• Pluto Vol. 1 Featured Longform 

    Naoki Urasawa’s “Pluto:” Digital Humanity

    By | March 28th, 2017
    Posted in Longform | % Comments

    Someone is killing the world’s seven strongest robots, and it’s up to Europol detective Gesicht to find the culprit. But to make matters worse, Gesicht himself is one of the seven robots targeted by this unknown assassin. This murder mystery is how Naoki Urasawa’s “Pluto” starts, but calling it a “murder mystery” direly undersells it. It’s a meditation on what it means to be human. It’s an exploration of how our emotions can define us. It’s a remake of Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy” arc ‘The Greatest Robot in the World.’ It’s one of the most powerful and well-crafted manga series to come out of the last decade.

    “Pluto” is one of my all-time favourite comics. What I want to look at here is how it works as an adaptation, and how Urasawa engages with the concepts of humanity and emotion through the series.

    FOR ADULTS

    Adapting an Osamu Tezuka story is a tall order. How do you approach and rework something created by the man known as The God of Manga and do it justice? That’s not to diminish Urasawa as an artist. He’s regarded as being one of the greatest modern day mangaka for a reason. From his work on “20th Century Boys” to “Monster,” Urasawa has constantly proven he’s a master of his craft.

    In the back matter for “Pluto” Volume 1, Osamu’s son, Makoto, compares Urasawa’s adaptation to the various covers of Beatles songs: “Countless covers have been made of Beatles songs, right? And if something new and interesting comes out of a new arrangement, that’s good, right?” Both Tezuka and the Beatles are objectively two of the most important artists in their respective mediums. Taking their work and attempting to change it can come across as an act of hubris. I think Makoto’s comparison nails why Urasawa’s version works so well. He isn’t just rehashing Tezuka’s work; he’s remaking it to become something else. It’s Jimi Hendrix covering “All Along the Watchtower”, or Johnny Cash doing Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” They take those original songs and imbue them with the something new and interesting, transforming them into something that isn’t the original.

    Creating a good adaption is hard – stray too far and you lose any semblance or reference to the original (it stops being an adaptation and just something new altogether); stay too close to the original and you’re not really bringing anything new to the table. You need to hit that perfect balance of the original and the new. That’s why something like Ron Wimberly’s “Prince of Cats” works so well. It’s a comic that is overflowing with Wimberly’s personality and style, but undeniably still Romeo and Juliet.

    There’s also the issue of taking such a family friendly work like “Astro Boy” and injecting it with much more mature themes and ideas. It’s an idea that Western adaptations struggle with; as if making some gritty and mature makes it inherently more interesting, regardless of its actual content or quality. Batman v Superman’s obsession with showing just how adult and serious its characters can be totally misses what makes those characters interesting. It’s too busy telling us why it’s so adult and should be taken seriously instead of letting us experience it for ourselves. The worst-case scenario of this would be Zenescope Entertainment’s “Grimm Fairy Tales” series, whose definition of “adult” is how much sex and violence you can cram onto a page. It’s a series with mature content that’s immature in its execution.

    “Pluto” gets it right. As much as it is Urasawa taking a Tezuka strip and turning it into a complex murder mystery, it never comes across as an edgy “This isn’t your father’s Astro Boy.” There are adult themes, but they’re approached with a genuine maturity.

    HUMAN AFTER ALL

    Near the beginning of “Pluto,” Gesicht approaches the wife of a police bot who had been killed in the line of duty. We get a close-up of Gesicht telling the wife-bot, “I’m sorry, but I have some bad news . . .” followed by a close-up of her face. It’s a silent panel but it hits like a ton of bricks. In those cold, lifeless eyes you’re overwhelmed by the wife-bot’s sadness. Urasawa zooms out for a panel, showing us Gesicht standing across from the wife, before returning to the same still shot of her face for two more panels. In those close-ups you can feel the absolute silence of the moment, as this robot comes to terms with her loss. But the thing is, she isn’t sad. She’s a robot; she doesn’t have the capacity to be sad, she can only imitate it. On the following pages she recounts a story about her boss’s son and the family’s pet dog. When the dog died, the boy was overcome with grief and just kept crying and crying. Only now, in this moment, does she understand why the boy was sad. Gesicht offers to delete the memories of her husband from her databanks, but she chooses to keep them because she doesn’t want to forget. She’s as “human” as they come.

    Continued below

    The concept that robots can’t feel human emotions because they aren’t human isn’t a new. It’s pretty well tread territory in science-fiction, and was the major theme in Westworld, the biggest TV show of 2016. In “Pluto,” robots can’t recreate the entire emotional spectrum of humans, but they also aren’t emotionless automatons. Although they don’t have the capacity to feel emotions that would create an “emotional bias” –- anger, sadness, hatred, etc. — they possess what we’d call humanity. It’s Mont Blanc, one of the Great Robots, a peaceful guardian of the Swiss mountains and the “Pride of the human race” staring down the thousands of robots he’d just destroyed during the 39th Central Asian War and wondering what’s the point of war. It’s a war robot constantly trying to wash the blood from his hands. It’s Epsilon, the strongest of the seven Great Robots, refusing to fight in the war despite being ordered too. It’s a robot couple wanting to raise a child. Uran, Atom’s (aka Astro Boy) robot sister, is a robot with the ability to feel the emotions of others, like a satellite dish catching signals.

    There’s a more important question Urasawa wants to answer: Should robots become human at all?

    Dr. Tenma, the authority on artificial intelligence and Atom’s creator, comes to the conclusion that to create the perfect AI, it needs to be able to reproduce all human emotions, including anger, sadness, and hatred. To achieve a perfect replication of humanity you need to include all of our flaws as well: “Perfection is in the mind that makes mistakes.”

