Image source: アニメ『アトム ザ・ビギニング』公式 on Twitter
So, it is that time again: a new season, a new batch of animated shows to look forward to.
Among the most promising, I feel compelled to pick the Atom: The Beginning. Not only is it my most anticipated of Spring 2017, but it may be my most anticipated of the whole year. I already wrote a bit about it recently, featuring some comments from the staff and cast, but I would like to concentrate on the aspects of Atom that make it so endearing and conducive to multiple interpretations.
Having grown up, like many, with Tetsuwan Atom/Astroboy and his many incarnations, I am always interested in how a new iteration plays out to match the sensibilities of the each time period. As I get older, these become more diverse. I grew up with the color 1980 version directed by Noboru Ishiguro (famous for Space Battleship Yamato, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Legend of the Galactic Heroes—all getting remakes and sequels now). My parents grew up with the original 60s version.
Thus, Astroboy is such an iconic character for so many generations that I feel he needs no introduction. However, his cultural importance, especially in terms of manga and anime culture—as well as business models in place within the creative industries—is worth recalling from time to time.
To highlight Atom’s ubiquity in society, just this week we saw the launch of the first issue of “My First Atom”—or, to give it its more transliteral English title, “Let’s Build Mighty Atom!” Basically, this is a weekly Kodansha publication in the style of those DeAgostini by-installment, “build your own model” deals. This one promises a fully-interactive, automated Atom and that, by the time you’re done (the final issue will be released in September 2018), the completed advanced-AI robot boy will be a true companion in your everyday life, loved as part of the family.
Recent years have seen even more diverse adaptations of the characters and central themes in Atom spinning out in various, somewhat unexpected, forms. For instance, the manga series Pluto (2003-2009) is a suspense thriller which takes the original ideas of the “Greatest Robot on Earth” story arc from Tezuka’s original manga and turns it into a more dramatic, adult work. It was penned by Naoki Urasawa, who was behind such phenomenal classics as Yawara!, Master Keaton, Monster, and 20th Century Boys. It granted him his second Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, the first being for Monster. This iteration was even adapted into, not an anime or a movie, but a stage play.
That just goes to show that the Atom character and the work’s universal topics are malleable enough that they can be reworked, reinterpreted, re-adapted many times over not only for new generations of children, but also into new genres for new audiences. And in our modern times of compartmentalization, that is a really good thing. It means that we can choose the flavor of Atom which suits us best.
Atom: The Beginning started life as a manga serialized in “Gekkan Heroes,” a magazine already famous for the dynamic action of another update/sequel of a TV property from the 1960s, Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi’s ULTRAMAN.
Much like how Pluto shifts the focus away from Atom himself, in Atom: The Beginning, again the central focal point is not Atom, but rather the camaraderie between the two science students, Ochanomizu and Tenma, as they work together to develop a new artificial awareness.
Bear in mind, though, that The Beginning is not the first time that the events leading up to Atom’s birth have been chronicled in animated form. In fact, the tale of how Dr. Tenma’s son, Tobio, was killed in a car accident and Tenma he used the research he was working on to make a robot son to replace him, is one of the standard canon pillars of Tezuka lore. Later, Tenma is frustrated that “Tobio” does not grow like a real boy, and throws him out, leading to the poor kid to join the “Robot Circus,” and eventually being rescued by Dr. Ochanomizu, who would continue to take care of him. That’s the basic startline of the Atom story. It also sounds suspiciously like a certain Steven Spielberg movie…
But because the theme in this new anime adaptation is the friendship and possible rivalry between Tenma and Ochanomizu, that gives us a lot of opportunity to explore the concept of A.I. from various angles.
The official story blurb of Atom: The Beginning contains the line: “Is A106 a ‘friend’, or a ‘god’?” Clearly this denotes a distinction in how Ochanomizu and Tenma view their technology. The last time this clash of concepts was seen was in a special movie called The Secret of the Birth of Atom, screened at the now-defunct “Kyoto Tezuka Osamu World.”
In it, we see that Dr. Ochanomizu tries to stop Dr. Tenma from stealing the Digital Artificial-brain Genome (“DUG”), which was locked up so that humans would not be able to create human-like life. The reasoning was that such creation belonged to the realm of the gods, and mere humans should not have such absolute power, at least not yet. Dr. Tenma, however, saddened and angered by the loss of his son, no longer cared for the sanctity of god. He exclaims, “Tobio is dead. God has stolen him from me. That is why it is now my turn to step inside the realm of the gods.”
This total clash of ideology, and the run-up to it, is what drives the intrigue element of Atom: The Beginning. We know these guys are great, nose-pinching (seriously!) buddies right now in their youth, but we also know that this is a fleeting moment, for their eventual conflict is coming sooner or later, and we are kept on our toes not only concerning how it plays out, but also in terms of the sheer depth of the existential and moral questions their differing opinions make us ponder.
Atom: The Beginning will… er… “begin” airing on Japanese television on April 15th, and will then stream on Amazon Prime’s Anime Strike channel. Also, don’t miss the superbly cool opening sequence by the magnificent Bahi JD, who’s been getting a lot of street cred recently, and deservedly so! Please support talented animators!