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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Robot as Subaltern: Tezuka’s Mighty Atom

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/10/08 at 07:34 PM

The word “robot” is Czech and entered 20th Century discourse through 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.

Though Tezuka hated WWII, he was a patriotic Japanese and expected Japan to win the war. Near the end of the war he created an unpublished comic in which Japanese and American comic strip characters fought one another (Schodt, The Astro Boy Essays, 2007, p. 27). After the war he continued his medical training while beginning to publish manga; New Treasure Island appeared in 1947 and is reputed to have sold 400,000 copies. He experimented with science fiction in Lost World, Metropolis, and Next World. He introduced Mighty Atom as a secondary character in 1951, and then gave him his own title in 1952.

While he had some misgivings about whether or not his primary audience, Japanese boys, would be able to identify with a robot, those misgivings were groundless. Mighty Atom was a success. Tezuka published Mighty Atom stories continuously from 1952 through 1968, and a few thereafter. In the 1960s he created an animated TV series that was almost immediately exported to the United States as Astro Boy. During the 1980s he created fifty-two anime episodes in color, most of them based on stories in the earlier anime series or in the manga. 

Tezuka set Mighty Atom in a future world with advanced technology. Space travel was routine, as was undersea and deep earth exploration. Mighty Atom was the size of a ten-year-old boy, more or less, but had a 100,000 horsepower atomic energy heart, an electronic brain, search light eyes, super-sensitive hearing, rockets in his legs, ray guns in his fingers, and a pair of machine guns in his posterior. He attended primary school, where he was often teased for being a robot, and lived with robot parents and a robot sister. He was particularly close, however, to two middle-aged men. Dr. Elefun was head of the Ministry of Science and created Atom’s parents and sister; he also repaired Atom. Mr. Mustachio was Atom’s teacher in school. Both men worked closely with Atom on his various missions and adventures and offered him sage advice.

The key point is that most, if not all, of the Mighty Atom stories involve tensions between humans and robots. I’ve already mentioned that Atom was frequently teased and bullied by his classmates. Since robots could not harm humans – that’s their nature – he had no choice but to put up with it. That’s a recurring motif. But consider a specific story, “Robot Land,” which exists in three versions, the manga version, and a version in each of the two anime series (I’m familiar with the manga version and the version in the second anime series). Robot Land is a theme park, much like Disneyland (and there are explicit Disney references in the story), except that all of the attractions feature robots. But that’s just the innocent surface. Underground, robot slaves manufacture weapons. All of the robots are poorly treated by the human owner. Atom, Elefun, Mustachio, and Atom’s classmates are all involved in defeating the owner and liberating the robots.

In “The Death Balloon” a criminal named Skunk sends Atom look-alike balloons into the air which then explode, injuring and killing people and destroying property. Skunk is doing this to stir-up anti-robot sentiment at the behest of a mayoral candidate running on an anti-robot platform. The story of the “Robot Stuntman” tells of a small robot who does all the stunts for a human actor, but is kept captive in a case and given no credit for his work. In “A Robot President” Atom has to protect the newly elected president of a foreign country from evil forces that want to destroy him precisely because he is a robot. In yet another episode, Atom comes to the defense and rescue of discarded robots. And so on and so forth.

Now, why did these stories prove to be so popular in post-war Japan? While the question demands a multi-faceted answer, I want to focus on only one aspect. Consider this passage from Schodt, The Astro Boy Essays (pp. 120-121):

Writing in the Tokyo shimbun newspaper in 1967, Tezuka explained that Mighty Atom was really about the chasmic misunderstandings and problems that might occur between man and robot in the future. “I never intended,” he wrote, “to create a story set in the twenty-fist century about a glorious scientific civilization.” He was, instead, inspired by his frustrating and humiliating experience at the end of the war, of having been beaten by a group of American GIs because he could not communicate with them effectively in English.

Tezuka cannot have been the only Japanese who was humiliated by occupation troops. Such experiences must have been quite common. Above and beyond such specific experiences, however, is the fact that Japan lost the war and, for the first time in its history, was subjugated to and occupied by foreign powers. A dedicated nationalist and militarist would have experienced the occupation as unmitigated humiliation and evil. Tezuka’s experience, I imagine, would have been more complex. According to Schodt, he felt deceived and betrayed by the government, as did many Japanese. He may not have liked the war, he may have hated the people and forces who led Japan into war, and he may have understood and even appreciated the necessity of post-war occupation. But that doesn’t mean he would have liked the occupation. He must have been deeply ambivalent.

