Astro Boy, Speed Racer and the Value of Watching Classic Anime

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By Tom Speelman

Popular culture, no matter where you are in the world, is always focused on The Next Big Thing™️ Forget that long-running drama or acclaimed sitcom that just won an Emmy/BAFTA/Galaxy Award, etc. because there’s a new show to talk about!

Anime is no stranger to this phenomenon. With the internet, fans can learn news about their favorite shows’ upcoming seasons months before they get released. And while any medium’s best days are always ahead of it, it’s a disservice to ignore its history. It’s worth knowing where an art form has come from to appreciate where it’s going.

RELATED: Revolutionary Girl Utena, Astro Boy and More Legendary Nozomi Classics Come to Funimation

Let’s take a look at some classic series from the ’60s to see where the medium we loved found some its earliest success, and how it helped to build the industry we have today.

From humble beginnings

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You’ve likely heard of Astro Boy and its creator, Osamu Tezuka aka “Dr. Manga” or “The Godfather of Manga” or “The Father of Anime” but you might not know why he’s called that.

Well, that’s easy:

1. He was an actual doctor (graduating from the Osaka School of Medicine in 1951).

2. He was responsible for both the golden age of manga with his children’s series New Treasure Island in 1947 (although he’d been making and publishing manga since he was 17) and the concept of television anime.

Setting up Mushi Productions in 1961 to compete with Toei Animation’s films of the era, he made the logical decision to make Astro Boy (known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atomu and easily his most popular creation, even then) the first anime TV series ever. The result premiered on New Year’s Day 1963 on Fuji TV with “Birth of Astro Boy,” recapping the plucky little robot’s origin with the same heartbreak and humor as the manga.

From there, the story shifts to New York and Fred Ladd, a TV producer who’d gotten involved in dubbing foreign animated films for American TV, as well as working on the international co-production Pinocchio in Outer Space. With those under his belt, Ladd was approached by the people at NBC Enterprises, the production arm of American network NBC.

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“Sometime in 1963,” he said in a 1996 interview with Animation World Network, “NBC’s representative in Tokyo saw a very, very limited action, adventure show on television about a little boy called Tetsuwan Atom[u], which means Iron Fisted Atom Boy. NBC Enterprises, a division of the broadcast network, picked it up very cheap, not even knowing what they were buying. No one spoke Japanese. No one really understood it. They then tracked me down…and showed me a couple of episodes and asked me what I thought. As a result, I made a pilot, NBC saw it and said, ‘Alright, do another one. We think we can sell this.’ I did and it became Astro Boy.” 

Of the 193 original episodes, 104 were dubbed, airing on NBC and in broadcast syndication from 1963 well into the ‘70s in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Notably, this omitted the series’ actual finale, which saw Astro/Atom (voiced by Billie Lou Watt) sacrifice himself to save the Earth.

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Ladd citing Astro Boy as having “very, very limited action” is somewhat underselling it. Even by the standards of TV animation at the time–for comparison’s sake, The Flintstones was airing at the time and looked like this–an episode of Astro Boy is almost static at times. Several fight scenes are depicted as a series of still images, the lip flap is all out of joint, the character animation is minimal and footage is reused repeatedly (yes, that was a time-saving trick even back then!).

But despite its crudity by modern standards–and it should be noted that Nozomi Entertainment could only do so much regarding remastering and audio mixing, as many of the original film prints were lost or damaged and had to be reconstructed–there’s an undeniable energy to Astro Boy and a ridiculous amount of charm.

Tezuka and his staff–including no less than Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino on scripting duties and the legendary Rintaro (Metropolis, X/1999) as one of the directors–do a great job of mixing pulpy action with goofy gag humor clearly derived from Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons of the time. While it has as many dated jokes and insensitive depictions as any other old cartoon, it’s still plenty of fun and the talented dub cast, mainly made up of experienced radio actors like Watt and Ray Owen (Prof. Ochanomizu/Dr. Packadermus J. Elefun), do excellent work with what they’ve got, paving the way for the modern voice acting scene.

Watch Astro Boy on Funimation!

You’re up next, Kimba!

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Watt, Owen, Ladd and NBC Enterprises went on to adapt Tezuka and Mushi’s next series, Kimba the White Lion, into English; according to this 1981 article by Robin Layden and Fred Patten in Fanta’s Zine, NBC actually helped finance the show, hence the improved animation and the show being in color.

The consensus in old-school anime fandom is that Kimbawhich follows the title lion cub (Watt) as he escapes the captivity he was born into to follow his father’s legacy as ruler of the jungle–is the Japanese equivalent to Bambi and, honestly, that comparison checks out. Kimba strives to build a bridge between animals and humans with the help of friends like goofy Pauly Parrot (Gilbert Mack), crusty old Dan’l Baboon (Owens) and kindhearted human Roger Ranger (Hal Studer)

The color and an improved animation budget–though admittedly not by much–really make this show stand out, along with its unflinching stance away from saccharine moralizing and, given the time, frank look at jungle life.

The English voice cast is astounding and Ladd’s scripts are still very sharp. While there is some discontinuity between episodes (censorship included), the characters and situations have real charm. Isao Tomita’s iconic score helps keep things moving, even when the animation isn’t quite up to what you’re used to.

Watch Kimba the White Lion on Funimation!

Go Speed Racer, go!

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Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion are rungs on the same evolutionary ladder, which went in an even more interesting direction in 1967 with Speed Racer from Tatsunoko Productions and director Hiroshi Sasagawa.

Based on the racing manga Mach GoGoGo by Tatsuo Yoshida, the series was dubbed Speed Racer when it was brought over by syndicator Trans-Lux (who decided to get into the TV business for a brief stint in between making electronic stock tickers. Really.). Since Fred Ladd was unavailable, Trans-Lux hired his protege of sorts: Peter Fernandez, who’d been acting in TV, radio and cartoons since the ’30s and had a considerable amount of foreign cartoon dub work to his name, including scripting on Astro Boy.

To say that Fernandez’s work on Speed Racer–which has been memorably parodied by everything from The Fairly Oddparents to Family Guy–made an impression on its audience is an understatement.

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Because the original Japanese version featured a lot of words, Fernandez decided to cram as many words in as possible to match the lip flap. The result is still one of the most memorable dubs ever, with Fernandez–as Speed and the mysterious Racer X–and other actors like Corinne Orr, who plays Trixie, acting their all for the roles. While Speed Racer can be very repetitive at times, it’s just unique enough to hold your attention, and the dub’s charm is a part of that. Not for nothing was Fernandez eulogized in the The New York Times when he died.

While shows like Speed Racer, Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion look unavoidably retro to us, they’re still worth our time and attention. Classic anime reminds us that the medium has a lot more in common with American cartoons conceptually than what message boards or social media might say. They’re also great for appreciating just how far anime has come in a lot of ways, while still maintaining the entertainment value we all get out of it.

And, if nothing else, you’re gonna hear some great music.

Watch Speed Racer on Funimation!

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