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Pluto May 6, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Manga, Rave.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It takes some balls to reimagine the work of the ‘God of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka, let alone his most treasured work. But if anyone can, Naoki Urasawa can. I’m hyperbolic at times, but believe me when I say this is one of the best manga, maybe even sci-fi, that I’ve ever read.

Pluto takes the most famous story in Tezuka’s Astro Boy (The Greatest Robot on Earth arc) and gives it the Urasawa touch, parachuting in a murder-mystery, thriller aspects and enough robot sci-fi themes to have Asamov frothing at the mouth. It is brilliant because it satisfies the reader on so many levels: aesthetically, entertainingly, thoughtfully.

The plot follows Gesicht, one of the eight most advanced robots in the world. One by one, each of the robots, along with top scientists, are being knocked off in eery circumstances, with a pair of horns marking the crimes. Gesicht’s investigation takes in the life of each robot, and from that explores the nature of artificial intelligence, robotics, science, evolution, war, prejudice and the meaning of existence.

All that sounds pretty heavy, but Urasawa does it subtly, introducing each with the natural flow of the plot. Each robot’s story reveals a little more about the relationship between man and machine, and man and the world, and Urasawa’s skill is in weaving each of these mini-arcs effectively into the wider narrative, a piece of the jigsaw appearing in place without you realising it, because you were distracted thinking about one of the other interesting themes.

One of the things that struck me most about the series was Urasawa’s take on robots. He projects us at once far into the future, to a time when robots and AI are as much a part of life as coffee machines and cars. Right from the start, you realise that in this future, robots aren’t there to be our slaves, nor are they on the brink of revolution. This world has moved beyond that to a time when robots and AI are fully functioning members of society with rights and emotions. They go on holiday, adopt children, and refuse the draft to take part in war. This has probably been done before in other sci-fi, but how refreshing to see a take on robots that goes beyond the initial conflict of man and machine, to the conflict that simmers underneath when the sides have made peace.

This of course, makes it an excellent tool for exploring our own prejudices, our own human flaw that drive us to hatred and war. Again this isn’t new in robot sci-fi, nor is the influence of the 2003 Iraq War on this, like many other stories of the past 8 years. But it’s interesting, and admirable, how Urasawa shows us the layers within the conflict, the connections that tie the hate and intolerance of a European fascist to an unjust war in the Middle East, technology to solve poverty and starvation, the quest for scientific advance, and the subtle impact of all this on families and individuals thousands of miles away in other corners of the world.

In 8 gripping volumes, Urasawa introduces a menagerie of characters, some new, some old favourites reimagined. Yet all are rounded and given adequate space to develop. None of the new characters seem superficial, and none of the old characters are a distraction because of their fame. Remarkably, they retain the nostalgic glow of a familiar friend, while still seeming like a refreshingly new acquaintance. This is none more so than in the extended family of Atom, from the brooding, damaged, Professor Tenma to the earnest Uran, and Atom himself, level-headed and thoughtful.

Yet at the end of it all, Urasawa still manages to retain the morality that made Tezuka’s work so distinctive, espousing the dangers of hate without ever seeming like the Saturday morning serial Astro Boy had become.

Random personal thoughts:

  • Beyond the astounding story, this is a beautiful, beautiful manga. Urasawa is a master of the medium, deploying panel arrangements effectively to aid the story and convey emotion. But some of his artwork here is just wonderful, from the characteristics of each and every robot, to the exquisite detail of the cities – one panel sees a roadway shot pan out to reveal a beautiful German mountainside town…. on a floating island connected to a sprawling metropolis. This kind of imagination, paired with this level of artistic skill is worth paying for 100 times over.
  • Every volume comes with a short essay from different writers and collaborators at the end, each with an insightful personal take on Astro Boy and the Greatest Robot on Earth. In volume 7, Gorot Yamada discusses the events of the volume in the context of Japan’s relationship with robotics (itself a broad and fascinating topic for academic discussion). He draws parallel to the awakening of advanced AI in Pluto with the awakening of middle-aged otaku in 21st Century Japan, opening their eyes and reaching out in the world to realise the 20th Century dreams they had as kids, inspired by the likes of Atom.


1. hearthesea - May 6, 2011

‘how refreshing to see a take on robots that goes beyond the initial conflict of man and machine, to the conflict that simmers underneath when the sides have made peace.’

This is a great point. It’s something I actually didn’t consider when I read ‘Pluto’, but in hindsight you’re very much correct.

I love Urasawa — his work is always sophisticated and yet accessible. I’m not that enamoured with his early work like ‘Happy!’, but ‘Pluto’, ‘Monster’ and ’20th Century Boys’ are gems. In regard to ‘Pluto’, I enjoyed how he had quite a large scope — the murder mystery, the KKK style faction, the International issues, etc — and yet he always remembered to provide emotional connections for the reader, real heart at the core of the work, which is something SciFi writers sometimes forget. (You mentioned Asimov — he’s an example of someone I haven’t been able to get into due to the above problem.)

I never actually read Tezuka’s ‘Astro Boy’…it must be interesting to see the ways in which Urasawa changed the source material. I do remember seeing an interview in which Urasawa claimed that Tezuka was like a hero/role model for him, and that he particularly loved his ‘Phoenix’.

2. ayasawada - May 8, 2011

Thanks for your comment.

I haven’t read much of the original Astro boy either, yet alone the original Greatest Robot on Earth arc. I’d be intrigued to compare and contrast though.

I agree, Urasawa’s genius here is adding the emotional, societal connection that brings the reader into the sci-fi. I’ve been astounded at his ability to bring multiple issues and agendas into one story – something I’m also enjoying reading 20th Century Boys!

3. Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum « Canned Memory - July 3, 2011

[…] the closest I’ve come is watching recent remakes or reimaginings, like Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto series. This is not to say I’m ignorant – I’m fully aware of […]

4. Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum « Vườn heo - February 25, 2012

[…] the closest I’ve come is watching recent remakes or reimaginings, like Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto series. This is not to say I’m ignorant – I’m fully aware of Tezuka-sensei’s influence and […]

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