Ever wondered why so many manga characters have such big eyes? Well, it’s not ‘all the better to see you with!’ It is one of the most popular and well recognized traits of manga and it can be traced back to one pivotal creator: Dr. Osamu Tezuka and his famous manga series, Astro Boy. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Astro Boy, first printed in Shonen magazine as an ongoing series in 1952. Sure, Astro Boy made his first appearance as a supporting character in 1951, but it wasn’t until his own series started the following year that we would see the real effect he would have on our reading lives.
Astro Boy‘s influence on manga goes further than just the big eyes. As a series, it has influenced the way manga storytelling developed, how Japanese youth recovered and rebuilt in a post-war society, and how manga could evolve into anime. Astro Boy was the beginning of the future, and after 70 years, I still don’t think we have caught up. So let’s rocket high, through the sky! We have an anniversary special for Astro Boy and its ever-lasting influence on modern manga.
What is Astro Boy?
You would be hard-pressed to find a modern manga that was not influenced by Astro Boy in some way. In fact, most manga creators consider Dr. Osamu Tezuka to be the grandfather of Japan’s manga and anime industries. And while Astro Boy was not his only creation (far from it), it was his earliest and left the most lasting impression.
Astro Boy first appeared as a supporting character in the comic Atom Taishi (AKA Ambassador Atom and Captain Atom). It was published in the monthly magazine Shonen in April 1951. For Tezuka, Astro Boy was the perfect youthful embodiment of hope while having all the extra strength to empower kids to change the future. But one standalone issue wasn’t enough, and to be honest, one character was not enough either. On 3 April 1952, Astro Boy started his own series as the main character, delving into how he was created, how he can help the world, and why we love him so much.
The Astro Boy series was intended to help children in the 1950s envision a better future. Tezuka was one of many who had seen the impact of WWII, especially the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Initially, he studied to become a doctor with the skills to help those most affected by the aftermath. However, Tezuka could see people (and especially children) needed help to move into the future. It became the turning point of manga and the beginning of the first resurgence of manga, a wave of manga in Japan that came after the Second World War. The 1950s was that perfect melting point for kids with a sense of adventure and hope. Tezuka’s Astro Boy was King because it had a blend of the optimism and scientific creativity of the western world in the 1950s while still honouring the recovery efforts of Japan at the time. Tezuka’s future had towering skyscrapers, flying cars, and robots in every home. But there were also old houses and crowded traditional streets. As unreal and out-of-this-world Astro Boy may have been, Tezuka always made sure children could see themselves in this future life.
Astro Boy and the First Resurgence of Manga
There is no denying part of Astro Boy’s success is thanks to the timing. Tezuka was both a creative and business genius (more on that shortly), but his ideas were born from the time period and his genius knew how to work with it. Everything about Astro Boy was relatable and that’s what made it so good. This was Shōnen manga at its best! THIS was the turning point for manga in general. And within Astro Boy’s story is Tezuka’s greatest gift.
The titular character was a robot boy created by a scientist to fill the void left after the death of his son. But he was never enough to combat that loss and is subsequently rejected for not being human enough. Abandoned and left with a circus, Astro Boy is then saved and adopted by another scientist, with more acceptance and finally a true purpose: to protect humans from bad robots.
Each story shares important life lessons with an exciting adventure/action story, balanced with post-war optimism. At the time, Japan was still under some serious global scrutiny as a nation after the atrocities of World War II. Tezuka was not only anti-war but was also anti–nuclear weapons. This may seem a little strange considering Astro Boy is nuclear powered. However, that’s part of the charm. While many commentators will point out Astro Boy’s symbolism for hope and science, Alicia Gibson was the first to highlight Astro Boy’s importance as the balance between the two (check out her article, Out of Death, An Atomic Consecration to life: Astro Boy and Hiroshima’s Long Shadow).
Astro Boy encapsulates the utopian potential of nuclear power. Each new discovery is an opportunity for Astro Boy to use it to save or destroy. Here is an innocent, child-like character who is both a hero and a threat. There are no clear distinct good/bad scenarios. It’s just a kid making the best choices out of the options given to him. It is one of the most prevalent themes in the manga — especially Shōnen manga — and super-relatable to readers trying to understand the world around them.
Shōnen manga is built on the conflict our heroes face when choosing between great power and its consequences. Astro Boy became the iconic boy hero character who was willing toggle his all to protect others, even as he grappled with his duality. Without Astro Boy, you wouldn’t have Deku from My Hero Academia, Tanjiro from Demon Slayer, Luffy from One Piece, or even Goku from Dragon Ball Z. Deku wants to be a hero so badly, he is willing to take on the gross consequences on his own body. Tanjiro is determined to fight demons while saving his sister who has become one. Of course, Astro Boy did it before all of them. And many more will do it again afterwards. It is the way of Shōnen manga.
For more about Shōnen manga, read up on our Guide to Shōnen manga here.
Astro Boy and Tezuka’s Eye for Detail
And here’s where the ‘Big Eyes’ come in. While the stories in Astro Boy never shied from the truth, the imagery depictions were softened to allow more emotional expression. It wasn’t just Astro Boy, the character who was striving to become more human and more emotive. Tezuka knew from his own experience: there was an entire generation of kids who witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they needed to remember they were human too.
Astro Boy’s dominant feature has always been his youthful image. His big eyes meant big innocence. To this day, younger characters in anime and manga often have the biggest and most adorable eyes. Older characters usually have smaller and sharper eyes. Take My Hero Academia (MHA) as an example. Deku is definitely a descendent of Astro Boy, in both art and narrative. And those big green eyes? They are simply pooling Tezuka’s influence. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever seen the colour of All Might’s eyes. Or even his eyes at all. (For more on the MHA characters, check out our guide here.
Let’s not get too caught up in the idealism here. There was also a practical reason for the big-eye illustration. Tezuka hired quite a few assistants to help with the production of his series. To be absolutely honest, Tezuka always knew he had more stories than he could produce, so he had help. Keeping the illustration simple and cute allowed for an easier flow of mass production. Purists aren’t going to like this, but Tezuka started off tracing the work of others to learn how to draw. It was a great way to learn what worked and what didn’t.
These same skills transferred over to the anime when Astro Boy hit televisions throughout Japan, then the USA, and the rest of the world. Despite its global popularity, Astro Boy had the tightest budget, which was minuscule compared to the allowance given to animators like Disney. Coincidentally, Disney was considered the only parallel to Tezuka. Scenes in the Astro Boy anime were kept simple, with frequent scenes of stillness meant for emotional impact. Meanwhile, they were really there to save on costs and development. No matter the reason, the style worked and set the benchmark for anime into the future.
A lot can happen in 70-years, both for manga and life in general. Manga’s latest resurgence has brought a fresh generation of fans with diverse interests and passions. Social stereotypes are changing and characters are free to show more aspects of everyday people. Anime’s increase in popularity in the west also encourages greater budgets for manga development. These are all things Tezuka had wanted for his work and the manga industry. And while we may not have reached the truly utopian future he dreamed of, I think he would be impressed with the influence his Astro Boy series had on readers and creators worldwide.