This set, now available from The Right Stuf International, collects the first 52 episodes of the American version of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom) in one spectacular collector’s edition package. Adapted for television by Osamu Tezuka from his long-running, popular manga, Astro Boy originated on Japan’s Fuji TV in 1963. That same year, television writer Fred Ladd, working for NBC, began adapting 104 episodes of the Japanese series for American audiences. Although the series only ran on American television through 1965 and left syndication in the mid-1970s, the influence of Ladd’s adaptation on American audiences’ perception of this iconic character persists to this day. With the exception of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, even direct adaptations of works featuring Tetsuwan Atom change the character’s name from the Mighty Atom (as it translates from Japanese) to Astro Boy, a name devised by Ladd. More importantly, though, the series became the first anime to air outside of Japanese. This makes Astro Boy a key point of reference for anime fans and media historians alike.
Given Astro Boy’s highly episodic nature, providing a concise plot synopsis proves downright impossible. Suffice it to say, however, that the series recounts the myriad adventures of Astro Boy, a 100,000 horsepower flying robot who fights evil and injustice wherever they appear. This wonderful product of a bygone era of animation applies limited animation techniques to Tezuka’s beautifully-simplistic characters and settings. So limited is the limited animation in fact that characters’ motions often lack fluidity entirely. However, while the lack of mouth movements as characters speak appears to be the product of these techniques, this in fact results from a reliance on dialogue in the English version far beyond that of the Japanese version. Consequently, the English and Japanese versions are two very different series, despite utilizing the exact same video. Coupled with Astro Boy’s importance as America’s introduction to anime, this makes NBC’s version of the series every bit as deserving of a stellar DVD release as its Fuji TV predecessor. And what a stupendous DVD release this is!
Regrettably, the release does have one major flaw, but it’s a flaw that Right Stuf could in no way have avoided. NBC, it seems, destroyed the master prints of Astro Boy after the series’ syndicated run ended in 1975. Thus, Right Stuf was forced to seek out duplicate masters compiled from around the world in the production of this set. As a disclaimer at the opening of each disc indicates, this means that the quality of the audio varies wildly from episode to episode. On but two occasions did the audio quality drop so low that I strained to make out was being said. In episode 2, “Colosso,” the dialogue sounded as though it had been recorded inside a can, having a tinny, echoing quality about it. And in episode 30, “The Super Duper Robot,” the dialogue was often so muffled that the characters might as well have been Peanuts adults. This is extremely unfortunate, since “The Super Duper Robot” is otherwise one of the better episodes in the collection. The picture, by contrast, holds up incredibly well throughout given the age of the material, and is characterized by negligible amounts of obvious debris and damage.
Now, calling any DVD box set an “Ultra Collector’s Edition” would typically indicate hyperbole on the part of the collection’s distributor, and yet, that is not the case here. The set collects the first half of the American series plus special features on 11 total discs. Of the six cases that house these discs, five offer reversible cover art (a practice of which I’m incredibly fond and rarely find outside of FUNimation), which allows us collectors the option to customize our collections. What’s more, the cases fit inside a hard-board slipcase designed to look like Astro Boy’s inner workings, and that slipcase fits inside yet another hard-board slipcase featuring a jovial Astro Boy and Astro Girl on one side and a pissed off Astro on the other! As such, the set is display-worthy from virtually every angle. And what more could a collector ask for, really? How about a 30-page booklet featuring a biography of Osamu Tezuka, an essay on “The Birth of Astro Boy” by Right Stuf’s Shawne P. Kleckner, a line art gallery, and an episode guide?! Honestly, no serious anime enthusiast should be without this collection.
Special features, collected on disc 11, include original character art and merchandise galleries and the first part of an interview with series writer Fred Ladd (continued in Set 2), in which he discusses the history of the series from a business angle, tracing its origins in Tezuka’s manga through his own scripting of this English-language version. Ladd also relates the process by which he devised the name Astro Boy for the character. The disc additionally features versions of episodes 1 and 20, presented with their original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles. The subtitles more accurately reflect characters’ names, with the exception of Atom who is still called Astro Boy here, but more than that, these versions of the episode reveal just how different the English-language version of the series is from that produced for Fuji TV. The Japanese version lacks the endless chattering of characters and narrators that characterizes the English adaptation, which affords the series a far more palpably cinematic atmosphere. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch the original, sure, but there’s no denying the importance of Fred Ladd’s work on Astro Boy in establishing both the character anime Stateside.
I’ll close by offering a brief list of what I feel are the strongest episodes in Set 1 by way of suggested viewing, since plowing through the entire 52 episodes as I did can be a bit daunting:
Ep. 1- “The Birth of Astro Boy”
Ep. 3- “Expedition to Mars”
Ep. 11- “Strange Voyage”
Ep. 18- “Time Machine”
Ep. 29- “Memory Day”
Ep. 30- “The Super Duper Robot”
Ep. 32- “The Moon Monsters”