Prequel additions to legacy franchises have started becoming more common in anime.
Unfortunately, most of them don’t tend to play out very well. Sometimes they don’t respect the original source, and sometimes the source is too far in the past to clearly remember. Either way, many of these installments, such as Young Black Jack, end up falling flat. So, creating a prequel to one of the oldest and most recognized anime titles in history, Astro Boy, will definitely turn some heads for better or worse. Thus we come to yet another title from last season: Atom: The Beginning.
Years after a major catastrophe devastates Japan, humanity has grown to rely on the aid of robots and AI to move society forward. In this world, two young researchers, Tenma and Ochanomizu, are working on creating a new type of AI. Unlike previous systems, theirs will be one that can understand and respond to human emotion and morality: a robot with a heart. Thus begins the adventures of A106, a robot whom his creators believe will revolutionize the world of robotics and AI programming.
In terms of being a predecessor to Astro Boy, it’s a bit here and there.
I can’t say much myself since I’ve only seen about five minutes of the original series. My memories of the 2003 reboot are quite vague as well. Based on the knowledge I do have, however, most of the continuity and spirit of the original seem to be in tact. The fact that Astro doesn’t appear at all in the series is probably one of its best points. This allows A106 and his creators take center stage.
The series also offers a surprisingly deep take on the nature of AI. It isn’t anything entirely unique or original, but it presents the idea of an AI slowly becoming more and more sentient in a grounded, yet emotional fashion. A106’s ability to process emotions and learn new things about the world makes it a fascinating character, and I love pretty much every moment we spend hearing his own thoughts. The final episode in particular is a tour de force of Ghost in the Shell-level deepness, with A106’s thoughts becoming so complex that they seem indistinguishable from human thought, and the conflict currently underway at that moment is intensely emotional in a panicky kind of way.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few moments where the series stumbles.
In particular, episodes 8-10 basically devolve into Robot Wars: The Anime. It also feels like it turns into a shounen battle series, and not a good one either. While some of the moments in this section are clever, a lot more are just plain boring, and it almost completely ditches the AI-centric narrative for a while.
Some of the characters are a bit hit-and-miss as well. Tenma is probably the hardest character to deal with. I know he actually is a pretty bad person based on the first episode of Astro Boy, but seeing that nature show up here as well makes him a bit hard to stomach. Other characters don’t get fleshed out nearly enough as they needed to. In particular, Motoko and her brother, Moriya, who is supposedly Tenma’s rival, don’t really do anything interesting. They’re just kinda there to hang out I guess. Aside from A106, Ochanomizu and his little sister, Ran, are the only really interesting characters. I absolutely love their passionate and engaging approach to robotics.
With the animation, Production I.G. and OLM have teamed up to create a solid presentation.
The cartoony character designs have been modernized without losing their original feel, making them unique and fun to watch. I love A106’s design as well, especially the color scheme that makes him pop off the screen. The animation and movement itself is crisp and impacting most of the time. However, the heavy use of CG during the robot wars segment gets a bit tiresome.
As for music, there are a few really memorable themes that sell the emotional weight of some scenes. Unfortunately, there are also just as many that feel hoaky and entirely out of place. Overall, lots of highs and lots of lows.
Atom: The Beginning is a series with a lot of technical and narrative flaws, but has a shimmering heart of gold at its center. Its ideas about the self-development of AI are thought-provoking and engaging. Having a strong main character acting out these ideas makes it all the more enjoyable. Despite some severe hiccups in narrative and presentation, this series is more than worth your time.
Atom: The Beginning is available through Amazon’s Anime Strike service.
Check out this series and my other favorites from the Spring 2017 season.
Final Score: 7/10