What did Astro boy leave behind?
It has been almost 60 years since Astro boy first appeared in Captain Atom, the work serialized in the magazine titled Shonen from April 1951.Then Astro boy re-appeared as a hero of Mighty Atom in April 1952.
So far Astro boy has attracted many readers since its debut. He has also gained attention of public, being revalued at each turning point of the times.The production of the CG animation movie “Astro Boy” in Hollywood must have been one of such turning points.
Thus Astro boy surely has universality; however, we must have left something about the work behind with the passage of the times.That would be how he has been related to the times.
This time, I would like to look back the time Astro boy was born with you.We will find another aspect of the work, which would be completely different from the one we presently see in the work.
Above are Astro boy Menko cards.The round cards were made in the earlier days.
The terror of Red-shirt troops
What was Japan like in the year 1951?It had been only six years since the defeat in the Pacific War, and Japan was still struggling for reconstruction. Thanks to Korean War which started in June, 1950, Japan got a boost from huge demand for big steel and textile.However some people feared to be involved again in a global war since U.S. forces had the front-line bases to Korean peninsula in Japan.
Meanwhile GHQ (General Headquarters of the Allied Forces) stationed in Japan pushed the Red Purge under the order from General MacArthur, viewing serious labor movements in Japan as dangerous.Here, the Red Purge meant to expel communists and their followers from private organizations as well as public positions.
In the work Captain Atom, Tezuka depicted “Aka Shirt Tai (Red Shirt Troops)”, the intelligence police within Ministry of Science. The troops, which actually are a kind of Dr. Tenma’s private organization, minimize aliens without mercy under the order from Dr. Tenma.
Aka Shirt Tai are fearful existence since they faithfully execute Dr. Tenma’s cruel order.
(Captain Atom, Episode 9)
While the Red Purge was sweeping in the real life, people felt fear remembering the Special Political Police during wartime. For the readers who experienced such times, Aka Shirt Tie (Red Shirt Troops) must have been more terrifying than we could imagine.
In April 1851, General MacArthur at GHQ suddenly left Japan, removed from the duty. Though he wielded enormous power, he was loved and missed by Japanese people.
The future people saw in the ruins of war
Tezuka Osamu never disappointed readers no matter what pessimistic situation he depicted. Instead, the harder the real life was, the more Tezuka manga encouraged readers.
Skyscrapers, streamlined trains and a huge circus theater set in the middle of Ginza – nobody will be surprised at such scenes now, but people in 1951 must have had completely different impression toward them.
The newspaper in April in 1951 reported that street lamps in Ginza were re-lighted firstly after the war.Actually ruins were everywhere and it was still dark at night even in front of big stations in urban areas.
At that time, there were about 1,300 homeless people living in the underground passages around Ueno station.80 percent were men, and 20 percent were women, and 10 percent of them were children.Although homeless people in rural areas were reducing, homeless people in urban areas were increasing contrarily.
Above is reportage about homeless people at the underground passage in Ueno.Nogami is an argot for Ueno.(Asahi Graph, June 2, 1929 issue)
Tezuka wrote Captain Atom for children living in such difficult days.Children then mush have read the work frantically.They could have escaped from harsh reality only while enjoying a dream land in Tezuka’s work with Astro boy.
Above is a reportage about three homeless children aged 10 to 15, working hard as shoeshine boys in Shibuya. If they are well now, they will be 69 years to 74 years.I wonder whether they could have lived happily. (Sunday Mainichi, January 15, 1950 issue)
Aliens trying to learn about customs on earth act in a strange way, which is quite comical.
(Captain Atom, Episode 2)
Children in harsh environment
The environment surrounding children then was harsh, which is well-reflected in the first scene of Astro boy in Captain Atom.
One day an officer of Ministry of Children visits a circus for investigation, hearing that the circus is planning to make a boy called Tamao and a robot fight.The officer accuses a member of the circus, saying “You don’t know Children’s Charter, do you?”.
This phrase was reflecting the fact that Japanese government established Children’s Charter in May, 1951.The Children’s Charter proclaimed children’s rights loudly, such as “Children shall be respected as human beings.” or “Children shall be valued as member of the society”. However, the reality was far from such ideals.
