…and talked a bit with the director and cast about it.
Mighty Atom—or Astro Boy, as he is called in the West—is probably the most iconic anime hero of all time. Many generations around the world—anime fans or otherwise—instantly recognize his unique design: a cute 100,000 horsepower, baby-faced boy-robot with buns of steel. For over five decades now, he has defeated the bad guys and saved the day for men, women, and robots in the name of equality. But 2017 will show us a new side of the character in the shape of Atom: The Beginning, a prequel following the exploits of Hiroshi Ochanomizu and Umataro Tenma.
In the original, Tenma was the scientist who originally built Atom to be his replacement son after his real son died in an accident. Ochanomizu is the professor who later took Atom under his wing. In this new series, Ochanomizu and Tenma are postgrad students of advanced robotics and happen to consider themselves geniuses. The two are working together on a new form of AI called “Bewußtsein System”—basically, as the German implies, they are developing not just artificial “intelligence,” but rather, artificial “awareness.” They take this experiment further as they develop machines with this system built into it with incrementing levels of complexity—the latest being “A106,” the sixth in the “A10” series.
This seems to be the theme of the new show: It challenges our concepts of robots and AI and urges us to consider what they actually are, at their core.
At a recent sneak preview screening of the first episode, director Tatsuo Sato joined the main cast, Yuichi Nakamura (Tenma), Takuma Terashima (Ochanomizu) and Yuki Inoue (A106), for a brief talk and Q&A session.
Production-wise, the opening sequence is fantastic; it has a certain soft, pastel look to it, which forms an interesting juxtaposition with the complex, cold, expressionless mechanical design of A106. This is something which caught my attention because A106 has almost no dialogue in the first episode, his face shows no emotion and his body has a cold metal sheen to it that is almost alien, and far removed from Atom—who is conversely almost indistinguishable from a normal human boy on the outside.
What makes A106 “human-like” are the things he does. For the many instances we see him sitting on a chair, powering down, we are also treated to varied imagery of him jumping around, holding flowers, and posing in cute ways. He would certainly seem to be emoting. This is taken further as we see him begin to judge a situation—acting of his own accord like a human.
Director Sato pointed out that most of the scenes with A106 are drawn by hand (sakuga). The robot design is very complex for a main character, so while the scenes featuring him are done to a very high standard, they are economized somewhat and the story really follows the camaraderie of the two young students, Tenma and Ochanomizu.
It must not be forgotten that this show is going to carry the heft of a very prestigious legacy—the first thirty-minute TV anime series. Regarding the relationship to the original, Nakamura talked about how actually you don’t need to know much about the original Atom. He hopes to connect this modern interpretation of the Atom story, respecting the original work by Osamu Tezuka.
We all have the image of Astro Boy as a robot with rocket legs and machine guns in his bottom, but this is something new. We may wonder at what stage will he get those powers? The cast kept these things a surprise—they made sure to point out that while A106 may eventually be customized and improved to look more like the Atom we know and love, he may equally be just one stage in the development of Atom.
In terms of the look and feel of the series, interestingly, the PR materials mostly describe the show as a more “modern” interpretation of the story of the birth of Atom.
One key theme of the original Astro Boy manga and anime series was its reflection of human nature. For example, many stories in the long-running series deal with social issues; in one episode of the 1980 remake, a robot president was elected in a certain country, but mounting pressure from opposition groups lead to turbulent incidents. This allegory for racism and oppression allows us to look at the state of human rights in our own society. Looking at current global issues, I felt that this was as modern as it gets! I raised the question of whether or not we would see such social commentary in the new series (considering its older target audience, compared to the original).
Sato responded, “The social commentary was possible because the original Atom was set in a world where the ‘electronic brain’ has already been perfected.” In other words, there are already robots living among humans. “But they are different to humans and so the series could show the class distinctions between the two. This series is set before that; it’s about the development of AI, before its completion, so the focus will not be so much on society, rather on the self. What do robots think? How aware are they of their own existence?”
Inoue mentioned that the rapid advancement and high-level development of AI was a little scary for him. But Sato emphasized that while many tend to be preoccupied with questions such as “what should we use AI for?” he would rather concentrate on asking, “What does AI think?”
Certainly this calls to mind many ideas about what awareness, making choices, and freedom of expression are, and it looks like we will see all of these gradually develop within A106 as the series progresses. The result may lead us to question the nature of human emotion and thought in a different way from the original, but no less deep.
Image source: アニメ『アトム ザ・ビギニング』公式 on Twitter
Atom the Beginning will begin airing on NHK-G on April 15 in Japan. There is no news as of yet regarding an overseas release.