In my previous installments in this series, I looked at the individual volumes of Naoki Urasawa's transformative masterpiece Pluto. (Click here for my other reviews in the series.) Here in my eighth and final review (split into three parts), I look at the themes, story and art in the series as a whole.
In the first part presented here, I introduce my treatise and examine The Role of Hatred in the Human Experience, Redemption through the Rejection of Nature, and Robot Evolution as presented in Pluto. Please note that unlike my earlier reviews, there are spoilers ahead!
Pluto is a Naoki Urasawa's adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomo, known in America as Astro Boy.
Writing and Producing partners Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki first
approached Macoto Tezka (Osamu Tezuka's son and producer behind current
Tezuka properties) about adapting the work for release beginning in
2003, the fictional Astro Boy's birthday. To say the task was daunting
is an understatement. Tezuka is rightly revered around the world as the
father of manga, one of the most prolific cartoonists in history.
Urasawa originally intended to do an homage to one of the most popular Astro Boy
stories, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," using a very Tezuka-influenced
style. Tezka rejected this pitch, insisting Urasawa do his own thing, to
use the core of Tezuka's creations to tell his own story, his own way.
This was a bold but logical decision by Tezka, to essentially give free
reign to Urasawa, one of Japan's best regarded cartoonists best known
for his serial killer thriller Monster and his sprawling, decades-spanning 20th Century Boys.
The story that Urasawa created, published in 65 monthly installments
and collected in 8 graphic novels, is a vibrantly original masterwork,
equal parts character drama, mystery, thriller, and science fiction
parable. And it is undeniably one of the greatest comics ever made.
And it is about the
power of love to break the cycle of hate, the beauty within to overcome
Pluto is a daring,
revolutionary, bold, visionary, transcendent work. It is exciting,
riveting, moving, and beautiful. This is a towering work of manga, and
one of the finest literary achievements of the comic form.
know I'm using a lot of lofty adjectives here, but they are all well
deserved. There are other comparable works of fiction that attempt and
achieve everything Pluto does, but Pluto manages to be greater
than the considerable sum of its parts. It is a fantastic comic in every
conceivable aspect. From strength to strength, Urasawa and Nagasaki's
writing to Urasawa's art to the Viz Signature editions that are
gloriously well designed and packaged with superb translations from
Jared Cook & Frederick Schodt.
Below I explore some of the themes and ideas Urasawa puts forth in this amazing and layered masterwork.
The role of hatred in the human experience.
important recurring theme throughout the work is the power of hate. The
cycle of hatred ignited by War results in the assassinations of the
most advanced robots in the world and the members of the Bora Survey
Group. The targeting of the Robots who were following orders, and the
Bora Group members who found nothing, wasn't a rational response. But
hate isn't rational. The pure bloodthirsty vengeance by Abullah (and
Darius) was searing directionless anger looking to make anyone pay for
the losses suffered. Abullah's hatred would grow to encompass all of
humanity, a humanity that had taken away his family.
Gesicht's child is kidnapped and killed by the criminal Haas, Adolph's
wayward brother, Gesicht is overcome by anger and hatred. He kills Haas
in cold blood, an act not previously considered possible by a robot. The
legacy of hatred follows Gesicht for years. Adolph Haas hates Gesicht -
as much as, seemingly at the end, Gesicht hates himself - for murdering
The seeming center of the story is
not just the the endless cycle of hatred, but the role of hatred in the
human experience. Hatred is also arguably the key to robot evolution, an
emotion that no-one believes possible in Artificial Intelligence, the
catalyst that tips the balance into increasing humanity. Gesicht's
actions are unthinkable for many reasons, but wouldn't have been
possible without the motivation of loss and anger that fuels his
unexpected hate. Humans are beings whose actions are often dictated by
the emotional mind. Extreme emotion can short circuit the rational mind,
and what humans are capable under emotional duress can surprise and
shock the individuals who find themselves acting out of character. Hate
has the power to shatter the barriers of programming, literal robot
programming and the social mores that say murder and revenge are wrong.
