- Out of Death, an Atomic Consecration to Life:Astro Boy and Hiroshima's Long Shadow
Originating as a Japanese manga series from 1951, the television program Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) was broadcast in Japan between 1963 and 1966.1 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.2 In addition to its popularity in the United States and Japan, the animated series gained widespread international popularity throughout the Cold War era and was remade in the 1980s,3 and again in 2003.4 The original Japanese title, Mighty Atom (Tetsuwan Atomu), illustrates more clearly than its English counterpart (Astro Boy) the central role atomic power played in the cartoon series. The hero Atom (Atomu), a young robot created in the form of a human boy, is powered by nuclear energy. Atom, with his peaceful use of atomic power, embodies the latent utopian possibilities of the atomic age—nuclear power used to save rather than to destroy.5 Yet, anime critic Daisuke Miyao notes the darker side of Atom: "As the Japanese title for the series, 'Mighty atom,' suggests, the superhero 'son of science' Atomu is at once a hero and a threat. Because he draws his powers from nuclear energy, any breakdown on his part could mean grave danger."6 In order to turn this technology into a life-saving power, humanity, here represented by a precocious Atom, must [End Page 313] learn to wisely manage the tremendous power it has discovered. This essay reconsiders the cultural impact of Astro Boy as a bridge between the nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and the utopic fantasy of unlimited power generated by the nuclear reactor on the other. As the first cultural icon representing both sides of atomic power, Astro Boy offers a provocative lens through which we might consider the relationship between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants in order to better understand the workings of atomic power in our contemporary moment.
Contained within a small boy's frame, Atom—due to a complex integration of atomic, mechanical, electrical, and (in later releases of the show) digital technologies—flies with supersonic speed and battles forces of destruction with strength the equivalent of a "100,000 horsepower" atomic reactor. In the early 1950s when Tezuka Osamu first created Astro Boy, the robot's famed "100,000 horsepower" was meant to represent an order of power at the limit of human imagination. Yet, given the actual power unleashed in an atomic
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explosion, and its escalating potential power in the Cold War—measured by reference to the power of the sun itself—Atom's "100,000 horsepower" reactor was already oddly obsolete at the time of his inception. This slippage highlights the difficulty audiences had integrating the terrifying reality of a world gone nuclear with previous conceptions of technological power. The forces unleashed in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki exponentially outpaced even the projections of the scientists who created the bomb, who after witnessing a detonation described the new form of energy as comparable to "a thousand suns."7 A Japanese doctor who witnessed the bombing from a small village on the outskirts of Hiroshima summed up his experiences with the simple title, "The Day Hiroshima Disappeared."8 This inconceivable magnitude was simply too frightening to confront directly, though equally impossible to ignore. However, by transposing the power of the atomic bomb into a "100,000 horsepower" atomic reactor, Atom provides a more manageable reference for those whose utopic dreams of nuclear power might just as easily turn to nightmare.
In keeping with this milder reference for atomic power, one wrapped in a cuddly package, Astro Boy also offers an example of atomic power's possible positive uses. Although technically a weaponized robot (powered by nuclear fission, he has laser beams...