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  • Copying Atomu
  • Marc Steinberg (bio)

Killing Atomu

Tezuka Osamu, Tetsuwan Atomu. The almost homophonic relationship between the manga creator's name and that of what is arguably his most famous character hints at the closeness of their connection. Like many close relationships it was fraught, full of psychodramas that played out on the pages of the manga, and that Tezuka occasionally discusses in his writings. Atomu was Tezuka's creation, his child, and a cash cow but also sometimes the albatross around his neck.1 Paralleling the creator-creation dynamics found in the backstory of Atomu himself-a robot created by a mad scientist to replace his son, Tobio, tragically killed in a car accident, a robot who failed to grow, disappointed his father-creator, and was subsequently abandoned by him-Tezuka too wanted, at times, to abandon his creation. But unlike the case of Atomu and Doctor Tenma, the difficulty of Atomu for Tezuka wasn't so much a lack of growth but a surfeit of it. Moreover this unhappy growth was not just in size but in popularity and most of all in reproduction. Skipping over all the reasons Tezuka had to love Atomu, let's get to the heart of their relationship by asking the more morbid-and more revealing-question of why [End Page 127] Tezuka wanted to kill Atomu.2 The truth of their relationship and its dynamism will tell us a couple things about the Tezuka-Atomu complex that continues to inform Japanese character merchandising and its national and international cultures of production and consumption.

The desire to kill Atomu arguably boils down to three reasons: (1) fatigue, (2) the overreproduction of Atomu image and its attendant independence from the creator's hand, and (3) the latter's correlate, the proliferation of bad copies of the character. Fatigue and the proliferation of derivative, Atomu-like TV shows such as Tetsujin 28-gō (1963-66, Gigantor), Eitoman (1963-64, Eightman), and Uchū Ace (1965-66, Space Ace) are some reasons Tezuka offers in his short explanation for his decision to end the TV show with Atomu's spectacular death on December 31, 1966.3 The concern with the over-reproduction of the Atomu image comes out more indirectly in Tezuka's comics, as we will see below, but it is also implied in his account of sponsor Meiji Seika's desire to move onto a new character as the sales of its once explosively popular Atomu-related candies had leveled out.4 The fatigue is perhaps natural, given that by the time Tezuka first killed the character off semidefinitively in the 1966 television animation episode, "Chikyū saidai no bōken" (The greatest adventure on Earth), the series had already been on air for some 210 weeks, and Tezuka had been drawing the character in comic form since 1951. Putting fatigue aside, then, let's look at the two other elements of the kill-Atomu complex: copies and their circulation, and derivatives and their degradation.

Good Copies

Atomu's reproduction was by no means a problem for Tezuka from the start, or at all times. In fact what made Atomu such a valuable product for his creator was precisely the ways Tezuka exercised control over the circulation of the Atomu image. Tezuka was one of the first artists in Japan to demand companies pay him for the use of the Atomu image, registering this image as a trademark at a time when the makers of toys and other merchandise regularly used character images without seeking the permission of their creators. In this he was quite explicitly following in the footsteps of copyright master Walt Disney.5 With the creation of the association of officially licensed Atomu product producers, "Atomu no kai" (The Atomu Association), Tezuka and his Mushi Production studio effectively differentiated between good, licensed [End Page 128] copies, and bad, unlicensed ones. This also produced the distinction between good licensees and bad pirates.6

Yet even amid this economically beneficial situation to Tezuka, wherein Atomu goods were bringing much needed cash to pay for the loss-making animation production business, there was something in the proliferation of Atomu images that would begin to cause Tezuka...


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