from its human constituency. The wording effectively reassures humans that they retain a political position superior to that of their former robot slaves.

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If this sounds familiar, it’s because Tezuka drew the theme of robot-human relations from the history of race relations in America.  Since Tezuka learned to draw Africans by copying the style of their representations in American cartoons from the 1930s, there have been complaints that his depiction of them is tainted with racism. These complaints indicate a failure to read the stories themselves or recognize their themes. Tezuka once remarked that he first got the idea for the Astro Boy narrative, while recovering from a beating by drunken US soldiers during the Occupation. The experience led him to loathe any form of discrimination. But he was clearly aware of how subtle discrimination could be, and of the complexity of the psychology behind it, as well as of the psychology in responding to it.

So the Robot Law does not entirely produce the stable and happy human-robot society it was intended to. For one thing, prior to this law, humans had simply taken robots for granted. Now, forced to recognize them as separate, individual conscious beings, many humans grow suspicious of the robots around them. If robots can enjoy their own agency, could they not use that agency to cause humans harm?

These suspicions are complicated by the fact that not all robots share the same degree of consciousness or independent agency. If a robot has been programmed to kill, no matter how conscious it is, and cannot over-ride the program, who’s responsible when it commits murder? And imagine a duplicate Astro Boy that only functions under the remote control of a human.  Could such a robot be said to share the freedom and equality of fully conscious robots?  Tezuka spent some thirty years exploring possible variants of these and other similar dilemmas.

The point is that Astro Boy, as a fully conscious robot with superior abilities and admirable ethics, functions as a focus for some of the most difficult social and ethical problems we face. Astro is clearly engaged in action-oriented science fiction stories. But he’s also on a pilgrimage through a moral universe. The ambiguity of his existence – as both mechanistically functioning machinery and conscious intelligence with a conscience – only underscores the ambiguities of that universe.

Undoubtedly, Tezuka is asking us to empathize with Astro’s human/robot predicament; equally, undoubtedly, our empathy is triggered in some proportion to our ability to perceive Astro as a living entity; specifically as some form of human being, however artificial. It’s not simply that we know, for instance, that he has been invented with artificial tear-ducts and programmed with the ability to weep. We need to perceive this response as being somehow sincere, that is, as an expression of his being Astro Boy and not some fraud perpetuated on us by his inventor. We need to believe that when he weeps, he does so because he feels some sadness or sorrow and not because his inventor wanted to fool us into responding to him “as if.”

In watching or reading Astro Boy, then, what impresses me the most about him, what leads me to empathize with him as a conscious intelligence, as a being approximately (if artificially) human, are his flaws.  The single most human gesture that Astro Boy performs, the gesture that truly endeared him to me as a recognizably conscious being, similar to a human, is when his head pops off.  Astro Boy’s head is screwed onto his body; otherwise, it is only connected, within, by a coiled cable. Occasionally, Astro Boy experiences a bump or a push so hard, his head pops off, and he has to pause to screw it back on.

That’s the gesture I find most human about him. In moments like this, the flaw in his design becomes obvious, and he has to correct for it. He has to recognize his own vulnerability, deal with it and move on. In such moments he is most like a child who is learning and adaptive. His otherness thus becomes exactly what is most human about him.

This theme is built into the narratives. Astro Boy is the super-robot with a superior intellect. But being conscious and capable of emotion, he makes mistakes. He trusts people unwisely; he makes bad decisions; he performs questionable actions exactly because, being innocent in nature, he cannot predict the moral consequences of everything he might do. He can be moody, and he can get angry, and he can weep – sincerely, because he feels sorrow. But he can go through all this, and learn from it and move on, not to a greater state of perfection, but onto further adventures where he will almost certainly make other mistakes. Because he is like us; we who bumble and fumble our way through life, and yet press on.

Our failings make us human. We’re an animal with an over-sized brain. Our minds are too complicated for the survival in the wild they evolved to adapt to. In other words, human consciousness is the product of an evolutionary flaw – an accident, a freak of nature. It’s not surprising, then, that the mistakes we make with it should be the ultimate signification of our being human.

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Notes

[1] My primary factual source throughout is:  The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution; Frederik Schodt; Stone Bridge Press; 2007.

IMDB site, first TV series (1963): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056739/?ref_=fn_al_tt_4.

Primary Wikipedia article:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astro_Boy_%28character%29

[2]  Astro Boy, vol. 6; Osamu Tezuka; trans. Frederik J. Schodt; Dark Horse Comics, 2002.

[3]  Astro Boy, vol. 8; Osamu Tezuka; trans. Frederik J. Schodt; Dark Horse Comics, 2002.

Categories: Essay, Essays

8 Comments »

  1. Thanks, EJ. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I have to confess that Astro Boy is news to me, though I did occasionally watch an episode or two of Speed Racer.

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  2. Thanks, TJ! Besides raising questions concerning the problems surrounding robotics and human nature, I also wanted to do honor to one of the truly interesting creative talents of his generation. Besides Astro Boy, Tesuka (an incredibly prolific work-a-holic writer and artist), also did the story of The White Lion, which Disney Studios translated (without proper acknowledgement) as The Lion King. He was really a creative genius, with a talent for reading the social and ethical problems of his time, projected both backward and forward through time. So, not only a brilliant entertainer, but a thoughtful one as well.

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  3. Quite a philosophical article. In watching some of the Astro Boy films it never occurred to me the link between our own personal and societal dilemmas and the moral of the stories. I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis.

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  4. Man I really liked this one. I think the irony you cite is quite a prevalent and now, frankly, a somewhat well worn one. In 2001, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and others, the most human character is not human. Of course it is an invitation to meditate on what it means to be human. Clearly when we say human, humanistic, humane, we are not referring to any quality which inheres in biology. In saying “human” we mean something quite different, more value laden, more to do with persons. I never thought of Astro Boy as belonging to this set, so that is really interesting.

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  5. This was a most enjoyable essay. Did you note perhaps the equivalence between Astro Boy and Harry Potter where the different treatment and story lines reflect the differences between Occidental and Oriental outlooks?

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  6. EJ,
    Our failings make us human.

    Any living thing that is the product of evolutionary processes is an imperfect work in progress.

    human consciousness is the product of an evolutionary flaw – an accident, a freak of nature.

    That seems to be a jump too far in your reasoning. What was the flaw in our evolution? Evolution is heavily dependent on accidental combinations that produce many outcomes, all flawed in some way, some better suited than others to the trial by fire that we call natural selection. Some outcomes are exceedingly rare but does that make it a freak of nature or just an rather improbable event?

    I would put it differently. We are highly adapted hominids whose behaviour was genetically determined. Then, some 100,000 years ago, we acquired this remarkable faculty called human cognition. How this happened we simply don’t know. But we do know it was a mixed blessing. 100,000 years ago we competed, rutted and killed ruthlessly with no thought of right or wrong, just as the rest of the animal kingdom does. The only right was personal advantage and morality had no meaning. We were never troubled by conscience but were driven by desire. With the arrival of cognition we acquired the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Our newly acquired cognition and morality came into immediate conflict with our old, ingrained genetic urges. Human history is the story of how our cognition and morality have slowly, step by step, partially overcome these ancient, ingrained genetic urges. It is a halting work in progress with many setbacks and still we are capable of reverting to rape, pillage and slaughter. Our mind today is the battleground where the conflict plays out between our ancient, ingrained genetic urges and our modern conscience, the product of our newly acquired cognition. Slowly these ancient, unwanted genetic urges are draining away as they confer little evolutionary advantage. But this is a slow process. In the meantime we build institutions whose job is to restrain these harmful genetic urges until finally they have been dissipated by evolution. But institutions are porous and fragile so we will live with moral conflicts for a long time.

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  7. A nicely written piece, though (like labnut) I think perhaps you overreach a bit at the end (on our accidental outsized brains, etc.).

    Also I thought you were reading too much into the character but, since its creator had explicit moral and political concerns, maybe your reading is correct. I was only vaguely aware of Astro Boy.

    What interests me particularly is how such affinities with childhood stories and characters tie in with political orientation in later life. Exposure to particular sources might have a decisive causal effect or innate tendencies might be a more significant factor (certain personality types being particularly attracted to certain characters etc.). I don’t doubt that exposure to certain kinds of stories etc. in childhood does have an impact, but I suspect that individual psychology plays the decisive role because it determines what we like and so what we choose to read or watch (which in turn reinforces these innate tendencies).

    I talked to my sister about the essay. She was a big fan of Astro Boy on TV and the series known as Kimba The White Lion. She also mentioned another Japanese animated series called Marine Boy but that one was created by someone else, I think.

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  8. labnut, Mark,

    Thanks for your comments.

    We tend to forget how recently, how briefly, in the evolutionary schema we find human consciousness. We still don’t know that it is a viable adaptation, or whether it may be excessive in terms of the environment in which it appears.

    As for Tezuka’s intentions, the manga from the ’60s make these quite clear (the TV series targeted toward a younger audience). Again, the manga was far more advanced than American comic books of the same era; it actually reads like a series of what we now know as “illustrated novels.”

    I’m not a big fan of anime or manga, and bumped into Astro Boy while surfing through Youtube on an idle afternoon. I was surprised by how charmed I was by the character. (Besides I’m a big fan of the Fleischer Bros. and noted the similarities with the first Astro Boy series immediately.)

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