The ending of Atom: The Beginning is left so that further adaptation of its ongoing source material can be made; this is not the complete conclusion of the story, and knowing this context now rather sets my initial observations about the series in context (that it was taking a very laid-back and almost uninterested approach to its worldbuilding and the ethical questions raised). It is an adaptation of a small part of a longer, ongoing work. Of course it will not provide all the answers. Before moving into the meat of this consideration of the series, it is worth considering something else. I was initially perturbed, or at least surprised, to see that the series was raising and ignoring questions about machine sentience and robot ethics. It felt like a failure of science-fiction to studiously avoid taking a stand while raising allegorical and philosophical questions.
There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.
It takes around seven and a half minutes for there to be a proper conversation in episode 3 of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen. That is not to say there is not dialogue, but there is very much not conversation. Instead, the characters talk past each other, make observations and shut down conversation with simple acceptance or disagreement. If Kenshin and Tomoe are supposed to be pretending to be in love, they are doing an unconvincing job. Something the OVA has done exceptionally well, particularly in the extended sequence of Kenshin and Tomoe’s flight from Kyoto and then throughout the episode, is use non-verbal cues and landscape montages to evoke a mood. It is an extremely understated and repressed anime about repressed and uncommunicative – and, it turns out – secretive characters.
A key part of the quality of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen is its pacing and use of processions of dreamlike, almost wordless scenes; characters will move around and say little and yet the series uses visual and body language to make up for the lack of dialogue. It quite fits the characterisation that has been established in episode 1; Kenshin is willingly emotionless, childish in thought and deed, and Tomoe – the girl whose fiance he killed without knowing – is herself repressed and alone. I mentioned in my previous article on this OVA that it was rejecting, in a sense, all of the conventions of the typical assassin’s backstory; even now there is a humanising element (the thing that one would expect would lead to a sharp turn into mawkishness and saccharine cliché) it is in its own way different. It is two people both suffering unspoken emotional trauma (because the series has not even begun to address that Tomoe’s fiance is dead by Kenshin’s hand) talking at each other not about their problems.
When I began watching Rurouni Kenshin I felt a prequel showing the creation and life of the “Manslayer”, its central character (a retired, remorseful assassin who has laid down arms but cannot escape the past he created) would be superfluous; it seemed as a series to be showing a very “Ryosuke Takahashi” tale of someone with a past they were unprepared to share being reminded of it and trying to deal with it in ways which did not get in the way of their new life – even if they had to give up on that second chance for the greater good (Chirico Cuvie in Armored Trooper VOTOMS being the obvious parallel here but this is a theme that even turns up, in more optimistic terms, in Guy in King of Braves Gaogaigar – prepared to take up the mantle of hero which he believes has irreversibly dehumanised him unto death). Nevertheless, I was strongly recommended Tsuioku-hen, the prequel OVA, as one of the best pieces of animation the recommender had seen and I was richly rewarded by how in its first episode it set up something that far exceeded the usual sort of supersoldier backstory or “dark past seeking redemption” tale.
At the start of episode 4 of Eccentric Family 2, there is a straightforward summation of one of its morals; “the transformation… is strongly connected to the idea of freedom.” Tanuki lose their powers in captivity. In its own way this becomes a sort of freedom, a kind of mythic superiority over humans; tanuki play at changing roles even when unable to change shape to make a game of being zoo animals. The idea of zoos in an urban fantasy world is not one that I believe much media in the genre considers; fantastical creatures existing within a modern urban society must contend with modern attitudes of animals in captivity, and ultimately a talking animal is something ordinarily non-sapient granted humanlike sapience.
Atom The Beginning is a curious series; unlike the precedent it would appear to follow of socially-conscious updates of traditionally simplistic hero series like Gatchaman Crowds (which like it or not explored the obsolescence of superheroes and indeed government in an internet of things-based society) or Yatterman Night (which was an able if occasionally awkward exploration of the nature of villainy in a simple black-and-white morality superhero narrative) it has yet to properly dig into any of the moral issues it would appear to focus on. The precedent is there for something rich. Astro Boy was a universe that within its child-friendly framework played on ideas of the morality of android technology and machine sentience. But Atom the Beginning is set in that era in a time before the events that led to the creation of, arguably, one of the first super robots.
The returning native as a disruptive presence in a traditional society is the focus of Eccentric Family 2; it brings with it ideas of modernisation and a hermetic society being opened up to foreign influence. Tenmaya, the man who beat the devil, no longer fears demons because he has a gun. Modern technology exists within the setting; it is set in a contemporary Japan. However, Yasaburo complains the use of guns in a supernatural battle of wits is unfair; modern weaponry does not sit nicely within a romanticised – if that is the right word – mythic world. I am reminded in a way of The Wind in the Willows, which takes a not-specifically-folkloric but definitely idyllic world of talking animals and has Toad go mad for novelties such as cars, completely upsetting the pastoral idyll and serving, arguably, as a simple morality-play about the importance of humility and good sense.
It is good to see Eccentric Family back on the screen; its first series was an interesting, whimsical and yet surprisingly cutting take on mythology and family and the second series has set up an interesting dynamic to build on this basis; the second episode sets up a sense of powerlessness and a changed world that feels a more interesting take on ideas of a woeld losing its sense of wonder. Youth rebels against authority as the dandy Nidaime mocks older tengu as “frail, old [things]” spending their “last days meaninglessly” and “reliant on… pity” – and his worst insult is that the father he has rejected is “not worth killing.” Nostalgia and longing for absent things – centrally the woman Benten, so important in the previous series – has created a void.
The Eldran super-robot series is arguably less well-known than the Yuusha series, in part owing to a lack of translation available before the licensing of Absolutely Invincible Raijin-Oh. Before I watched any of the shows, I was aware of them only as younger-skewing adventure series which had largely interchangeable designs and often large casts of principal characters. However, after seeing that Nekketsu Saikyou Gosaurer (1993-4) (according to ANN translated as Matchless Passion Gosaurer) was receiving ongoing subtitles – and having seen a few episodes of the fully translated Ganbaruger – I decided to try it. The series proved highly enjoyable, standing out within a crowded and largely interchangeable genre as being among the better examples.