Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Pluto
by Jason Thompson, Sep 13th 2012
Episode CXX: Pluto
One of the reasons everyone knows about Osamu Tezuka, 23 years after his death, is that his manga were so good. Another reason is that Tezuka Production, which controls his work, wants people to know about him. They're famous in the American manga industry for being one of the easiest manga licensors to work with, unlike some other manga publishers which seem to love being control freaks and making it impossible for anyone to reprint or do anything interesting with their manga (and yet, they weren't able to stop Hollywood from making Dragonball: Evolution—the irony). Perhaps Tezuka Production is less worried about policing their intellectual property (although I'm sure they care about that too) than they are about keeping the Tezuka flame alive.
Take Pluto, the officially approved remake of an Astro Boy story, "The Greatest Robot on Earth." Printed from 2003 to 2009 in the seinen magazine Big Comic Spirits, and translated by Viz, Pluto won critical praise and attention both in Japan and America, where it was nominated for a 2010 Eisner Award. It isn't the first modern remake of a Tezuka manga—Akita Shoten has been cranking out licensed Black Jack spinoffs for years—but it's probably the classiest; having Naoki Urasawa (and his longtime writing buddy Takashi Nagasaki) draw the manga is like if they'd gotten John Lasseter to direct the Astro Boy CG movie. (Don't bother Wikipedia'ing it. It was actually David Bowers.) Macoto Tezka, Osamu's son, justified the remake by saying "If we're talking about music, countless covers have been made of Beatles songs, right?" It makes sense, and it's the same argument people make about superhero comics; although to their credit, Urasawa and Nagasaki are just adapting a single Astro Boy story arc, not redoing the entire thing and calling it "Ultimate Astro Boy" or "The 52 New Robots" or something. There's a certain pleasure in hearing a familiar story retold in a new way.
The biggest obvious difference between Pluto and the original is that Astro Boy was a shonen manga and Pluto is a seinen manga, printed in a magazine aimed at middle-aged adults (adults who read the original Astro Boy story when they were young, perhaps?). In this way, Pluto is also like superhero comics, the "gritty realistic superhero comics" popularized in the '80s in comics like Alan Moore's Watchmen. Although Tezuka's kids' comics had more violence and drama than any American superhero comics from the same time period (due to the censorious Comics Code Authority), so just adding more violence wasn't the point, both Watchmen and Pluto take a "kids'" genre and try to make it "adult," to make it more serious, deeper. It's a stretch, but I wonder if Urasawa and Nagasaki were influenced by Moore, particularly since their current series, Billy Bat, is also a superhero/comics-industry deconstruction, which like Alan Moore's Miracleman, starts out with an entire first chapter drawn in the style of a 1940s-1950s comic? On the other hand, Urasawa's storytelling style is totally different from Moore's—it's much, much simpler and less info-dense, although of course this is a difference between Western and Japanese comics generally. Watchmen is 400 pages and Pluto is 1600, but it takes longer to read Watchmen.
Like Watchmen, Pluto begins as a murder mystery, set in a parallel, sci-fi, near-future world. Mont Blanc, a famous robot who works for the Swiss Forestry Service, dies mysteriously in a forest fire. In Germany, Bernard Lanke, a human robot-rights activist is also found murdered. Gesicht, an investigator for the German branch of Europol, notices something in common between the deaths: both of them had branches or poles planted next to their heads, like horns. Furthermore, the murderer who killed Mont Blanc and Lanke must have had superhuman strength; but how could that be, since the Robot Laws in every robot's brain (Asimov's Laws of Robotics shout-out!) prevent them from killing a human being?
It's a question that troubles Gesicht especially, since Gesicht is a robot himself. He can't tell a lie, he can't forget, and he can't quite feel emotions the way humans can, but he's a good cop, and he's proud of his family and his job. In this world, robots have only recently been granted rights, and human-robot discrimination still exists. "You're a robot yourself…how could you understand?" a grieving victim asks Gesicht. But robots do feel emotions (at least, we never meet any robots who obviously don't feel emotions). When Gesicht tells a patrol-robot's wife that her husband was killed, there's an amazing three-panel closeup of the wife's face as she absorbs the news; amazing because, unlike Gesicht, the patrol robot doesn't have a human face, and she has no facial expressions. In this world, robots get married, they adopt children ("I decided to take a hint from the humans and got some children!"), they try to act like human beings. One character speculates that robots may be gradually developing human emotions by imitating them. ("What starts as imitation soon becomes real…") Are robots evolving towards humanity? And is this a good thing, since with humanity comes anger and sadness as well as happiness and love?
