Wednesday 19 April 2017

First Impressions: Atom: The Beginning

Atom: The Beginning
Atom: The Beginning is available in streaming form via Amazon Prime’s Anime Strike service in the US, and AnimeLab in Australia and New Zealand 

Even if you’re relatively new to the anime scene, chances are you’ll have heard about Osamu Tezuka in some way. Whether it’s via some of his most famous works (Astro Boy, Black Jack, Jungle Emperor Leo and more) or simply his iconic art-style, the “Godfather of Manga” remains one of the most influential figures in anime and manga history. His legacy continues today with Atom: The Beginning, a prequel series to Astro Boy written and illustrated by Tetsuro Kashara alongside Masami Yuki and Tezuka’s own son Makoto Tezuka. While the manga series has been ongoing since 2014, this year it has been joined by an anime adaptation – a joint collaboration from studios OLM, Inc., Production I.G. and Signal.MD.

Umatarō and Hiroshi Umatarō and Hiroshi

Five years after Japan has suffered a catastrophe known as the Great Calamity, the country is under reconstruction with robots at the forefront of its development. Umatarō Tenma and Hiroshi Ochanomizu are two university researchers and friends, with the goal of creating a robot capable of free thought. Their latest creation is the robot A106 (A-Ten-Six), who surprises the pair by stopping an unknown terrorist attack during a parade they were working a part-time job at.

When it comes to doing a prequel/spin-off of an Osamu Tezuka work the aesthetic is everything. It’s hard to imagine anything Astro Boy related done in a different style, and even the ill-fated 2009 American CGI movie did a relatively decent job of sticking to his instantly recognisable character designs. Thankfully there’s nothing to fear when it comes to Atom: The Beginning, which almost instantly oozes those distinct Tezuka visuals. This is best seen in Hiroshi with his retro anime haircut and big potato nose, but extends to the other characters as well as the colourful, cartoonish scenery. It gives the overall impression of everything feeling rounded and relatively simplified, but you only need to take one look at A106’s beautifully retro design to see that the show still has detail to it. It really feels like something old becoming new again, and visually Atom is a series that will appeal to both classic anime enthusiasts and those looking for something that stands out from the crowd. Its status as an Astro Boy prequel shouldn’t put budding viewers off either – absolutely no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy Atom: The Beginning. Astro Boy fans will of course get a kick out of seeing certain characters in this new setting, but it’s just a case of knowing who they are before they’re properly introduced to everyone else.

Motoko TsutsumiRan Ochanomizu

This premiere was particularly heavy on the character introductions, managing to comfortably slot in all its key cast members one way or another even though only a handful of them truly matter here. At the heart of the episode are of course Umatarō and Hiroshi – both of whom are key characters in the Astro Boy story. Anyone familiar with Astro Boy will know that time eventually changes them considerably, but for now they have youth on their side and a whole load of potential. The two make great partners and bounce off of each other really well in terms of personality, with Umatarō the dreamer with big aspirations and Hiroshi the more level-headed and cynical of the two. Despite the breakthrough they’re clearly about to make they seem to be looked down upon by their fellow researchers, particularly Moriya Tsutsumi and his sister Motoko. But whereas Moriya clearly has low opinions of the pair, Motoko shows some genuine interest in them – something that’s immediately paving the way for her to become a more prominent character. Also introduced are Hiroshi’s little sister Ran, renowned robot developer Doctor Lolo and some random guy in the crowd who garners too much screen time to simply be a one-off. None of them really play much of a part in the story, but are there nonetheless.

It’s a show about robots though, so really the big draw is A106 and his sudden leap into action when he spots the robot malfunction during the parade. The show in general boasts some great mechanical design, but A106 really stands out with its wholly humanoid shape and prototype skeletal frame. Its brief moment of sentience adds a nice jolt of energy to what’s otherwise a fairly slow and free-flowing episode, making an early start on (if the opening sequence is to be believed) A106’s journey to the top of robotic rankings. That isn’t to suggest Atom is an action show first and foremost though – this episode gives some reflection on robot-building logic, with the next episode preview promising expansion of those ideas. A106’s design is also very reminiscent of tokusatsu hero Kikaider, which (albeit surely unintentional) is a nice little nod to how Shotaro Ishiniomori was mentored by Tezuka himself and emulated his style in his own works.

Dr LoloA106

Atom: The Beginning’s first episode hasn’t given a whole lot away about what’s to come, but was a strong premiere which sets up its key cast members and setting nicely. It’s just a shame that in some regions the show is either locked behind a rather rigid subscription service or alternatively not licensed at all, making it something that won’t necessarily be on the more casual fan’s radar. If this episode is a sign of things to come, then there’s every chance of Atom going down as one of the best shows of the season very few actually saw.

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