Astro Boy preps for takeoff in U.S.

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[Tokyo] Sony Pictures Entertainment is betting that Astro Boy, an animated boy-robot superhero, will be Japan's next big cultural export, following the trajectory of Pokemon and Power Rangers.

A feature film and anime TV series to run around the world are both in the works, and Sega expects to launch a DVD game featuring Astro Boy before Christmas in Japan, the U.S. and other international markets. The hype all starts with a marketing splash that coincides with Astro Boy's "birthday" today.

Half-machine and half-boy, Astro Boy was created by cartoon legend Osamu Tezuka in 1951 but set in a 21st century future that started on April 7, 2003.

In 1963, Astro Boy became the first Japanese manga, or comic, character to be animated for TV in the distinctive Japanese style called anime. Those grainy black-and-white episodes had sky-high ratings for four years and were colorized in 1980, with 52 new 30-minute shows.

Astro Boy was also the first Japanese TV animation series to air in the U.S., on NBC in 1963.

global appeal

Now, an anime TV series and a feature-length film are being created in collaboration with U.S. writers to ensure that they will appeal as much to international as well as Japanese audiences, though it's not clear when episodes may begin running in the U.S.

"It took about a year to finalize all the scripts," said Kay Aoki, senior VP- film distribution, Sony Pictures, Tokyo. "We had to go back and forth between the U.S. and here to create stories that were acceptable around the world."

The first TV episode made its debut April 6 on Japan's Fuji TV, the same broadcaster that premiered the original episodes. Sony Pictures' Astro Boy movie is expected for release in 2004.

Local marketers have always loved Astro Boy. Asatsu-DK was the first Japanese ad agency to provide a stable of manga and anime characters for licensing, including Astro Boy, in the early 1970s. Today, the character is a favorite of multinationals like Kellogg Co. for its cereals, and local marketers such as Pocari Sweet, an isotonic health drink. Pocari uses Astro Boy because his clean good looks exude youthful health and energy.

old alliances

Confectionery marketer Meiji Seika, sponsor of the original 1963 anime TV show, is relaunching its Marble Chocolate this spring with an Astro Boy seal. The company hopes renewing its old alliance with Astro Boy will generate nearly $2 million in monthly sales.

Lingerie marketer Triumph has even reportedly produced an Astro Boy bra, featuring cups in the shape of Astro Boy's head.

Even though the original comic-book series ended in Japan in 1973, Japanese fans still spend $42 million annually on Astro Boy products, according to Tezuka Production, the company that manages Astro Boy's image for the cartoonist's estate.

With this year's birthday celebrations, that figure is expected to jump to $170 million, as dozens of products hit the market, from lunchboxes to disposable cameras and even commemorative coins.

Japanese toymaker Takara, for example, will soon release more than 50 Astro Boy products designed for three different generations of fans: those who grew up with the original comic-book hero, their children who saw the animated version on TV, and the kids who will see Astro Boy on TV, at the movies and in stores.

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