When Natsu Onoda Power was 12, she took the train from her small town to Tokyo to visit the workplace of Osamu Tezuka, creator of the popular animated hero “Astro Boy” and known as the god of comics. Her uncle met her train and accompanied her to Tezuka Productions. In her bag, she had some comic book pages she and her brother had created.
“It wasn’t like I had an appointment. The company had a visitor day when the fans could come and watch how comics are made,” says Onoda Power, 40. “I didn’t know that I would actually see the god of comics. He just happened to be there, he had just flown in from somewhere, if I remember correctly. I was really timid and I couldn’t really talk to him, but then I saw other boys talking to him and having him autograph things. So I asked for an autograph, and then got up the courage to say, ‘Would you look at my comic book?’
“I’m sure he did this a dozen times a day,” she says. “ ‘Oh, this is very good.’ And I’m, ‘Should I be a cartoonist?’ And he said, ‘Wait till you finish middle school.’ ”
Tezuka passed away a few years later, in 1989, at 60. But Tezuka and “Astro Boy” kept some kind of hold on Onoda Power. Nearly three decades later, she brings her obsession to Boston. Company One presents the New England premiere of her “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Friday through Aug. 16.
It was not at all unusual for a girl to read the comic books known as manga in Japan, she says, where they take many more literary forms than in the United States. Having shepherded Astro Boy from manga to a popular 1960s anime TV series, Tezuka was revered by fans, she says. Many went on to become successful cartoonists themselves, and in their accounts of meeting him, “people describe there were halos around him and things like that,” she says with a smile.
Blending live action, video, puppetry, and onstage drawings by the cast, the play looks at the life of the glossy-haired, big-eyed superhero and the true story of his idealistic, workaholic creator. Its 12 scenes proceed in reverse chronological order, beginning with a present-day act of heroism by the robot Astro Boy and proceeding back to Tezuka’s youth. Onoda Power finds the roots of Tezuka’s obsession in the deprivations of World War II.
“He describes that comic books disappeared from the shelves and it was frowned upon to draw, it was unpatriotic,” she says. “He has several really amazing autobiographical graphic novels, and one of them describes the hunger literally — ‘I couldn’t get enough food.’ But I think it stands in for cultural hunger. There is an anecdote: He made his little comic and couldn’t show it to people, so he would paste it on a wall in the bathroom.
“A high school student feeling so desperate to show work that he would think to put it in a bathroom stall!” She shakes her head as if it’s amazing, but she leaves the impression that she knows exactly how he felt.
Sitting for an interview in an otherwise empty black box theater at the BCA, Onoda Power is soft-spoken and funny. Ask her what kind of girl she was at 12, and she says, “Like I am now, socially awkward and nerdy and a little timid.”
She is an assistant professor of theater at Georgetown University — she got the news that she had received tenure just a few weeks ago, she says. She is married to a chef and lives in Washington, D.C., where the original production of “Astro Boy” earned strong reviews in 2012. She’s also the author of 2009’s “God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga.”
The play had been in the works for a decade. She was in graduate school at Northwestern when she put on a play called “Science (Fiction),” which included Astro Boy. She recounts with relish the early do-it-yourself special effects and analog technology they used, which reflected the crude early days of science fiction films and TV. Now everything can be done digitally, and it’s easy to move projected text and backgrounds around the stage.
“Back then, we would pick up the projector and move it! It was really fun, actually, and that became the aesthetic of the show,” she says.
She also began to have actors draw onstage, and soon cofounded a troupe called Live Action Cartoonists. Drawing was part of the audition for the Company One production, but fluidity was more important than being a great artist, she says: “A wonderful artist may not be cast in the show because they are so attached to the product of drawing, not the process.”
She was able to bring two key players from the Washington production to Company One: projection designer Jared Mezzocchi and Washington actor Clark Young, who plays both Astro Boy’s real-life creator, Tezuka, and his creator in the comic, Dr. Boynton.
“It’s very meaningful to revisit it, because the play itself is about work and continued pursuit of craft,” says Young, a Georgetown graduate whose battered Red Sox cap tips that he’s from Saco, Maine.
“The creation of Astro Boy was a labor of love, it was arduous, and Natsu’s pursuit of writing this love letter to Tezuka is shaped that way too, to mirror that,” Young says. “There’s so much joy in it that it kind of propels you through it. But it’s about that hard work. It’s very easy to chalk up some of the work she does as magic, but it’s not. It takes so much work.”
Onoda Power says she is “mortified” when she finds her behavior mimics the temperamental Tezuka, who would stop and rework an entire chapter of the comic while “editors were having nervous breakdowns in the next room.”
For a scene late in the play, called “War,” she decided to add animation for the Boston version of the show. “So for the past week or so I have been making pencil drawing animation at home at the dining table” of the apartment Company One provides for her and Young. Her drawing count is reaching 1,000, she says with a shake of her head.
“It is so difficult for me to let go,” she says. “There are so many narratives about Tezuka’s obsessiveness with work, and I am having this embodied understanding of that.”
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.