I still live... sort of. It seems spending 12 hours a day in a computer lab cuts into your anime time, who'd have thought it? It also makes the world go a little strange at the edges, so this review might not be fair. I'll probably watch more later to see if I still agree with it.
In a far off country a genius scientist, working for the countries science ministry, is working on building the most advanced robot the world has ever seen. He's having troubles with it though, the amount of power involved making his creations unstable. However when his son suggests building a child robot, which then becomes the creators obsessive goal once his real son is killed, he finds a way to succeed. The robot, incidentally packed full of heavy weaponry for no immediately apparent reason, rises from the slab. Astroboy is born!
He then turns on his creator and in a monstrous rampage brings bloody destruction... oops, sorry, wrong movie. I mean he turns out to be a really good boy full of enthusiasm and the urge to do good. While he has limitless power he'd never use that for his own advantage. While many people are speciesist, considering robots to be lesser beings, he'd never retaliate in any way or hold any sort of grudge. This combination of unfailing good nature and extreme power makes him a useful agent for the ministry of science who seem to have an excess of weird missions only he can handle.
I expected, given that Astroboy is pretty old, that it wouldn't be anything special. More a trip down reminiscence lane than an actually viable modern anime. However what I saw surprised me in several ways. The first was that the animation was rather good. So while I expected it to be an issue after a while I barely noticed the age of it. It just fitted well, and made good use of the resources it had.
The stories are highly episodic. The main exception being Atlas, another robot who's Astroboy's nemesis. The English version of this material really screws with his story though. This is because it contains only about half of the original episodes and they've been re-ordered. Thus we don't really get to see the start of atlas since that episode was cut (the English first episode is constructed from the first two original episodes). There's also other things such as him getting released from a glacier well before he actually gets trapped in it. Atlas is a good character though, he's as powerful as Astroboy, smarter, and far more ruthless but still a completely rounded character.
The rest of the stories are pretty strictly limited to one episode. They also tend to be surprisingly heavy. In these stories people can be cruel and evil and there's death and loss to deal with. As an example one story involves a scientist working for a warlike country who's building intelligent robots who are also powerful explosives and know that they are. A story like that simply can't help but gather weight. Another example is when a powerful robot running amuck causes violent anti-robot sentiments to arise. A lot of them also have quite neat visions of high tech, robots, AI, high tech weapons, vehicles and city systems and the design of these sections is better than I expected.
All sounds pretty good then right? Strangely not, I found myself getting increasingly irritated with the series the further I got. It took me quite a while to realise why too. The reason is that the stories raise all these big issues but then basically go nowhere with them. It's partly due to the episodic nature but it's also indicative of bad writing. It's almost as if someone came up with a cool concept and then let his assistant actually finish it up. It could possibly be damage in translation, either from the original manga to anime or from Japanese to English. This is magnified by Astroboy himself who is the most depressingly non-introspective character. He simply reacts to story elements, doesn't think deeply about his actions before or after, and is so good natured they never change him. He's possibly meant to have an indomitably good natured spirit but in practice it just makes him shallow. Then again, angst in anime was a later invention, this was a more direct time. The paradox of the whole thing is that if the stories didn't aim so high, if it was just another action series, this weakness wouldn't be visible.
There's a moral here somewhere, but I don't know what it is - Astroboy, prompted by the comedic results of his sister seeking the God of robots. A typically deep start with the equally typical shallow ending.
The end result is that Astroboy is actually quite fun to watch. Some of the stories are well set up and they cover an amazing scope of events. The time travelling crossover to Tezuka's other series (princess knight and blackjack) being an example of how extreme the stories can get. The high tech is surprisingly well realized for an older series and Astroboy summarizes all the cool of giant robots in a cute package. He can fly, has all sorts of weapons and gizmo's, and there's lots of fun `specials' they can put in him to spruce up the episode. He's got his robot sister to get him intro trouble and his robot family for a moral element. However they're best consumed sparingly. Watching too many at once might make you realise that lots of the stories never really live up to their potential and are ultimately meaningless. Oh yeah, and you also get a little tired of Astro's plot driven powerpack.
Of course I'm hardly watching this material in anything close to its original form, so this review is only valid for the 51 episode, colorized, release I was watching. Given the time for which it was produced I think it highly likely stories were simplified and those without enough action dropped. Apparently the original runs for 193 episodes of which 104 have been dubbed into English. So I guess seeing the real Astroboy is going to have to wait on me learning Japanese.. which isn't too likely in the short term.
As mentioned the production is simply not an issue. Despite showing it's age technically the animation fits the stories perfectly. Characters are very much like the manga, technical details still make sense, and astro is the perfect action figure. The fact he can fly being the perfection of it, lots of nice aerial fight scenes. Indeed the series is surprisingly good at 3D. It can't manage the frames to make it smooth but it's so well estimated and choreographed it actually gives a really solid sense of movement. And this extends even to surprisingly detailed objects. Fight scenes, especially with Atlas, tend to have interesting tactics and moves making them fun to watch. The opening music is twee but distressingly catchy and the dub I saw is actually very good. I think there was an American dub that was different, this being the UK release, but since I haven't seen it not much I can say there.
The iconic and indomitable Astroboy has one wild adventure after another. A lot of them are imaginative, great action, and interesting vision of the future and even weighty story content. The production, despite being dated, is still very watchable. However if you watch too many at once you realise many of the stories never live up to their promise. And everything gets reset for the next episode anyway. Worth watching, but best in small doses.
I honestly expected to find lots of reviews from my regular sources telling me I'm just getting bitter and jaded. But instead I found virtually no reviews at all... such a shame. I will mention that I don't trust my own review, but I can't offer you any immediate alternatives to balance it.