An interview with Marc Handler — perhaps best known for his work on anime (both “uncut” and “Westernized”) such as Voltron (Golion), Saber Rider (Bismark), Cowboy Bebop, FLCL and many others — on how he became involved with the 2003 adaptation of Astro Boy.
Written by Yatt “Uno10″ Zach. Interview conducted from October 14th, 2014 to April 28th, 2015. Originally posted on May 27th, 2015; re-initiated on November 8th, 2015.
Osamu Tezuka (1928 – 1989) is often considered the “God of Manga”. His work in Japanese comics and cartoons (“manga” and “anime“, respectively) — half-influenced by the works of the late Walt Disney (1901 – 1966), and largely based upon his own real-life experiences, professions and political views — had, in turn, pioneered these industries, as well as influenced other people working within them, such as Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball), Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) and Hirohiko Araki (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). Some of them were even tutored personally by Tezuka.
Even after all these years, his works have proven to stand the test of time. Because of his extensive backlog (covering all of his manga and anime, ranging from the typical to the more “experimental”), not all of his projects saw the light of day overseas. The ones that did make it abroad, however, usually enjoyed quite as much fanfare as they did back home. Notable creations from Tezuka include, but are not limited to; Jungle Emperor (“ジャングル大帝”; “Kimba the White Lion” in certain English adaptations), The Three-Eyed One (“三つ目がとおる”), Black Jack (“ブラック・ジャック”) and his unfinished Phoenix (“火の鳥”) manga series.
His most famous work, however, may perhaps be Astro Boy (“鉄腕アトム“, “Tetsuwan Atomu”; “Mighty Atom”), first created in 1952 as a manga series. Astro Boy revolves around the robot of the same name (named “Atom” in Japan) with the mind and emotions of a young boy, built by a grieving scientist (Dr. Tenma) in attempt to get over the loss of his own “real” son, Tobio. However, Astro is later abandoned by his own “father”, but soon thereafter adopted by Professor Ochanomizu (Elefun in most English adaptations). Discovering the extent of his hidden robot powers, Astro, as the bridge between the “mechanical” and “human”, finds himself dragged into many adventures and disasters (the latter often politically-motivated), as he fights to bring and maintain peace for robots and people alike.
With the original manga and televised adaptations, this particular work of Tezuka’s went on to become very popular not just in his native country, but overseas as well. Astro Boy’s success abroad started with the 1963 anime adaptation — created, crafted and supervised by Tezuka himself — which was localized/”Westernized” for an American audience by NBC Enterprises and Fred Ladd — with the latter two coming up with the new, since-then English name of “Astro Boy” for the character, which has stuck for the super-powered Atom ever since. As aforementioned, many other adaptations were produced later on after the manga and initial 1963 anime, such as the Tezuka-produced 80s anime revamp. (Currently, there’s a live-action version of the atom-powered robot child in development by Australian studio Animal Logic (Lego Movie), as well as a new French/Japanese Astro Boy reboot co-produced by Tezuka Productions, young Monegasque company Shibuya Productions and new French animation studio Caribara Animation.)
However, it is the 2003 adaptation — produced by Tezuka Productions in cooperation with Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, years after Tezuka’s passing — that is the subject of this article. (This 2003 Astro Boy shall herein be referred to as “AB ’03”, simply for convenience.) The 50-episode series’ development seems to date back about 2000, starting with a short pilot trailer that was produced for what would become AB ’03, followed by a somewhat unrelated Japan-only Astro Boy-related short a year later, with many of the general designs in AB ’03 seemingly lifted straight from the latter.
AB ’03 received positive reception and became quite popular in Japan — perhaps even as popular as or more-so than its predecessors — with the general consensus being that it maintained the spirit and tone of the general Astro Boy series; or rather, the core essences of Tezuka’s work. It is therefore no wonder that AB ’03 received four separate shorts (all four Japan-only), as well as a 2005 IMAX movie (yet again, Japan-only).
Overseas, however, AB ’03 fared very differently. Though it managed to do moderately well in countries such as the United Kingdom, in the United States it heavily flopped. Initially airing on The WB’s “Kids’ WB” block on January 17th 2004, before shortly being moved to Cartoon Network’s Saturday night “Toonami” block on March 8th of the same year after an “awkward run” on the former, AB ’03 quickly stopped being shown altogether, with only 29 episodes left. Some believed that the dark themes and tones of the series were what lead to its difficulty in becoming accepted in America — in part due to the stricter American TV/broadcasting guidelines — while others believed that the way AB ’03’s American dub was handled lead to its own undoing.
Marc Handler is a “jack of all trades” in the anime industry — as well as other media from around the world (mainly Asia), such as stage plays, general cartoons and live-action films — who’s not only able to tell stories, write and elegantly adapt to English if necessary, but also voice direct, supervise the ADR process — even become a “Western consultant” with the original production team if necessary. His unofficial motto of sorts is “bridging cultures” — and with the many high-profile “foreign” titles he’s worked on, it’s not really hard to see why. To the anime fans out there, he’s perhaps best known for his work on classic “Westernized” anime during the 80s and 90s, such as “Voltron: Defender of the Universe” (“Beast King GoLion” and “Armored Fleet Dairugger XV”) and “Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs” (“Star Musketeer Bismarck”), as well as more faithful adaptations in more recent years, such as the American dubs for “Cowboy Bebop” and “FLCL: Fooly Cooly”.