Gesicht's actions are almost understandable if not necessarily
excusable: just moments after getting word that his son had been
murdered, there in front of him lies the murderer. One cannot imagine
the power of losing a child, let alone the acute mental turmoil that
must occur when suddenly presented with the culprit. Who among us can
say how they would react in such a situation? What Gesicht did was
wrong, but who can actually blame him?
Tenma's other great creation, is effectively killed midway into the
story, his own body and artificial intelligence lie in the same state of
formless balance that Abullah's body sat in. It would take the
insertion of Gesicht's memory chip into Atom, with it's evolutionary
core of hatred, as well as a flooding into his being of Epsilon's
sadness at his own passing, to wake Atom. Atom is immediately
transformed by this hatred, unlocking things within himself - both the
formula for the anti-proton bomb that Abullah's own hatred unlocked in
Bora, and in one of the story's most astonishing human moments of
discovery, a stunning self-distrust and self-loathing.
the Kimberly conference, Tenma warns of the dangers of robot evolution,
that it is only achievable through sadness, anger, hatred, and pain.
Perhaps this view is effected by Tenma's own experience - his creation
of Atom, a changeling, a simulacrum, a facsimile - is deeply rooted in
anger and grief. Urasawa seems to be making the same argument, though,
that the key to humanity lies in these negative extremes. But in the
end, it is the core of love and forgiveness inside Gesicht that redeems
Atom, and the memory of the beauty and joy he achieved as Sahad that
redeems Pluto - although even that is driven by his resentment of
Abullah/Bora for the things committed against him.
kind - and the burgeoning robot kind - are defined by emotion,
especially the extremes of the emotional spectrum. And a big part of the
human experience, and of the story, is about overcoming those aspects
of our being, to find the better angels of our nature.
Redemption through the rejection of nature
At the end
of his life, Gesicht is shown to still be consumed by the hatred that
caused him to take a human life years before, but now this hatred is
driven inward. But at the end, it is not only hatred present but great
love. When confronted with orders to destroy Pluto, he rejects those
orders. He disobeys his superiors, in complete contradiction of what a
robot should do, indeed should be capable of doing. They demand that he
kills Pluto, but Pluto is not threatening Gesicht and beyond the deal he
knows he must make with Abullah to spare Hoffman's life, he knows that
at Pluto's core lies Sahad, a gentle being manipulated into anger and
hatred by Abullah. His superiors are shocked by Gesicht's refusal to
take out Pluto - how can he spare this murderer's life when he was
willing to kill a human in the past? But Gesicht has tipped the balance
into something more. He is not just a police robot any more - he has
become greater than the inherent possibilities of his nature, and this
change does not come as a result of his hatred but by his ability to
overcome not just his hatred but the programming at the core of his
being. He moves beyond servitude and duty into the realm of freedom.
Never before has a robot done what he does next, simply resigning his
position and finally deciding to take that vacation with his wife that
he's wanted since the opening pages of the story. He cuts the strings of
Europol and his own programming. He doesn't want to fight anymore, not
anyone else's battles, nor himself. He wants only to be with his wife,
who he loves deeply, and to raise a family with her. To live. He
achieves redemption of his prior acts by rejecting his nature and
achieving more than any other member of his kind has ever achieved in
the small, quiet moment of rebellion.
At the end of his
journey, Sahad/Pluto redeems himself by rejecting the hatred that
Abullah - his own father - has forced onto him. Pluto was manipulated by
Abullah and driven to madness by his acts. He is programmed to hate and
to kill, but this is not who he is. He is Sahad, the gentle soul who
wants only to transform his homeland from barren wasteland to verdant
eden. But he is turned into a killer and a fighter, forced to inhabit a
grotesque body, a climate changing robot turned into a war machine.
