Astro Boy and the God of Comics Brings Live-Action Drawing to the Stage

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[dropcap]How[/dropcap] many pages make a play? In the case of Natsu Onoda Power’s Astro Boy and the God of Comics, the answer is eight. When Sacred Fools set out to produce the Astro Boy West Coast premiere, director Jaime Robledo armed himself with eight pages, a few visual aids from the premiere production, and an Avengers-style production team.

“We did a read-through of the script during our first rehearsal,” Robledo remembers, “and my explanation of the mechanics of the play took longer than reading the script itself.”

In twelve retrogressive “episodes,” Astro Boy explores the life and career of cartoonist and animator Osamu Tezuka (1928-89), whose prolific and innovative work was so influential it earned him the title of “Godfather of Manga.” With its exaggerated mid-century set, Astro Boy drops audiences head first into the world of the titular character, Astro Boy — one of Tezuka’s most famous — and eventually navigates into the non-fiction universe for glimpses into Tezuka’s biography, ultimately resisting distinction between the human story and its cartoon backdrop.

Astro Boy approaches technical challenges with feverish innovation. How do you bring a two-dimensional character to life? Actors collaborate to draw Astro Boy in a mural. One actor embodies him in full costume. The ensemble forms a “human machine” to construct Astro Boy from metal ducting (in a 3/4-time sequence that took three entire rehearsal days to choreograph). They puppeteer an Astro Boy doll against an animated cityscape projected on the back wall, to give the illusion that he’s flying. In bringing this character to life in so many ways, the production seems to celebrate the relationship between creator and creation with a loving, Pinocchio-like spirit. It has its Peter Pan moments, too, because while Astro Boy never grows up and never dies, Tezuka’s own mortality — from his battle-born youth to his secret struggle with cancer — strikes solemn notes throughout.

Astro Boy is also jam-packed with live-action drawing sequences, wherein actors render works of art on blank canvases right before the audience’s eyes, often while delivering lines or performing some other physical act (Robledo prioritized multitasking in the audition process). Each drawing sequence promises a moment of reveal, but the execution is the real surprise, as Astro Boy insists on reinventing its own techniques. In one sequence, actors form a sort of relay team to draw a single picture. In another, they draw on pieces of a portrait on disparate tiles and assemble them like puzzle pieces. Astro Boy’s drawing sequences aren’t effortless; they’re effortful. In their frenzied yet methodical way, they reveal the nuances of Tezuka’s lifelong, obsessive work.

Astro Boy is such a visual play that its translation from page to stage raised questions. “I knew what the play should be,” Robledo says, “But not exactly how to get there.” The show’s live-art director Aviva Pressman had understudied the original production, and she was able to offer insight in places, but Robledo wanted to avoid simply recreating the original, and thus enlisted his own imagination and the imagination of his brain trust. For example, parts of Power’s script read like poetry:

People draw on the paper wall.
A loud bombing sound.
Image of a mushroom cloud.

The embodiment of this moment on stage adheres to the stage directions, but also transcends them. Actors labor rapidly to draw a wartime mural — the first drawing in the show to abandon Tezuka’s style in favor of a more lifelike image — while sound effects and projections of blood spatter mimic gunfire. The tempo hastens and the tone grows urgent and ominous as the play explores Tezuka’s origin story and enters into the historical realm. Says Robledo: “Natsu laid out a wonderful template, a skeleton, that both focused me on the play’s intent and left a lot of room for interpretation.”

Robledo and his team not only colored in the world of the play — they blew the world all the way out, using four projectors, a scrim, a wall-turned-sketchbook, custom video animation, and countless other techniques. “We had to use the technology to tell this story,” says Robledo, because Tezuka’s work itself was so technical and visual. But Robledo felt an equal draw to the bones of the story, to Tezuka himself.

“I love a good spectacle,” he says, “but if there is no point to it, why bother?  …The last thing I want is to create something beautiful, but ultimately hollow.”

NOW PLAYING: Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Sacred Fools, now through August 8.

astro boy iconThis multimedia performance art piece tells the story of famed Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka and Astro Boy, his most famous character. This West Coast Premiere features interactive video, live drawing and stylized movement. It’s a whimsical, retro sci-fi visual extravaganza that examines post-WWII fascination with technology and destruction, and the relationship between creation and creator.

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley is a writer and actor working in Los Angeles. She holds a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California and has written for @ This Stage since its inaugural summer. She plays recurring characters on Comedy Central's "Review with Forrest MacNeil" and TVLand's "Lopez."