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 of my treatise, I examined The Role of Hatred, Redemption, and Evolution in Pluto. In the second part presented here, I look at The Inhumanity of Humans and the Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto. I also examine the Effect of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism.
Please note that unlike my earlier reviews, there are spoilers ahead!
Robot Rights and the inhumanity of human beings
body of Robby, the police officer-bot who fell in the line of duty, is
unceremoniously dumped in the trash, and only Gesicht marks the passing
by salvaging Robby's memory chip. Indeed, Gesicht recovers his first
child, Robita, in a dump. Robita's discovery is not treated like a found
object but like finding a living human child in a pile of corpses. The
moment Robita reaches out to Gesicht is a moment of seismic power.
Gesicht is moved to action to save her life, the human recycler is moved
to profit, her body an object to be sold. The inhumanity of the human
willing to dispose of her and the humanity of Gesicht in willing to save
her is a significant illustration of the gulf that still exists. The
events leading to Robita's adoption can be seen as commentary on
everything from slavery to genocide, and is a good illustration of the
unique power of Pluto as a humanist work of transcendent science fiction.
human presented to be more robotic than his creations is Tenma. He is
presented consistently as cold and inhuman. Despite being kidnapped by
the most advanced robot alive - an insane murderer he essentially
created - and presented with evidence of the eminent end of the world,
he is nonplussed. After creating Atom to replace his dead son, Tobio, he
coldly analyzes Atom's failures as a copy and sells him to the circus.
Into slavery. It is his loss of Tobio, the recurring theme of the death
of a child that resonates with many characters throughout the story
(Abullah, Gesicht, the nameless victims in Persia, the multiple
survivors of the evil Haas's victims), that presumably creates this cold
inhumanity in Tenma. The robots in the story are shown to react with
grief - even if they couldn't fully express it like the parents of
Haas's victims - to anger and revenge, in essence human reactions.
Tenma, on the other hand, is so broken by his loss that he becomes
frankly inhuman. His descriptions of the anger he sometimes felt towards
Tobio are like the cold analysis of someone else entirely, a robot
describing human emotion. And from the unethical and questionable sanity
of trying to create a robotic substitute for his lost son to his
unceremonious dumping of that failed project, Tenma is the most inhuman
character being presented. He is too far gone, too lost.
Just like Robita's disposal,
that Atom - not just one of the most powerful artificial intelligences
and advanced robots alive but a sentient being - could be so casually
disposed of, sold into virtual slavery, is another telling example of
the gulf of inhumanity that exists among humans in their interactions
with robot kind and the lengths that still must be traveled to achieve
some semblance of equality.
The role of memory in subjective reality
make us who we are. Our entire experience as human beings, our
interaction with objective reality, is in the subjective reality of our
minds, in the constant stream of the past, of memory that builds and
constantly flows. The human perception of time, of reality itself, is
subjective and memory-focused. There is no "now" but the "just-now."
Experience as memory.
memories and our experience of subjective reality are locked away in
our brains, inseparable from our being (though Abullah with Tenma, the
supreme geniuses that they both are, find a way to transcend those
limitations in Abullah-bot's creation). Our locked subjective reality is
unable to be shared except through literal description or artistic
expression. But the robots in Pluto do not share this limitation.
They can share not just their memories, but their very subjective
experience of objective reality, even exceeding the bounds of death.
We see several memory chip swaps in the series, once between Gesicht
and Brau. Brau (like Atom when he examines Gesicht's memory chip) is
able to see Gesicht's hidden memories of what really happened in the
replaced time in his memory. Gesicht sees Brau's subjective reality, one
defined by abstract images of blood and numbers and warped reality and
horror beyond Gesicht's ability to handle.
also in the position of erasing their memories, or in the case of
Gesicht and Helena, having their memories replaced entirely against
their will. When Gesicht killed the murderer Haas, to protect their
investment and to cover up what would certainly be a society-shaking
scandal, Europol erased Gesicht's experience and everything that led up
to it and replaced it with false memories of a vacation. Helena and
Gesicht's memories of that time are so vivid and specific, but this
reality which their subjective experience tells them is real is entirely
fabricated, not reflected in the objective reality of the time period.
