Friday, March 22, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 1

In The Run I review multi-volume works over several weeks. This is the first of eight reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto. Click here for my other reviews in the series.

Pluto Volume 1 Written & Produced by
Naoki Urasawa & Takashi Nagasaki
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Translated by Jared Cook & Frederick Schodt
Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth
 Created, Written & Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Shogakukan 2004/Viz Signature 2009
In 2003, Naoki Urasawa, one of Japan's premier modern master cartoonists behind such seminal works as Monster and 20th Century Boys, took it upon himself to adapt one of his nation's most beloved manga stories, Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by the one and only Osamu Tezuka. The resultant work he produced, the eight volume Pluto, is not just a fine example of a superb modern adaptation, but a fiercely original work in its own right, and frankly one of the finest comics of the 21st century.

We open with death and loss. Mont Blanc is a sentient robot who is beloved by millions around the world. An environmental engineer, an accomplished poet, he was fighting a forest fire in his home of Switzerland when someone or something violently killed him. Mont Blanc was a vision of innocence, a gentle being who had a direct positive impact on thousands of lives, and someone murdered him. This is a crime that shakes society to its core, but this is still a society that devalues artificial life, a society that is still coming to terms with the alien sentience developing around them.

This is an advanced future populated by sentient robotic beings, some indistinguishable from humans, in a society where robots and humans peacefully coexist. Robots in this future are not simply thralls to human whims and desires (though some certainly are), but active members of society with jobs and careers and lives of their own. And the technical vision of the future Urasawa presents is not so alien from our current reality. The design aesthetic is sleek and futuristic but not unrecognizably so. Urasawa's richly detailed renderings of densely packed cityscapes and sleek advanced technologies share equal space with men and women in clothing and domestic settings indistinguishable from western fashions of today. The focus is not the setting, but the mystery and human drama being played out.

Mont Blanc's murder is unusual in its similarity to the death of a human who was a controversial robot rights advocate, Bernard Lanke. Both deaths featured ritualistic presentations of the corpses with horns representing the Greek God of the Underworld, Pluto. The lead investigator of the Lanke murder is a German police inspector, one of the top agents in Europol, Detective Gesicht. When we first meet Gesicht, overworked and world wary, he is planning on taking a vacation with his wife but gets called into to take this case. With the similarity to Mont Blanc's murder and the lack of biological evidence at the scene, Gesicht believes a robot may be involved... Except Robots can't kill humans - it's not just the law but a directive at the very core of every robotic being. But only a robot could have been powerful enough to kill Mont Blanc, and it seems Mont Blanc and Lanke's murderers were the same entity.

In all of the modern history of robotics, it is believed that only one robot has killed humans, Brau 1589. Brau is in a robot prison, far removed from other prisoners. Humans and robots alike are terrified of him. He is a serial killer of humans and robots, and despite repeated attempts at evaluating Brau, investigators have not been able to figure out how or why he was able to kill human beings.  Seeking understanding, Gesicht visits Brau in prison. Brau is intelligent and devious, and he immediately sees the patterns in the killings that Gesicht cannot. Whoever killed both Lanke and Mont Blanc is going after and killing the most advanced robots in the world.

And Gesicht is one of those robots.

It is this murder mystery that initially drives the story, but it is far from the central theme of the work. We are soon introduced to North No. 2, one of the planet's most advanced robots. North has been sent to be the personal aide to artist Paul Duncan, a blind musician of international renown who has become a bitter recluse who hasn't produced anything noteworthy in years, looked down upon by those who previously rewarded him. North is not a normal aide robot, but a war machine in every sense, a potential weapon of mass destruction who covers his body so as not to alarm humans. North, as well as Gesicht, Mont Blanc, and a robot we meet later named Brando, are all the most advanced robots on the planet and all veterans of the 39th Central Asian War, concluded just a few years prior. The War was a brutal global conflict involving the deaths of thousands of humans and robots, and the psychic scars of the War run deep in those who participated in it, North No. 2 included. North is plagued by nightmares of his time in the War, and in his interactions with Duncan he hopes to overcome what many would see as his nature. He wants to learn how to play the piano, to create art like Duncan. Duncan initially rejects North's desires - to him, artificial life cannot appreciate or create art. But after some time Duncan comes around and develops a friendship with North No. 2 and North begins to excel at making beautiful music.

But North No. 2 is also a target. Where we only get glimpses of Mont Blanc, in North's chapters we make a strong emotional connection to the character - his sense of pain and loss at his experiences in the War, his efforts to bring out the best in Duncan, his own creation of music. The events that occur represent a true emotional blow to the reader.

In North's story and in small, quiet scenes throughout the work we begin to get a clearer sense of the larger story Urasawa is telling. The first volume's most powerful scene is one largely unconnected to the mystery and the war. Early on, a simple junkie assaults two police officers, one human and one robot, partners. Gesicht was nearby and pursues the assailant and handles the aftermath. The human officer survives but the robot officer, "Robby" is killed. It is up to Gesicht to inform his widow. Like Robby, his wife is not a humanoid robot with recognizable facial features, but a service robot in the classical sense. Gesicht visits her home, informs her of her husband's death. Her grief is palpable and real, even if she cannot express it. Clothed in a summer dress and an apron, Urasawa's portrayal of her reaction is brilliant - three simple silent repeat panels of her expressionless robot face.The reader projects their own fealings and thoughts onto this blank slate, evoking pure empathy in a way that a literal expression might not achieve.

(Remember to read right-to-left)
"I work as a maid for a family," she tells Gesicht. The family had a dog, and the young son cried for days when the dog died. "I tried my best to comfort him, but only now do I understand how he must have felt." The sense of loss and grief we the audience feel and project onto her is profound. Gesicht offers to wipe the memory of her husband from her memory banks, but she refuses. She wants to keep her memory of him. Indeed she wants to access his memory chip, to feel his presence in her life again, despite the pain that such memories may evoke.

Robby was an honored member of his police force, but at the end of the day his body is simply disposed, thrown unceremoniously in a dumpster. Despite the advances in robot rights, robots are still just objects to many humans. But robots are alive and aware, they dream and love and grow and the point in time we find ourselves in this extraordinarily powerful and transformative work is one of transition, between natural and artificial, between past and future. This is a story of ideas, of what is life and sentience, the steps into an unknown future where robots are beginning to develop increasingly human characteristics, the question of subjective and objective reality, the cost of war on the collective human soul and on the individual souls of those who fight it.

Urasawa expands on Osamu Tezuka's original creations and crafts an original and mature story of startling power. Pluto is a riveting mystery of murder, horror and war, an exploration of love, loss, and life, and a visionary work of science fiction that utilizes futuristic set-pieces to movingly examine the very root of the human condition. Urasawa's bold vision is met by his equally astonishing art, nuanced and detailed, as good as the best mainstream art being produced in comics today. This is a work that sticks with you long after you finish it, the ideas and emotions and visions turning around and developing in your mind. And as good as this volume is, it only gets better from here.

No comments:

Post a Comment