Wrestling Robots and Philosophical Musings:

Examining Pluto

Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto is a damn good comic. If there’s only one thing you get from this article, it should be a burning desire to purchase and read Pluto. Naoki Urasawa is one of the greatest comic book creators ever and Pluto is a great introduction to his work. Urasawa is a manga creator, so most of his series take around twenty volumes to collect. That’s a lot of time and money to devote to a series (even if it is completely worth it). Pluto comes in at a fairly reasonable eight volumes. Consider reading it. This article isn’t one long sales pitch though, so it is time to address what is so excellent about Pluto. Pluto takes its story from an arc of Astro Boy, Osamu “the God of Manga” Tezuka’s influential series. (A little bit of trivia: Tezuka’s Astro Boy TV series was so impressive Stanley Kubrick wanted to have Tezuka design parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scheduling difficulties prevented this.) Naoki Urasawa, with full permission from Tezuka’s family, reworked the classic Astro Boy plot, The Greatest Robot on Earth. Urasawa altered the series to better suit his sensibilities. Urasawa series tend to be mysteries, normally with elements of psychological suspense. He makes a few changes to the story in order to accommodate this. His main character is not Astro Boy but a detective called Gesicht (Gerhardt in the original series). Urasawa’s retelling is more realistic, more focused on psychological motivations, and built around political catalysts. The plot, in its simplest form, is that someone is hunting and killing the seven greatest robots in the world. The robots are the peak of engineering, design, and intellect. Some are humanitarians, some butlers, and some are wrestlers. Early on in the story, it is revealed that the main character, the detective Gesicht, is one of these seven robots. The story revolves around his detective work. The story continually shifts and revolves with new discoveries and developments in the story. It’s never predictable, never boring, and always exciting. More than that though, the series is brilliant from an artistic standpoint, a storytelling standpoint, and a writing standpoint. The entire work is a technical marvel on all fronts.

Naoki Urasawa’s art is breathtaking. It showcases an incredible level of technical skill. Compare his art to a lesser western artist, let’s say Tony S. Daniel’s art on Batman RIP (a comic I love dearly), and the differences are clear. First of all, many, many, mainstream comics fail to properly differentiate their characters. There are panels in Batman RIP where Tim Drake looks exactly like Bruce Wayne, and Wayne looks pretty different depending on the day Tony S. Daniel is working. Pluto’s characters are instantly recognizable, completely consistent, and fantastically realistic. Not only do people look the same, but their clothes do too. Intertwining futuristic buildings are drawn with enough real world textures to never seem too fantastic. That is the result of Urasawa’s art; it creates a sense of realism and grounds the readers. This is a fabulous (and even necessary) effect for a science fiction work. It helps the reader relate to ten settings, to the characters, and to the stories. If Pluto had been drawn by someone like Moebius, or Prophet’s Simon Roy, then the reader would find it a challenge to empathize with the characters. (This is not always a desired, or necessary effect.) Naoki Urasawa doesn’t wants to make sure his readers feel more than interested in his work. Much like Steven Spielberg Urasawa’s approach is entirely based around empathy. His stunning realism, which extends equally to facial expressions, action scenes, vehicles, props, and inhuman robots, allows him to submerge his readers in the story.