Gesicht and Helena slowly come to this revelation, but ultimately it is
only Gesicht who finds out the whole truth.
One of my favorite films is Steven Soderberg's Solaris,
itself a superb modern adaptation. In it, a sentient world reaches into
the minds of several human beings and uses their memories to create
simulacrums of people from their past. These entities are nothing more
than the memories of the individual from which they sprang, and are even
aware of their nature. But more importantly, at the very end one human
chooses death on the alien world where in the final moments of his life
he is preserved in a time loop where he can live with the memory of his
deceased love, both nothing more than constructs, shades of humans now
passed. In Robby's widow's accepting Robby into her being, she achieves
something similar though less fatalistic, to be with her husband, the
very essence of him, even if he cannot be alive. The profound effect on
her is something far outside the frame of normal human reference.
is a similar moment involving Atom and Helena. Atom sees Helena before
he meets what may be his final fate. In moments loaded with meaning,
silent panels of extraordinary and profound power, Helena is moved to
tears at Atom being alive and Gesicht being a part of him. And it is
through Atom that Helena is told of the power of Gesicht's love for her.
"And he wanted to tell you that no matter what happened to him, you
would never be alone." Not in the literal sense of what Robby's wife
does, but in the deeply human sense of subjective memory and experience
that we all share. That she felt his love for her, and through her
memories of him that she continues to carry, she will continue to carry
her memory, her subjective reality, with her.
Commentary on the American-Iraq war and American Imperialism
Every country represented in Pluto
is literal - nations throughout Europe and the Pacific rim are
name-checked without obfuscation - with the exception of America and
Iraq. This is very telling. It is quite obvious that the United States
of Thracia is meant to represent The United States of America, that
Persia is meant to represent Iran as much as Iraq. To actually use
America and Iraq might have been too literal, too representative of the
conflict raging at the time, so Urasawa and Nagasaki resort to
invention. This obvious allusion allows Urasawa to absolutely let loose
his anger and disgust. It is very, very clear that Urasawa is against
the war in Iraq and the 39th Central Asian War of the story is an
obvious commentary on the Iraq War. His anger at America is white-hot.
He repeatedly shows the human cost of the War on the civilian populace
of Persia. When we flash back to Gesicht's role in the War, we see him
confronted by a father whose children had been killed in the bombing.
Noting the human loss, Atom calls the conflict a quagmire (a frequently
used term to describe the American occupation of Iraq). And if not for
the War, then maybe Sahad's dream of a verdant Persia would have seen
fruition. If not for the war, Abullah would not have lost his family.
Persia is not without fault and thus the analogues are not quite that
clear-cut. It is not simply an unjust invasion of Persia by the United
States, the realities of the conflict that was the 39th Central Asian
War are far more complex. In Iraq, the U.S. simply accused Iraq of
having WMDs and simply invaded and occupied. Where Iraq had a natural
resource that American powers wanted access to - oil, of course - there
was no such analogue for Persia. Rather, at the very end of the story we
finally see the (unnamed) Thracian President admit that his reasoning
wasn't robot WMDs but Persia's massive robot army, which Persia did
have, and which Thracia - advanced in every area except robotics - could
not match. And there are other complications. In the lead-up to the
war, Darius XIV is shown to be actively destabilizing the region and
invading neighboring countries. This alone might justify an
international response, but the United States went to the steps of
legislating against the creation of superpowerful robots, then accusing
Persia of harboring them. Like with Iraq's alleged WMDs, no evidence is
found of WMD robots, but the irony was that Persia not only was trying
to build one, but succeeded in creating one when Abullah input his
personality into Tenma's failed creation. And on top of that, Persia had
in its arsenal Pluto, a climate-effecting robot capable of massive
destruction itself, and Bora, a world-shattering robot with an
anti-proton bomb at its core.