I conducted an interview with Marc Handler on how he not only got involved in the original AB ’03 production, but the eventual English-dubbed version as well, and asked him about his feelings towards both. The questions I asked and the answers I’ve received have been somewhat restructured and edited, in order to give the article a more proper “Q&A interview” structure. Square brackets and added hyperlinks where there weren’t any before were also added for context purposes and general audience convenience. Enjoy.
Yatt Zach: Thank you for taking the time off of your busy schedule to discuss AB ’03 with me, Marc.
Marc Handler: [AB ’03] was one of my favorite projects of all time so thanks for your interest and I’m happy to talk about it.
Yatt: Since you were closely involved with the project from the get-go, how did AB ’03 come to be? And how did you eventually get involved with its original production?
Marc: Sony and Tezuka Productions teamed up to do [AB ’03] for the 40th anniversary of the original production. They did not have a pre-sale in the US. When you have a pre-sale, you don’t have to worry about finding a broadcaster later; but without a pre-sale, you have to hope that, when you finish the series, you will be able to find someone to broadcast it. Part of the reason they hired me was to help make sure that it would be the kind of series that US and the Western broadcasters would want to air. I was brought in by the Sony VP, Tsuneyuki Morishima, because I had worked with him on previous projects. Initially I flew to Japan, met with the production team, and then worked with them over a period of time as they were developing the project before I was offered a position as Story Editor. I was extremely honored and grateful to have a chance to work on such a classic project and with such a great group of people.
My position was completely advisory; I gave my input, but all of the decisions were made by the Director, Kazuya Konaka, and the producers and executives. There were no Americans directing or controlling the series, it was a Japanese project; they brought in a few people like myself to help provide an international perspective.
Yatt: How much of the original Astro Boy and/or Osamu Tezuka’s body of work did you know before you dived into the project?
Marc: I was familiar with Astro Boy beforehand, but I did not realize what a special place Astro Boy has in the hearts of the people of Japan. The best comparison I can think of for Americans is Huck Finn – he’s not just a good character – he has a special place in our culture and in people’s hearts. Astro Boy is like that in Japan. Imagine if a group of Americans decided that they wanted to do a new version of Huck Finn and distribute it globally so that people all over the world would “get it” and have the same feeling and connection with the character that we Americans have? That’s what this Astro Boy project was like. The difference is, though Mark Twain is a beloved figure, there’s no one in America now who knew him personally; he lived long ago. But many of the people on our staff in Tokyo knew Osamu Tezuka personally – many were mentored by him – so everyone on the Japanese team felt a strong personal connection with the project and everyone who worked on it from the top down was fiercely devoted to retaining the original spirit and doing it in a way that would honor Osamu Tezuka’s legacy.
So basically the team started by asking, if Tezuka-san were alive today, with full budget and access to current animation technology, how would he create a new Astro Boy series? That’s how we approached it. Ultimately the people who were closest to Tezuka-san when he was alive – the animators, executives at Tezuka Productions and Tezuka-san’s family, including his son Makoto Tezuka who worked with us on the series – all felt that Tezuka-san would have been approving and pleased with the series as it came out. That was important to us. It was exciting for me to work with people who were so dedicated to doing it right. That included the executives like Tsuneyuki Morishima-san, Takayuki Matsutani-san, Yoshihiro Shimizu-san, Yasuhisa Kazama-san, Yasushi Hosoda-san… directors, producers and animators such as Konaka-san, Kubota-san, Seya-san, Mochizuki-san, Kobayashi-san and many others. And I think all of the writers felt as I did, that we were all honored to work on this project, and we were all committed to do it right – that included Chiaki Konaka-san [Editor’s Note: Kazuya’s brother, as Marc mentions later on in the interview], Ohta-san, Hasegawa-san, Murai-san, and all of the other excellent writers.
Yatt: How much, as an “international consultant”, did you work on the series from its early planning stages? And exactly how did your role not only evolve into becoming a Story Editor for AB ’03, but a part of the episode writing team, and even the co-writer for its bible *, as well?
Marc: Because Sony and Tezuka were intent on bringing Astro Boy to a wider global audience, they took several unusual steps including providing a much larger budget than most anime productions so that they could produce it in the highest possible quality; integrating much more CG than was common at the time; and bringing in people like me to provide an international perspective. Joe D’Ambrosia, who is currently a VP at Disney, was also brought in as a consultant. I know the reason Joe decided to work on it was because he had a very strong feeling about the project as I and the Japanese staff did, and he was extremely helpful on all aspects of the production. Along with our other work, Sony / Tezuka asked Joe and I to advise them on global broadcasting standards as they were producing the series. Here’s an example of why that’s necessary:
Some years back, I was called in to work on Detective Conan [Editor’s Note: Also known overseas as “Cased Closed“], an extremely popular series in Japan. A major American producer/broadcaster was planning to import it, localize it, and broadcast it on their kids’ block in the US. I was brought in with several other people to work on the English language version. However, when the directors and producers started going through the episodes, they found many scenes and elements that were taboo for broadcast to US kids, things that broadcasters simply would not air. They tried to find ways to cut around these elements, but finally gave up and canceled the project. They had spent lots of effort and money for nothing – and the Japanese company lost their sale. (I believe Detective Conan was later picked up by a different company [Editor’s Note: FUNimation], localized and broadcast late night on [Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block], but it didn’t do well there – arguably it was not right for that audience and that time block.)
