Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
The future isn't exactly utopia. One by one, the great robots of the world are being killed off by an unseen murderer, along with other famous people in the field of robotics. The only clues so far are the symbolic horns that appear at every crime scene. Germany's illustrious robot detective Gesicht is on the case, but he too is being targeted—not just by the murderer, but also by a group of anti-robot extremists who feel that the work of human society is best left to humans. Meanwhile, the famous boy robot Atom and his little sister Uran continue to get into all sorts of scrapes due to Uran's powerful empathic abilities. When Uran encounters a stray robot with no memory, she may have unwittingly discovered the path that leads to Pluto ... a massive horned robot with the urge to kill.
If Pluto were "merely" a mystery-action-thriller, it would be easy to fault Vol. 3 for going nowhere fast. It takes several chapters just to reveal the bad guy, mostly because Atom and Uran keep stalling for time, while the other great robots of the world are just sitting around nervously discussing the situation, and Urasawa is doing that thing again where he starts up another plotline and takes forever getting to the point of how it ties into the main story. (Watch out Gesicht, the crazies are after you.) But as we have seen many times before, Pluto is more than just a thriller—it's a classic sci-fi examination of artificial intelligence, and the progression of that debate is just as crucial as the progression of the story itself. This volume presents one of the questions we all dread: as robots start to encroach on the domain of humanity, what happens when the humans start fighting back?
The quick answer: they turn into radical extremists. In one fell swoop, Urasawa points out one of the aspects that makes humanity so human—as soon as we are faced with a perceived injustice, it only takes a few whackjob demagogues to rile up the crowds and start spreading their nasty ideas. This story arc doesn't shy away from the obvious political overtones: the pointy-hood outfits, a protagonist named Adolf, and the conflicting ideologies about civil rights all point to hot-button topics of the 20th and 21st centuries. What's especially interesting is that humans are painted as the villains in this debate, as opposed to other fictional visions of the future where machines typically end up as the cruel and ruthless ones.
But all this cultural and societal commentary doesn't mean a thing if the story isn't going somewhere, and that's where this volume of the series trips up. Sure, it's fascinating to see how the anti-robot faction operates (and like any good storyteller, Urasawa provides a well-developed, perfectly reasonable motivation for Adolf), but the real star of the show—Gesicht—gets pushed to the side as a result. Worse yet, a critical conversation between Gesicht and another robot pal is left hanging because of the sudden switch to Atom and Uran's storyline—which wouldn't be so bad if not for the timing. On the plus side, Uran proves to be a fascinating character once the focus is on her; her near-human (if not superhman) ability to sense the feelings of others proves to be the linchpin for the next big plot revelation. As it turns out, the people behind the big bad killer are on the move, and the last couple of chapters provide a dramatic emotional swing as a curious suddenly turns sour. Yes, it takes way too long to finally bring out the antagonist, but the moment is still an impressive one.
Despite this hiccup in storytelling quality, the artwork remains consistent from scene to scene, with Urasawa continuing to reinvent Tezuka's character designs with great finesse (isn't Uran just the most adorable thing?). Many times, it's also the subtle background elements that show the artist's talent—the world of Pluto is built with sleek, ultramodern machinery and futuristic architecture, although a handful of less-developed locales also help to to point out the economic and technological contrasts of the future. Critical turns of plot are made memorable thanks the to striking, action-packed images like Pluto rising out of the waters and the grotesque sight of an android releasing mechanical cockroaches out of his body. But Urasawa's true strength, of course, is in the stuff that goes on between the pictures—his unparalleled command of layout and using it to direct the story. Even long, talky scenes like the debate about human and robot rights turn out to be gripping ones, with the panels shifting in size and shape and characters expressing their emotions openly (yes, even the robots).
In a work that tackles topics of technology and ethics like this one, it's to be expected that the dialogue might be a challenge—and in one sense, the sheer quantity of text does require a bit of endurance on the translator's part. Yet the vocabulary and writing style itself is not difficult; most of the conversations between the characters are easy to follow even when they get into philosophical territory. (Compare this against technobabble series like Ghost in the Shell.) The careful balance between talk and action—a true mark of the cinematic approach—also keeps things from getting too dialogue-heavy.
As a premium-priced "Signature Edition" product, this volume gets a fairly plush treatment, just like others in the series: cover flaps and premium paper are a nice touch, and the opening pages of the first chapter are printed in color. (Color also happens to play a role in one of the key plot points in this volume.) A critical essay in the back also provides some thoughts about the qualities of Pluto, and while it may seem like so much Tezuka and Urasawa brown-nosing, it also helps to partially answer why this series is so fascinating to read.
As Pluto hits the three-volume mark and the bad guy finally shows his face to the protagonists (and to the reader), one particular thought lingers: they really could be doing this faster. After all, in Tezuka's day, you practically had to do a complete story in 20 pages because that was all they expected from comics. But times change, and this work holds nothing back in demonstrating the generational shift between the God of Manga and one of his great admirers. More than just a robot-versus-robot action showdown, Pluto also reveals layers of mystery, conspiracy, science, and even philosophy. Perhaps, once the plot finally kicks itself into high gear, this story will eventually reach the level of masterpiece that it promises to be.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ The emergence of an anti-robot extremist group, and Uran's unusual empathy for others, add some interesting wrinkles to a gripping, ever-deepening mystery.
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