Around 1947, trafficking in children began to become a social problem in Japan.Though the trafficking in children was trending down thereafter, it turned to increase around 1950 again.In August 1951, Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that there were approximately 5,000 children suffering from the trafficking.
In Captain Atom, Tamao, an alien boy, encounters some strange men in the mountain. He is taken to Ginza by the men and forced to work at the circus – such unrealistic incidents always happened at that time.
Above is the episode in which Astro boy made a debut.(Captain Atom, Episode 4)
This episode was run in July, 1951 issue of Shonen. By the way, July, 2011 is the 60th anniversary of Astro boy, the same month the present TV broadcasting service in Japan is completely changed to a terrestrial digital broadcasting service.It is easy to remember.
What is “Good gum” rationed by Ministry of Children?
In the scene that Astro boy meets the officer from Ministry of Children, the officer has Astro boy eat a piece of gum.The officer insists that no children are able to blow a bubble with it, saying “The gum from Ministry of Children is not a toy.” But Astro boy easily blows a bubble to surprise the officer.
Actually this gag was based on the popularity of bubble gum among children then.
Just after the war, the supply of raw materials for confectionery such as rice, wheat and sugar, was strictly controlled by government.Therefore, confectionary makers were not able to produce confectionery as they planned. Under such circumstances, the makers had their eyes on chewing gum because they could be made from materials not rationed by the government such as pine resin and vinyl acetate resin plus some artificial sweetener such as saccharin and dulcin.Furthermore, due to elasticity of such materials, the product could be blown like a bubble.Confectionery makers sold the product as bubble gum, which became a big hit among children who were lack of toys and sweets.
Many confectionery makers entered into the market. Around 1948 the number of gum makers reached 350 to 400 nationwide.Some of them, however, were malicious makers who used unpurified pine resin.They frequently caused troubles that children who ate their gum got a rash or have a swelling in the mouth.
The officer from Ministry of Children says their chewing gum is “good gum” and “not a toy”, which is nothing to do with children though.What children loved was sweeter gum that turned into a larger bubble.
The moment children accept Astro boy as their friend
Readers then must have exclaimed to see Astro boy talking down an adult in authority, and they naturally accepted him as a part of them.
There was a similar scene in the movie “Astro boy”.Astro boy (Toby), who feels nowhere to go, meets boys and girls without relatives on the surface covered with scraps. They first watch Astro as an outsider, but become to accept him as a family member since he has repaired Zog, a broken robot they esteem highly.
When children accept others, it is important whether they can share the same value or not. This is something like an initiation for them to accept a newcomer.
In 1951, Astro boy was born in Japan with burned out sites everywhere. He became a friend of children who had lost everything and kindled a light in their heart.60 years has passed since then.Although our society has changed dramatically, we have a lot of news about children neglected from families as well as communities or utilized by adults. In such modern days, Astro boy is an advocate for children. He understands children and is a good friend for children.His existence will become important more and more from now on.
Next time, I will write about Astro boy in the high economic growth period of Japan after the chaotic days after the war. When the real world almost caught up with the future world depicted in Astro boy, Tezuka advanced the world in his work a step ahead. What world did he create?See you next time.
Corporation: Oya Soichi Bunko
Reference works: Tokushu Chewing Gum Sengo-hen by Tsutomu Kushima (Nichiyo Kenkyuka vol. 11 from Fuyosha), Showa Niman-nichi no Zenkiroku from Kodansha
(C) 2009 Imagi Crystal Limited
Original Manga (C)Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd.
Born in 1957 in Tokyo. Freelance writer and manga story writer. The first Tezuka manga he encountered was Astro Boy and since then, for over 40 years, he has collected manga works of the Showa period and toys sold at mom-and-pop candy stores. He has written many Showa-retro related books and articles. Tezuka Osamu Fan Club membership number 364 (inaugural class).
About this column
Mr. Tezuka always said “Managa is satire.” In his works he vividly depicted times each work was published from his own point of view.However, such time backgrounds are easily forgotten with the passage of time.
In this column, I would like to focus on reviewing how Mr. Tezuka depicted times in his works and how his works were engaged in such times.