So Sony/Tezuka wanted to avoid that problem; they did not want to produce a show that could not be broadcast internationally or could not run in normal time periods. Again, following my Huck Finn metaphor, if an American team were producing Huck Finn for a global audience, the whole point would be to bring Huck’s American character to the world – they couldn’t mess that up – but at the same time they’d have to pay attention to the standards of the countries they were trying to send it to. Likewise, in order to bring [AB ’03] to a global audience, Sony/Tezuka had to meet US and global standards, while at the same time retaining the show’s Japanese character and remaining true to the original series. That was the goal.
Cumulatively, these are called S&P issues – Standards & Practices. I addressed them here because you asked about them, but the fact is, they took up about 1% of our energies and interest on the project. 99% of the time we were immersed in the substance of the series: what happens when a machine gains “心” (“kokoro”) – mind, heart, spirit. What rights does a conscious robot have? How to deal with xenophobia and social panic. And most importantly, Atom as a peacemaker. Astro Boy is always between warring groups trying to find ways to make peace. He is the one who confronts the bad guys and instead of trying to destroy them, he tries to reach them and change them. How does he go about doing that? What are the personal consequences? How do you make peace when all the parties are locked in a vicious cycle leading toward war? These are the kinds of issues that Osamu Tezuka was interested in — they were the issues that engaged and motivated us — and I think the series did a great job of exploring and illuminating them.
You asked about how my role evolved. Actually it didn’t evolve at all, it’s standard for a story editor to also write episodes and work on the show bible. I am currently story editing a series for Disney China and I also wrote the show bible and wrote episodes for that show. In the case of [AB ’03], all of those roles were envisioned as part of my job at the time I was hired. I also reviewed storyboards and did many other things which I greatly enjoyed. Though I worked on the show bible, my contribution to the concept of the show was minimal. All of the major concepts and characters were developed by the director Konaka-san, his brother Chiaki-san, and the other Japanese team members. I helped more with the presentation of the show bible than with the content. I added a few minor points to the concept, e.g. I suggested that Astro Boy’s school would be futuristic including lessons by hologram. Everyone immediately liked that idea and went with it, which made me happy. However these were very minor points added to an already fully developed concept.
I also made some bad calls along the way. In AB ’03 episode “Denkou” [“Into Thin Air” in the dub], there’s a scene at the end when Atom flies in and saves [the “main character” of the episode,] Denkou. Konaka-san used a special effect for that scene and when I saw the raw animation, I told him I didn’t like it; I would have preferred a more direct way of animating the scene. However, he went forward with it as planned and later, when I saw the finished animation with sound effects and music, I understood what he was trying to achieve and I thought it was terrific. I was glad he ignored my comments. That’s the normal push-pull of production – you don’t always get it right — but I’d like to think that most of my input was positive and contributed to the team effort to produce a great series.
Yatt: I noticed in the “Behind The Scenes” DVD extra (both American and Japanese versions) for AB ’03 that Kazuya, Ohta and the rest of the Japanese production team mentioned stuff like the following quote: “‘Why do they have to make a children’s show so sad and dramatic?’, Marc’s side would ask, and we would reply: ‘Because it’s Astro Boy; it’s always been this way!’” Since you also worked on the dub of AB ’03, how much would you say had to be edited out in the dub, compared to what was finalized and kept in the original AB ’03?
Marc: When I came on [the original AB ’03 production team] as Story Editor I had two missions. One, like any story editor, to make the stories as strong as possible. Two, to make sure there was nothing that would make it impossible to export.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of how this actually came down.
One of the early episodes was [the previously mentioned episode] “Denkou”. The original [story] was written by Tezuka-san and we decided to do a remake for our series. Ai Ohta-san wrote it – she’s a terrific writer and she put her heart into it. I flagged it as a model episode: exciting, had a lot of heart, and would work for Japanese and international viewers. In the story, Denkou is a robot who seems like a child [Editor’s Note: Denkou was given three different English names prior to AB ’03 — Electro (1955 Shonen magazine), Zero the Invisible Robot (1963 anime) and lastly The Light Ray Robot (1980 anime)]. In one segment he has on a belt which will blow up if Astro Boy doesn’t save him. I advised that this could be a problem for US broadcasters. We discussed it and decided to keep it as it was. I was very happy with that decision. However…
When the show was broadcast in the US, it was changed by the US production company so that Denkou’s belt was not going to blow up [Editor’s Note: Specifically, the bomb belt was changed to an EMP blackout device of sorts] and he was not in danger. That decision came from people far up the food-chain from me. I did not like the change and was not at all pleased to write to Ohta-san and inform her that her episode was being changed for US broadcast. In other words, the Japanese team produced this episode exactly the way they wanted it, with no modification, but it was changed later by the US companies who purchased it for US broadcast. So if you watch the Japanese version, you’re seeing the episode exactly as it was meant to be.
As you noted, Konaka-san mentioned that on several episodes I told the production team “’This is so sad….” Tragic would probably be a better translation, and this was exactly the kind of advice that Sony/ Tezuka was asking me to provide.
