At least that is what it can sometimes seem like in Astro Boy. The ongoing story that makes up issues 6, 7, and 8 comes across as deeply pessimistic, even in comparison to Tezuka's adult work. In the most recent volume of The Phoenix Stories, Karma, (read my review here) the central character Goa is portrayed as an unforgiving butcher, but you understand what lead him to become an unforgiving butcher. However, there's little such consideration of the reasons for humanity's endemic lack of compassion within these volumes.
These strips, first published in the Sankei newspaper from 1967-68, seem designed to speak to a wide ranging audience, but maintain the simplified dialogue and quick pacing of children's entertainment, which can have a disconcerting effect. I would love to read more about the context of these stories- I'm interested in finding out if this was a normal approach that speaks to cultural differences between North America and Japan or if audiences Japan shared my opinion that the child/adult dichotomy was ultimately over simplified, and just too heavy.
The point can be made that many cartoons and some comics enjoy audiences that cover a huge age range, Peanuts, for example, but seldom was the result so overwhelmingly depressing. Peanuts could be maudlin, but none of the main characters actually died.
That said, I enjoyed Volume 7 of Astro Boy more than the previous volume that I complained about a couple of months ago. The art seems fuller, Tezuka takes less narrative short cuts, he manages to fix a poorly conceived character, and he lightens things up a little by throwing in some of the goofy and inventive visual gags that I loved about the first couple of volumes.
In the last volume, Astro had been blasted into to the late 1960's, destroyed a few US battalions in the Vietnam War, and sunk to the bottom of the Mekong. By the beginning of Volume 7 a few decades have passed, it's 1993,"Flower's bloom where once there was only ashes" and the lifeless form of Astro is dredged from the bottom of the river, mistaken for a doll, and returned to his owner in Japan. But in spite of this hopeful intro, you just know that this bright and tranquil vision of the future (and our past) won't last long.
Astro is delivered to his friend Shin-Chan, who appeared as a young street urchin in Volume 6. He's now President of a junk collection company and, luckily, one of the few people rich enough to be able to get his hands on an atomic energy tube needed for Astro's resuscitation. This leads to an odd and somewhat uncomfortable burst of humour- refueling is accomplished through a valve in his the little robot's rear-end.
The 1990's of Tezuka's imagination we've made it to Mars and, to Astro's relief, robots have arrived on the scene, helping to improve our quality of life considerably. The slum where Shin-Chan lived as a child has been rebuilt by them, and is now a sparkling and modernized apartment complex. Unfortunately, the tenants who reside in them have entirely lost their will to work, which made me wonder if Tezuka might have had some conservative notions about social housing and the welfare state kicking around, despite his obvious connection with liberalism and the 60's student movement.
As Astro gets out and experiences this New World he becomes dismayed that, despite their pervasive role in human society, robots are basically slaves, unappreciated while alive and forgotten once they break down. Later in the story Tezuka makes the more explicit comparisons to the civil rights situation of the late 60's. Taba Koh, a mysterious first generation Japanese American is driven by his personal experiences with prejudice to support the cause of robot rights.
Tezuka doesn't reserve his criticism for human prejudice, but also the varying ways we chooses to distract ourselves from the important issues of the day. We entertain ourselves in 'Fun Zones', popular entertainment complexes that isolate humans from one another in various imaginative and disturbingly recognizable ways. There's the 'Dance Space' where earphone wearing patrons dance chaotically to the beat of 150 independent rhythm tracks. Astro is also given a tour of the 'Floor of Dreams' where people listen to recordings that stimulate them to dream beautiful dreams while asleep in coffin-like boxes. But what most horrifies Astro is 'The Murder Room' a virtual reality hall where patrons exorcise pent up aggression by killing a member of the community.
Another decade passes and, as Astro's 'birth' originally occurred in 2003, Tezuka is able to take advantage of the time paradox to elaborate on the story of his origin. He add pathos by filling in the details of Astro's father, an innovator of the mass production of robots, and Astro's attempts to fit into the shoes of the dead son Tobio who he was meant to replace. There is also the tragic details of his mother's terminal illness, of which Astro is unaware because he busy being forced to destroy other innocent robots at the circus he has been sold to. It's here that the comparisons with the movie AI first became really became obvious to me.
Tezuka remakes his less successful supporting character; Skara, a lazy and selfish locust-alien, who emerges from under a rock in a much wiser and less annoying version. She becomes a sort of Jimminy Crickett to Astro's Pinochio. It would’ve made a lot of sense for Tezuka to have made this her role in the first place.
I never expected to say this, but Astro Boy can be a difficult read and it would be hard for me to whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone. It seems that by this point in the strip's development Tezuka wanted to inject the big themes his great mature works, but didn't have the time or desire to do them justice. But there is something fascinating about trying to decode what great cultural and personal demons drove Tezuka to use Astro Boy as a forum for his bleak vision of the future and humanity in general.