Star Wars: Visions’ ‘T0-B1’ episode nods to Astro Boy to rethink the franchise

If all living things can feel the Force, why not a sentient being of wire and metal? Though lacking a bloodstream of Midi-chlorians, the white-and-blue-plated T0-B1 droid — pronounced “Tobi” — of Disney Plus’ Star Wars: Visions anime dreams himself as a flesh-and-blood Jedi. He would rather swing the lightsaber rather than help his human creator, secretly an exiled Jedi, greenify a wasteland planet.

Tobi also shares the kid-sized proportions (and whistle sound effects by Matsuo Ohno) of Astro Boy. Also known as the “Mighty Atom” in Japan, the 1950s cartoony android was the creation of Osamu Tezuka, regarded as the father of manga and anime. The homage is located in Tobi’s name, a tweaked namesake for the deceased son (Tobio) that Astro was modeled after. On its incandescently shiny surface level, animated by Science Saru, “T0-B1” is a full-circle Disney tribute to the futuristic android boy, who Tezuka imbued with Mickey Mouse’s big eyes, pioneering the trope of big anime eyes. But by adopting the schematics of Astro Boy, writer Yuichiro Kido and director Abel Góngora transcend a tribute by refurbishing the long unfortunate trope of sidelining droids in the Star Wars universe.

Droids have not received the most dignified treatment throughout Star Wars onscreen canon (see “The Tragedy of Droids”) despite many of them possessing sentience to fathom their mortality (“uh oh,” squeaks the Separatist bot before something). Its worldbuilding has been morally hazy about the welfare of droids, allotting pity but locking them into the role of comedy relief and expendable entities. Involving C-3PO and R2-D2, the gags at their expense are not limited to getting restraining-bolted and sold by Jawas, stripped into scraps, memory wipes, and not being allowed in ​​Mos Eisley Cantina. Droids revolting against servitude and discrimination is fancied in Solo, then undercut by the fate of free-spirited, rebellious droid, L3-37. After living out her droid liberation dream, she is killed off and her remaining consciousness is non-consensually uploaded into the Millennium Falcon, melding her mind and her body — which she was consistently guarded about — into an object to be piloted and traded by human hands. While Star Wars’ human heroes have amicable relationships, and value their lives to rescue and repair them, considering droid rights is barely considered by Jedi, Rebels, and Resistors across the three Star Wars movie trilogies. If Astro Boy, ever entered the Star Wars galaxy, he’d be appalled.

Tobi’s upbringing is rendered more remarkable than the treatment of Star Wars protocol, astromech, and battle droids. Firstly, his creator is the portly Master Mitaka, who is conspicuously modeled after the eggplant-nosed and white-haired Professor Hiroshi Ochanomizu of Astro Boy. In the manga and series, the Professor was a vocal champion for robot rights, Astro’s new father figure, and teacher who helps the child android integrate into humanity. He also grants Astro the 1950s/’60s ideals of stability: a seat in a human elementary school, a nuclear bot-family of mom, dad, and sibling, and a residence with a mailbox and lawn.

Nurturing his robot charge is also a mission for Mitaka, who raises Tobi alone. Although Star Wars fans know that a Force-sensitive droid is lightyears beyond the norms in movie and TV canon (sorry, Skippy the non-canon Jedi Droid), Mitaka never condescendingly chides Tobi with “droids can’t be Jedi.” His reservations over the mechanical youngling’s overactive fantasies boil down to “it’s not a cool vocation.” Nevertheless, he dispenses Tobi the guidance to comprehend the Force. He engages Tobi’s sentience intellectually (as nebulous as Jedi Masters can be who prefer dropping breadcrumbs than full truths) and paternally, as readily as Ochanomizu guides Astro. Deliberately designed as a Jedi-robed iteration of Astro’s human advocate, he is comparatively radical to the Star Wars heroes, who may be bantering besties with droids, but disinterested in challenging their low status in the galaxy.

Notably, when awakening from a procedure, Tobi chirps, “Did you make me bigger again?” to Mitaka, implying that Mitaka equipped Tobi with regular upgrades, the sensation of getting bigger, literalizing and physicalizing Mitaka’s investment in Tobi’s psychological development. This is an antithetical nod to the manga and 1963 anime origin story where Astro’s creator is disappointed when Astro doesn’t sprout inches like a human child, and Ochanomizu subsequently guides Astro’s development in a mentally healthier direction. Like Ochanomizu, Mitaka fosters emotional growth for his robot charge, a pathway that has not been cleared for often static canonical Star Wars droids.