Here’s an example:
The episode [“Atlas’ Birth”; “Atlas” in the dub] was originally written by Tezuka-san and, as with Denkou, we decided to do a remake; this one was written by Hasegawa-san who is also a terrific writer. There is a scene where the boy [and “original” Atlas], Daichi, is killed in a space shuttle. I flagged this as a tragic scene that American broadcasters might reject. That was one of my responsibilities, and I would have been failing in my job if I did not point this out. We discussed it as a team and decided to keep the scene, but we were thoughtful about how we presented it. The animators developed a poetic way of showing the shuttle sequence. Far from diminishing the story, everyone felt this poetic approach made the episode stronger. However…
When the American version was produced, the US company took out all scenes and references to the fact that the boy had died. In their version, the boy did not die. This made the episode very confusing and it lost a lot of its impact. I was very unhappy about that, but it also reinforced the fact that I had been giving Sony/Tezuka the right advice. They asked me to flag scenes and elements that could be problems for US broadcast and I had done that. If there had been too many tragic scenes like that in too many episodes, it would have never been purchased or broadcast in the US at all. We pushed the limits of what was acceptable, we found ways to meet the standards while retaining the character of the series, and we never removed anything that was essential to the concept or spirit of the show.
In the end, the series as it ran in Japan was exactly what the Japanese creators had envisioned –- any adjustments were minor and crafted to enhance the show rather than diminish it — and everyone felt that the final product was true to the original spirit of Astro Boy. Unfortunately, the English language version suffered from what I consider unnecessary changes.
Yatt: Why were these “unnecessary changes”, as you put it, made for the dub to begin with, the obvious censorship/S&P issues we’ve already discussed aside, such as altering Astro’s behavior to be a more “action hero-ish” character (by which I mean the more “American”/”Western” kind; the “tough guys who fight for freedom, get the job done and/or don’t take any bull”), something that may have hurt Astro’s original/intended character more than a little bit?
Marc: Those changes were made long after production finished in Japan. At that time I was hired by the American producers to join their writing staff to write dialogue for the American version, so I was one of the writers making the changes. However, I and all of my fellow American [ADR] writers were given hard and fast instructions on what changes had to be made – there was no leeway. I chose the specific English words that the character would say, but the content was decided by others.
All of those decisions were made by execs in the US. The Japanese team that had created the series had no control and no input — they were not consulted about the changes, nor about fundamental issues like casting voice actors. The American producer also did not make these decisions, they were made by execs higher up the line. I do not know who or what offices made them, I and the other writers had no contact with them. I think some of the decisions they made were off the mark, and I think they would have benefited by more communication with the directors and producers in Japan.
Regarding your reference to Astro Boy’s “action hero-ish” character – Astro Boy has always been an action hero – part of what made Tezuka famous as a manga artist was the way he handled the action sequences – he brought a sense of motion and speed to the artwork that was new and exciting. But Astro Boy’s action sequences were integrated into the stories in a Japanese style that is different from American style. So the issue for our team was never action – Konaka-san, Ohta-san and all of the writers always had plenty of action in their stories – the question was how that action was balanced by and integrated with the other story elements.
I had zero interaction with the other American ADR writers on the AB ‘03 dub; I never met them. I have no idea what they were thinking, and I didn’t receive their scripts, so I didn’t know what they were writing. Basically, our job [as ADR writers] was to write clear lively dialogue to go with the picture and the story. 99% of the notes I received on my ADR scripts were how to make the story clear and the dialogue strong. We didn’t have group meetings. I’m fairly certain if you spoke to the other writers, they would say they wrote the best dialogue they could given their instructions.
The US companies could not change the show very much. They could cut scenes, but they couldn’t add scenes and they couldn’t change the animation. They could change dialogue, but the dialogue still had to fit with the visuals. They could change the voices, but the voices still had to match the visuals. And it all had to fit into the basic storyline that already existed. So they could only make very limited changes. The main changes they made were to cut scenes that they thought were violent or scary for kids, and to make Astro Boy seem a little tougher and a little more decisive — to make him more “action hero-ish” as you define it. In a few episodes, they made big cuts which had a noticeable effect, but in most cases the course of the stories and the behavior of the characters remained 95% the same.
In my own experience, I have worked on shows with tight standards and shows with loose standards. E.g. I wrote and voice directed the [Digital Manga-produced, FUNimation-distributed American dub] of Fooly Cooly by Gainax. We used to joke that Fooly Cooly had more body fluids per frame than any other series. The standards were very loose; we made zero modifications for broadcast. I had great fun with that show and loved working on it. But FLCL could not be broadcast mainstream in the US, it could only play on late night Adult Swim. Astro Boy was not an Adult Swim type of show; it was geared for a broader audience including young kids, so the producers adopted tighter standards. From the beginning, I told the production team in Tokyo that I did not agree with many of the American standards. On their side, some of the Japanese team said they had children and they felt that limiting violence was a good thing and was not at all contrary to the spirit of Tetsuwan Atom.
I don’t disagree with all American standards. I agree with some and disagree with others. American standards are not hard and fast, they change from broadcaster to broadcaster and from show to show. It’s understandable that parents want to protect their children from harmful programming. On the other hand, it is worth noting that America allows very little violence on TV yet has terrible violence on the streets, while Japan has lots of violence on TV while its streets are safe and peaceful. As Daffy Duck would say, “Oh, the irony…”
For what it’s worth I believe the reason there is very little violence in Japan is because Japanese people feel they are part of a large family; they don’t think of Japan as a political entity, they think of it as their extended family, so they are loath to bring shame upon themselves and their parents, grandparents and ancestors by harming others within this family. This has nothing to do with laws or regulations, it is built into the fabric of their culture. IMO we Americans could learn a lot from Japan on this issue, and we could start by putting less emphasis on curbing imaginary violence in stories and films, and putting more emphasis on finding innovative ways to end real violence in our communities.