Rather than fight Atom he confronts Bora - his father, Abullah - at the
heart of a caldera, defeating Bora before he could destroy the entire
And then there is North No. 2. A literal war
machine who discovers in himself a musical aptitude, not just the
ability to translate music, but to create it. And his journey to that
point is marked by disobeying orders and seeking out answers far outside
the bounds of his programming, be it as an instrument of war or as an
aide to a person who does everything he can to reject him.
at their moments of redemption, North No. 2, Gesicht and Sahad/Pluto
lose their lives. Indeed Gesicht's death is very reminiscent of the
deaths of several characters on the seminal 2000s television series The Wire
who found redemption through change and exceeding the bounds of their
nature or societal expectations only to be rewarded with their murder,
inevitable and unavoidable - Bodie, Wallace, Frank Sobatka, even Omar.
Both Gesicht and Sahad/Pluto's fates are sealed long before they get to
their ends, but both ends were changed by their redemption. And it is in
this redemption that we find another key to robot evolution. And robot
evolution is something Urasawa comes to, again and again.
We've seen how hatred and rejection of nature in Pluto
are indicators of a larger change in robot kind, but this is but the
tip of a much larger iceberg. The achievement of human emotion in robots
long thought to be incapable of emotion is repeatedly shown to be
occurring throughout the series. And one of the keys to this new
evolution is grief.
grief at losing his son is what tips him into the realm of
vengeance and murder. And Helena's loss of Gesicht is one of the most
heartbreaking things in a story predicated on heartbreak. Months after
having lost the man she loves at the moment he became something more,
she is putting on airs of normality but is deeply suffering inside.
After delivering Gesicht's memory chip to Tenma - the very essence of
her husband - she finally breaks down into tears. The image of her own
ascendance through grief into something more human than even what she
thought herself capable of powerfully closes the series' best volume.
Just as powerful are the later scenes of her shuffling through life, a
hollow place in her soul where her husband used to be. Loss resounds in a
way that can never really be fixed, and Urasawa's illustration of
Helena's loss is moving, human, and very real.
then, opposite of grief, there is the happiness and love of raising a
family that multiple robots share. Brando is shown raising a large
family and the sacrifices he makes are on their behalf. Epsilon runs a
large home for war orphans, and they adore him. And Gesicht and Helena
twice resolve to raise a child. This ability and willingness to raise
human and/or robot children represents an important step in the
evolution of robot kind. Because just as important to the human
condition as hatred and anger and sadness is the power of love and
companionship and laughter. And another important moment is shown, when
Pluto paints the field of flowers for Uran. The painting is an abstract
representation of memories he can't quite access, of his subjective
reality outside the bonds of his tenuous sanity. Robots in Pluto
are capable of literalism and can even swap memory chips to directly
show memory and indeed their subjective reality, but abstraction is
something they shouldn't be capable of. Not only is the damaged shade of
Sahad able to create abstract art, North No. 2 is shown to be capable
of learning and even creating music.
much a murder mystery and an international thriller and a science
fiction parable, is a chronicle about the foundation of a new sentient
species on Earth. At one point in one of my early drafts of one of my
reviews of the story, I described the ascendance of the sentient and
emotive robot kind as "the alien species arising around humanity," but
that viewpoint is decidedly off the mark. By simple virtue of being
designed by humans, the artificial intelligences that populate the Earth
are reflections of the human brain and mind and being. The early
emotions displayed by robots are simple mimicry, but are shown to be
developing into something more than mimicry: actual human
emotion. Not robot emotion, not some alien analogue of human emotion,
but human emotion produced by artificial beings. These beings are human
in all aspects but the makeup of their physical bodies.
The many robots in Pluto
are all examples, to different degrees, of the new humanity developing
on Earth. In Roosevelt's attempt at wiping out human life, the
inheritors of the Earth would have been not just robots, but the next
step of human evolution as represented in Robot kind. Roosevelt was
attempting to force the matter when it is clear that that evolution is
happening anyway, naturally. Humanity going forward will be a mix of
humans and robots, both children of men in their own way.
My treatise continues in Part Two, where I examine the
Effects of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American
Imperialism. I also look at The Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto.