by Naoki Urasawa; story by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Gesicht is a robot and a detective for Europol. He’s been assigned to investigate three bizarre murders. The first is Mont Blanc, an internationally beloved Swiss robot, who was brutally slain while helping to control a forest fire. A few days later, North No. 2, a formidable military robot turned butler, is also destroyed. Then there is the murder of the human Bernard Lanke, a robot rights activist. Evidence at each crime scene connects the three deaths, but who, or what, is behind them and the motive for these homicides is still a deep mystery.
Much like Isaac Asimov did in the West, Osamu Tezuka’s writings, especially Astro Boy, established the foundation for robot stories in Japan. What’s unique to Tezuka’s vision of robots is how early he introduced the concept of robot rights. However, his stories usually took place on a national, international, or galactic scale. Tezuka rarely focused on what everyday life would be like in a world where humans and robots lived as equals. From the 1950s on, various manga authors have explored the idea that robots are people and what that would mean on a more personal level. Naoki Urasawa has injected these 50+ years of robot exploration back into Tezuka’s original universe. If Tezuka laid the foundation, then Urasawa has come along and built a house upon it.
Urasawa’s Pluto series is loosely based on the Astro Boy story ”The Greatest Robot on Earth”, serialized in Shonen magazine between June 1964 and January 1965. You can find the English translation of this story in volume three of Dark Horse’s Astro Boy series.
The World of Pluto
Let me start by saying that this series is completely accessible to any reader. You don’t need to have read any of Tezuka’s works to enjoy Pluto. However, for fans of Tezuka, like myself, there is an added pleasure of seeing one master of the manga medium interpret another. And I confess to geeking out trying to imagine how Urasawa will draw such odd-looking Astro Boy regulars as Dr. Ochanomizu (he’s the one with a nose as big as his head).
Urasawa takes us deep inside a world where robots are considered persons with full legal and civil rights. He does it so simply; we follow Gesicht in his day-to-day investigation of the murder cases. As Gesicht goes about his inquires we discover that robots get married, go on vacations, go to the doctor for annual physicals, are permitted to adopt human children, etc. It’s fascinating to see robots and humans interacting as equals. To see a world where robots are treated as ordinary citizens and just another part of the population. It’s a vision of robots we don’t see really see here in the West.
The closest example I can think of is Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that TV show, Data is a robot and a member of the crew. However, we are constantly reminded that Data is not human, from the way he looks, the way he speaks, the way he acts, and the fact that fellow crew members always seem to make reference to his robotic nature in almost all conversations with, or about, him. Data is treated more as a science oddity and a social experiment than a real person.
In the world of Pluto, being a robot isn’t what makes you special anymore. Robots are common and a part of the general population. One great example of how deeply humans have accepted robots as full members of society is the global reaction to Mont Blanc’s murder. People hold vigils in his honor and weep at his loss. It’s the same mourning given someone like Mother Teresa or John Lennon.
Gesicht is an intriguing character. Although a robot, he feels stress and is in danger of suffering burnout from the pressures of his job. He looks and comes across as a man in his forties who’s been doing police work for too long. There’s a weariness that comes through in the way he carries himself. He’s seen too many evil deeds and it’s beginning to wear on his soul. Yet, he’s still able to maintain a deep sense of kindness and compassion. As this description demonstrates, you don’t thing of Gesicht in terms of being a machine, but as a person. Urasawa has crafted a complex character that makes believable the idea that robots are just like us humans.
For three chapters, Urasawa breaks from Gesicht and his investigation to focus on North No. 2 and the events leading up to his murder. North is a military robot who has grown sick of the battlefield and so decides to become a butler. Paul Duncan is a retired, famous, movie score composer who lives as a recluse trying to create his final masterpiece. Duncan is a crotchety old man who goes through robot butlers like changing his underwear. I can’t help but get a sense that the employment agency sent North as a last ditch effort to find someone that could put up with Duncan.
Urasawa’s skill as a storyteller is truly manifested in these chapters. Duncan is blind and refuses to get artificial eyes. His blindness transcends just his physical sight. It serves as a metaphor for him as a person. He’s blind to the truth about his past, blind to the truth about his mother, and blind to idea that silicon can harbor a soul just as well as carbon. North serves as the one who metaphorically opens his eyes to what he has refused to see. It takes a robot to show a human how to be a whole person. (This is a theme that runs through Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories also.)
These are emotionally powerful chapters as North slowly, and suffering much verbal abuse, wins over Duncan. North is patient and kind. Duncan is self-absorbed and bitter. He initially rewards North’s compassion with bile. North asks to learn the piano and Duncan says machines can’t make real music. It’s only when Duncan learns that North is haunted by nightmares of his military days that he begins to see how petty his own ‘suffering’ has been. Slowly, he sees North as a person and they become friends. These chapters serve as a microcosm to show how humanity initially resisted seeing robots as persons, but eventually can’t deny the truth standing so obviously before them.
Urasawa uses a very realistic style of art for this book. This is a significant departure from Tezuka’s style. Mont Blanc and North No. 2 are based on Tezuka’s original designs, but Urasawa removes the cartoony aspects so that they look like robots that actually might exist in our own world. Gesicht and later Atom (Astro Boy’s actual name in Tezuka’s manga) are completely redesigned to look like real humans.
Urasawa continues to impress me with the maturity of his visual style. He knows how to let the images speak for themselves. There is an amazing scene where Gesicht informs a robot wife her robot husband is dead. The top half of the page ends with him saying, “I’m sorry, but I have some bad news…” The bottom half of the page is just silent reaction shots. You don’t need dialogue or narration to feel the sadness and awkwardness. I love the fact that Urasawa has such faith in power of pictures to communicate what can’t be spoken and faith in his audience to understand the emotions and meaning behind these panels.
The last panel of the book is a splash page of Atom. For Tezuka fans, this will come as something of a shock, since Urasawa makes him look just like a nine-year-old boy. As I reflected on this image and the future events of the storyline, I was a little disturbed. First, it made me realize how much Tezuka’s cartoony style allows the audience to distance themselves from the full impact of what is happening in his books. Atom gets into a lot of knock-down, drag-out fights and at times gets seriously damaged. Since Tezuka’s Atom doesn’t look that realistic, it’s easy to let this slide without any thought. However, seeing Urasawa’s Atom engaged in such fights and suffering the same damage is going to be difficult. A boy with his face all scuffed and his arm hanging on by only a few wires isn’t going to be as easy to stomach or dismiss. It makes me a little apprehensive about the images in the later volumes of this series.
A New Must-Read
Pluto is a fascinating read. I was completely drawn into the world that Urasawa created in this book. Like his 20th Century Boys, this series is written by an adult for adult readers. Those of us with more than a couple of decades of experience will be able to identify with the characters and their reactions. Science fiction fans will find plenty of interesting ideas to mull over. Urasawa has quickly become one of my favorite authors; in fact, all of his books are now on my must-read list. I’m definitely going to read Monster as I’m waiting for new volumes of Pluto to come out.
(This review is based on a galley of the book provided by the publisher.)