*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1 — Recommended

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.

Background

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1
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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.

Urasawa’s Characters

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.

Art Style

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.)

Similar Posts: *Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 2 — Recommended § *Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 6 — Recommended § *Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 4 — Recommended § *Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 5 — Recommended § *Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 3 — Recommended

41 Comments

  1. Jim Perreault

    I recently watched a special on National Geographic covering Japan, and they had a very interesting section concerning robots. According to it, the Japanese have a very different view of robots than the west because of ancient religious views ( probably Shinto, but I don’t think they said that), they view all objects as having what we would call a soul. As a consequence, they take a very different view on human looking robots.

    The special focused on a scientist who was building a very realistic looking robot replica of himself, but I think the same basic attitude applies to this book.

    Thanks for the review ; I’m now planning on getting a copy of this book.

    Jim

  2. Ed Sizemore

    Jim,

    I agree. In the West, we are shaped by the Judeo-Christian concept that humans are a unique creation of God and endowed with a soul. So personhood is restricted to humans, demons, angels, and God. Since robots are the creation of man they can’t be endowed with a soul and thus are simply machines. Even atheists such as Asimov were deeply influenced by this line of thought. For us in the West Pinocchio always wants to be a ‘real’ boy.

    Tezuka was a serious Buddhist. I think that Buddhism and Shintoism deeply influenced his thinking. For him all things have a soul so seeing robots as persons wasn’t really a stretch, he was just logically applying his beliefs. What’s interesting is to see how this concept of robotic personhood gets worked out over the years in manga.

    Shirow takes this idea of robotic personhood and really turns it on its head. In Ghost in the Shell, Shirow not only posits robots as persons, but computer programs too. In fact, in that book he says that robotic and virtual existence are better than human. Pinocchio no longer wants to be a ‘real’ boy; instead all the ‘real’ boys want to be Pinocchio.

    Sorry to be so longwinded, but the concepts of personhood, and the criteria for personhood, fascinate me to no end. When I read Ghost in the Shell I was blown away by what he was saying. (I disagree with Shirow’s argument, but I’m intrigued by it nonetheless.) It wasn’t until I read Astro Boy that I got to see the genesis of these concepts. This is another reason I’m excited to see Viz publish Japanese Sci-Fi books. I want to see how these ideas get work out by Japanese novelists.

  3. “how Urasawa will draw such odd-looking Astro Boy regulars as Dr. Ochanomizu”

    Looking a lot like Dick Cheney, it turns out.

  4. Ed Sizemore

    Well, that will be interesting. Jimmy Durante might have been a better model.

  5. [...] Ed Sizemore reviews the first volume of Pluto, Urasawa’s long-awaited revisionist take on Osamu [...]

  6. [...] Ed Sizemore takes an unusually thorough look at the next must-read title from Naoki Urasawa, vol. 1 of Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, at Comics Worth Reading. Ken Haley takes a look at a classic from the 1990s, Spirit of Wonder, at [...]

  7. I cannot recommend this comic enough to people. It is an amazing take on what was already a nice little story. And every volume has just gotten better and better.

    Honestly? Every week, I race down to the local bookstore (I’m in Japan) to see if there’s a new installment in Big Comics Original. I haven’t felt this hyped about a comic since I was a teenager.

  8. William,

    Thanks for your comments. I think it’s pretty cool you get to read this series fresh off the press as each chapter becomes available. Got to admit I’m more than a little jealous.

  9. I’ve finally come back to read your review, now that I’ve written my own. Interesting that we both talked about the scene where the robot wife learns about her husband’s demise. It really is that awesome.

    I also thought your point about watching a more realistic looking Atom battle Pluto was a very interesting one. I actually got goosebumps when he arrived because, for some reason, I never imagined that he would appear. And it’s not like I even love Astro Boy with a super love or anything, he’s just… a legend! :)

    I’ve got one question, though. You mentioned that robots were permitted to adopt human children. Is that what Brando used his winnings on? I’d read it like he’d used them to build some robot children.

  10. Jun,

    The Viz translation uses the term adoption and my impression from the conversation with Gesicht is that these are human children. I was shocked by that, but a second reading of the section only strengthened my impression Brando adopted human children.

  11. Interesting! I must’ve missed that part somehow. I do recall Brando remarking to Gesicht that “human-style dinners are so much fun.”

  12. Ed, it’s pretty entertaining even with the very poor Japanese language skills I have.

    And if anyone is worrying: Atom doesn’t go fighting in his black undies in this version. :)

    And Brando’s kids are human if I read it correctly.

  13. [...] Osamu Tezuka, tackling the world created in Tezuka’s signature work, Astro Boy. Matthew J. Brady, Ed Sizemore and Heidi MacDonald all liked it a [...]

  14. [...] reading Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, but I’ve never read Astro Boy, so I found this character comparison chart (via Faith Erin [...]

  15. [...] a shock to see. Also, Urasawa can’t resist teasing us at the end of this volume like he did with the first. The last page is our first look at Uran, Atom’s younger [...]

  16. Location Duesseldorf: I went hunting for the place in that panel on page 19 yesterday and here it is: http://img7.imageshack.us/img7/3395/plutoduesseldorfsmall.jpg

    Unfortunately the exact angle is completely covered by a tree these days (as can be seen on the right side) and too wide for my camera, but on the left side you can see it is indeed the place. It’s the courtyard of a business centre with many japanese companies and a hotel. http://www.nikko-hotel.de/central-duesseldorf-hotel–,location-en.html

  17. Wow, cool research!

  18. Ed Sizemore

    Sebastian, that is great. Thanks for posting those pictures.

  19. My son really likes Astro Boy… in fact, so much that it has spoiled him from enjoying almost all other comic books! The only other comic I have seen him really dig is Phoenix, also by Tezuka. Reading this blog, Pluto seemed like something else he could get into, but maybe its too adult… Any recommendations of other comics for kids that even come close to the world and/or feel of Atom/Astro?

  20. Among other available Tezuka comics, Dororo would be good, and so might Black Jack.

  21. Ed Sizemore

    Chris, the other Tezuka books by Dark Horse would be good place to start(Lost World, Future World, and Next World). They might be out of print, but they shouldn’t be hard to find.

    Black Jack is good, but you have to have a tolerance for medical drawings. Tezuka shows off his medical degree in that work.

    Try Kikaider Code 02 from CMX.

    Other than that I would suggest looking at Viz’s catalog, especially the shonen advanced, viz media, and editor’s choice books. Also Del Rey has some great stuff too.

  22. Jim Perreault

    Speaking of Tezuka, has anyone seen the exhibit in the Edo-Tokyo museum? I’m curios about that.

  23. [...] publishes titles aimed as adults, including 20th Century Boys, Oishinbo, Detroit Metal City, and Pluto) and the monthly manga magazine IKKI. The Japanese publication is described as “the home of [...]

  24. [...] the most famous is Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Currently, he is co-translating the Pluto series by Urasawa. This was an unstructured panel that allowed attendees to ask any question they [...]

  25. [...] in thinking a security detail is overkill. The world’s seven most advanced robots are being targeted for destruction, along with their creators, but no one wants to believe that they’re in that much danger. [...]

  26. [...] reading Pluto, I’ve discovered that manga adaptations can bring something new to the table. Just because [...]

  27. [...] move very rapidly, and you may want to reread all five of the previous volumes in order to grasp all the details and twists of the mystery. But “who [...]

  28. [...] of science fiction may find this story particularly appealing. Publisher’s catalog page Ed Sizemore’s review of volume 1 Buy it on [...]

  29. [...] thrilled yet disappointed to see the concluding volume of Pluto offered (DEC09 1026, $12.99, March 17). Thrilled because I know it will pack quite a punch, but [...]

  30. [...] Pluto — Simply astounding, a meditation on the nature of what it means to be human in a time of great crisis, told through a gripping robot murder mystery. [...]

  31. [...] Book 1 [...]

  32. [...] just participated in my first podcast! Ed invited me to join him on Manga Out Loud to discuss Pluto now that it’s concluded. We had a great [...]

  33. [...] all out of print, but if we reach further afield, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto, some of the best books of last year, are also science fiction. I’m going to be reading [...]

  34. Second2None

    Uraswa’s manga is beast!, a true manga legend. By the way while im here I was wondering where to start of reading for comics, (but im not a big fan of lyrca super heroes i.e. bat man (though the flash is cool >.<.
    Thanks guys, Mike

  35. Mike,

    Since there are manga covering every possible topic in the world, it depends on what you like. I recommend any of the books by Vertical Inc, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, or the Viz Signature line. See what is available from them and see if any of the books appeal to you. The great part of manga is you just dive in and one series doesn’t grab you there are plenty more waiting to be tried.

    http://www.veritical-inc.com
    http://www.ponentmon.com
    http://www.viz.com/products/products.php?format_id=1&brand_id=24

  36. [...] is reoffering this month two of my favorite series of theirs: all 8 volumes of Pluto, and all 7 Oishinbo books. Take this chance to sample some of the best comics out there, with [...]

  37. [...] Pluto [...]

  38. [...] Pluto – This manga series by modern genius Naoki Urasawa is simply astounding, a meditation on the [...]

  39. [...] a difficult question, and it’s probably a good idea that Viz released Pluto and Monster first, to build a reputation for Urasawa in the U.S. that gives readers more faith that [...]

  40. [...] realized there is one credited Tezuka work I absolutely adore: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. OK, it’s not “authentic” Tezuka, I guess, but by presenting his ideas in a [...]

  41. […] but this one is the most exciting! Master Keaton by Naoki Urasawa, author of the wonderful Pluto, Monster, and 20th Century Boys, will be published in North America in December as a Viz Signature […]

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