The 2nd Dimension

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reading Journal: Pluto (complete)

Manga Overview
Book Info

Overall= B+
Story = B+
Art = A
Based off of a story arc from Osamu Tezuka's Tesuwan Atomu, Pluto follows the Europol detective Gesicht as he tries to uncover the mystery behind a string of robot and human deaths. The case becomes much more puzzling when evidence leans toward the murders being the work of a robot, which is something that hasn't happened for 8 years. (Source: ANN)
I think most Americans—anime fan or not—have heard of Astro Boy. Even if you have never read the manga, seen any of the various anime series, or watched the new CG movie; you at least know that it involves a boy robot with rockets on his feet, who flies around fighting bad guys. What most of the general public is not aware of, but which many if not most anime fans do know, is that Astro Boy was originally titled Tetsuwan Atomu and was created by the "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka—a man whose omnipresent influence in the manga and anime industry can not be overstated. Beyond that, even most US anime fans know few specifics of Astro's story. So given that, can Pluto—a remake of an Astro Boy story—be worthwhile for an American audience? The answer is that, while you do need to know some basic details about the back story to get the full effect, this manga can still be both relevant and entertaining for all audiences and the reasons have little to do with its connection to Tezuka's original series.

The story of Pluto unravels as a murder mystery set in a future sci-fi world where humans and sentient robots live side-by-side. There are a string of deaths of both humans and robots, and it is up to Europol Instector Gesicht to find the culprit. As he uncovers answers, he realizes that the murderer may be robot, the first such one in eight years.

One thing you might note is that this is not "The Origin of Astro Boy." In fact, Atom (Astro's original Japanese name and how he is referred to in this manga) doesn't even show up until the end of the first volume. Since this is just another arc in Atom's life, it is about as far removed from explaining his beginning as any random issue of a Superman comic would be to explaining his origin. And while I don't think this is an impediment to understanding the story's plot, it does effect the dramatic impact some scenes may have because without knowing the backstory you would not be able to pick up on the subtle implications of some of the characters' relationships—mainly those between Astro, his creator Dr. Tenma and his care-taker Dr. Ochanomizu. This can be easily remedied, however, by doing some quick internet research on Atom's origin ahead of time.

Personally, I've never read the original Astro Boy or seen any of the anime; but based on what I've heard, while Tezuka's original stories had mature themes (at least compared to most American cartoons), his delivery of the material was very child-friendly, sometimes to an awkward degree. In particular, Tezuka would often wedge humor into the middle of a serious scene to break the dramatic tension. Pluto rectifies this by bringing consistency to the story; so the characters, setting, and overall plot are as mature and hard-hitting as those themes demand.

The most blunt of all the themes is the one relating to the affects of war. To say that "39th Middle East War in Persia" in Pluto is a reference to the US War in Iraq would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to call it a overt allegory. The Persian War started after the United States of Thracia lead an investigation into the Persian Kingdom's possession of Robots of Mass Destruction but find no evidence that any existing there. Sound familiar? It was almost humorous how obvious the reference was, but it was also the strongest indication that this was no longer a children's story. What children's story would have such a strong and current anti-war message like that? In fact, when I first read that part, I was so taken aback by just how blunt the reference was that it distracted me the the point where it was hard to get back into the story.

What ended up bringing me back, however, was the characters' reaction to war; specifically the robots that were charged with fighting it. There are seven "Most Powerful Robots," six of which fought in the War in Persia and one of which opted out on humanitarian grounds. Each of the robots that fought had to kill not people, but other robots. So when they have flashbacks, they remember a battlefield covered with robotic limbs and mangled transistors instead of blood and guts; but to the robot the memory is just as horrible as if the field was covered with human remains. At first, I had a hard time empathizing because, seriously, they just machine parts; but now it seems more like a representation of how some people view foreign violence. For instance, when I read a newspaper article about a war in some foreign country where hundreds of people have died, I don't have nearly as strong of a reaction as when I read about hundreds of Americans dying. It's the ones I can relate to that I sympathize with. It would be the same for the sentient robots in the story. I may not get their reaction because, obviously, I'm not a robot. But for them it is a horrible memory because the victims are one of their own.

One scene in particular really brings this point home. Inspector Gesicht has to relay the news of a robot's death to it's robotic wife. But, unlike Giescht himself, the wife is not human in appearance. She is very much obviously a robot, with a metallic face and unchanging grin. So when Geitch delivers the message to her, she reacts with a mix of subtle sadness and acceptance; but still has that grin because she has no way of changing her expression to reflect her emotions. The contrast is almost funny, but it's hard to laugh after seeing Gesicht who—being a robot—obviously understood the wife's feelings and empathized with her. It's those kind of complex reactions that really make this an incredible and absolutely relevant story.

One other thing that seemed contradictory about the robots was how the humans in the story reacted to them. When the first volume opens, there is a news report talking about the death of Mont Blanc, a robot much beloved around the world; but later on the characters will talks about how humans hate and discriminate against robots. Now I don't think this is an inconsistency in the story so much as it is a reflection of a complex reality. In reality, there is discrimination is not always so extreme and not always consistent. For instance, there are celebrities in the world who are minorities and still popular, but that doesn't mean discrimination doesn't exist. That's how people are presented in Pluto. One of the best arcs involves a retired composer who hates all robots including his new robot butler, but by the end his feelings are more complex. It's the gradual development of the characters and the reasons for that development that pulled me into the story.

Of course, there is action and an epic and engaging plot in this manga in addition to the themes and character development; but the book does a great job of keeping things shrouded in mystery both in the plot and the action. The fight scenes rarely occur in the open, and are only shown fully when necessary for character or plot development. That "less is more" philosophy does a lot to make the scale of the battles—even those that are unseen—seem all the more grand because your imagination has to take over and anticipate when everything is going to be revealed. It also allows the story to focus more on the effects and implications of the action than on the actions itself, ensuring that it is never gratuitous.

The artwork is just as fascinating as the rest of the story because the sci-fi elements and character designs seem so realistic. In most sci-fi movies/manga/etc, the settings are one of two extremes: either it's a pristine future with minimalist designs for the buildings and mechanics, or it's a dystopian wasteland. The setting in Pluto skews toward the former, but the details in the art make the setting more believable while avoiding the glitz and flashiness that usually make such settings look silly. As a result the futuristic buildings feel somehow, for the lack of a better word, normal; and it's another example of how the book combines the fantastic with the realistic. The character designs are also more believable than the stereotypical "big eyes, etc." look. Here the body types come in all shapes and sizes and the character's expressions are varied and subtle while expressing all kinds of emotions effectively.

The one thing that did disappoint slightly with the manga was the ending, because at that point it did start to seem like a child's superhero comic. The scope was epic and the fate of the world hung in the balance, but it seemed so rushed and forced that it lost the character-driven narrative that had allowed me to build a personal connection with the story. That downhill fall could have started when the villain robot was revealed. After so much anticipation, the final design of the robot was unimpressive and seemed too corny to be intimidating. The story seemed like it needed a few more chapters to tell the ending effectively, because there did not seem to be enough time to build proper emotional tension and resolution.

Do not let that one criticism dissuade you from reading this, because there is so much more to love about this series. I would definitely recommend this to anyone whether you are a fan of Astro Boy or not. The plot and characters are engaging and the themes are unambiguously mature, relevant, and current. Read it and encourage others to read it, and maybe more people will realize just how far the medium of manga has come.