Yatt: It’s kinda ironic too, considering that in Tezuka’s own earlier Astro Boy stories, the “atom boy” himself seemed to, at times, act in a way contradictory to his “innocent nature” — which, in and of itself, is pretty interesting in terms of how Astro as a character was eventually developed.
Marc: Interesting point — Astro Boy in the panels in your link is much more of an aggressive tough action hero than we ever made him in our version — it’s not just a translation issue because he is acting tough, not just talking tough…. as you say, this is not the typical Astro Boy story — the part of Astro Boy’s character that is loved and cherished in Japan is his innocent peacemaker side, and that is also the side that Tezuka was most focused on.
Yatt: Anyways, another question I had concerning the dub was this: Had you been given full say or control/reigns of the dub, what would you have done differently? Would you have attempted to make the AB ’03 dub as faithful to the original Japanese version as possible, despite the stricter American guidelines?
Marc: For US broadcast — other than translating it into lively English — I would have aired it exactly as it aired in Japan with no changes. There was nothing inappropriate for American viewers. I would have also paid close attention to the original Japanese voices. The US voice actors are very talented, however, I would have had them listen to the Japanese cast to get the right feel for the characters — not by imitating their voices, but by tuning in and following their leads. Japanese voice actors are very talented and they naturally understand the intentions of characters created by Japanese writers and animators. I think it was a mistake to ignore them and create the voices from scratch. Again, these are just my opinions; I respect all of the people who worked on that part of the series, I just disagree with some of the choices they made.
Interestingly, Yutaka Maseba and Haruyo Kanesaku were with us in Tokyo during the project — they contributed a lot and, at the time I thought their company, Zro Limit, was going to do the dub — they have dubbed many major shows like Akira and Ghost in the Shell and are very experienced and tuned in to anime. If they had done the English dub, I’m sure it would have been much more faithful to the original, but in the end, that didn’t happen.
Oh, I should clarify one point that you asked about — I did casting and voice directing on the original pilot episode which we used as a sample — that was the version that won first place at the Tokyo International Animation Fair and we used it to help sell the series — however, that was long before Astro Boy was dubbed for US broadcast. On the version that was finally aired in the US, I was not a voice director on that version, I was only an ADR script writer.
Yatt: Somewhat in regards to the dub’s changes and our brief mentions of the American and Japanese “styles”; you’ve said in other, earlier interviews — the aforementioned AB ‘03 DVD extra included — that Americans seem to favor “basic” “(super)hero” concepts such as “black and white” heroes vs. villains, with the former always prevailing and “understanding everything” (“The idea in America of an action hero unfortunately often is too simple. […] The good guys win, the bad guys lose, the villains are vanquished, and that’s it.“), et cetera, whereas most Japanese writing, for example, tend to give the latter a reason why they’re “bad” to begin with… Could you perhaps clarify these different “storytelling approaches” further?
Marc: These are broad generalizations, but in America we tend to like stories black and white with clear happy endings. The bad guy is bad, the good guy defeats him, justice is done. The Japanese tend to think this is simplistic and uninteresting. They like subtler stories. They often view bad guys as pitiful characters with something inside of them that is more akin to a disease than what we think of as evil.
Astro Boy in particular is a character who reaches out to the villains and tries to connect with them on a human level (even if they’re robots!) He tries to find out what’s causing them to behave this way — and he often uncovers surprising reasons. You could think of it as a kind of mystery – rather than a “who done it” it’s a “why done it” – “Why is this criminal behaving like this?” Where others just want to destroy the bad guy, Astro Boy investigates the mystery and finds the source of the bad behavior. In some cases, he can then reform the bad guy and make friends with him, in other cases the bad guy may not be able to escape his tragic fate – he may die or be destroyed – but typically, he may make some meaningful sacrifice, or do some key heroic act before he goes. This can result in a very strong story.
Again, these are broad generalizations, and of course we have Western stories with these kinds of elements as well, but Japanese stories lean more in that direction while American stories lean more toward clear good guy vs bad guy scenarios.
I think it is a mistake to react to this with a resounding “Aha! Japanese stories are good- they’re subtle; American stories suck, they’re crude!” You really need to look deeper than that. — I like the subtlety of Japanese stories, but this does not mean their story telling is superior. It’s just a different approach.
On the negative side, many Japanese stories try to be so subtle that they become obscure and confusing or they’re weak, lacking impact — just as many American stories are so black and white that they become predictable and banal. However, straightforward American story telling when it’s done well has great power and clarity. Watching the good guys knock the cr**p out of the bad guys and score one for justice can be a great ride. Likewise, Japanese story telling at its best with its subtleties and poetry and personal redemption is also wonderful. It’s not an either or situation. Both are good in their own ways. Many of these characteristics of Japanese stories also apply to traditional Chinese and other Asian story telling and there is lots of overlap between Western and Eastern approaches. My goal when working on these projects is to avoid the false either-or and to try to find the best from both cultures and both traditions, and get them working together – best of both worlds.
In the big picture, often, when two different traditions meet and mix, you get a great release of creative energy — e.g. jazz music came from the mix of Western music and African music developed by black musicians in the American south – and jazz led to blues, rock, pop, etc. Any musician or critic at that time who took the view, “Western music is better” or “African music is better” would be missing the point. It was the artists who liked both and understood both and began to combine them naturally that created something new and exciting.