Anyway, a killer is out there, killing humans and robots. For research, Gesicht goes to a maximum-security robot prison where he talks to Brau 1589, the only robot who has ever killed a human being. Brau, the creepy Hannibal Lecter of this story, tells Gesicht that the 'horns' left by the murderer are a sign of the devil, or if you want to stretch it a little, of the Roman god of the dead, Pluto. Soon Gesicht realizes the truth: Pluto, the mysterious killer robot (whose face isn't actually shown 'till volume 7!) is on a mission to kill the Seven Great Robots, the most powerful robots on Earth. Apart from Mont Blanc, the Seven Robots are Brando and Hercules, the famous robot fighting champions; North No. 2, a former military robot trying to live in peacetime; Epsilon, a pacifistic bishonen Australian robot; and Gesicht himself. And lastly, the most advanced robot of all: Atom (the American name "Astro Boy" doesn't appear in this manga), "the emissary of peace," a little boy whose robot heart conceals the most advanced emotion-processing engine that the famous Dr. Tenma could devise!
In the original Astro Boy version, of course, it was Atom who was the hero; but with Gesicht as the main character, the whole story takes the tone of a mystery (hey, he's a detective) instead of a shonen battle story. (Takashi Nagasaki's notes in the back of volume 8 mentions that the original "Greatest Robot on Earth" storyline was Tezuka's attempt to make Astro Boy more fighting-oriented to compete with battle manga like Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-go.) Furthermore, Atom becomes the mysterious one: what is he capable of? Is he good or evil? Robots are capable of borrowing and reading one another's memory chips, so in order to understand Atom, in theory, all Gesicht has to do is to read Atom's memories. But robots' memory chips can be erased and altered and copied as well, along with their identities. Like most superhero manga, and indeed most stories about heroes of any kind, Pluto is basically about moral choices and the temptations of power. Will Atom—or Gesicht—fight to stop Pluto? Will they kill? Can they face their own capacity for anger?
Or, alternately, it might all be about the Iraq War. Pluto started in 2003, right before the US/NATO invasion of Iraq, and that war's as much a theme of Pluto as the threat of US-Soviet nuclear war is a theme of Watchmen. Although Germany and Japan appear in this manga under their own names, in this manga, the world's biggest superpower is the United States of Thracia, led by the warmongering President Alexander. Like Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago, President Alexander has a huge hate-on for the Persian Kingdom, led by King Darius XIV, an obvious Saddam Hussein clone. On the pretext that King Darius is manufacturing "robots of mass destruction," President Alexander leads a United Nations attack against Persia, ravaging the country. All the Seven Great Robots, except Epsilon and Atom, fought in the war, and all of them are traumatized by what they saw and did. ("Even if I wanted to, I'd never forget what I saw in the war. It's still clear as day…those mountains of robot corpses…") Professor Ochanomizu, Atom's guardian and the head of the Japanese ministry of science, was also involved in the war: he was one of the scientists in the UN survey team invited by Persian Science Advisor Abullah (the most obvious fake-Arabic manga name since Avdol in Jojo's) to look for RMDs (robots of mass destruction), which they did not find, although Thracia invaded anyway. Now, years after the war, he discovers that he and the other survey team members—like Bernand Lanke—are also being targeted by Pluto, along with the Seven Great Robots who fought the war. Is Pluto the final RMD, the ultimate revenge of the Persian Empire?? ("Those barbarian machines with their filthy artificial minds from the West…they turned my beloved homeland to ashes!")