    Most of the human characters in “Pluto” are deeply flawed. We’re introduced to Adolf Haas, a member of a KKK-esque anti-robot group, whose brother is killed by a robot. The thing is, Adolf constantly remarks that his brother was objectively a terrible person (as does every other character who mentions him) and doesn’t seem sad about his death until he discovers a robot killed him. He isn’t mad because his brother is dead, but because he was killed by something he views as inferior to himself.

    Urasawa also present the robots of “Pluto” as the next stage of human evolution. While on trial for war crimes, King Darius XIV, the ex-ruler of Persian Kingdom, announces, “As far as god is concerned, man is a flawed creation — a failure. He must be replaced by something else. By some kind if new species . . . the robot.”

    North No. 2, another of of the world’s strongest robots, is assigned to serve Paul Duncan, an elderly, blind musician. Duncan is a bitter person, and we learn that this anger comes from the resentment he has for his mother who abandoned him as a child so she could be with a rich suitor. Duncan reveals to North that his entire career has been revenge, to spite the mother that left him all alone, and who eventually died all alone. He even goes as far to purchase the castle the rich suitor lived in, gaining what his mother abandoned him for. But then North reveals his mother never abandoned him: she went to the rich suitor as a means to get the money to pay to cure Duncan’s sickness, so he’d only go blind instead of outright die. Duncan’s hatred was so strong that he was blinded to this reality and he spent his entire life obsessed with revenge for a wrong that was never committed.

    Robots don’t have the capacity to recreate mankind’s more volatile emotions. They’re imperfect because they can’t 100% recreate our emotions, but at the same time they’re also better. They aren’t victims to mankind’s emotional flaws. No robot is going to live their life just to spite someone who never wronged them. They don’t even have the capacity to lie. Their imperfections make them better because they aren’t victims to their own emotions like us.

    THE PURSUIT OF HATRED

    Robots don’t have the capacity to hate. They can understand, maybe even imitate it, but that can’t actually feel hatred in the same way humans can. They aren’t programmed with the ability to lie.

    Urasawa makes no effort to hide his message: “Nothing comes from hatred.” He presents hatred as an endless cycle where giving into hate just creates more of it. The big moral that Urasawa wants us to leave us with is that it’s a cycle we can break. Hatred is a cliff edge overlooking an abyss that we all stand on, and we’re given two choices. Dive off it and let it consume us, or walk away from it.

    Continued below

    During the 39th Central Asian War an air raid robbed Professor Abullah, the head of the Persian Ministry of Science, of his wife, all but one of his children and most of his body. As revenge for the decimation of his country and his family, Abullah builds a robot capable of defeating the world’s seven strongest robots. To power the robot he transfers the AI of his remaining son Sahad, a peaceful soul whose dream was to cover his devastated country in a sea of flowers. Sahad inherits Abullah’s hatred. It consumes him and turns him into the monster that is Pluto.

    During Volume 4 Atom battles Pluto, with the former being defeated and thrown into a comatose state. At the end of Volume 6, Gesicht is suddenly killed. Dr. Tenma comes to the conclusion that the only way to bring Atom out of his coma is to create an emotional bias, and to do this he insert Gesicht’s memory chip into Atom.

    Atom inherits Gesicht’s hatred, and the first thing he does is create the formula for an antiproton bomb that could destroy all life on earth. That’s how strong his hatred is. He channels that hatred in the final showdown against Pluto, but just before he can land the finishing blow he stops. He understands Gesicht’s final words (“Nothing comes of hatred”) and breaks the cycle. Both characters are given the capacity to hate, but what they choose to do with that hatred is what counts.

    In the series’s final moments, Atom asks Dr. Ochanomizu, “Do you think we’ll ever live in a world free from hate?” Ochanomizu tells Atom that he doesn’t know but hopefully that day will someday come. Atom realising that nothing comes from hatred doesn’t instantly eradicate the emotion from the world. People will continue to hate, and more hate will come from it. But Atom has broken the cycle – that’s one less person hating in the present, which means there’ll be one less person hating in the future. Urasawa’s answer to Atom’s question is vague, playing to the reader’s own cynicism — but if Atom, a robot that was created without the capacity to hate can step back from the edge of the abyss then anyone can as well.

    THE NEXT STEP

    The 39th Central Asian War is ignited when the Bora Investigation Squad discover a robot mass grave underneath King Darius’s kingdom. They instantly jump to the conclusion that Darius must be doing something malevolent, when his real motive is that he asked Abullah to create a weather robot that could turn a desert land of Persia into a green oasis. The robots in the mass grave are the failed attempts. Persia is decimated by a war started by human error, so you get where King Darius is coming from when he says that they’re the inferior species.

    There’s a scene near the end of the series where Atom and Pluto lay side by side and stargaze. Moments before the two had been engaged in a ferocious battle that only ended because Atom pulled away from delivering what would have been the final blow. Instead of fighting they just stop and talk instead.

    Almost every robot fight that occurs in “Pluto” is instigated by human command. The fights started without a human telling the robot what to do are started by robot’s with perfect AI – i.e. robot’s who have the capacity to hate. That’s really the core of what Urasawa is saying with “Pluto” – fighting and hatred don’t solve anything, they usually just make things worse.
    That’s what Darius means when he says robots are superior to humans, because unlike humans their first reaction to a problem isn’t to start a fight.

    It’s a superiority humans can achieve though, in the same way Superman represents an ideal that humanity can strive for. It’s easier to destroy than create, and sometimes you need that empathy to just talk through your problems. If a robot can do it, so can you.


    Chris Neill

    Chris is a freelance pop-culture writer hailing from the sunny shores of Australia. He firmly believes art peaked with Prince's Batdance. He tweets at @garflyf

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