Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

Pluto is the greatest robot story in history.

Okay, that's debatable, but I would say it is up there. It is also probably the greatest comic book I have ever encountered.

Pluto is the bold reinterpretation of manga legend Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy (AKA Tetsuwan Atom) by one of today's greatest authors of graphic literature, Naoki Urasawa (Yawara!, Monster, 20th Century Boys). Pluto specifically revisits Astro Boy's most famous story arc, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," originally about a robot programmed to prove itself history's greatest by destroying Astro Boy (AKA Atom) and all of the world's other most powerful robots.

Osamu Tezuka is justifiably regarded as the godfather of both manga and anime. He shaped Japan's post-World War II comics with his 150,000+ pages of material, transitioning the industry from a juvenile pastime to a booming creative and economic golden age with his works covering every genre and demographic. His impact on Japan's animation industry was no less significant; the animated Astro Boy (1963) was one of the country's first domestic animated TV series, certainly the first popular one. Although Astro Boy was his most famous creation, he also appealed to adults with such works as Ode to Kirihito and MW, both of which explored the dark and violent depths of mankind. He wrote for girls, sowing the seeds of shojo with his Princess Knight (AKA Ribon no Kishi), which begot The Rose of Versailles, which begot Revolutionary Girl Utena. Truly, it would be hard to find any work today that cannot be traced back to Tezuka. Even over twenty years after his death, his "big eyes" aesthetic remains synonymous with the "manga style" of art. An extraordinarily prolific and visionary artist and industry pioneer, although he was himself inspired by Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, Tezuka really never had an English-language equivalent to match his thorough combination of universal appeal and philosophical profundity that allowed him to speak to children in their own terms while challenging them with questions to be returned to continually as they grew up. I would credit that for the difference today between Japan and America in the perception and appreciation of comics and animation.

Among the many children who grew up following the adventures of Astro Boy was a young Naoki Urasawa, now one of Japan's most respected manga authors. In 2003, Urasawa approached Tezuka's son with the idea of remaking "The Greatest Robot on Earth" in celebration of the fictional birth year of Astro Boy. In the English-speaking world, Urasawa is best known for Monster, his adult-oriented psychological thriller about a surgeon's pursuit of the sociopath who framed him for murder. He might not have seemed an obvious choice to take on a crazy robot story originally aimed at young boys, but that's part of what makes Pluto so fresh and exciting, even--maybe especially so--for fans of Tezuka's original work.

Scaling things back from Tezuka's typically grand narratives, Urasawa and co-plotter Takashi Nagasaki reinterpret the story as first a suspenseful murder mystery that only gradually escalates into superheroic battles. Displacing Astro Boy as the protagonist in Urasawa's version is Gesicht, the robot detective, who is put in charge of the investigation of the attacks on the world's greatest robots by a terrifyingly powerful mechanical assailant. This robot serial killer's motive and identity are as elusive as any means to stop him, and there is yet an additional chilling element to his crimes because some of his victims are human, which, in accordance with Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, should be impossible.

As readers follow the case from Gesicht's perspective, the detective exemplifies the advanced state of artificial life in the world of Pluto. We see the very human-like weariness felt by this cop who has seen too much over his many years devoted to his job, as well as the stress on both him and his robot wife, because Gesicht himself is one of the world's greatest robots and thus a target. Through Gesicht's interactions with both robots and humans, Urasawa additionally tackles Tezuka's theme of robot rights, the ever-present question of whether these artificial lifeforms should be recognized as truly "alive" in the same way that humans are. Even as robots seem to exist alongside humans in the society of Pluto, there are still many humans who cannot accept robots as equals. The soulfulness that Gesicht exhibits makes them seem like bigots, but perhaps their resentment is understandable; Pluto does not shy away from discussing the negative implications of introducing super-efficient robots into the workforce. At the same time, there are things humans can do that robots cannot, such as killing other humans. Law is supposed to prohibit humans from committing murder, but some of Pluto's most intelligent characters argue that programming these restrictions into robots stunts their development toward full humanity. Some robots even wonder whether it is advisable for them to become any more human, considering that some of these programmed limitations, such as the inability to feel hate, are ostensibly good things that make them more humane than humans. Meanwhile, with the introduction of advanced prosthetics to replace lost limbs and even vital organs, humans themselves seem to become more like robots.

Pluto is still not hard science fiction. The non-uniform powers and abilities of the world's greatest robots veer toward the fantastic, and in tackling the theoretical issue of robot rights, Urasawa seems to cheat in leapfrogging by generations the limitations that identify AI today, instead depicting robots that are already so advanced as to be indistinguishable from humans in their exhibited depth of emotion and complexity of behavior. But therein lies the fundamental question: with technology progressing at a rapid clip, when eventually there exists a robot sophisticated enough to fool you into believing it is human, should the revelation of its artificial origins alter your perception of it? Are humans themselves anything more than extremely advanced machines designed by nature? Would an equally complex robot qualify as alive and intelligent, or would its human-like behavior be merely soulless mimicry? Is Gesicht's weariness real, or is he just going through the motions? How many humans can just as easily be accused of the latter? Of course probably nobody today will live to see such advanced robots (assuming robotics even goes in that direction), rendering the argument moot, but the greater point may be to make us consider over and again what it means to be human. Tezuka certainly had some ideas, Urasawa has his own, and the characters within Pluto have varying opinions as well, both hopeful and unsettling.

