Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pluto - A commentary

(Image from Amazon, for review purposes only.)

Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa, Grade: A-

When I visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum for the Tezuka 80th Anniversary exhibit, I grabbed a copy of the museum's monthly newsletter. Inside was the curator's message regarding the exhibit (a description, plus the curator's thoughts overall) and I decided that my next translation practice project would be to tackle this article. As I was doing this, I came across a line that stated that Tetsuwan Atomu (Atom Boy), while having been embraced as a hero by children, had some more serious elements to it. That Atom Boy was created to replace the genius scientist's dead son, and that the series was a clarion call to alert us that we shouldn't just blindly embrace science as a cure-all. That "progress" was causing damage to both the planet and society.

I hadn't read the original Tetsuwan Atomu manga and hadn't been aware of Atom's origins. But, when I got to the end of the exhibit at the museum, I'd seen the start of the U.S. CG version of Atom Boy (where the scientist tries to bring his son back) and there was a poster for Urasawa's "Pluto". On checking the wiki entry, I learned that "Pluto" was Naoki Urasawa's take on Atom's alternate world, and that it was really a pretty dark place to start with. (Urasawa wrote "Yawara", "Monster" and "20th Century Boys".)

The curator's point in the article was that since Atom was so popular with children, Tezuka hadn't been able to explore various ideas that he might have wanted to. But, there was one episode in the anime where several robots were brought together to fight each other, and Atom wonders why humans create robots for this purpose. Urasawa based "Pluto" on this question, and so I started reading "Pluto".

The manga starts out with a big, lumbering robot named Montblanc, out fighting a raging forest fire in Switzerland. Suddenly, he's attacked and quickly destroyed by an unknown force. Elsewhere, an advocate of robots' rights is found dead. Both cases are linked by the fact that the "corpses" have had horns stuck on their heads. From here, a murder mystery unfolds, with Europol agent Gesicht being assigned to the case.

The story is set in a future not too far off, where robots have become accepted members of society, and the technology advanced enough where they can pretty much pass themselves off as human. But, this future has some ugly sides. Many humans are prejudiced against robots; there's an anti-robot society based on the KKK actively trying to destroy all robots; and most humans are still convinced that robots don't have feelings or understand the concepts of "love" and "death".

The story also has close parallels to our recent past. The western country of "The United States of Thracia" (whose president looks a little like Ronald Reagan) invades "Persia" (whose leader looks a little like Saddam Hussein) with the purported purpose of stopping the slaying of thousands of robot "victims". During the resulting war, seven "robots of mass destruction" are brought into Persia from the west (countries involved in the attack on Persia include Germany, Japan, Thracia, Switzerland, Australia, Greece and something like Romania) and they wipe out Persia's forces, while also killing lots of civilians and pretty much destroying the countryside. One difference from the Iraq invasion though is that the leader of Persia is captured and held in a Thracian prison for several years before going on trial.

The U.S. comes out looking thuggish and arrogant in this portrayal, which shouldn't be too surprising, and there are plot twists within plot twists. The seven robots of mass destruction include Gesicht, Montblanc and Atom. And now, the killer is stalking these seven, plus their creators, who were also part of the UN inspection group that had entered Persia and "found evidence" that led to the war.

One underpinning concept is that robots can't override their programming. They can't kill humans, they can't lie and they can't feel emotions. Yet, Gesicht's nightmares stem from the thought that he may have killed a criminal suspect out of hate, and the current serial killer seems to be a robot. Urasawa uses this story to question just what it is that makes us human, and whether strong negative emotions like hatred, fear and sorrow are required to turn robots into "the perfect A.I.'s." That is, if Atom is to become perfect, as Dr. Tenma, his creator believes, does he need to be so overcome by hatred that he's willing to kill someone? And if so, is there anything that could stop him from turning into a cold-blooded "human" killer?

In the original manga, Tezuka has the scientific genius, Dr. Tenma, create Atom out of grief for the loss of Tobio, as an exact replica of his dead son. However, Atom can't grow physically, and is therefore deemed by Tenma to be a failure. Tenma sells Atom to a circus and then disappears from the series. Fellow genius Professor Ochanomizu buys Atom back and then creates a robot "family" (parents, sister and little brother) to give Atom a semblance of a human relationship. "Pluto" makes some changes - Atom doesn't have parents or a little brother, and Dr. Tenma rejects Atom for being the exact opposite of Tobio (clean instead of messy, studious instead of being a laggard). However, Tenma does make repeated appearances in "Pluto", and it turns out that some of his creations were developed for Persia's government prior to the invasion. Tenma's own flaw is that he's become "more robot than human" due to the suppression of his personal emotions while embracing science to pursue an impossible goal.

Overall, I think that a lot of this ground has been covered by Isaac Asimov, in his "I, Robot" stories. Yet, Asimov never got into the fear, paranoia and bigotry that Urasawa presents. As a murder mystery, "Pluto" is hard to follow, and the ending is a bit contrived. But, I enjoyed seeing a different, more updated take on Atom. (I have no interest in seeing the U.S. re-make of "Atom Boy", though.) Atom is more mature, while still retaining his child-like charm.

Summary: "Pluto" is an adult retelling of Tezuka's "Tetsuwan Atomu", set in a world that looks post-9/11. Urasawa asks just what it is that makes us "human", and what it would take for robots to make the small remaining step to "perfect" status. As a murder mystery, the twists are hard to follow, but that just means that you have a reason to re-read the series multiple times. Recommended.

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