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Astro Boy creator Tezuka the 'Walt Disney of Japan'

Osama Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy.

Osama Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy. Credit: Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd.

For couch potatoes of a certain age, exposure to world culture once consisted of the British puppet adventure "Thunderbirds," the Japanese cartoon "Speed Racer" and most memorably "Tetsuwan Atomu" - "Astro Boy," the syndicated program based on the 1951 manga (comic book) by Osamu Tezuka. Known as "the Walt Disney of Japan," and the godfather of manga, Tezuka would parlay his nuclear sprite into the animated TV program first broadcast in Japan from 1963 to 1966 (it was shown in an English-language version on NBC at almost the same time). The series would be relaunched in the '80s, and again in 2003, but the original episodes had the greatest impact culturally, establishing Astro Boy as the humanoid Mickey Mouse of Japan and giving him a certain pop-iconic status here as well.

As the first hero of anime, the Japanese style that has influenced animation globally, Astro holds a sacred place in his country's pop-cultural consciousness. Still, his genesis is of a sort that has echoes everywhere. In addition to "Oliver Twist," and perhaps "Billy Budd," Tezuka was clearly influenced by "Pinocchio" - he met Walt Disney at the 1964 World's Fair in New York - and he himself seems to have influenced not only "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," the Steven Spielberg film, but perhaps even the short story on which it was based: In 1969, well after "Astro Boy" and his creation myth, UK author Brian Aldiss published that story ("Super-Toys Last All Summer Long"), about an android boy who doesn't know he isn't real and faces rejection when his "mother" becomes pregnant. And "A.I.'s" original guiding light, Stanley Kubrick, asked Tezuka to be the art director on "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Tezuka may have been compared to Disney, but he certainly had a sphere of influence all his own.

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