Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From "Pinocchio" to "Astro-Boy": Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi

In the spring I'm co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, "The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature." The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It's an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.

I obviously have an interest in children's books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I've never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course -- especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.

To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.

One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian tale. It is best known through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by an Italian writer, Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply "pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don't want the witch to turn you into a statue").

Many of the trademark features of the Disney Pinocchio are missing in the first version of the story Collodi published in serial form between 1881 and 1883, including especially the nose that grows when Pinocchio lies (Collodi added that later), and the concern about becoming a "real boy" (also added in the second half, which Collodi apparently wrote to make the story more marketable to children -- and less bleak). While in Disney there is a Glenda-eseque, maternal "blue fairy" who makes Pinocchio come alive at the very beginning, in Collodi, the "Turquoise Fairy" only becomes a factor in in the second half of the narrative. Pinocchio's initial enchantment precedes his being formed into a marionette -- the block of wood out of which he was carved was already enchanted. (In Collodi he also burns off his feet near the beginning of the story, and kills the talking cricket. Ouch!)

I am not sure whether we will do all of Collodi, but it seems essential to at least look at the chaotic, violent, and generally picaresque structure of the first half of the book alongside the more sanitized Disney version.

The great Japanese manga artist and animator, Tezuka Osamu has described how he he was influenced by the early Disney animation style, and it's not hard to guess that the Disney version of Pinocchio had an influence on the genesis of Astro-Boy, which Tezuka created as a manga starting in the early 1950s (in Japanese, Tetsuwan ATOM). While the preoccupation in Collodi's Pinocchio is an industrial-era rendition of the prospect of artificial life, Astro-Boy is clearly inflected by the concerns of the nuclear age.

I have not seen the original, printed manga of Astro-Boy, though I have watched a little of an English-language version of the original televised cartoon, as well as the 2009 animated feature (which was, incidentally, better than the reviews made it out to be). However, what is immediately clear from the television cartoon is that Tezuka is interested in adapting the fundamental ideas of the Pinocchio story to the Japanese context after Hiroshima. While Gepetto is a puppeteer, Astro-Boy's father is a maker of robots, and his co-workers worry, in even the first episode, about the dangerous potential of the robot that is to become Astro-Boy specifically in terms of his potentially being used as a weapon.

In both the television cartoon and the recent CGI, animated film, Astro-Boy's "father" creates him as a substitute for a real son who died -- and for whom the father feels guilty. (This is not there in Collodi.) In neither case is there space for a mother figure anywhere; the mother is dead, out of the picture. The absence of women or mothers is roughly true even in the Collodi, where the maternal Turquoise Fairy was added in largely as an after-thought. Interestingly, and troublingly, none of these "Pinocchio" narratives seem to need or want mothers.


I have one broader thesis about 20th century science fiction that I think Pinocchio/Astro-Boy reflects quite well, and that is that there are often strong affiliations between science fiction (narratives of the future) and traditional folk tales, which seem to reflect a version of the past. Though modern and post-modern science fiction tends to reflect contemporary concerns, they often rely on very traditional tropes.

But I also have other questions that I'm still thinking about; maybe readers can help.

For instance, to what extent should The Adventures of Pinocchio be seen as a variation -- albeit inflected with stylistic and structural elements borrowed from Fairy Tales -- of Frankenstein? In short, is Frankenstein relevant?

Another question I have, not being an expert in fairy tales or the Brothers Grimm (one of my projects for winter break is to catch up on scholarship by critics like Jack Zipes), is how to think of antecedents to the idea of the inventor who creates "living" machines -- artificial life. One thinks of the "Homunculus" in Goethe's Faust, Part 2, but even that is not that far off chronologically from Shelley's Frankenstein. Really, the appropriate point of origin seems to be the Golem figure in the Hebrew Tradition (The author of the Wikipedia "Golem" entry even suggests that some passages in the Talmud describe Adam himself as a kind of "golem").

Are not all of our modern and contemporary robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s simply variations of the ancient Hebrew Golem narrative? Is there anything really 'new' about "artificial intelligence"? (Isn't it, in fact, the oldest thing in the world?)

Yet another question to explore is whether there are antecedents for the artificial life of Tezuka's Astro-Boy in the Japanese folk tale tradition. (A surprising number of contemporary fantasy manga narratives -- one thinks of Naruto -- seem styled after traditional Japanese folk tales.)

Finally, can readers think of other "nexus" sites, where there is significant crossover between Japanese sci fi (including manga and anime), and western science fiction and fantasy? (One site we are exploring is Japanese cyber-punk -- Ghost in the Shell vs. western cyber-punk, in Neuromancer, et al.)

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