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.
The question of who I really was.
In his book "The Philosophies of India," Heinrich Zimmer tells the story of a tiger whose mother dies and who is subsequently raised by goats.
"The cub grew," writes Zimmer, "and learned the language of the goats, adapted his voice to their gentle way of bleating." He even learns to subsist on a diet of grass.
Then one night, the goats are attacked by a very large adult tiger. The goats scatter – with the exception of the cub, which stands and stares at the intruder, more curious than afraid. The tiger grabs the cub and takes him to a pond where he shows him his reflection in the water. He then takes the cub back to his den, where he gives him some meat.
At first cub wants no part of the meat, but the big tiger insists. Finally, he takes a bite of it. As the meat goes down the cub's throat, something odd happens.
"A glowing strength went out through his whole organism. Suddenly from his throat there burst the terrifying, triumphant roar of a tiger."
"Now," asks the older tiger, "do you know what you really are?"
Eventually, around age seven or so, I outgrew my Astro Boy fixation. But the question that Astro Boy introduced me to – the same one stated with such concision by that elder tiger in Zimmer's story – is one I haven't outgrown to this day.
To live in the world is always, it seems, to "learn the language of the goats": To forget our larger, spiritual identity and settle for a smaller one.
That's why – since the days when the story of the tiger raised among goats was first told in ancient India, on up to the space-age world of Astro Boy – people never tire of tales about characters who lose, then find, their true identities.
Stories that, by asking the question-of-all-questions, remind all of us of who we really are.
Ptolemy Tompkins is a Senior Editor at Angels on Earth Magazine.
'Now Do You Know Who You Really Are?' by Ptolemy Tompkins reprinted with permission from Angelsonearth.com. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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