In current TV animation, I think Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are pretty good examples of this type of synthesis. These shows were created by people who know and love both Western and Japanese styles of animation and combined them effectively, not as an intellectual exercise, but because that’s what they naturally wanted to do.
And when you watch a Hollywood film like James Cameron’s Avatar where good guys turn out to be bad guys and bad guys turn out to be good guys and the final battle is with a guy in a Gundam style mobile suit, then you know these different approaches are starting to mesh in a positive way.
I think the first season of Game of Thrones is a good example of this good guys vs bad guys thing. Even though Game of Thrones is a complex and subtle adult drama with many complex characters, at the heart of it is Ned Stark who is a steadfastly good and honorable man, and the Lanisters (Cersei, Jaime, and Joffrey) who are evil through and through — and you watch it rooting for the good guys to defeat the bad. So it’s not just He-Man and Superman and Cowboy shows that have this black & white approach…
Yatt: Going back to the original AB ‘03 production: Since you were also an episode writer for the series, how were you able to balance your own writing sensibilities with those of your fellow staff (Chiaki-san, Ohta-san, etc.) when writing?
Marc: This is a great question, one which I enjoy delving into. The general themes and tone of the show were set by Konaka-san the director in cooperation with Tezuka and Sony. My job was to understand and get in sync with the theme and tone, then help to ensure that we had strong stories and that the show would be exportable — and as a writer to contribute with stories of my own. This is true of story editing and writing on any series – you have to understand the series and what the director and producers want to accomplish, and then contribute to that and help make it happen — but because of the cross-cultural issues and the classic nature of the property, this was much more challenging — and more interesting — than on most shows.
For me this meant going through a huge learning curve. Everything I’ve been saying here about who Astro Boy is, how he tries to reach his enemies and connect with them rather than conquering them, the differences between Japanese and American sensibilities about story telling, these are all things I was learning at the time, step by step, and I learned them from the creative team who worked on that series, the director, producers, writers, animators and execs. At the same time I was helping them to understand the way that we create stories and series in the West. Through that interaction, I was coming to understand how people think and function in Japan. I have used and built on that knowledge ever since, so I owe them a great debt for that. Balancing my sensibilities with theirs meant tuning in to what they were thinking, and above all, listening to them and respecting their views.
This is particularly important because Americans in this kind of situation are generally viewed as arrogant in Japan. Often, Americans have come over there on various kinds of projects – including animation projects – and tried to dominate and dictate to their Japanese partners which, as you may guess, doesn’t go down very well. So I thought it was very important for me to not do that. That doesn’t mean simply agreeing with them and going along with all of their ideas. Part of the reason they brought me there was to give an American perspective to the process, so I had to do that clearly, in a straightforward way. If I disagreed with them on a point, I had to say so and explain why. But at the same time, I had to listen and truly try to understand their perspectives and get my own ego out of the way so that the final decision was always about what’s best for the project. Again, I did not make the final decisions, I just tried to make the most useful contribution that I could to help the group make the most informed decision possible.
I think this is reflected pretty well in the clip you selected, though it’s a bit out of context. The Japan team wanted Astro Boy to go to school; I advised against it, I thought that would not play as well in the U.S. as in Japan – I suggested spending more time on the adventure and less on the scenes showing Astro Boy as a regular kid leading a regular life – but of course they won the argument, and Astro Boy did go to school in the series. Through our discussions, I came to understand their reasoning for wanting to show more of Astro Boy’s regular kid side and ultimately came to support it – in fact [one of] my own [episodes], “Robot Boy” is not a major action episode – there are no battling robots – the focus is on Astro Boy’s regular friendship with a regular human kid and his relationship with his mother. Ultimately our discussions of this issue led to a new concept about Astro Boy’s school that everyone liked – so it was a constructive, positive process, and one in which the Japanese team was always in control.
The key thing that I had to learn was patience. Americans have sayings like “cut to the chase” “what’s the bottom line” – we want to make quick decisions and move on – and often that means decisions are just handed down from the top. The Japanese process is very different. It’s all about consensus. Everyone meets. Everyone talks. The talk happens slowly, methodically, carefully. And over time a consensus develops. The director or producers ultimately hand down the decisions, but by the time the decision is made, everyone is in on it, everyone has had a chance to give input. Even if you disagree with the final decisions, you were part of the process and you are part of the group. You don’t feel alienated, you feel connected. And everyone retains their self-respect. It’s a very interesting process and was very eye-opening for me to witness and be part of.
When Westerners talk, we tend to talk over each other, start talking as the other person is finishing, or cut each other off. If the meeting becomes silent we consider it “an awkward silence.” So at a meeting in Japan, when it gets silent, Westerners naturally want to jump into that gap and start talking to avoid that awkward silence. If they do that, they congratulate themselves on helping to move the meeting along. But this is all wrong from a Japanese perspective. For them, when a Westerner does this, he is showing weakness, shallowness. In Japanese culture, there’s nothing awkward about silence. Silence is the time when thoughtful people think deeply, try to understand and figure out the next step. For the Japanese, only superficial people think it’s necessary to keep chattering all the time. They say, “the drum that beats the loudest is the most hollow.” People who talk too much are empty.
