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  • Atomic Pop!Astro Boy, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Machinic Modes of Being
  • Alicia Gibson (bio)

Originating as a Japanese manga series written by Osamu Tezuka and published in a magazine for boys in 1952, the television program Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) was broadcast in Japan between 1963 and 1966. Due to the enormity of the show’s popularity, NBC quickly bought rights to syndicate Astro Boy, making it the first Japanese television series broadcast in the United States.1 In addition to its popularity in both the United States and Japan, the animated series gained widespread international popularity throughout the Cold War period and was remade in the 1980s and again in 2003.2 More than fifty years later, Sony Pictures purchased the franchise in an effort to introduce Astro Boy to a new generation of audiences with the 2009 release of an animated film of the same name.3 With varying degrees of commercial success, Astro Boy’s cultural life spans the entirety of the Cold War and beyond.

Tezuka wrote the series in the hopes of creating alternate visions of atomic power that embraced new forms of technology as utopic possibilities for the future. Even before he created the robot-boy—originally named Atom—his earliest story idea came in the form of an imaginary continent, an “Atom continent,” where atomic power was used for peaceful purposes rather than for war. Tezuka’s desire to reimagine a world structured by peaceful uses of atomic weaponry contradicted the state of affairs in the Pacific at that time. According to Tezuka, when he first created the Astro Boy manga for schoolboys in 1952, “everyone was talking about atoms then” (Schodt, 19). In many ways the word “atom” (atomu) served as metaphor for an extraordinary power made possible through science and technology. 4 However, it also carried with it the fear associated with the atomic bomb. This [End Page 183] darker connotation grew in significance, particularly by the mid-1950s as the United States began testing newer and bigger atomic weapons on the Marshall Islands to the southwest of Japan in the Pacific Ocean.5 Films like Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) and Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955) express, in two very divergent ways, the trauma associated with the original bombings as well as the ongoing testing of hydrogen bombs. Although written and produced for television in a child’s format, Astro Boy must be viewed in light of this history, alongside these films, as a participant in the cultural processing of the atomic bomb. As a popular icon for both Japan and the United States, Astro Boy functioned from the start as a trans-Pacific cultural object that mediated, or quite literally embodied, Cold War anxieties surrounding the production of new forms of weapons of mass destruction.

In this essay I argue that Astro Boy expresses the utopic desires and terrors of the atomic age reminiscent of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s reading of Odysseus as the figure of modernity in Dialectic of Enlightenment (DE). This essay correspondingly places the animated series within the philosophic and literary discourse of mimesis and sacrifice as found in DE. While Odysseus serves as the prototypical modern hero who learns to offer up his desires on the altar of reason, Atom serves as his nuclear analog at the historical point in which the logic of sacrifice has become so total that the modern hero no longer desires, for he has become a machine. However, through a reinterpretation of mimesis inspired by Atom’s machinic performance of the human, I turn to the theorization of mimesis as found in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and to Auerbach’s analysis of “Odysseus’s Scar.” In so doing, I offer a reading of both Atom and Odysseus that seeks to reinvigorate mimetic practices not marked wholly by destruction. This essay also explores the way Astro Boy and the visual medium of anime creates a critical lens through which we may productively engage the dialectic of the atomic age, most notably as an aesthetic movement questioning essentialist definitions of the human.

Despite Tezuka’s longing for peace, the series was filled with repeated images...


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pp. 183-204
Launched on MUSE
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