by Naoki Urasawa; story by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
At the end of volume two, Uran, Atom’s little sister, helped tame and recapture some loose zoo animals. This volume opens with her at police headquarters explaining how she got involved in the first place. We learn that Uran can sense strong emotional states, especially fear. A few days later, on the way to school, she senses powerful feelings of fear and confusion. She skips school to find the distressed person and help him/her. She discovers what appears to be a homeless robot suffering memory loss. He’s very disoriented and is scared to go for proper treatment. Uran visits him daily hoping to help him get well.
Adolf Haas is a German businessman who hates robots. In fact, he belongs to an underground organization, KR, which is seeking to repeal the International Robot Laws and to once again make robots slaves and property of humans. His brother was a criminal killed by the police during the commission of a crime. There is now evidence that it was a robot police officer that killed Adolf’s brother. KR hopes to use this evidence to prove the danger of unrestrained robots. Adolf is simply looking for revenge.
This volume is a change of pace. The Pluto investigation story arc is put on hold; instead, we are introduced to two new protagonists. The first is Adolf Haas. His story arc lets us see the other side of a world with robots. He dramatically experiences some of the negative impacts that the mass productions of robots create.
Adolf Haas’ father was a factory worker. When the factory became fully automated, he lost his job. The need for human physical laborers continually decreased, so he couldn’t find a new one. Adolf’s father was arrested for a petty thief by a robot police officer. The arrest and unemployment eventually drove him to suicide. Understandably, Adolf and his brother grew up hating robots.
Adolf’s story is a reminder that sometimes technological advances come with a human cost. It’s great that humans have been freed from simple manual labor, but there is a large segment of the population that makes its living from jobs like factory worker, housekeeping, construction worker, etc. It takes humans time to be reeducated with new job skills and to shift to a new economical model. This transition period won’t be kind to everyone. Some people and their families will find themselves left behind as the world marches on. It’s easy to see how the newly disenfranchised wouldn’t sing the praises of robots or see any benefits to mass-producing them.
Also, it would be foolish to think that everyone will readily accept robots as persons. To some humans, maybe most, a machine is a machine. The fact that humans designed and created robots is proof that they can’t be our equals. Robots have off switches, they have electrons running across circuit boards, they have to be programmed to work. True living creatures can’t be shut down, they have blood flowing through veins, and the moment they’re born they live and function by their own will. Artificial life is an oxymoron. It’s an insult to human dignity to say a sophisticated toaster has the same rights and should be treated with the same respect. Robots are tools and never anything more.
Because Urasawa is such an adept storyteller, Adolf and the KR aren’t moronic bigots. They are intelligent, successful men who refuse to acknowledge robots as equals. Adolf’s hatred of robots is tied to the devastation they brought to his father. His own experiences have shaded the way he looks at and evaluates robot actions. Adolf may not be a sympathetic character, but his actions are understandable. Unfortunately, not all writers take the time and effort to craft such well-thought-out villains.
It’s a testament to Urasawa’s skill as a world builder that he includes the dark side of this vision of the future. It further adds to the depth and realism of this series. Any radical change in society is going to naturally bring opponents of that change. Like Marvel’s X-Men, Urasawa is drawing from American civil rights history in shaping this subplot of the story. This becomes obvious when we see the KR dressed in the same ceremonial robes as the KKK. This natural human response allows him to create new dramatic tension and possibilities.
Uran is the other major cast addition. She has always been a foil to Atom. I’ll admit I’ve never been satisfied with Tezuka’s characterization of Uran. She comes across as impulsive and reckless. Atom always seemed to be annoyed at his sister, and he treats her like a child, rightfully so. Urasawa remolds Uran, making her a fully developed person in her own right. Her ability to sense strong emotions has shaped who she is. Uran has chosen to respond to such feelings with compassion and a desire to alleviate their suffering. She’s still impulsive, but for a good cause. She’s still a foil to Atom, but now it’s because of a fundamental difference in their approach to life. Atom is logical and formal. He is the typical eldest son. Uran is emotional and casual. In fact, she comes across as more human in her behavior than even Atom. She’s not afraid to stand up to her older brother for what she believes in. She still frustrates Atom, but he can no longer treat her like a child. Urasawa’s Uran is not only likable, but she’s admirable. That’s an amazing transformation of this character.
Urasawa’s art is as wonderful as always. I love the way he draws Uran, especially her facial expressions. You can see how bored and frustrated she is with the police questions. I’m glad these pages were in color. The emotional scenes really make this volume. Adolph’s anger at discovering his brother was killed by a robot jumps off the page. Pluto’s brief appearance is powerfully filled with raw emotion that just smacks you in the face.
I’m also still amazed at the amount of detail Urasawa puts into his backgrounds. They really give his art a sense of solidity and reality. The mansion where the KR meet is an incredible architectural structure. His cityscapes are some of my favorite eye candy. It’s a testament to his creativity that with each volume there is always a new backdrop that stops me in my tracks. I find myself just staring at the panel, soaking in all the marvelous details.
I also want to commend Viz on a beautiful printing job. There are some pages in here that had to be particularly difficult to get right. It’s essential to one part of the story that the pages have a particular feature. Viz does it flawlessly and creates the effect that Urasawa wants when the reader get to that section. Well done and thanks, Viz.
I will say this volume can be a little disconcerting to read. I think it’s the Uran section that causes this reaction. We are given a lot new information that doesn’t fit with anything we know so far. I trust Urasawa enough to feel that what’s revealed will play an important role in the volumes to come. I also think that once we see how this section fits into the overall story structure, these are chapters you’ll go back and reread so insights can be better understood.
At this point, I don’t know what more I can say to recommend this series to readers. Anyone who values well-written, meticulously executed comics of any genre or format should be reading this series. Urasawa is a master of the craft and will be remembered in the same breath as his idol, Tezuka.
P.S. See if you can catch the reference to Jungle Emperor Leo in this volume. Urasawa really rewards Tezuka fans who pay attention to details.