Naoki Urasawa’s storytelling is subtle to the point of being invisible. It would, however, be all too simple to ignore. There is more going on here then one might initially suspect. Urasawa is more concerned about content than form, but his panel usage remains deliberate and appropriate. Some artists fall into a dangerous trap. They let what they want to draw inform their panel choice. Many artists, when faced with the prospect of drawing, say, a kick, choose a wide panel to accommodate the drawing. One can hardly condemn this across the board, but a lot of artists seem to ignore the affect a wide panel has on pacing. Naoki Urasawa never falls into this trap. Every panel belies careful planning and consideration, or at least an innate knowledge of the form. Story beats are carefully timed to work with the content. Naoki Urasawa’s most interesting technique is his use of sound effects. He, like many artists, crafts excellent sound effects that help clarify two things: the way something sounds, and the path of certain objects. Where Naoki Urasawa stands apart is the way he almost adds a sound track into the story. During important reveals and atmospheric moments, Urasawa will employ sound effects as emphasis. An important shot might be accompanied with a long sound effect. It’s not always clear where these effects come from. Often times they appear to be something fairly innocuous, possibly wind. The origin of these sound effects is not really important though. How many times has some dramatic shot in a movie or TV show been accompanied by an intense “whooshing” noise? Or some intense moment, like Gesicht’s dreams, featured the sound of breathing? Or the thudding sound of a heartbeat? Naoki Urasawa uses sound effects in the same way and it works. It seems that years of conditioning makes these sounds seem more like a sound track than a sound-effect. I’ve never seen this elsewhere and I am continually surprised at how well it works. It’s a careful, clever, manipulation of the form, something Urasawa excels at.

Pluto is a stunning piece of writing. Something particularly interesting is the way Naoki Urasawa handles the element of mystery. I heavily recommend taking a break to read this article . For those of you who didn’t read it, it’s an article about the nature of Drama versus the nature of Mystery. The point is made using the film John Carter. Film Crit Hulk complains that John Carter reveals information at all the wrong times, preventing you from getting attached to any of the characters. It reveals information right before it’s necessary, or saves it in an attempt to shock the audience. Urasawa is all about shocking the audience but he understands when to tell them what. We know enough about Brando before we really need to care about him. The same goes for Epsilon, for North No. 2, and for most of the human characters who are put at risk. What’s incredible about Urasawa is he doesn’t always need to rely on a cheap ploy. Sure North No. 2 was scarred by the war, Brando has kids, and Epsilon lovingly cares for war orphans, but that’s not the only thing making you care for these characters. Naoki Urasawa’s writing, even when translated from its original language, works wonders of characterization. In a few panels, speech balloons, or pages you know a ton about any given character, enough to care about them. Even the briefest of characters are slightly fleshed out. The whole makes the story incredibly compelling and affecting.

Urasawa’s writing isn’t just concerned with telling a brilliant story though. Pluto is a science-fiction book, and so, like most good writers would, Naoki Urasawa chose to address many interesting questions. Science fiction is often considered the vehicle of choice to address questions of the day and questions of the future. Urasawa manages to balance these questions and themes against the story. He never makes the mistake of drowning out a story with heady questions or concerns. The comic never feels preachy, or overly philosophical, instead Urasawa allows the story to take the lead and uses his many themes to add a depth that would otherwise be lacking. This is in the vein of some of the best science fiction ever. Works like Blade Runner, Alien, Primer, Dune (the book), the Illustrated Man, Childhood’s End, and most of 2001:A Space Odyssey, all work the same way. They focus on the story, and then let the rest influence and enhance the story. One of those titles may have stood out to you as being unlike the others. I’m going to assume you, hypothetical reader, are questioning the inclusion of 2001. Well, other then being the greatest science-fiction film ever, and my favourite movie, it allows for a perfect tangent. 2001 (along with Childhood’s End the book 2001 was unofficially based off, and Blade Runner for that matter) let theme overtake story at the end. Whether it is Blade Runner’s highly symbolic climatic fight, (followed by the “It’s too bad she won’t live” line and the unicorn) or 2001′s star-gate sequence, both allow theme to overtake story. Pluto does the same. Some of Urasawa’s careful tuned threads and connection fall apart in order to reach a symbolic conflict, followed by an explicit statement of theme. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.

