‘Astro Boy’ Director David Bowers Talks Butt Guns, Robot Class Struggles, and Sequel Rumors
With the new 3-D computer-animated “Astro Boy” movie hitting theaters this week, American audiences will once again be introduced to one of the founding characters of Japanese manga and anime.
But will they take the bait this time around? Are the dulcet tones of Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Samuel L. Jackson, and other marquee names, enough to bring manga legend Osamu Tezuka’s beloved creation to the mainstream? Does animation studio Imagi, who produced the recent “TMNT” CGI reboot, have another hit on their hands?
We talked to David Bowers, the film’s cowriter/director, about comic book origin stories, robotic class struggles, and the wonderful absurdities of Tezuka’s work. (Like the, uh, butt machine guns.)
ComicsAlliance: So, your Astro Boy seems a bit more… clothed than usual. Any reason for this change?
David Bowers: It seemed that with the story we were going to tell, which is slightly different, when Astro Boy was created, he thinks he’s a real boy. And at my school, any kid wearing just his Speedos wouldn’t have lasted two minutes, frankly. [Laughs] In the original manga, and in the cartoon as well, when he’s going about normal day-to-day events he does wear clothes. I’m sort of surprised that people picked up on that.
CA: It’s probably due to the cartoon. He kept his shirt on less than Sawyer from “Lost” in those days.
DB: Maybe. But by the end of the movie, which is a voyage of self-discovery for Astro Boy, when he’s 100% a hero and 100% Astro Boy, then he’s in his iconic costume–the black boots, black shorts, and green belt.
CA: The movie definitely follows the classic comic book origin story template. Were there any comic book movies you looked to for inspiration?
DB: My favorite comic book movie is Richard Donner’s “Superman.” That was the one I sort of had in mind the most. It’s tremendously emotional, and very moving. It’s a great introduction to a character, and really fun at the same time.
CA: As for Tezuka’s manga, obviously you took a lot from the early volumes. Anything in particular you drew from?
DB: I picked out things like Hamegg, but I also wanted to make it a gladiator arena [that he runs] instead of a circus. So I cherry-picked across the different stories and found things that I liked. And then I added in things that were completely my invention for the movie, and new characters. Things that I thought were fun or interesting.
CA: Why a gladiator arena instead of a traveling circus?
DB: I think in the 1950s and 1960s when the stories were first done, circuses were pretty commonplace. Circuses just feel very old-fashioned now. A bit of their time. Also, I wanted to put Astro Boy in a more dangerous situation, and the gladiator arena seemed like a really great solution for that. Hamegg is doing something different, but in spirit he’s the same.
CA: The film’s design reminds me a bit of “The Iron Giant,” especially in the Zog character. Were there any sources, animated or otherwise, that the animation team drew from?
DB: I come from traditional animation, but our character designer is Argentinian, and he looked at a lot of South American art. Some Pre-Columbian stuff. And everyone in the studio has seen a lot of anime. Tezuka himself said he was influenced by Walt Disney. A lot of what animation studios are doing now — Sony, Pixar, or whoever — they’re all based on the classic Disney formula.
CA: Any characters or storylines you wanted to include that didn’t make the cut?
DB: There are a couple of things that I would like to see in the next movie, if there is another movie. But just in case there is another movie, I don’t want to tell you what they are. [Laughs]
CA: Stuff from the comics perhaps?
DB: Yes, stuff from the comics, stuff from the TV show. There’s no shortage of stories for a sequel.
CA: You previously directed “Flushed Away.” Both films deal with class struggle issues, an underclass that is literally below the upper class. In “Flushed,” it was a posh rat who gets thrown into the working class sewer world, while in “Astro” you’ve got the gleaming Metro City towering above a barren Earth which seems to be populated entirely by malfunctioning robots and vagabond homeless kids. Was the thematic connection intentional?
DB: No. But I think somewhere deep in my core I must be slightly obsessed with class struggle. It’s either coincidence, or something so deeply ingrained in me, that I don’t even know about it. [Laughs]
CA: Were there any difficulties in animating Astro’s distinctive hair?
DB: It was very difficult, because in the original manga and in the TV shows, it’s so graphic and two-dimensional. He always has two horns, or spikes, on his hair. And when we transferred that to three dimensions, he’d turn his head, and all of a sudden one of the points would disappear and he wouldn’t look like Astro Boy anymore. So I took a huge liberty and just swapped the points over from shot to shot. So sometimes it’s on the left side, sometimes it’s on the right, in order to keep the iconic Astro Boy look fluid. [pause] I shouldn’t have told you that, because now you’re going to be looking for it.
CA: Don’t worry. It’s not like manga and anime fans are obsessive about that sort of thing. I was very excited to see the butt-gun, though. Was anyone at the studio ever like, “Wait a minute. Where did that gun just come out of?”
DB: I think at the beginning everyone involved just assumed that wouldn’t be in the movie. It’s just too weird, and too freaky, to have machine guns inside of you. And we had people saying, “He’s got the arm cannons, he’s got x-ray vision, but the butt guns, we won’t be doing those.” But I said, “Actually, they’re very cool, so we’re going to be doing that.” I think it’s a funny idea, and I’m very happy we were able to include it in the film. He wouldn’t be Astro Boy without butt cannons.
CA: Indeed, it’s one of the many blissfully absurd elements of the manga.
DB: When people talk to me about Tezuka’s work, they’re very reverential and take it very, very seriously. But his stuff is actually very funny. There are lots of great sight gags, things that are very wacky and off-the-wall. Especially in ”
Astro Boy.” It really is absurd, and comic, and silly all at the same time. I just wanted to bring a little bit more of that back to “Astro Boy.” I wanted to give it the sense of humor it had, or that I perceived it to have, and make it fun again.