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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From “Pinocchio” to “Astro-Boy”: Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 12/16/09 at 11:16 AM

In the spring I’m co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, “The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature.” The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It’s an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.

I obviously have an interest in children’s books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I’ve never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course—especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.

To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.

One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian, serialized novel. Most people know it through through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and perhaps some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply “pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don’t want the witch to turn you into a statue").

Many of the trademark features of the Disney Pinocchio are missing in the first version of the story Collodi published in serial form between 1881 and 1883, including especially the nose that grows when Pinocchio lies (Collodi added that later), and the concern about becoming a “real boy” (also added in the second half, which Collodi apparently wrote to make the story more marketable to children—and less bleak). While in Disney there is a Glenda-eseque, maternal “blue fairy” who makes Pinocchio come alive at the very beginning, in Collodi, the “Turquoise Fairy” only becomes a factor in in the second half of the narrative. Pinocchio’s initial enchantment precedes his being formed into a marionette—the block of wood out of which he was carved was already enchanted. (In Collodi he also burns off his feet near the beginning of the story, and kills the talking cricket. Ouch!)

I am not sure whether we will do all of Collodi, but it seems essential to at least look at the chaotic, violent, and generally picaresque structure of the first half of the book alongside the more sanitized Disney version.

The great Japanese manga artist and animator, Tezuka Osamu has described how he he was influenced by the early Disney animation style, and it’s not hard to guess that the Disney version of Pinocchio had an influence on the genesis of Astro-Boy, which Tezuka created as a manga starting in the early 1950s (in Japanese, Tetsuwan ATOM). While the preoccupation in Collodi’s Pinocchio is an industrial-era rendition of the prospect of artificial life, Astro-Boy is clearly inflected by the concerns of the nuclear age.

I have not seen the original, printed manga of Astro-Boy, though I have watched a little of an English-language version of the original televised cartoon, as well as the 2009 animated feature (which was, incidentally, better than the reviews made it out to be). However, what is immediately clear from the television cartoon is that Tezuka is interested in adapting the fundamental ideas of the Pinocchio story to the Japanese context after Hiroshima. While Gepetto is a puppeteer, Astro-Boy’s father is a maker of robots, and his co-workers worry, in even the first episode, about the dangerous potential of the robot that is to become Astro-Boy specifically in terms of his potentially being used as a weapon.

In both the television cartoon and the recent CGI, animated film, Astro-Boy’s “father” creates him as a substitute for a real son who died—and for whom the father feels guilty. (This is not there in Collodi.) In neither case is there space for a mother figure anywhere; the mother is dead, out of the picture. The absence of women or mothers is roughly true even in the Collodi, where the maternal Turquoise Fairy was added in largely as an after-thought. Interestingly, and troublingly, none of these “Pinocchio” narratives seem to need or want mothers.


I have one broader thesis about 20th century science fiction that I think Pinocchio/Astro-Boy reflects quite well, and that is that there are often strong tropological between science fiction (narratives of the future) and traditional folk tales, which seem to reflect a version of the past. Though modern and post-modern science fiction tends to reflect contemporary concerns, they often rely on very traditional tropes right out of fairy tales.

But I also have other questions that I’m just beginning to think about; maybe readers can help.

First, to what extent should The Adventures of Pinocchio be seen as a variation—albeit inflected with stylistic and structural elements borrowed from Fairy Tales—of Frankenstein? In short, is Frankenstein relevant?

Secondly, not being an expert in fairy tales or the Brothers Grimm (one of my projects for winter break is to catch up on scholarship by critics like Jack Zipes), is how to think of antecedents to the idea of the inventor who creates “living” machines—artificial life. One thinks of the “Homunculus” in Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, but even that is not that far off chronologically from Shelley’s Frankenstein. Really, the appropriate point of origin seems to be the Golem figure in the Hebrew Tradition (The author of the Wikipedia “Golem” entry even suggests that some passages in the Talmud describe Adam himself as a kind of “golem").

Are not all of our modern and contemporary robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s simply variations of the ancient Hebrew Golem narrative? Is there anything really ‘new’ about “artificial intelligence”? (Isn’t it, in fact, the oldest thing in the world?)

Yet another question to explore is whether there are antecedents for the artificial life of Tezuka’s Astro-Boy in the Japanese folk tale tradition. (A surprising number of contemporary fantasy manga narratives—one thinks of Naruto—seem styled after traditional Japanese folk tales.)