Góngora applies an interesting visual shorthand to the sci-fi take on “robot desiring and developing toward humanity” without announcing that part aloud. Dreaming himself as a lightsaber-wielding human youngling, Tobi subconsciously defaults to the idea that being human — something that Astro is pressured to attain throughout his coming-of-age — is what will help him attain Jedi aspirations, to be equal to humans. Despite fancying and pursuing his kyber crystal, the Force-powered battery of a lightsaber, the legends hardwired his child electronic brain that Jedi are only breathing organics, evoking Star Wars fans’ usual kinship with leading human(oid) Jedi like the Skywalkers, Rey, Kenobi, or Ahsoka. By visualizing himself as organic flesh and blood, it’s the closest he can touch the then-hypothetical Jedi mantle. Sure enough, hints of the outside world beyond his sphere disbelieve Tobi’s dream. “A droid become a Jedi?” scoffs an incredulous Inquisitor, a cryptic humanoid creature. He hollers, “Useless junk” and slashes smaller droids, to Tobi’s horror. These belittlements reference droids’ low station in their galaxy beyond Tobi’s refuge, such as their inability to patronize Tatooine bars, echoing the prejudice against Astro Boy and the robot community in the manga when humans attempt to extinguish their pursuit of equal rights, either through violence or passive-aggressive comments.

Astro Boy Volume 8. “Once Upon a Time Astro Boy Tales Part 3.” First serialized September 1968 to February 1969. English translation by Frederik L. Schodt.
Images: Dark Horse Comics

Astro Boy does not dream of being human like Tobi does, but human society demands his assimilation, a process that starts with his creator giving him synthetic skin. The real-world parallels of the plight of droids in Astro’s world go so far that collectives of them mobilize and protest for rights (one even fighting for the right to legally raise her human son in the infamous 1980 “Blackie Young” anime episode). Astro undergoes an identity crisis — “began pondering whether he was really a robot or a human” — when his creator instructs him not to associate with other droids and only socialize with humans because he’s special, and therefore worthy of having the privileges of a human. Then he learns the hard way to be cognizant of prejudice against him because human society and his original inventor hammer in that he doesn’t fit the human definition of normal.

Humans, of course, are disappointed when Astro doesn’t behave like the proper paragon of human sociability. In both the 1963 anime and its 1980 remake, the robot tries to consume food like a human to appease his creator-father but then — with downcast eyes — removes the undigested food from his torso when his father isn’t looking. In the 1980 remake, his difficulty with behaving socially acceptable, sprouting soup from his head when his father pressures him to “eat” in front of indignant upper-crust adults, is what severs him from his first human father, who adheres to a suffocating definition of humanity. In the manga, his father is incensed Astro perceives an artificial flower as prettier than a natural flower, and the flash of lightning more pleasing than sunlight. These mishaps also code Astro Boy as a neurodivergent struggling to fit parental and social expectations that neither accommodate nor acknowledge him. Tellingly, his emotional state improves when Ochanomizu does his best to pull Astro out of a negative upbringing when Astro’s father sells him to an abusive circus master.

The neurodivergent coding is applicable to Tobi, whose malleable body performs sight gags like bowing below and through his kneecaps to greet a little droid. In contrast to Astro’s early background, his sense of belonging in his early “childhood” is rarely in question once you get wind of his surroundings, an impressionistic tissued-textured and patterned environment of configurations and rounded plants. He’s attuned to an accommodating landscape that feels lived-in with diagrams and line drawings shaped by his hand. It’s as if the animators fashioned the calming and stimulating layout for his comfort.

Mitaka greets TOBI in the jedi afterlife in Star Wars: Visions

Image: Lucasfilm/Science Saru

It’s reasonable to ask, did Mitaka engineer Tobi’s fate and sentience, and does that reduce Tobi’s agency? Humans orchestrating a robot’s self-awareness is a trope of science fiction (see: Westworld), and it’s easy to imagine that Mitaka was propelling a literal Force vision of Tobi’s future, that Mitaka calculated Tobi’s literal inner self-discovery to tap into the Force. Though the latter displays autonomous thinking and a recognizable kiddish wonder, performed by the voice actor Jaden Waldman, so he doesn’t feel programmed and preordained for destiny — Star Wars require that suspension of disbelief to unambiguously believe in their sentience. It’s just as much of a choice for Tobi to reach for the Jedi calling. Mitaka mentors Tobi as less an owner imposing a function and more strict but affectionate parent bequeathing expectations and a legacy. After being bored of Mitaka’s research project, Tobi, of his own volition, continues Mitaka’s legacy after his murder, and then witnesses and beholds the fruits of the quest: the planet’s first life-giving rain.

