Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 2

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

Pluto Volume 2 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 2005/Viz Signature 2009
We left off at the end of Pluto Volume 1 - the first volume of Naoki Urasawa's brilliant adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy - with a serial killer on the loose, targeting the seven most advanced robots in the world as well as human beings in the robot rights movement. Two robots have been killed, and the lead investigator, Gesicht was warning the robots that they are potential targets. He met up with Brando, an advanced humanoid robot who, like the other advanced robots, fought in the brutal 39th Central Asian War a few years before. In battle, Brando utilized a "pankration" suit, an exo-armor which he now uses in his role of a world-famous professional wrestler. In Pluto Volume 2 we are introduced to another robot who also competes in armor, Hercules, who Brando is set to fight in an upcoming match. The unifying theme of the robotic targets of the Pluto Killer is not just that they are the most advanced robots alive, but that they are walking weapons of mass destruction who played key roles in the previous War. Hercules and Brando are old War buddies and the scars of that conflict still haunt them as it does Gesicht, as it did the late Mont Blanc and North No. 2.

When we met Brando for the first time, it was with his large and boisterous family. With his wife he is raising five kids. Gesicht, invited to dinner after warning Brando of the Pluto Killer, is initially surprised by the children, but quickly acclimates to the lively family environment. We get a sense of that such a large family being raised by a robot is both unusual and completely natural. But by Volume 2, just like with North, Brando begins to sense that a confrontation is imminent. He is willing to sacrifice everything to protect his family, and goes out to confront the Pluto Killer before the killer can come after him. He prepares for battle, completely confident that he can win - because of his beautiful family and his professional success, he considers himself "a lucky man." But luck cannot defend against such a powerful force as a killer who earlier so easily dispatched a machine made for war. As Brando fights for his life, his friends and former colleagues remotely plug into the events transpiring and bare witness to the tragedy that unfolds.

One of those super advanced robots witnessing the end of Brando is Atom - Astro Boy - the most advanced robot ever created. We saw Atom in Japan for the first time at the very end of Volume 1, and his place in the story represents a seismic shift in the evolution of robots. Atom, despite being the most advanced robot in creation, himself a potential WMD, looks and acts like a normal human boy. (Indeed, Urasawa plays with our expectations of what Atom should look like, completely reinventing Tezuka's seminal creation by going away from futuristic and cartoony and into the realm of the completely normal.) When Gesicht meets with him in Volume 2, he can barely register Atom as a robot. Gesicht is instantly able to recognize other robots, even advanced humanoids, because, among other things, "humans make a lot of unnecessary movements." But Atom is so human-like that Gesicht's recognition system is "nearly going haywire." Gesicht takes Atom to a restaurant where Atom eagerly devours a bowl of ice cream. More than an affectation of human habits that most of the robots in the series seem to be doing, Atom really enjoys eating. He acts like a boy of his appearance, nine or ten years old, but he is no different - indeed he is more advanced - than Gesicht.

Atom believes he can help Gesicht with his investigation and Gesicht allows Atom to upload his memories, but what Atom really discovers is as much about the investigation as much as it is about Gesicht himself. There is a dark secret, a hidden mystery of missing time that Gesicht is only just now coming to discover, and the revelation so disturbs Atom that he is left in tears. Something happened in Gesicht's past, something that caused a year to be replaced with artificial memories, something that is haunting him.

And it is in Volume 2 that we begin to see the larger geopolitical picture at play and the forces manipulating things from a distance. Gesicht is being manipulated by Europol, and the whole world is being manipulated by the secret power behind the US President. (It should be noted that the only places given any specificity to today's global landscape are several countries in Europe, and Japan. The United States is referred to as The United States of Thracia, Persia is Iran/Iraq, and similar obfuscations, but we get the picture.) We also get a better understanding of the 39th Central Asian War: The United States, after spearheading the banning of superpowerful robots, walking WMDs, calls for the war to stop the King of Persia, Darius XIV. Darius began invading neighboring countries, subjecting humans and robots alike to inhuman treatment, and allegedly developing a super robot program. The Bora Survey Group was a group of humans sent into Persia by the UN to report on the country's robotic capabilities. There were discoveries of terrible experimentation, rumors of a superscientist named Goji, but no WMDs. But by that point it was too late. The US and the world had made up their mind and War rained down on Persia. And where the common theme of the robotic victims is their presence in the war (and even Atom played a part), the common theme of the growing body count of humans was their presence on the Bora Survey Group.

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is an extraordinary series of stunningly illustrated graphic novels in gorgeously designed presentations. This phenomenal manga is a murder mystery, a riveting international thriller, a transcendant work of science fiction. Again we see the world coming to terms with the the developing intelligence around them and what that means for Robots and Humans. More than once its seems the characters are finding themselves in a moment of transition, where robots may be involving into something more. When Atom and the noted robot scientist Ochanomizu are discussing Brau 1589, Ochanomizu notes that there was no error found in Brau, he was perfect in every way. Atom pauses... "Perfect... and yet he killed a human...  

"Are you saying that's what being human is?"

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