In the West we value people who can “think on their feet” – meaning think quickly and make quick decisions, but they value people who take their time, think and speak carefully and precisely and effectively. So to work with Japanese people, you must cultivate patience. When it’s silent, you know that’s okay. You relax. You think. When a meeting takes hours to decide something that, in the US, would be decided in 10 minutes, you remind yourself that something more is going on here – it’s not just the decision – it’s a process that is bringing the group together, and the time you are spending now will pay off later.
Experiencing all of that actually changes you. After this, when I would come back to the US and hear Americans in meetings cutting each other off and talking over each other, I would shudder. It used to seem normal, but now it just seems all wrong. You have to let someone finish their thought – it seems both rude and counter-productive to not do so. And if I catch myself doing that – cutting someone off – I really kick myself for it. Old habits. Of course this does not apply to a casual situation where friends are sitting around chatting – there are no rules for that — but it does apply to situations where work is being done and decisions are being made. This is just one example of many many differences in the way that collaboration takes place in Japan as compared to the U.S.
To be more specific about Astro Boy, when I started, I knew Astro Boy, but I did not get the essence of the character. I thought of Astro Boy — as I think most Americans do — as basically Superboy except he’s a robot. It took time for me to get the essence of the character and as I did, it was a revelation. American creators and producers who deal with this character always immediately want to make him tougher, more savvy, give him a little swag – that’s the way we like our heroes. Astro Boy seems so innocent, we find it very hard to accept a character who is that naïve and pure. But innocence and purity do not seem wrong to Japanese viewers. Those things are essential to his character. If you remove them, it’s not Astro Boy anymore. It would be like someone doing a new version of Tarzan and having him speak like an Oxford professor because they couldn’t get their mind around the idea of a hero who can’t speak English correctly. If you take the “me Tarzan you Jane” quality away from Tarzan, he’s not Tarzan anymore. Likewise with Astro Boy, you have to understand and accept the innocence, the purity, and the fact that, just when you think he should be smashing the villain, he’s going to reach out to him instead.
Another part of the learning curve for me, was dealing with the issue of robots with kokoro – i.e. heart, mind, spirit, personality. This was a central theme of the series. We actually met with the leading robotics designers and engineers at Sony robotics while we were developing the series. We wanted to get their perspective on these themes. At that time, they had created the Aibo which was a major popular phenomenon [Editor’s Note: They were also developing a humanoid robot called “QRIO” — coincidentally child-like, and who had even voice acted in AB ‘03 — before Sony’s robotics division was essentially shutdown/liquidated in 2006], and it was very instructive to see how differently Americans and Japanese responded to it. The Aibo was instantly popular and beloved by Japanese people. Americans looked at Aibos and said, “What does it do?” We are utilitarian. We didn’t get it. On the other hand, we love Roombas and buy them by the millions. They have no personality, but they “do” something.
The difference in perspectives is not hard to trace. In Western tradition, God made man in his own image. Everything else is lesser. Inanimate objects are just objects. It’s blasphemous to think they have spirits or can be equated to humans. By contrast, Japanese Shinto is an animist belief system. In Shinto tradition, a bend in a stream can have a spirit, and you may wish to build a shrine to honor that spirit. Rocks or trees can be imbued with a transcendent spirit. For an American, the idea that an Aibo is in some sense “alive” is silly, but it is much easier for Japanese people to accept that idea and feel that they have a personal relationship with their Aibo. Likewise, it is much easier for them to accept that robots like Astro Boy might have more than artificial intelligence, that they could have kokoro. I had to learn these things as I went along from my Japanese co-workers and friends and then apply them to the series where the central conflict was the rapidly evolving AI robots vs the humans who opposed them.
A small example of how this affected the series is the use of the word kokoro itself. Of course initially this word was translated into English by the translators, but it never sounded right because there is no equivalent word in English. Once I understood this, I suggested and pushed for the idea that we should use the Japanese word in the English version and let the American audience learn the word. Instead of saying “a robot with a heart” or “a robot with a mind” or “a robot with spirit or personality or emotions” we would say, “a robot with kokoro” meaning all of these things, and encouraging the international audience to try to understand this Japanese concept. That suggestion was adopted and I felt good about that because it allowed us to accurately convey this central idea of the series.
Of course all of this came into play on the episodes that I wrote as well. I had to create stories that fit with this theme and with the spirit of the show. For example, [the previously mentioned] “Robot Boy” is about a boy who loves robots, and he is rejected by his mother because of it; she believes robots cannot have kokoro and should not be treated as if they are alive. Although she is mean to Astro Boy and insists he is merely an object, he does not treat her like an enemy; on the contrary, he puts himself in extreme peril to save her when she is in danger. Through that experience, she remembers her own childhood and reconnects with her own imagination. In the end, she accepts that, even though Astro Boy is a robot, her son’s friendship with him is a true friendship.
Likewise, in the episode [“Emily’s Wish”; “Battle-Bot” in the dub,] the main character [Emily], must decide whether to accept her role as a subservient robot, or to stand up and fight for her rights by joining Blue Knight and his robot rebellion. Throughout the episode, Emily and Astro Boy clash over this central issue as Emily insists on fighting, while Astro Boy argues for understanding and finding peaceful alternatives. The episode does not try to give an easy answer to this question, rather it shows the validity of both views and invites the viewer to think about these issues and find their own answers.
I would not have been able to write these stories at the beginning of the series; it was only after I had learned about these issues and the underlying concepts from the Japanese creative team – Konaka-san, Ohta-san, Hasegawa-san — and all of the others — that I was able to create these kinds of stories.
