Foreign filmmaker wrestles with legacy of manga hero


“I hope people give it a chance. Because if people give it a chance they’ll like it,” says director David Bowers about his new animation, “Astro Boy” (titled “Atom” in domestic release), in a room at the Park Hyatt hotel in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo.

The movie is the first big-screen adaptation of the famous serialized manga penned by Japan’s “god of manga,” Osamu Tezuka, between 1952 and 1968, and it opened here in Japan last Saturday.

“It’s a new version of Atom,” Bowers explains. “I updated Atom a little bit. I talked to Makoto-san (the son of Osamu Tezuka and one of the owners of Tezuka Productions) and we changed it slightly. It’s a little more psychological.”

In the movie, the Los Angeles-based British director retells the origins of Tezuka’s manga hero, of how scientist Dr. Tenma creates a robot to replace his dead son, Toby.

Centering on the father-son relationship, the film follows Astro Boy’s (Freddie Highmore) journey of self-discovery after he is kicked out from Dr. Tenma’s (Nicholas Cage) house as the scientist feels a robot cannot replace his son.

Admitting that there was a lot of pressure in making a film of such an iconic character, Bowers says: “I tried to stick to the philosophy that I felt in the manga. I really wanted to be true to what Atom is. My job wasn’t to reinvent what Atom is. My job was to make a great movie with Atom in it. Hopefully something that fans of Atom will enjoy and people who don’t know Atom will come to love too.”

I believe this is your first time to work with Imagi Studios (based in Hong Kong). Tell us how you got involved in this film as a director/writer. I believe you joined the team late, replacing original director Colin Brady.

Well, Maryann [Garger], the producer of this film, who I worked with in my first animation, “Flushed Away,” asked me if I was interested in doing the Atom movie. So I said I love Atom, and I looked into the manga and animation and I told her I would love to do this.

When I arrived the project had already started. I had a vision of how the work had to be done, but it was going in another direction. It was going in a slightly dark direction, which I thought was counter to what Atom is all about. So I changed everything. It was very different from the way the movie was at that time, so I wrote the outline for the story, and I worked with Timothy Harris, who is a terrific writer, on the screenplay. Imagi is a small studio compared to, let’s say Disney or DreamWorks, and they were terrific. They couldn’t have been more supportive.

So you had a lot of freedom in making a story?

Complete freedom. It was wonderful and it’s very unique in the animation world.

Some Tezuka fans have doubts about Hollywood adapting Japanese manga. What do you think of that?

I think if you go down the route of trying to please people and trying to figure out what other people want to see in a movie, that’s really the route to hell. You’re not going to make a movie that you can be proud of.

I’m very selfish when I make movies. I make them completely for myself and make the kind of things I’d like to see. And it’s an interpretation and expansion in which Tezuka Productions really encouraged and supported me.

I think if you’re aware of Atom and if you like Atom, then as a movie, it doesn’t disappoint. Because it’s the same story and the same character. If you don’t know it, then hopefully it’s a great way to introduce the character.

Atom is a little bit older than in the original.

I made him 13. I think he normally looks 8 or 9. It’s because I wanted to create a real drama and I wanted the father-son relationship to be the core of the movie.

My philosophy is once you get emotional beats to the story right and you care about the characters, then you can do all the action and comedy and everything else you want. But you got to have people caring about the characters. And 13-year-olds have issues with parents. At 13, you’re just sort of starting to become who you are, you’re finding out what you like, trying to decide what path you want to go in your life. And for Atom, who discovers he is not who he thought he was, he’s actually a boy robot with a dead boy’s memories . . . that journey parallels quite accurately with a teenager’s quest for discovery.

The issues 8 or 9 year olds have are different and they’re not as complex, and it doesn’t interest me quite so much.

Have you read any other Tezuka manga?

I have. I’m engrossed by “Phoenix” at the moment which is wonderful and I’ve read some of “Black Jack.” It’s been a busy two years. I haven’t got much time for reading, but now I have little more time, so I’m going to read an awful lot more.