I'm tempted to make some joke about US drone strikes now (question: the Allied robots in Pluto can't kill humans, so they were supposedly only fighting Persian robots, but wouldn't they have accidentally killed humans anyway by bombing & blowing up stuff?), but the political content in Pluto is so heavy-handed it's kind of pointless to dig deeper. The US=Thracia (the land where Alexander the Great came from), Iraq=Persia thing is a clever Clash of Civilizations joke, but most of the Iraq War parallels are pretty shallow and predictable: the war was started by the US/Thracia for sneaky reasons, there's lots of innocent deaths, all the soldiers feel bad about it, there are revenge-obsessed terrorists who talk about God and who want to kill everyone, etc., etc. ("We came here for justice…to free robots from tyranny and oppression…" "There are no terrorists here! There were only innocent children! You dropped your bombs on sleeping babies!") As Iraq War Metaphor manga go, Fullmetal Alchemist is more clever, plus, Hiromu Arakawa draws better battles than Urusawa. And ironically, as political as Pluto wants to think it is, Tezuka himself was far more politically extreme and daring; in 1967, in the middle of the Vietnam War, he wrote an Astro Boy storyline in which Astro Boy literally sacrifices himself to protect Vietnamese villagers from American bombers. Not Thracian bombers, American bombers. With their wishy-washy "welllll…war is bad, but the soldiers feel really guilty guyz, and terrorists are bad too…" message, Urasawa & Nagasaki's story is far more mainstream.
Still, there's a lot of fun stuff in Pluto. First and foremost, there's Urasawa & Nagasaki's smooth storytelling, that makes 1600 pages go by in a flash. There's some cool bits, such as the mysterious robot teddy bear that advises President Alexander. The concept of an AI formed by simulating the personalities of all 6,000,000,000 people on Earth. And great scenes—like the flashback scene of Atom with his creator, his "father," Professor Tenma. Or the moment when Gesicht sees a man beating a robot—not out of anti-robot racism, but just because he's angry and he's doing it the same way you'd crush a soda can—and his anger breaks through his unemotional surface. Finally, for Tezuka fans, there's the excitement of seeing references to Tezuka's other manga (including Black Jack and, marginally, Phoenix) and seeing Urasawa revamp Tezuka's cartoony designs: even Atom, instead of having black shorts and spiky Mickey Mouse Ears hair, looks like a normal, cute little boy with a tousled haircut. (You can ever-so-faintly see those two Astro Boy spikes in his cowlicks.) It's a fascinating update.
But is anything lost in the update? Maybe. In his essay in the back of volume 6, Gorot Yamada writes that Pluto is actually less daring, in some ways, than the original Astro Boy. Urasawa & Nagasaki's version is all serious, the hyperactivity of shonen manga smoothed out to the steady rhythm of a novel for adults. But in the original Astro Boy, as in most of Tezuka's work, the silly coexists with the serious, Atom's tragic origin story with the machine guns sticking out of his butt, melodramatic death scenes with Atom's sister Uran running around topless in short pants. "Pluto has thus far shown considerable less cruelty and eroticism than the original Astro Boy," writes Yamada…
"This may even be one of its minor weaknesses. The cruelty and eroticism in Tezuka's work is sometimes referred to as evidence of his so-called dark side and treated as taboo. But in reality, these qualities were also one of Tezuka's greatest strengths as a children's author. Depictions of cruelty and eroticism, if done poorly, can indeed be harmful, but in the hands of a skilled author they can conversely work as a vaccine, to help young readers develop a resistance to what might otherwise harm them. Tezuka himself recognized these same two aspects in the greatness of Walt Disney, whom he idealized as his mentor, and (in a 1973 article in the Asahi Journal) warned against falling into the trap of emphasizing a cheap humanism simply to placate critics."
I'm not sure I can wrap my head around the "cruelty and eroticism" of Walt Disney (although some old Mickey Mouse cartoons were pretty violent, like Floyd Gottfredson's 1930s comic strips when Mickey joins the foreign legion and gets beaten by his commanding officer Peg Leg Pete), but I'm on Yamada's side here: the weird & incongruous elements in Tezuka are one of the things that make him (and older manga in general) so fascinating, and this is what Pluto doesn't have. It's also where Urasawa and Alan Moore part ways: Moore revisited "classic" comics (superheroes) to break taboos and get political, but Urasawa revisits "classic" manga (Astro Boy) to get all Classics Illustrated on it and make it more serious and polished, and actually less political, than it was the first time around. Urasawa and Nagasaki are great storytellers, and I'm slavering to read 20th Century Boys and Billy Bat in their entirety in English. But Pluto, despite its skill and all the nostalgia that has contributed to its critical praise, proves why no matter how much you want to copy Tezuka, a remake is never the same as the original.
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