All told, it was an immensely interesting process for me. As I came to understand what the Japanese team was shooting for, I could then do my job as a writer and as a story editor, which was to work with them to help create the strongest possible stories, and help to get those stories to a larger global audience.
Yatt: How was working on AB ’03, as an anime production, different in your experience working on American animated productions, seeing as you had worked on the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, “Widget the World Watcher” and “Denver The Last Dinosaur”, in addition to your localization credits?
Marc: The American process is more hierarchical, the Japanese process is more consensus based – I mentioned this earlier – in America it’s more likely that execs and showrunners hand down decisions to those below them. This is relatively efficient; things happen quickly. In Japan they are much more likely to meet and discuss things at length, making sure everyone has the chance to give input. This is slower, less efficient, but it has the positive results of taking in more input and of forging strong creative teams where everyone feels that they are included and valued. In the end, the director still makes the final decision – it’s not about compromising or massaging people’s egos – it’s about using a thorough and inclusive process to find the best creative solutions. I think the Japanese process is very effective.
Also – in my experience – the American system is more of a “sign off” system. Once the executives and team leaders “sign off” on an outline or script or storyboards, everyone is required to follow them. Nothing should be changed without getting new approvals. If the director isn’t happy with the script, he sends it back for redrafting until he gets a script he’s happy with. In Japan, it is generally more fast and loose. If the director isn’t happy with the “final version” of a script – if he has ideas for changes – often, he doesn’t send it back to the writer or try to get executive approvals for the changes, he just changes it on the storyboards – so the story may be very different after it’s boarded. The director generally has the authority to make these kinds of changes at will. Of course this can make the writer very unhappy, but it speeds the process. This only works if the director has a very good story sense.
Also, the [AB ’03] meetings were big: we had merchandising people, senior executives, character designers, many people you usually don’t have at American story meetings.
And there was a very charged atmosphere at the meetings.
The writers generally had strong feelings about their stories and they fought for their ideas. This made the process exciting and the stories strong. American writers are more likely to take a more detached, professional attitude to their stories. I really appreciated the passion that the Japanese writers came in with. Ota-san, Murai-san and Hasegawa-san were particularly interesting to work with because they were so passionate about their stories.
Finally, [AB ’03] was unique because of the backgrounds of the members of the creative team, especially their film and live action experience. Konaka-san (Kazuya) was a live action film director, not an animation director, so he brought the sensibilities of a filmmaker to the project. Ota-san is also a writer for live action adult TV dramas; Hasegawa-san had written children’s films as well; and Murai-san was a genuine writing star: he had written major anime films like Perfect Blue and Millenium Actress, as well as writing for classic TV series like Cowboy Bebop. It was amazing to work with people of that caliber and I always tried to honor their talent.
Yatt: Though this is a bit off topic, I noticed that in an interview you did for the podcast “Let’s Voltron” (@ 43:34), you cited the aforementioned Tsuneyuki Morishima, the Sony VP at the time of AB 03’s creation, as someone you had first met during your trips to Japan back as a World Events Productions employee in the ’80s, and whom later became your “mentor”. Could you, by any chance, discuss your relationship with Morishima-san in more detail?
Marc: I met Morishima-san when I was working on Saber Rider (Bismark) for World Events Productions. They sent me to Japan, and Morishima-san was the exec for Studio Pierrot which was the company that produced Bismark. They were a small company at the time although they’ve since become a major studio. It was my first time in Japan and I made tons of cultural mistakes – like leaving my chopsticks sticking up in the rice … really bad faux pas… but Morishima-san was very patient with me and helped me get oriented. He had worked on projects with Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii and many major players in anime, and was extremely knowledgeable about every aspect of the business, so I was very lucky to have his guidance. I traveled back to Tokyo several times after that and have very fond memories of taking trips with him and his family to Kamakura, a historic town by the ocean, and just hanging out with him at his neighborhood bar, drinking saki and listening to American jazz, which was his favorite. He later became an exec at Sony and, when they needed someone to work with them to help bring Astro Boy to an international audience, he contacted me. That was lucky for me and of course I was eager to do it. I think the major issue was trust: he knew that I would give honest support and would work for the best interests of his team.
I would characterize Morishima-san as typical Japanese in that he is quiet but very strong and very knowledgeable. I see some people on the net writing about these projects as if the Japanese are hapless victims being pushed around by evil Americans. This is some kind of fairy tale and it’s a bit demeaning. The Japanese execs are very strong and very successful – they know exactly who they are and how to get things done – and they are firmly in control of their own projects. BTW, Morishima-san went on to become a professor, teaching courses on the animation business at Tokyo University, which is like Japan’s Harvard or Yale. Though he’s not well known in America, he’s one of the great men in anime, and I was especially fortunate to be able to work with him.
Yatt: Finally, any closing thoughts concerning your involvement with and fond memories of AB ’03?
Marc: It was a big relief for me when the show was picked up and broadcast in the US, the UK and many other countries around the world. That was our goal when we started. If we had not been faithful to the original show, the Japanese audience and animation community would have rejected it. In fact the show was embraced in Japan. It also won two 1st place awards at the Tokyo International Animation Fair. All of that happened because the Japanese version stayed true to the original show and the legacy of Osamu Tezuka.
For myself, I made many lifelong friends and learned a tremendous amount by working with the creative team in Tokyo – experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything.