My Introduction to Manga, Part 2:

A Mechanical Emerson for the Future in Urasawa’s Pluto

In 1942, Isaac Asimov introduced the world to the three laws of robotics and, in doing so, set the stage that later science fiction writers interested in writing about robots would have to cross. Ten years later, Osamu Tezuka created what would become the first and most popular of all Japanese manga, Astro Boy, which was set in a future where man and robot coexisted not unlike Asimov’s robot stories.  However, the way in which Tezuka viewed the relationship between man and robot was vastly different from Asimov, as Tezuka saw robots not as sub-human life forms created to serve mankind — as Asimov did — but as entities worthy of equal social standing.  The significance of the dialogue between these two giants of science can be felt some fifty plus years later in the success of Pluto — a retelling of the Astro Boy series where Naoki Urasawa continues the discourse over the role of robots in relation to mankind as well as their potential humanity, despite their un-human make up.

The Three Laws of Robotics, which Asimov sets down in “Runaround,” were created as a sort of safety feature to ensure humanity never came to harm through any sort of response from the robots they created.  These three laws are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. (Asimov)

A fourth law was later added — referred to as the “zeroth” law — which was first mentioned in Asimov’s Robot and Empire (1985).  This law states that: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”  Part of the intrigue surrounding Asimov’s robot stories dealt — in part — with how robots rationalized the ways they would adhere to the robotic laws in various situations.  What should a robot do if it’s owner commands it to stop a runaway rail car, which would result in its saving hundreds of lives, but would cause the death of one human and potentially destroy itself in the process?  Such a utilitarian dilemma would dictate the majority be saved; however, this would also lead to potential violations of the first, second, and third laws.  Likewise, failing to do so would result in a significant violation of the first law and potentially the second law, despite upholding the third law.  Such dilemmas provided thought-provoking situations for readers to ponder over the ways these laws were applied in practice.  Overall, the bent of these laws should be clear to readers: Robots are meant to stay within their assigned class as highly advanced tools designated strictly for use by humans.

Similarly, one can see this struggle bearing out in Pluto, although there is a clearly marked difference in the class system Tezuka employs. There are clearly laws or, at the very least, behavioral guidelines for robots that humans generally expect to see carried out.  One of the first robots readers encounter, posthumously, is Mont Blanc — a hero of the 39th Central Asian War.  He is known to have been one of the most powerful and benevolent robots known to man.  He clearly embodies the laws of robotics in the ways that he served as a peacekeeper in the war, where he was able to “bloodlessly apprehend the last terrorist infiltrators… [and] restore stability in the long-troubled Persian kingdom” (Urasawa 35).  Not only this, but we are told he was “an accomplished poet” (35).  His brutal dismemberment, then, is seen as an international tragedy — not only for robot-kind but humankind as well.

Readers are also introduced to the enigmatic and semi-tragic character, North No. 2.  A wartime veteran, North No. 2 took up working as a manservant to the once-famous composer, Paul Duncan.  North No. 2 best illustrates the second and third laws of robotics, where he continually obeys the orders of the curmudgeonly Duncan, despite any potential readers’ inner desires to see the old man permanently silenced.  And while assisting the old man in both completing his song and coming to terms with his mother’s past actions might not be viewed as protecting Duncan from harm, North No. 2 does prevent the old man from continuing to spiral further into the depths of bitterness in which he had been caught up.  One could then interpret North No. 2’s actions as representative of his fulfilling the zeroth law.  Through re-empowering Duncan to finish his final masterpiece, North No. 2 prevents humanity from experiencing the aesthetic loss that would have otherwise been felt without such intervention.  The world, from an aesthetic point of view, is a better place for his intervention, and Duncan is a more mentally and spiritually whole person as well.  In his final act, he does what he believes is fulfilling the first robotic law through preventing bodily harm to a human when he flies out to confront the encroaching danger in order to prevent it from reaching Duncan.  In this light, he also exemplifies the third law, where a robot might only put itself in harm’s way in order to protect humans.

Up to this point, one might simply conclude the robots of Urasawa serve as a sort of homage to Asimov; however, this would be too hasty a conclusion to make.  When the android detective, Geischt, begins the hunt for Mont Blanc’s killer, he encounters the brutal slaying of another robot, though one less well known than Mont Blanc.  The patrol-bot, Robbie, fell victim to a drug-riddled junkie, and upon being captured by Giescht, he is informed: “I’m made so I can’t kill humans… I’m a robot!” (Urasawa 23-24).  After turning in the robot killer, Geischt then delivers the news of Robbie’s demise to his robot wife.  All of this might initially seem absurd, where robots attempt to build and carry on relationships that seem best suited to humans.  Yet, the morose facial expressions of Geischt and the noticeably shaken mannerisms of Robbie’s wife seem all-too-human.  This begs the question of why these robots should go through such human motions if they did not possess some element of humanity?  And therein lies the key difference between the robots of Urasawa (and, by extension, Tezuka) and Asimov.

The robots portrayed in Pluto contain the potential for humanity on an equal level as the human whom they live alongside.  North No. 2’s love of music and simple desire to learn to play speaks to this in the same was as Mont Blanc’s love of nature and poetry — a mechanical Emerson for the future.  In this light, the mythos of Astro Boy begun by Osamu Tezuka and carried forward in Pluto by Naoki Urusawa provides readers with an arguably even more nuanced and complex work of that blends the science fiction of Asimov and the philosophy of nearly every generation that has struggled with the question of what it means to be human.

On a personal note, this was the second part of my initial foray into manga — Suppli by Mari Okazaki being the first book. While I was continually jarred out of my reading experience by the shifting form and ultra-fast-paced dialogue of Okazki, I found the overall composition and narrative pace of Pluto to be vastly superior. I recognize that these two books do not hail from the same subgenre, and such a relative label as “superior” is a flawed one; however, I do believe Western readers unfamiliar with Japanese manga will find Pluto as equally enjoyable as a book along the lines of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers detective series or more mainstream super-hero fare such as Grant Morrisson’s thought-provoking run on Batman. For those of you, like myself, who have not yet made the foray into manga, it is worth expanding one’s horizons and trying something new. Obviously, not everything will be to one’s taste; yet, there are books like this one that will prove highly satisfying for fans of the Western super-hero genre.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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2 Comments

  1. Sam Keeper says:

    Good to see your first foray into this territory didn’t turn you off completely. There’s some very solid science fiction manga out there, although, of course, the quality varies from author to author. I actually wasn’t familiar with Pluto, though. I’ll have to check it out now. I know Tezuka’s work is pretty consistently brilliant. Thanks for the recommendation.

    You know, it might be worthwhile to think of Manga as a sort of step between a medium and a genre–it contains many genres, but there are also specific storytelling strategies that are common across its genres that are distinct from comics as a whole. It’s sort of an odd space that we don’t really have a term for, but I feel that it can be helpful to think of it in those terms… I mean, if that made any sense whatsoever.

  2. Sam, your comment makes perfect sense and it is one that I agree with wholeheartedly. Ultimately, I see Manga as major genre of comics right along the same lines as Superhero or the more recent Journalism comics. Each makes use of the comics medium; however, they both have a number of unique tropes and conventions that differentiate them from other genres within the medium. Even then, these genres will have sub-genres that breakdown even further as I know both Suppli and Pluto would most likely not be compared to one another by someone more familiar with the Manga genre of comics.

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