Astro Boy, known even in the English edition of Pluto by his original Japanese name of Atom, still has a major role as one of those greatest robots targeted by the robot serial killer. But Urasawa matches Pluto's more serious tone with art in his own style, which is markedly different from Tezuka's. The big eyes survive, as they have in everyone's work, Urasawa's included, but gone are the plastic hairdo and metallic shorts. Urasawa's Atom is drawn as a startlingly realistic young boy, and other formerly cartoonish Tezuka characters, such as the giant-nosed Ochanomizu (AKA Elefun, AKA Dr. O'Shay), are likewise re-imagined with entirely sensible proportions. In short, this is Astro Boy as though it were real. But that assessment alone does not do justice to Urasawa's art, which is more mature and understated than a lot of what is available in manga. The cinematic paneling that Tezuka spread is here perfected by Urasawa, who, without using dialogue as a crutch, can convey a ton of emotion just through narrative framing, as when he draws a female robot receiving the news of her husband's death. An older Johnny 5-esque model, she has no facial expression, yet the gravity of the scene is communicated through angled glances and shots alternating between her unmoving face and the officer's eyes that subtly shift from pain to guilt. Considering that Pluto sells at a premium rate as part of Viz's "Signature" line, it is only a shame that some pages have clearly been grayscaled from their original color forms. But Viz preserves the absolutely essential ones, perhaps spending a little more than usual to deliver the special treatment that Pluto not only deserves but requires. There is one particularly beautiful page that feels like the payoff to all the thousands of black-and-white pages of manga I've read over the years.

Pluto is an accomplished work on its own that requires no previous knowledge of Osamu Tezuka or Astro Boy to enjoy. That said, my appreciation for what Urasawa accomplished was greatly enhanced after I went back and read Tezuka's original story. Before getting into Pluto, I knew Astro Boy mainly from the bowdlerized English version of the 2003 anime and from watching somebody else play through Astro Boy: Omega Factor, Sega and Treasure's 2003 Game Boy Advance video game that compiled and jumbled together Tezuka's entire canon. From these more recent adaptations, both of which include "The Greatest Robot on Earth" to varying degrees of faithfulness, I appreciated the brazenness of Tezuka's world that seemed able to venture repeatedly into the awesome fringes of the imagination without ever stuttering. Yet I was reluctant to explore Tezuka's original work without the aid of nostalgia, for fear that it had aged too badly, much as the early DC and even Marvel comics, for all the ground they broke, are now overly simplistic and largely unreadable.

Watching the Terminator mythology crumble into nonsensical convolutions as McG's Terminator Salvation played on the screen, I wondered if the James Cameron classics that I so loved as a child were equally stupid. I did not go back to verify whether they were really the prescient meditations on both time travel and killer machines that I remembered, but I did watch Cameron's Avatar, and I thought to myself, "Yeah, this is pretty good. And stupid. I guess stupid is what I liked as a kid. Right?" Although I still have not gone back to re-watch the Terminator films, I'm actually pretty confident that they do hold up. I was less certain about Astro Boy, a work I did not originally encounter as a child, and which Tezuka himself in his later years regarded with frustration as juvenilia.

But Urasawa, like many manga authors of his generation, was motivated along his career path by that very juvenilia, whose depths inspired him even as he produced work all his own. As one of the supplemental interviews in Viz's release reveals, he prepared for writing Pluto by going back and rereading "The Greatest Robot on Earth," and he was surprised to find that many of the images so clear in his memory were not even in the original material. Therein lies the genius of both Osamu Tezuka and Naoki Urasawa.

One could perhaps pitch Pluto succinctly as "Astro Boy for adults." That will do for marketing, but Pluto is not a shocking or subversive new twist on the story you know. Urasawa and Nagasaki expand and newly contextualize the original material, but the themes definitely have their roots in Tezuka's story, as do nearly all key plot points. What Pluto really does is allow adults to appreciate the story in the same way that a child might have experienced the original Astro Boy some fifty years ago, for it is nothing less than the story that Urasawa remembers reading as a child who, presented with a seemingly simple cartoon full of slapstick characters speeding through illogical episodes, dug into its carefully hidden messages and, with that wondrous imagination that Tezuka depended upon in his young readers, unfolded them into a loaded and deadly serious opus.

Reading Pluto, then Astro Boy, followed by Pluto again, I found myself stunned into the realization that true art is never passively consumed. You don't just lay eyes on a painting, record some universal truth, and walk on, having brought no interpretation to the table. There is always a dialogue between the work and its audience, and what of that experience survives into consciousness and culture is reflective of the souls of both the author and the readers.

I now wait for the day when I will be able to hand Pluto to a robot, and he will throw it back in my face, calling it ridiculous and offensive.

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