Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 20th 2010
The vengeful robot Pluto has destroyed all seven of the greatest robots on Earth—or so he thought. The brilliant Professor Tenma has inserted a critical memory chip into the boy robot Atom, re-awakening him and filling him with an extremely powerful emotion: hate. Now Atom stands as the last line of defense against Pluto's destructive rage ... but will the turmoil in Atom's circuits turn him into his own worst enemy? Meanwhile, the full truth is revealed about the people, places and events of the great Central Asian War, including the meaning of the mysterious "Bora." It turns out that the existence of Bora could lead to the end of all life on planet Earth—unless Atom and Pluto put an end to their battle and use their powers to stop Bora. In the end, the fate of humankind rests in the hands of robots.
Osamu Tezuka was always into big ideas. So it's only fitting that in the grand finale of Pluto, another big-ideas man—Naoki Urasawa—catches up with the old master and offers his own closing thoughts on love and war, man and machine, and the end of the world. Indeed, things like these always seem to lead to the end of the world. Yet even as the story descends into familiar genre territory, it still holds to Urasawa's high standards: the mind-bending plot twists, the heart-wrenching emotion, and a sense of pacing that grips the reader and never lets go. Even at its most brutish, this apocalyptic robot battle remains a thing of beauty.
Before Pluto can get to that thrilling ending, however, there's the issue of cleaning up the mess from the previous seven volumes of the series. Much as Urasawa is praised for his winding, multi-layered storytelling, it's that same technique that can also become tangled up in its ambitiousness. We can at least be thankful that Atom's memories help to fill in the entire back-story involving Persia, the United States of Thracia, the Central Asian War, Abullah, Goji, Pluto, Sahad, and Bora—and if some of those names sound unfamiliar, well, this finale is probably best enjoyed by re-reading the rest of the series as a refresher anyway. In particular, the explanation for Abullah seems like one of those cheap "I have no idea how to resolve this plotline so I'll make up something vaguely supernatural" devices—but it is just barely believable, something on the very fringes of artificial intelligence research that resolves the story.
It is at the halfway mark that this volume finally digs into the good stuff, the part that was promised from the very start of the series: an epic Atom-Pluto showdown where our boy hero takes on that mean horned robot. In the action genre, it's clear that Urasawa can throw down with the best of them; there is as much excitement to be had here as any of the more conventional shounen titles that crowd today's market. (Besides, Astro Boy was the quintessential shounen title of an entire generation.) Interspersed among the fight scenes are other scenarios as well: various scientists running around trying to stop the end of the world, plus the memories from defeated robots playing in Atom's mind (particularly the ones relating to detective Gesicht). It's an endgame that satisfies on all levels: visceral, intellectual, and emotional. Plus it never hurts to have an epilogue that's just slightly open-ended and mysterious.
It's also here in the finale where the artwork is at its most arresting—but then again, that should come as no surprise when this is supposed to be the big boss battle with a whole lot of super robot smackdown. Few images are as instantly iconic as the double-page spread of Pluto and Atom facing each other, and the chapters that follow—the intense combat, the countdown to apocalypse, the memories of Atom's comrades—are just as visually powerful. Even in these grand, sweeping scenes, the littlest details are worked out: hatching, shading, and backgrounds that give the impression of a fully realized world. But Urasawa's real mastery is not in his raw artistic ability, or even the appealing character designs, but in the way he places the panels one after another. Whether it's high-speed action sequences that move from one split-second to the next, or carefully framed moments of reflection, this is the very definition of cinematic technique. When the page layouts are as smooth and efficient as this, it really does start to blur the lines between static images and motion pictures.
Of course, it wouldn't be a "static motion picture" without some dialogue, and in this case the translated script goes by without a hitch (save for one rather obvious typo). Whether in the throes of battle or discussing scientific concepts, the characters speak in ways that are easy to understand; this series deserves special kudos for exploring high concepts of robotics and A.I. without having to resort to blabbermouth Ghost in the Shell language. The sound effects, re-lettered in English, also fit seamlessly into each page, looking like true comic-book artwork. Premium covers and page size, a handful of color pages, and a thoughtful closing essay by co-writer Takashi Nagasaki also make this book (not to mention the entire series) a worthy collector's item.
So ends the grand adventure that is Pluto, with the only disappointment being that English-speaking Naoki Urasawa fans will now have to content themselves with merely following 20th Century Boys. (Come on Viz, where's Yawara!?) As a collaboration between manga masters past and present, it doesn't get much better than this: classic themes of technology, conflict and heroism, buffed up with a modern shine and injected with a healthy dose of high-concept sci-fi. As a finale, this volume works on every level: the level where one ruminates on the philosophical points of war and humanity and artificial intelligence, the level where feelings of love, hate, hope, and despair tug at one's heart, and the level where one simply stops and says, "Wow, that was one hell of a robot fight." And most of all, like all the best science fiction works, it is a tale of the future that says plenty about our world today.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A
+ A satisfying, action-packed ending that gives us the flashy robot fight (and doomsday scenario) everyone's been expecting.
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