This review covers all eight volumes of Pluto.
I imagine Naoki Urasawa suffered butterflies the first time it truly dawned on him that he was about to adapt Osamu Tezuka’s flagship work, Astro Boy, specifically its ‘The Greatest Robot on Earth’ story. However, Pluto brilliantly weaves its own emotional landscape out of the threads of the original plot. Different characters get different emphases and a prototypical action adventure becomes a brooding murder mystery, but it feels just as seminal.
‘The Greatest Robot on Earth’ shows how one robot called Pluto systematically kills the world’s most powerful robots in some contrived effort to be the best. Underscoring this is Tezuka’s assertion that the human ego uses destructive technology for selfish and shallow aims. Its 180 pages unfold in a straight moral language targeted at little boys of the 1960s. From such a humble source, Urasawa constructs eight volumes of nuanced socio-political intrigue that speaks to a mature, post-9/11 audience. He also twists the message: while Tezuka highlights the shallowness of the human ego, Urasawa points out how the complexity of human emotion drives us to terrible things. So utterly deft is the transformation, that Pluto is both recognisably Tezuka and unmistakably something fresh.
The manga depicts a vivid, challenging version of the future where the robot-human relationship takes on numerous shades of grey. Urasawa borrows the concept from Tezuka, of course, but puts his own shrewd stamp on it. For instance, one of the great robots, Mont Blanc’s death leaves people grieving in scenes similar to those we saw after the deaths of Princess Diana or Michael Jackson. Clearly, humans maintain a strong emotional as well as utilitarian bond to their metal underlings. And yet they just as clearly feel threatened by them: the efficiency of robots in industry and services leads to huge unemployment for humans. Some far-right activists take this fear to its natural extreme and target robots in planned attacks. But how do robots feel about humans? And how do they feel about each other? We find clues here and there. For instance, a fighter robot in the aftermath of the Persian war ceaselessly washes his hands because, having killed many enemy robots, he finds that it ‘won’t come off’. Is this believable? Can robots recognise each other as life-forms and feel guilt when they eliminate each other? The scene also suggests a subconscious trauma, that some find hard attributing to animals, let alone artificial intelligence. Yet in Pluto robots can dream.
Along with the themes, the illustrations create an impressive depth to the world. Images of the city reveal a breath-taking metropolis of multiple levels: grand, organised, and thriving. Urasawa contrasts those sweeping highlights with claustrophobic panels overflowing with emotional accents, light and shadow, and stylishly framed action. His is not a fancy art but one ripe with atmosphere and sophisticated drama. His brand of realism lends itself well to the grim narrative, although we also get none of the eeriness from Tezuka’s contrast of cartoonish designs and dark political events.
Urasawa couches his murder mystery within a political saga modelled after the 2003 Iraq War. In it, President Alexander of the United States of Thracia destroys the kingdom of Persia on the pretence of the latter hoarding weapons of mass destruction. The international causes trigger local effects for the protagonists and sprout universal themes in the process. What Urasawa achieves is an evocative anti-war fable that pricks at a still-bleeding controversy. Some, like me, might wonder at that. I occasionally struggled to choose between seeing the blunt anti-Iraq War message as conveniently populist and applauding it as a daring dissection of this important episode. Either way, marrying Tezuka’s themes to the events of the Iraq War gives them undeniable relevance to a twenty-first century audience.
Urasawa’s treatment of Atom (Viz retain the Japanese name for Astro) is also fascinating, if only for how curiously secondary it seems. Atom is vital to the plot and delivers fantastic scenes but not necessarily for his personal journey. He shows interesting enough quirks to hold our attention: one moment, he is peacekeeping in the Central Asian War alongside military forces, and the next he is gaping at another boy’s cool new toy and spooning ice cream into his mouth with childlike relish. We understand that deep conflicts roil inside his mechanical heart, since he is a morally infallible being trying to survive in a world where his masters are egotistical and irrational. But, like the question of conscious robots, Urasawa leaves us to mull Atom’s personality in our own time, preferring to pry open the lives of side characters.
Actually, the protagonist is not Atom but Gesicht (or Gerhardt in Dark Horse’s original), the great robot detective tasked with guiding the reader through the plot as he solves the murder of his kin. He usually wears an expression like an undertaker’s – meticulously unrevealing – although he can mould it into mellow geniality when speaking with his wife or likeable acquaintances. I can understand Urasawa’s preference for Gesicht in the leading role. Atom is a real-life icon laden with historical baggage who suffers a predictability that would make him uninteresting for the long haul. Gesicht, on the other hand, offers a blank slate adult persona that Urasawa recasts brilliantly to fit the seinen narrative.
Adaptations of this calibre are rare. Rarer still are adaptations through which a master completes the proverbial sentence of a luminary. Urasawa exploded an old children’s short into an engrossing modern adult detective story. Not only does Pluto stand up as a treasure in its own right, it also serves as an unparalleled insight into Tezuka’s legacy.