Renaissance woman Natsu Onoda Power is generating a reputation for original, highly inventive performance pieces. Writer, director, designer, theater prof at Georgetown University, Onoda Power is being celebrated for her collaborative, creative process, her exuberant drive and her brilliant devising of new ways to experience theater.
The gifted and sweetly humble playwright met with DC Theatre Scene on the set of her newest production at Studio Theatre—Astro Boy and the God of Comics, a boldly graphical, retro-sci-fi think piece chronicling the Japanese manga and anime character Astro Boy and its creator Osamu Tezuka. He’s known as the “Walt Disney of Japan” and admired as “the God of Manga” for having an inventive role in the creation of modern Japanese manga comics and anime. The play is culled from her own lifelong admiration of the subject and from her book, “God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga,” published in 2009.
For an ambitious 70 minutes Onoda Power’s cast and crew use the instruments of the theatrical and graphic arts—acting, production design, drawing, animation, video and puppetry—to tell the story of Tezuka and show how a defeated post-war Japan healed its battered conscience and looked to the future.
The origins of a love affair with Astro Boy and Tezuka.
“Since I was really young, I loved Tezuka’s comics. But he was already an established master. My parents read him. He’s from their generation. I’m a second generation fan. When I was a child, I got it in my head that I would want to apprentice with him.”
The little girl actually got her wish to ask the master about taking her on during a public visiting day at his studio. He told her to finish middle school first.
One of the aspects of Tezuka’s work that she loved was his use of intertextuality. The Astro Boy comics are pervasive with quotations from other texts and cultural products, such as film, theater, opera and literature. This enrichment of the narrative appealed to Onoda Power, leaving a resonance she feels to this day.
The origins of Astro Boy and the God of Comics.
“It goes back 10 years when I was a student at Northwestern, and I did a show called Science Fiction, which was about Astro Boy and the history of science. It was episodic, like the current show. I later produced that show with Live Action Cartoonists [her theater company]. It was our first real production. At the time we didn’t have the technical sophistication to realize all of the ideas I had for the show. I actually held the projector and moved it because I didn’t know how to edit video. Now I have a brilliant video designer for the show [Jared Mezzochi]. I kept some of the episodes from Science Fiction, but I put them in a completely different narrative. And then I added things that I had always wanted to do.”
Her admirers at Northwestern by this time included the esteemed Mary Zimmerman, who became her mentor. She mentioned Onoda Power to Studio’s David Muse, who hired Power to direct at Studio’s 2nd Stage.
“Last year, Keith [Alan Baker] and David called me and asked what do I want to work on, and I pitched a few things. It was very generous and kind of them to let me do whatever I wanted, but they specifically asked for a new piece.”
Zimmerman stepped in again and suggested that she do something related to her lifelong joy for Astro Boy and Tezuka, and the seeds of the current show were sown.
The themes of Astro Boy and the God of Comics.
“The themes are already there. Astro Boy is about nuclear energy and war and all that. Tezuka is already about artists and a desire to create and the ecstasy of creation as he comes up with this character. It’s about a robot boy who tries to be ‘human’ and eventually come to terms with his identity, and it’s about a young artist transforming post-World War II Japan into something hopeful. So the show is really about trying to be human and hopeful about the future. If you tell a story about an interesting thing, then, it’s already interesting right?”
The appeal of retro-sci-fi.
“I love the vision of the future from the past idea. I love the 60s aesthetics. And now is the future … and our electronics and devices don’t look the way they were presented then. I wish the world now could be as it was presented then. I also love it because it’s a really nice mixture of nostalgia … you’re looking at the future, but their vision is actually old. Somebody defined nostalgia as longing for the past you never had. Somehow I feel a longing for what was depicted then. It’s as if I had this other life.
I grew up on reruns of Tex Avery cartoons, which would come in between the Tom and Jerry cartoons. I think I have [Avery’s] ‘Farm of Tomorrow’ memorized.”
She noted that Astro Boy contains elements of loving anachronism. A mixture of high and low-tech—video projection and crude drawings, for example. “My goal is to make it look like a Tex Avery animation from the 60s,” she said buoyantly.
Using what works.
“I’m not very good at doing a traditional play. So I compensate by adding drawing and things like that. This is the best way I function. But I always tell my cast and my design team that I don’t want to just do a new thing, I want to do a good thing. And this is my good thing. If you gave me Hedda Gabler, I’d be like what?—(shrugging her shoulders)—I wouldn’t be good at it. So I’m just doing the thing that I know how to do and that I can deliver. It’s fun.”
What to expect.
Astro Boy and the God of Comics consists of 10 episodes unfolded in reverse chronology beginning in 2014 with the titular hero, and ending with Tezuka’s birth, in 1928.
“You’ll see a lot of video, but it’s always interactive. You’ll see drawing. You won’t see a lot of acting. You won’t see a lot of dialogue. Some scenes are completely nonverbal. It’s not linear. Things may not make sense. Each episode has a different style. It’s like a buffet. If you don’t like one thing, there’s another thing. The most important people in the room are the audience and I want them to have a great time. I always want to please everybody with my theater. I feel really bad when people don’t like something. But then I have to understand that you can’t please everybody.”
Why people should see the show.
“It’s entertaining. We draw. Everybody should love Astro Boy. And it’s short.”
We thought you’d enjoy this tribute to the career of Osamu Tezuka