I suggest that the Mighty Atom stories were a vehicle for giving expression to these complex and often contradictory feelings. The occupation ended in April of 1952. Mighty Atom started out as a side-character in a 1951 series and got his own series in April of 1952. The timing is thus right for Atom to have been a child of the occupation.

Atom himself is the focus of most, if not all of the stories (some center on his sister). He’s the most advanced robot ever built, and saves individuals, his friends, and the entire earth from disaster many times. Yet he’s cheerfully obedient to Dr. Elefun and Mr. Mustachio, who give him sage advice and encouragement. That is, he is at one and the same time both the most powerful one and a subordinate. All three members of this central trio constantly proclaim both that robots are the equal of humans and that robots exist to serve humans; robots are categorically different from and politically subordinate to humans. By their nature robots serve humans, but the obligations of humans to robots must be established by special laws, which are a running motif in the series. Robots are subalterns in the world of humans. And for all his charm and power, Atom is but an earnest child.

Tezuka published most of the Mighty Atom stories in a boys magazine, Shōnen. Yet, Schodt asserts (2007, p. 43), the audience for the stories was unusually large and diverse, noting that “An ad for the books in the Tokyo shimbun newspaper that year [1964] ran testimonials from a novelist, a university professor, and even a sumo wrestler, all of whom not only recommended the books for children, but unabashedly and publicly declared that they loved to read them themselves.” Schodt also notes, in a recent interview, that “the borderline between children’s culture and that of adults has always been more blurred in Japan than in many other countries.” Thus I can’t help but wonder if there had been an adult audience for these stories from the beginning, perhaps not as large as the child audience, but real and substantial. It’s worth remembering that cartoons, whether in print or in film, did not originate as a child’s medium and did not function that way prior to WWII. The idea of cartoons as inherently for children is a post-WWII phenomenon of the West.

While Japanese children could read the stories as parables about their position in a world run by adults, their elders could read them as parables about Japan’s position in a world dominated by people of another race from across the sea. By the time Tezuka died, 1987, however, Japan had established itself as an economic and technological power on the world stage. The Mighty Atom had become deeply embedded in Japanese popular culture; manga in general had grown well beyond the child audience; and anime had become well-established as well. Robots and cyborgs had become ubiquitous figures in Japanese popular culture.

It would be foolish to attribute these developments to stories of a boy robot (who was a bit androgynous as well – but that’s a different aspect of the story). But it would be equally foolish to pretend that such stories played no role in the socio-cultural dynamics that allowed the transformation of Japanese culture and society. Just how to tell a story that avoids these foolish alternatives, that is not so obvious.


This is really interesting stuff - thanks for this post! I’ve actually been meaning to reply to this since Bruce Simon gave me a preview by forwarding an email in which you hashed out some of these thoughts.

Just how to tell a story that avoids these foolish alternatives, that is not so obvious.

Yes indeed. Have you by any chance read Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan? I don’t highly recommend it - as one review said: “if all you wanted to say was, ‘Japan is inscrutable,’ you could have sent a one page fax.” But he is wrestling with these questions.

At one point, Carey and his son talk to Yoshiyuki Tomino, who, after starting his career on Astro Boy / Tetsuwan Atomu, went on to create the Gundam series of robot/mecha anime. It’s an awkward conversation, revealing in its unrevealing-ness. Carey presses Tomino on the idea that Gundam is metaphorically about World War II or the atomic bomb and Tomino pretty flatly refuses to entertain the idea. “No, it’s just about robots,” he insists.

Carey thinks there must be something significant in the fact that the mecha in Gundam are piloted by children (I think - I’m not an expert and I’m writing this from memory). Is Gundam making a point about children and warfare? Tomino snaps that only an American would find that remarkable, everyone else in the world knows that children always suffer in war, he says.

I don’t know what it all adds up to. (It’s not clear whether Carey or Tomino is deluding himself.) But an interesting cluster of questions.

Plus, hey: robots!

By Rob MacD on 12/11/08 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not read Carey’s book but, yeah, Tomino’s reticence is interesting. I’m wondering what Tomino would say in private to a Japanese he knew well. That is, was it simply that he was making a public statement to a foreigner that kept him from making such an admission, or is he completely unaware of such a (possible) connection?

By Bill Benzon on 12/11/08 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The robots now rule, courtesy of The Onion:


By Bill Benzon on 03/15/09 at 08:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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