Now Do You Know Who You Really Are?
When I was a child, an unusual cartoon taught me how to understand my true self and my spirituality.
For much of my childhood my favorite TV show was a Japanese cartoon called "Astro Boy."
Though very much a Japanese creation (its characters pioneered that exaggerated doe-eyed look that so many Japanese cartoon imports have today), Astro Boy's themes were much larger than the quirky Asian package it came wrapped in. In fact, they were just about as universal as you can get.
In the show's first episode (which, thanks to a DVD re-release, I recently saw again for the first time since the early sixties), we learn that Astro Boy is a robot created by a brilliant but mentally unstable scientist named Astor Boynton after his real son, Astor Boynton the Third, perished in a car accident.
As a machine built to replace a human being, Astro Boy is fated to spend his life struggling with identity issues. "You're not a human child," Astro's father tells him in that same first episode. "You're nothing but a machine like a refrigerator or a dishwasher. Remember, you're a robot!"
Finally losing all patience with him for not being a real boy, Astro's father sells him to a wicked circus master for use in the gladiatorial ring. As the forlorn Astro Boy squares off against his first hulking robotic opponent, a new character – a man with bushy gray hair and a large, funny-looking nose – emerges from the screaming crowd and climbs into the arena. The gladiatorial contest, he tells the audience, is inhumane, because "robots are living things too."
This funny old man – who we soon learn is named Dr. Elefun – becomes Astro Boy's official guardian. In a world full of cruel people who don't understand who he really is, Dr. Elefun is different. Looking at Astro Boy, he immediately sees more than just a bunch of gears and springs. He sees something – or someone – real.
Astro Boy's creator, the cartoonist and animator Osamu Tezuka, made no secret that he had modeled his robot hero on another mechanical boy-who-wasn't-a-boy: Pinocchio. Unlike Pinocchio, Astro Boy never actually turns into a real human being. But for young fans of the show like me, that was really beside the point. We admired Astro Boy for his robotic superpowers. But most of all we admired him because, in a world that was constantly telling him to remember that he was "just a machine," he – and we – suspected otherwise.
When I was five or so, someone gave me a blue canvas belt with a bright metal buckle that reminded me of the one Astro Boy always wore. In just about every photo of me from that period, this belt can be seen, strapped around me at chest level (the way Astro Boy wore his).
I also did my best to copy the jerky, robotic motions Astro Boy walked with. At its peak, my level of Astro-Boy identification was so strong that my mother asked me to stop walking in that odd and jerky way in public because it made people think there was something wrong with my legs.