One of the themes Naoki Urasawa addresses is simple, if questioning the nature of humanity can be described as simple. Pluto is a mature and thoughtful science fiction work featuring super intelligent robots. Urasawa cannot help but address the pressing question about these super robots: are they human? Urasawa never addresses this issue too heavily. His robots are unquestionably shown to have feelings, be capable of love, and act against their own programming. Urasawa is far more interested in humanity’s interactions with these robots. Scientists will announce that robots have a subconscious as casually as a police officer will call them soulless. There are laws in place carefully negotiating the ways humans and robots interact. A robot must not be able to kill a human, but humans have to treat robots like they have rights; they can’t kill them or erase their memory (against their will). The question is really about robots and free will. Can a robot be on equal footing with a human if it can’t choose to make bad decisions? Is the only thing separating a robot from a human the fact that a human can kill a robot, but a robot can’t kill a human? Throughout the story robots make it clear they’re imitating certain human customs, they pretend to drink tea, they pretend to cry, they pretend to admire beauty. Except that Atom (Astro Boy) claims he can almost taste tea, Helena’s fake tears eventually become real, and North No. 2 learns to play the piano beautifully. None of them can kill a human. The only robots that can kill in the story (SPOILERS START) are either unaware they’re robots (and therefore perfect) or they overcome their programming. (SPOILERS END) Brau 1589 is quite possibly the most interesting of the robot murderers. (He’s also the least spoiler-y) Brau 1589′s murders take place before the events of the book. What’s interesting about Brau is that he’s not built to be a perfect robot, but that’s exactly how scientists describe his AI post murder. This prompts Atom to say: “is this what it means to be human?” Brau 1589 is not built to kill; instead he gains the ability after losing his mind. Another robot killer overcomes his programming for great emotional reasons. So in both cases robots manage to essentially become enlightened. Naoki Urasawa is less concerned with whether or not the robots are human and more concerned with whether these robots should strive to be human. Is being human a good thing?

(This next paragraph will be spoiler free (unless otherwise marked) but it deals with the overall themes at play in Pluto, read at your own risk.) It’s important to Naoki Urasawa’s thesis, which is plainly stated at the end of the book, that all these murdering robots, all these scarred robots from the war, all these great scientists and composers, they all have one thing on common: hate. The number of times a character in Pluto mentions hate, or seems hateful, is telling even before you get to the end. The end where Atom stands in front of the arctic lights and asks if we’ll: “ever live in a world free from hate?” There’s a reason this comic is set n the aftermath of a war against a very Hitler-like fascist leader (complete with the moustache, salutes, and an Afro). There’s a reason a lot of the comic deals with post war hatred on a country-to-country scale. Why North No. 2 helps a Scottish composer learn to love, not hate, his mother. It’s why the character most consumed by hate is the villain. It’s why Gesicht’s hate is so extraordinarily important to the story. The list goes on. The e tire comic seems devoted to explaining that no good will come of hate, and yet the damn thing never feels heavy-handed. Urasawa is probably a wizard. Amongst it all Brau 1589 sits in the center of his prison like some great martyr. He’s one of the two characters in Pluto who know more than logic dictates they should (it works both times). Brau can make these jumps of logic because he’s enlightened. (SPOILERS START) It might seem odd that the first robot to murder a human is presented as enlightened (Gesicht can’t even understand his memories) but he clearly is.

What’s unclear to the readers, until literally the last pages of the comic, is that Brau murdered someone, but has rejected hatred and chooses not to murder a human at the end. He does, however, murder a robot. That seems to go against Urasawa’s message of human-robot equality. Brau 1589 is enlightened, but is not anywhere near as far down the path of enlightenment as Atom is. Sure Brau martyrs himself to kill a horrible mass murderer and spares his human accomplice, but Atom refuses to kill the robot that murdered all his friends. Atom is clearly the most human robot; he could clearly kill someone in his post-resurrection rage. He chooses to reject hate before he destroys anyone. The message is that if Atom can do it so can you. (SPOILERS END) Naoki Urasawa is asking his readers to reject hate. He is saying that hate in all its myriad forms does nothing but harm. He is asking his readers to help create: “a world free of hate.”

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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1 Comment

  1. Tomas Flury says:

    I’m a little bit late, but great job, man. I’ve just finished reading Pluto and it is clearly Urasawa’s magnum opus. Each of it themes is excellently handled and the characters are too well written.

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