And Darius's offenses
against his own people were extreme. Although he put on an air of
protecting robot rights, the robot graveyard that the Bora Survey Group
uncovers and Epsilon must dispose of certainly showed the opposite. But
despite these complicating factors, America, as Thracia, is still shown
to be a force of, if not necessarily evil, than certainly ill-intent and
incompetence in clear commentary on George W. Bush. The Thracian
president is shown to be a direct puppet of the most powerful AI on
Earth, Dr. Roosevelt. The War and the Pluto Murders are shown to be part
of Roosevelt's overall plan to achieve Robot domination of Earth, with
Roosevelt as the eventual leader of both Robot and (through the Thracian
President) Human kind. Naturally, the Thracian President is oblivious
to this. He is shown to be a simpering thrall to Roosevelt, assured of
Thracia's righteousness. Towards the end, when threatened by Darius who
most definitely knows of Abullah's plans to use Bora to destroy the
world, the Thracian President smiles, "Sorry to tell you, pal, but that
stuff doesn't apply here. The only thing we have here is Prosperity! And
the good ol' United States of Thracia will prosper forever!" This is a
clear attack on the idea of American exceptionalism that was posited by
so many of its representatives and leaders during the Iraq conflict. And
in the end it is Thracia that suffers with vast swaths of the continent
and many of its cities in ruin.
And something of note is the thematic similarity to Ronald D. Moore's version of Battlestar Galactica
in the commentary on Bush era American foreign policy. There are other
similarities - both were produced in the same exact time period, both
are stories involving humanoid robots, both are adaptations of earlier
work that far transcend the source material. But there the similarities
end, especially in quality. (Battlestar Galictica is an
entertaining television show that is hampered by consistently
inconsistent characterization, a sprawling and uneven story, and a
terrible ending.) Battlestar Galactica excels in its commentary
on the U.S. War on Terror and the Occupation of Iraq, but it never
specifically references either, increasing the power of the story and
allusions. It's hard to say if Pluto would have been strengthened
by loosing the specificity of allusion to the United States and the War
in Iraq, and at times the obviousness of it risks taking the reader out
of the story. But, as the story is not about the specifics of the war
but uses the specific war as a springboard into commentary on the scars
of war itself (while expressing anger at that specific war),
The scars of War
scars of fighting in the War effect everyone who survived it. Several
robots are shown to be suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. North
No. 2 suffers nightmares of his time in the war. In a powerful and
moving flashback, at the height of the War Hercules comes across a robot
who is constantly washing his hands. And no matter how hard that robot
tries, the blood - virtual because the victims are other robots, but no
less real to him - will not wash off. As much as everything that
Hercules went through in the war, it is this memory that disturbs him.
An astonishing visual and a moving example of the way that war can leave
behind a legacy of pain.
one of the first flashbacks to the conflict, Mont Blanc is shown in a
field of robot corpses. He takes no satisfaction in what he had to do,
and the killing fields before him, the vast majority of bodies lying
there at his hand, give no joy. Brando asks him how many he killed. In a
nonspecific response uncharacteristic of a robot, he can only manage "A
lot." He sits in stunned silence. There is no sense of winning in the
victory, not when there is so much death. And humans suffer greatly in
the conflict. Thousands die. Abullah loses his family, their lifeless
bodies limp in his arms. It is the power of this loss that drives him
into revenge, a vengeance so profound that even death will not hold him
back. It is what he went through in the War, what he lost, that drives
him mad, that puts him in a robot body and splits his personality
between Abullah and Goji and eventually Bora.
revenge that Abullah and Darius seek are part of a cycle of hate that
started with the War and continues to echo down through the years.
Epsilon recognizes the cycle of hatred before it begins and does
everything within his power to counteract it. He refuses to fight, he
raises war orphans, he even avoids conflict with Pluto until the very
end. But even he ends up a victim to that cycle, and the vengeance of
There is no victimless war, and it is shown
to effect of those who waged the war on the front lines and those who
felt the wrath of weapons and manpower. And while the Thracian President
was shown to be aloof and above the effects of the war, in the end his
country gets its comeuppance, wrecked as the last echo and the last
aftershock of the war he started.
My treatise concludes in part three with a look at Urasawa's craft, Pluto the adaptation as a fiercely original work, and my final overview of the series.