Monday, May 6, 2013

Nature, Evolution and Hatred in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

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.

Pluto is an extraordinary character drama wrapped in one of the most intense science fiction thrillers ever produced. A transformative work of science fiction that utilizes the genre to explore multiple aspects of the human condition with astonishing depth and incisiveness, this is a story about the darkest aspects of our nature, the evils of war and the scars of war that echo down through the years. This is a work equally at home in hyper dense future cityscapes, world-shaking sci-fi action set-pieces, quiet conversations dripping with suspense, and the mentally tumultuous moments of loss and despair that define the human experience. This phenomenal comic is a murder mystery, a riveting international thriller, an otherworldly yet completely grounded work of science fiction, a surprisingly scary work of horror both overt & visually frightening, subtle & psychological.

And it is about the power of love to break the cycle of hate, the beauty within to overcome the darkness.

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.

I 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.

An 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.

When 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 Adolph's brother.

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?

And in that flash reaction of hatred and punishment is Urasawa's most distilled argument on the nature of man, and robots' collective evolutionary ascension, a theme he returns to over and over. Abullah is the story's most advanced robot, but his very existence is predicated on his hatred. His body, Tenma's creation a formless shell in perfect balance before Abullah came to it, could only be awoken with extreme emotion: hatred and sadness. At the end of Abullah's strictly human life, he was completely consumed by hatred and grief, and those emotions carried over into his robot form, rendering him so completely human that even he is unaware of his own nature.

When Atom, 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.

At 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. 

Human 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 one moment in the work, Uran is seen reading and commenting on Pinocchio. Urasawa fairly beats you over the head with it: many of the characters are puppets, including the puppeteers. (Atom as Pinocchio isn't the point, everyone as Pinocchio is.) The robots following orders, the humans and evolved robots slaves to their emotions, and everyone a pawn in Roosevelt's grand scheme. Even Dr. Roosevelt, despite his almost god-like intelligence and ability to manipulate the entire course of human history, is trapped inside an immobile body and in need of someone to move him about, a puppeteer under his own control. And so much of the climax of the piece involves cutting the strings that guide us, to break free of our nature and take control.

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 world.

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.

But 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.

Robot evolution

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.

The series has many powerful and evocative expressions of grief throughout. At the very beginning of the series, Gesicht visits the wife of a fallen officer, robots both. The moment of revelation of her loss and her reaction represents the first salvo in an exploration of grief that makes Pluto one of the most revolutionary graphic novels of its time. She has no face and no way of expressing that grief, but Urasawa's genius staging of the scene has us project our own thoughts about what she must be feeling onto her. And rest assured, she is grieving, feeling a loss so profound she can barely handle it. It is strongly hinted that she is indeed the service robot at Adolph Haas's house, and the effects of her loss are causing her to lose function.

Gesicht's 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.

And 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.

Pluto, as 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.

And in Abullah and Brau 1589 we see the obliteration of the delicate lines between humanity and what we presume of robots. The capacity for untruth is something at first believed unachievable by artificial intelligence, but the more advanced the intelligence, the increased capacity for lying - a distinctly human trait. Abullah, once human, is now a robot so advanced, so perfect, that he is capable of lying to himself. (Atom and Roosevelt are also shown able to lie.) And then there is murder, not the murders that Gesicht or even Abullah commit, but the senseless taking of human life. Brau 1589 is described as flawless, yet he was capable of murder and Atom wonders if that is what being human is. And the answer is yes. Being human is about lying and hating and loving and killing and grieving and all of these things that robots are now capable of.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment