+ Urusawa's art is gorgeous
+ Compelling mystery
Cartoony designs mismatch w/ art
5 out of 5 · An Unequivocal Recommendation
Pluto Manga Review
Written by: Frank Chavez on 1/27/2010
Osamu Tezuka, cartoonist, animator, and medical doctor is known throughout the world as the "Godfather of Anime" and "father of manga". A prolific artist, his complete body of work in manga totals nearly 150,000 pages, much of which has never been translated out of Japanese. Among his hundreds of contributions to both art forms are the manga and anime series Astro Boy, the anime series Kimba the White Lion, and the multi-volume manga biography of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The famous large eyed illustration style that has become an anime and manga cliché was invented by Tezuka in imitation of Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s. In 2003, manga artist Naoki Urasawa re-worked the famous Astro Boy story arc "The Greatest Robot on Earth" into a gritty murder mystery titled Pluto after the story's villain.
With the release of such films and TV series as Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, the terms "reboot" and "reimagining" have become popular in the entertainment industry. Some reboots such as Christopher Nolan's gritty, realistic Batman films or Ronald D. Moore's take on Battlestar Galactica have been highly successful. Others such as the attempted re-launches of The Bionic Woman or Knight Rider have been met with cold indifference by fans and critics alike. Naoki Urasawa's Pluto belongs on the shortlist of well done re- imaginings.
Instead of simply updating the "The Greatest Robot on Earth" storyline with new art work and contemporary ideas, Urusawa completely re-imagines it as a gritty yet philosophical police procedural similar to the type of TV show Dick Wolf, Paul Attanasio, or Steven Bochco would create if any of them were ever inclined to include robots in their work. Urusawa follows in Tezuka's footsteps and sets the story in a world in which robots and humans live and work side-by-side rather than the more common science fiction worlds where one is the slave to the other. Robots in this world have the same rights as human beings; they get married, start families, and dwell in houses and apartments. They are loved and respected members of society. The only sign that humans exert any form of control over the robots is that the robots seem to be programmed with an ethical or moral code modeled on Isaac Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics (A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law).
Our hero is Gesicht, a humanoid robot member of Europol (a fictionalized Interpol) investigating a series of brazen robot murders connected by the pair of antlers or horns left behind at each crime scene. Unlike a character such as Robocop who is presented as a piece of property, Gesicht is depicted as a cop who happens to be a robot similar to the way Data is depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation as an Enterprise crewmember who happens to be an android. Also unlike Robocop, Gesicht is not a superheroic figure but is rather cut from the same mold as the heroes from countless police procedurals. He's a care worn family man who puts his pants on one leg at a time, being a cop is his job but it's not who he is. If Pluto was an American TV series produced by Dick Wolf, Gesicht would be the Christopher Meloni character.
Although set in the future, Pluto is the kind of story often seen in film noir and police procedurals where the hero slowly comes to realize that the case he is involved in is way over his head. In a scene clearly meant to be reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs, Gesicht seeks advice from a supposedly criminal robot held in a special prison. This robotic criminal points out that the horns left at the crime scenes link the killer to a number of ancient European gods of death such as the Anglo-Saxon Herne the Hunter, the Greek Hades, and Hades' Roman equivalent, Pluto. The mechanical Hannibal Lector warns Gesicht that the robot murders that Gesicht is investigating are all part of a larger plot to destroy the most powerful robots in the world, Gesicht included.
Besides being a compelling mystery, Pluto is also a deeply philosophical work. It explores a variety of topics most notably dreams, memories, and art. Perhaps one of the most touching subplots in the series involves the relationship between North #2 a former combat robot who has become a butler and his master, a famed composer. The composer is popular and successful but he hasn't released any new music in years. Haunted by feelings of abandonment, the composer is tormented by his inability to recreate a piece of folk music from his childhood and has locked himself away in a castle in Scotland. Meanwhile, North #2, tormented by the memories of the robots he killed in the last war is drawn to the composer's piano. The composer refuses to teach North #2 to play and instead derides him as a soulless machine who can only imitate art. When North #2 travels to the composer's homeland and discovers the truth behind the composer's feelings of abandonment it causes a shift in their relationship that underscores that a sentient machine is just as capable of expressing joy, sorrow, and wonder through art as any human being. The series' story is well served by Urasawa's art. However, it may be jarring to some readers. Urasawa draws in the semi-realistic style that has become popular in recent years. His characters, while caricatures, still look like they could walk off the page and take up residence without standing out as freaks or monsters. Tezuka, however, drew in a cartoony style inspired by Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers which readers used to grittier manga such as Akira or Ghost in the Shell might find cutesy or twee. When Urasawa welds his realistic style to some of Tezuka's original character designs the result is not always a perfect blend of styles. The effect may take some time to get used to and is potentially distracting. It is the series only weakness and it is a rather minor quibble.
Osamu Tezuka is a beloved colossal figure in the worlds of anime and manga. Reworking one of his creations is a daunting task that few artists have attempted and Pluto could have easily been a failure. However, Pluto is a reboot done right. Naoki Urasawa not only contemporizes a story by the "father of manga" he truly re-imagines it. He is faithful to Tezuka's idealistic vision of a world where humans and robots work side-by-side but he gives the story a gritty overhaul, bringing it into the 21st Century as a murder mystery and police procedural reminiscent of the best those genres have to offer. Pluto deserves a place on the list of successful reboots right next to Battlestar Galactica, Batman Begins, and Casino Royale.
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