Finally, can readers think of other “nexus” sites, where there is significant crossover between Japanese sci fi (including manga and anime), and western science fiction and fantasy? (One site we are exploring is Japanese cyber-punk—Ghost in the Shell vs. western cyber-punk, in Neuromancer, et al.)

Any bibliographic suggestions would be welcome. 


Lots to say, Amardeep. Before Tezuka started Astro Boy he did a one-volume story called Metropolis, which was inspired by a screen shot from Fritz Lang’s film that Tezuka had seen during the war. Metropolis is about Michi, an “artificial being” made of synthetic cells as opposed to electromechanical components in “robots”—a distinction which is there in the Japanese. Metropolis was made (post-Tezuka) into a film in the late-90s, and that film owes obvious debts to Lang’s film, though, apparently, the film-makers have denied the connection. In any event, radiation poisoning is a central concern of both the manga and the anime feature.

With that in mind, let me quote the opening paragraph of a post I did a year ago:

The word “robot” is Czech and entered 20th Century discourse in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a play by Karel Čapek that premiered in Prague in 1921. It was staged in London in 1923 in English, and in Tokyo in 1924 in Japanese (Frederik Schodt, Inside the Robot Kingdom, 1990, p. 29). A Japanese ten year old named Osamu Tezuka read the play in 1938 and thirteen years later he created the most famous robot in Japanese culture, Tetsuwan Atomu, Mighty Atom, aka Astro Boy in English. Čapek’s play was a response to industrialization; Tezuka’s manga was a response to the Allied Occupation of Japan. Čapek’s robots were not electro-mechanical devices; they were organic, but constructed, like Frankenstein. They were created to serve humans as workers, but they rebel and, in time, kill all humans save one. Tezuka’s conception is quite different; his robots are electro-mechanical, but many of his stories center on social tension between humans and robots.

In that post, and a subsequent one, I argue that Astro Boy is an allegoriztion of the relations between the American occupying forces (the humans) and the Japanese (the robots). So that’s one thing.

And, yes, the Pinocchio connection is there. I’ve read the Astro Boy origin story, albeit in English translation, and it’s there, though circus sequence is quite short, perhaps a page and a half. It’s also there in the 1980s color remake of the 1960s B&W anime series. Further, Kubrick-Spielberg’s A.I. was clearly influenced by Astro Boy; as you may know, Kubrick approached Tezuka to be art director on 2001, but Tezuka turned him down. There’s an obvious Pinocchio connection in A.I..

On mothers, just as Elefun created a robot father for Astro, he also created a robot mother for him, and a younger sister.

And, yes, Ghost in the Shell, in particular, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which is jam-packed with philosophical musing on dolls, automata (there is a Japanese tradition) etc. You should check out Vol 3 of Mechademia, an academic yearly devoted to manga and anime. This issue is on “Limits of the Human” and has articles on Tezuka and on GiTS2. You might also want to look at Frederick Schodt’s Inside the Robot Kingdom, which is about robots in Japanese culture and talks about mechanical dolls and automata as precursors.

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/09 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One other thing, Amardeep. One of the staples of Western Sci-Fi is the computer that goes nuts and thereby threatens humans (e.g. HAL in 2001). That’s not nearly so prominent in manga and anime. Tezuka’s Michi is looking for his father while Astro is, in effect, mostly working on robot civil rights. There are some crazy humans in Ghost in the Shell, but crazy robots, well, there is that AI out there in the net, the one that Motoko “merges” with, but it’s not a crazy being bent on destroying humans. It’s just trying to figure out who and what it is.

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/09 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Bill. Somehow I had missed that earlier Astro Boy post!

Needless to say, I think I will be pillaging some of this material in my Pinocchio/ Astro Boy lecture. And your bibliographic backgrounds give me a bit more homework to do.

By Amardeep Singh on 12/16/09 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians, 1860-1920
By Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg- argues that a crisis afflicted the new Italian state such that it was felt that Italian ‘nature’ was simply too ‘natural’ and that some method of ‘harmonization’- especially for the children of the poor- to turn them into citizens of a modern Nation State.
Madam Montessori, of course, ended up in India- but we didn’t think it worthwhile to adopt her ideas (save for the kids of the upwardly mobile) coz India is based on NOT being a Modern Nation State. The Government sole raison d’etre being the unharmonizable heteronomy of the masses.

Japan- different story. Just after the War, intellectuals (bizarrely to my mind) decided that the flaw in the Japanese character was excessive hedonism. So you get this natural vs. disciplined thing going- like Mifune hamming it up in Seven Samurai.
Arthur Koestler, in Lotus & the Robot (which everyone in India read, coz it was banned) has a whole different take on this- such that being artificial means you can be natural etc.

By vivek on 12/16/09 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Meanwhile (h/t Tyler Cowan):

Stuck for gift ideas this Christmas? How about an android moulded in the exact likeness of your loved one? Well that is exactly what’s on offer at a chain of department stores in Japan.

The mechanical doppelgangers will be on offer at Sogo, Seibu, and Robinson retailers for the princely sum of 20.1million yen or £139,000.

They will be built by Japanese robotics firm Kokoro, which is best known for its line of attractive Actroid receptionist humanoids.

The company will create the sitting robot out of silicone with the same face, body shape, hair and eyes of the recipient. Their speech will be based on recordings of the owner’s voice.

Just why is it that the Japanese are doing this?

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/09 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The more I think of it, Amardeep, the more I think you need to look at Schodt’s Inside the Robot Kingdom (unless something more recent and better is available); it’s out of print, but easily available. His historical discussion of dolls and automata links robots to toys, which is important. It also shows clearly how the post-WWII Japanese have attitudes about robots which are quite different from American attitudes, especially regarding industrial robots. There’s also useful discussion of whether or not this is to be attributed to Buddhism and animism. And GiTS2 is an important anime text, probably more important the original GiTS anime, & has serious links to interregnum European photography (Hans Bellmer).

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/09 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In short, is Frankenstein relevant?(to Pinocchio/Astro Boy)

In my view no, because the “message” of Frankenstein is the Godwinian necessity of community. The Monster’s problems come from his lacking community, and this forces him into evil action. (Of course, the reason the plot gives for his lack of community happens to be the fact that he is an artificial monster ... but that’s plot, not message.) The Monster’s problems are not to do with questions of essence or authenticity; there is no question in the book that he is a complete moral being in his own terms. Whereas Pinocchio’s struggle is precisely to establish his doubtful authenticity.

Just why is it that the Japanese are doing this?

At the risk of oversimplification, isn’t the easy explanation the fact that the Japanese Shinto tradition (for which I have the greatest admiration) is basically animist; all things have kami = spirits. Any machine you make will have a spirit no matter what you do, so why not get along with it?

Whereas in the Judeo-Christian/Western traditions generally, stuff doesn’t have spirits unless there is something weird going on.

By on 12/16/09 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In my view no, because the “message” of Frankenstein is the Godwinian necessity of community. The Monster’s problems come from his lacking community, and this forces him into evil action.

That may not be Pinocchio, but that’s certainly Astro Boy. Astro’s forever rescuing humans or mediating between humans and robots.

By Bill Benzon on 12/17/09 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of sounding overly self-promotional, you might want to also look at _The Astro Boy Essays_.

By Frederik L. Schodt on 12/17/09 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I certainly understand, and appreciate, Frederik Schodt’s modesty in suggesting one of his own books, The Astro Boy Essays. But I’m not subject to that kind of restraint and so I’ll give a whole-hearted recommentdation for the book. Without it I couldn’t have written my Astro Boy post of a year ago.

Also, Amardeep, I agree with your assessment of the recent CGI Astro Boy film. It is better than it’s reviews. I’ll certain get the DVD.

By Bill Benzon on 12/18/09 at 07:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I recall correctly, in the Japanese soundtrack to Ghost in the Shell, the robots are called ningyoo (人形), which would normally refer to a doll or a puppet. It might be worth seeing if there’s anything relevant about dolls (rather than robots or golems) in the Japanese folk tradition.

By on 12/19/09 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s relevant information on that point, SusanC, in Schodt’s books, esp. Inside the Robot Kingdom.

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, how did I miss this thread? Yeah, there’s lots of good stuff about all of this! You can’t go wrong starting with Fred Schodt’s work. Also look at “Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime” edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Takayuki Tatsumi (Univ. Minnesota, 2007). Patrick Drazen has a book forthcoming about anime and Japanese ghosts and other folklore. You might try leafing through the pages of Mechademia and see what papers are relevent there (Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga, and the Fan Arts, http://mechademia.org/). (Bolton is one of the senior editors at Mechademia and my wife Martha Cornog and I are its book review editors.) I’d suggest that you might want to send Mechademia a paper on your conclusions and experiences doing this course. If you contact me personally by email, I can provide more information and references.

By on 12/20/09 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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