FIRST LOOK: ATOM - THE BEGINNINGGenre: action, comedy, drama, cyberpunk
Studio: Production I.G
Director: Katsuyuki Motohiro
Writer: Junichi Fujisaku
Number of episodes planned: 12
Number of episodes aired: 4
Going into this show, I was pretty excited for a number of reasons. It’s directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro, the director of Psycho Pass, and is a prequel of sorts to Mighty Atom or as it’s known in the west: Astro Boy. A classic manga that got turned into one of the first ever anime tv-shows. The show has largely the same core cast as said manga and TV-show featuring renowned characters such as professor Ochanomizu, doctor Tenma and Uran. The only character not featuring in it is Astro Boy himself…I think…
The setting of the show is a future societ where robots have become a part of everyday life. The story follows Ochanomizu and Tenma as university students as they create A-106, the first ever sentient robot.But they are machines, incapable of thoughts of their own, let alone emotions. And the general populous is quite happy with this as it easily allows them to distinguish themselves from these artificial life-forms. Needless to say, Ochanomizu and Tenma’s invention doesn’t go over too well in some circles. Most notably Moriya Tsutsumi, a wheelchair bound ace-student from the same university that Ochanomizu and Tenma attend as well as Dr Lolo, an ace-robot engineer who doesn’t want our protagonists to succeed in their efforts for as yet undisclosed reasons
If you’ve read some of my earlier pieces and are somewhat familiar with my tastes then you know that this kind of premise immediately grabs my attention. This setting just begs for a philosophical exploration of what defines us as human beings as well as touching on some very topical societal issues such as racism and secularism as this future society is forced to react to a scientific development that throws their entire worldview and even sense of self overboard.
So, what does the show do with all this interesting thematic material?
Four episodes in and so far, all we’ve seen is the two students taking their robot with them to do odd-jobs. From being a mascot at a parade, to finding a lost robotic pet to making Udon at the school festival. The show tries to sell this off as decent entertainment by throwing lots of comedy into the mix and at least one big action-scene per episode.
But that’s not what should have been this show’s big hook! The show honestly should have been about two scientists and their research and the societal and existential implications of that, while having the threat of the two antagonists looming large in the background. Instead we are served with a villain of the week type format and lots of hijinks which honestly, never even managed to elicit so much as a chuckle from me.
What doesn’t help things either is that these two are the most annoying characters I’ve seen in quite some time. Ochanomizu is a fairly interesting character on his own, being very focused on scientific research and the kind of topics that the show seems hellbent not to address. But when he gets with Tenma (who by the way is a total jerk) the two become these ridiculously dumb clowns who constantly fail at everything and get themselves into all kinds of sticky ituations that they then need A-106 to help them get out of.
So, if the protagonists are a bunch of idiots, how about the antagonists? I wouldn’t know because they’ve barely made a presence in the show. After being set up in the first episode as one of the main villains Moriyama Tsutsumi has all but disappeared from the story and Dr Lolo only makes occasional, very brief appearances, usually to give instructions to her cronies who feature as villains of the week. However, we don’t even know why she wants to stop Ochanomizu and Tenma in their efforts which makes the stakes almost non-existent.
I’m honestly baffled by how lackluster this show turned out to be. Because the pedigree is definitely there. Psycho Pass is one of the most thematically deep and thought provoking sci fi anime of the last decade. The Psycho Pass movie which wasn’t as well received but I loved nonetheless, was a brilliant expansion of those themes while also tackling some very pertinent societal issues. Even Psycho Pass 2 was thematically more compelling then this show and like most people, I wasn’t really that big on Psycho Pass 2.
So why is it that this show fails to live up to its potential at every turn?
I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that the kind of story it’s trying to tell has been told before and has been told very well. Want a story tackling existential issues through the lens of an artificial lifeform? Look no further than the terrific cyberpunk franchise known as Ghost in the Shell. Want a series about how a future society would react to advance technology and the lasting societal implications that would have? I highly recommend the wonderful experimental cyberpunk anime Kaiba. Even when you're just looking for a cool cyberpunk action show that involves robots and is more about the big ideas than the finer details of the plot I’d point you towards something like Mardock Scramble.
In that regard, I do understand that the people behind this show tried to find a space in which their story could stand out from the large mass of already existing cyberpunk shows. But I feel that making it an “adventure of the week” type series with a bumbling duo as its main leads was not the best way they could’ve went about with the concept.
This brings me to a very important question: how could the show have been better? I think the one unique aspect of the premise of this series is that it follows an artificial life-form from birth onwards. What I think it should have focused on was A-106 slowly learning about the world around him while the world learns about him. Gradually revealing how A-106, from his interactions with the world, starts to gain a deeper understanding of society and himself while society slowly begins to accept him and the implications his existence has on the definition of human life. I suppose you could argue that the odd-jobs they have him do is interacting with society and learning from that but I honestly haven’t really seen him grow as a character all that much.
The show is of course, still only a third of the way in so it’s possible that certain developments will occur that will make the show a much more engaging watch. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the few aspects in which this show is worthy of praise. For instance, its visuals are gorgeous. I love the character designs and the way they have this very retro look to them while still feeling contemporary. Likewise, the action is very well done thanks to the terrific visual direction by Motohiro, even though it's still not on the same level as the mind-blowing action from the Psycho Pass movie. Though that might also be because I enjoyed that movie a lot more overall.
Personally, I do think I will stick with this show. I’m a big enough fan of cyberpunk and Motohiro to want to see where it’s going but I can’t say this is something I would recommend to anyone else.
NOT WORTH YOUR TIME
If you are still interested in this series you can stream it on Anime Strike if you happen to live in the USA. If not then I got bad news for you because no legal option is available for those outside of America at this time of writing.
Special thanks to @Kuze for editing and feedback.