Growth isn’t all smooth mechanics and straightforward circuity for both droids. Astro Boy and Tobi are carved from the same infamous sentient puppet, Pinocchio, whose coming-of-age derived from budding from a mischievous scamp to learning to become a good boy as illustrated in the original tale. Their creators are their Geppettos as Astro and Tobi are “sons,” respectively, the latter created as a padawan progeny. Tezuka intended Astro as a “reverse-Pinocchio” with a less didactic trajectory than the puppet; Astro grows flawed, perhaps imperfectly emotional, the more he acquires human understanding. Likewise, Tobi’s maturation is implied to be a continued research, represented by his declaration to “continue the Professor’s research” and gather the experimental plants to help other planets.

Tobi’s blossoming “humanity” is reinforced by a Blue Fairy figure. When Tobi’s consciousness is spirited away into what Star Wars fans may assume is a plane between the Cosmic Force and the Living Force, Mitaka’s spirit visits him in his luminous ghost form to knight him as Jedi and his celestial specter adopts the role of the Blue Fairy, his lightsaber his wand. Mitaka’s spirit addresses Tobi not by his unit number, but his humanlike name that cements his rite of passage as a Jedi warrior and a growing child. Thus, when Tobi rises from his impromptu knighting ceremony under Mitaka’s lightsaber, he reimagines himself blossoming into an organic human child. But we’re snagged back to the natural world and the image of Tobi’s robotic frame. It’s that same metallic shell he takes with him when he combines with his droid companion (CO3), defeats the Inquisitor (blink-and-you-miss-it it, the winged Jedi Order symbol blazes in Tobi’s eye), and lightspeeds into the cosmos to face the unknown. While not invalidating his human dreams, the ending of “T0-B1” suggests Tobi doesn’t require human skin to deserve his Jedi calling.

In a similar vein, Astro is also encouraged to embrace robotness when assimilating into human school. His human teacher, Mr. Mustachio, draws a parallel to the assimilation of Japanese Americans adjusting in an American school: one Japanese student sacrificing his Japanese identity to embody the ideal American and win favor (the model minority standard), but one Japanese student stays culturally Japanese but doesn’t rise in favor in American society. Mr. Mustachio advises Astro, “You need to think more about how to become a great robot, instead of forcing yourself to become a human.” This notion appeals greatly to the young android’s wavelengths.

Images: Dark Horse Comics; Lucasfilm/Science Saru

“T0-B1” does not construct a dent-free robot metaphor about respecting the othered droids. It doesn’t bother as much in considering Mitaka’s smaller droid assistants — addressed affectionately as “my children” by the Professor — who aren’t as fortunate or treated as equals and operate in a lower hierarchy. When Tobi finds them demolished by the Inquisitor’s blade (then repairs them), we wonder why the Professor didn’t take as much priority to conceal them from the Inquisitor despite recognizing their sentience. (Maybe he didn’t reach them in time before he was slain, but that’s being generous).

Regardless, “T0-B1” engages the Star Wars droid trope just as it and the rest of Star Wars: Visions re-mythologized the kyber-crystal in a myriad of blade shapes, impressions, and relationships to its wielders. The short goes as far to welcome the droid into the spirituality of the Force, a glimpse into the beyond of the Cosmic Force. Recall the little Force-sensitive orphan boy in The Last Jedi gazing into the cosmos, aspiring to be a Luke Skywalker. Now insert this scenario with a child-shaped droid, modeled after a metaphor for othered entities, and the Force is not as exclusionary compared to canon. A soul bound together by a non-organic brain, nuts and bolts, and their own imagination, can tap into the metaphysical Force and swing a lightsaber with grace.

The makers of “T0-B1 ‘’ meld together the elements of Tezuka’s atom-powered android to accentuate that Tobi gets to assert and engage his sentience in ways other droids are not granted, and said droids are worthy of such. As Tobi lightspeeds into the unknown, we have faith he’s equipped as Tezuka’s creation to face the galaxy — that will disbelieve and undermine his worth — that awaits him.

| Image: Star Wars Visions poster

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All nine episodes of Lucasfilm’s first anime series is now streaming on Disney Plus.