It is a testament to Osamu Tezuka’s optimism that he created a fission-powered android as the protagonist for his manga series and named him Tetsuwan Atomu, or ‘Mighty Atom’. Tezuka’s creation, who would become known worldwide as Astro Boy, was first published in 1952.
Only seven years earlier, Little Boy and Fat Man had heralded the atomic age by devastating the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The apocalyptic nightmare of 1945 was still Japan’s only experience of atomic power; the public investment of 230 million yen which would mark the beginning of Japan’s nuclear energy program was still two years away.
Mighty Atom was (and remains) not an embodiment of these horrors, but unequivocally a hero. He fights evil robots, is armed with 100K horsepower strength, jet flight, instant language translation and retractable machine guns. He is capable of discerning good from evil. And he is fashioned in the form of a child, created by Doctor Tenma to replace his son Tobio, who died in a car accident.
It is impossible to imagine such a positive icon being so closely associated with any other form of military destruction. The idea of a Sarin Man is downright offensive. Napalm Girl conjures different images entirely.
Whatever led Tezuka to depict the potentially destructive energy of atomic fission and co-opt it as the driving force for good, it proved incredibly popular. Mighty Atom was adapted into a serialized animated television series, which debuted on Fuji TV on January 1, 1963. His success spread overseas, particularly in the United States, where he was dubbed Astro Boy. The show’s aesthetic became known as ‘Japanimation’, a genre which would later become known worldwide as anime.
Another cultural phenomenon to have gathered steam since the creation of Mighty Atom is yuru-chara; stylised (and usually incredibly cute) mascots used to promote public entities like a business or a region’s tourist board. In 2007, Mighty Atom was named Japan’s envoy for overseas safety. It was a choice that proved somewhat ironic when four years later, the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, covering masses of surrounding countryside and ocean with poisonous radiation.
Such disasters don’t seem to dent the Mighty Atom’s appeal. In the midst of the worst nuclear accident in human history, the Atom’s overseas success as Astro Boy led to a 1980’s remake called New Mighty Atom. In 2003 another series was released and two years prior to Fukushima, a full-length computer-animated film based on Tuzuka’s original series was released, with Nicholas Cage voicing Doctor Tenma.
As the first example of televised anime, the worldwide appeal of Mighty Atom was the precursor to a range of internationally successful Japanese institutions, from Studio Ghibli to Pokémon to Final Fantasy. Tezuka’s optimism and vision have earned him the titles of ‘the father of manga’, ‘the godfather of manga’, ‘the god of manga’, and ‘the Japanese Walt Disney’, which more than adequately communicates his influence, innovation and the esteem in which he is held. All of them are something of an improvement on his childhood nickname gashagasha-atama, meaning ‘messy-head’.
Tezuka met Walt Disney in person in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. He died in 1989 at the age of 60. His last words were “I’m begging you, let me work!” as a nurse tried to take away his drawing equipment.