The Echo Of Astro Boy's Footsteps

The Echo Of Astro Boy's Footsteps


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Behind every major animated film or TV series, there are armies of artists and craftsmen whose work often goes widely unheralded and whose names go unknown, even if in their heyday they created a particular image or sound that stuck in the minds of generations of audiences. Masonori Tominaga's short but involving documentary aims to track down the history, and the actual present day whereabouts, of one such Japanese craftsman - sound designer Matsuo Ohno.

Who is Matsuo Ohno (and “is” is the correct term, given that he is very much still with us at time of writing)? Back in the 1960s, Ohno worked on the groundbreaking and hugely popular (in and outside of Japan) anime series Astro Boy, itself adapted from the manga created by legendary writer/artist Osamu Tezuka. The iconography of the series is well known across Japan and abroad, but Ohno's job was aural rather than visual - creating the otherworldy scifi soundscape of the show. Such effects, particularly the strange high pitch squeaking of Astro Boy's feet as the little robot walked around on screen, are instantly recognizable to Japanese of a certain age today. His work also made its way into the works of ground-breaking filmmakers as Hiroshi Teshigahara and Toshio Matsumoto, and the spatial sound systems for the pavilions at the Expo '85 in Tsukuba. But despite Astro Boy's international success, Ohno vanished from the public eye in the 1980s.

The picture of who Ohno was is drawn for us in the first half of the documentary mainly through a series of interviews, not just with the fellow travellers in the anime and film industry who worked with him, but also the experimental musicians whom he inspired. Some of the interviewees who worked in animation and sound design also share a few touchingly old school behind the scenes secrets, one even showing how many bird calls can be made with a set of very simple whistles. What is also interesting is, with Ohno off screen, the audience is left to piece together an initial reading of this enigma of a man from a variety of conflicting and contrasting recollections from the various talking heads. Everyone has an opinion - Ohno was alternately brilliant, a loner, arrogant, didn't work well with Tezuka or anyone in authority, was particular and peculiar about his working methods, lost all his money, vanished. Spliced in with the interviews are some intriguing archival footage of 1960s Japan, groundbreaking anime series, and even footage of Tezuka's staff at work behind the scenes, putting together a segment of an Astro Boy episode.

But the man himself is not kept in the background forever, and the second half of the film finally brings us face to face with a much older and frailer, though still sharp Ohno. Exactly what he is doing and where he is upon his re-discovery will not be spoiled here as it is a truly remarkable revelation, but suffice it to say that Ohno does grant the camera crew a glimpse into some of the work he still does today in the field of sonic exploration, including live performances. To see Ohno focused and surefooted despite his age, moving behind a tangled array of steampunk-looking sound mixing and recording equipment (baffling younger sound technicians with his feedback loops and other unconventional tricks), is truly a unique experience. Never a classically trained musician, as he freely admits, Ohno comes across as a one-off gentleman inventor, like someone from the age of steam rather than the 20th century, running on belief and instinct but always seriously searching for something more elevated. As one of Ohno's colleagues reminisces in an interview, he never liked being called a 'sound effects guy'. He thinks of himself as a sound designer. There is a difference.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2012
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A documentary looking into the secret behind the disappearace of the sound designer who helped make Astro Boy a cult cartoon star.
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Director: Masanori Tominaga

Starring: Matsuo Ohno

Year: 2010

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: Japan

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