Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reawakening Pluto

Pluto by Naoki Urasawa (with Takashi Nagasaki and Osamu Tezuka) (2003-2009)
Viz Media; Trade Paperback; 8 volumes

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) has no equal in the U.S. history of animation and comics.

Perhaps Walt Disney comes close, with his empire of squeaky-clean, round eyed characters that had so much influence over the style of modern Japanese anime and manga, but Tezuka wasn't just a figurehead and artist, but a visionary.

He brought quality anime to television and Japanese comics to adults. His massively prolific career has yielded many ambitious manga titles, like Buddha (1972-1983), Adolph (1983-1985), and The Phoenix (1967-1988). He's best remembered for Tetsuwan Atomu (1952-1968) or, to Western audiences, Astro Boy.

A more contemporary manga-ka or comic artist is Naoki Urasawa (1960-present), creator of the award winning Monster (1994-2001). In contrast to Osamu Tezuka, who's mainly known in the U.S. for children's entertainment, Urasawa is known for his dark, morally ambiguous tales.

The news that Naoki Urasawa was re-imagining Astro Boy came as a delightful surprise.

Pluto was made in a joint effort with Takashi Nagasaki and with supervision from Makota Tezuka, Osamu Tezuka's son. The "realistic" art style of Urasawa, where, unlike a lot of anime, characters have wrinkles, individual noses, and eye shapes, reshapes Tezuka's Disney-inspired, cartoon-y characters into the cast of a thrilling, noir detective story.

Someone is killing the world's most prominent robot sympathizers and advanced robots. The murderer always fashions horns for his victims. The only one who powerful enough to kill these people is another robot but, according to the laws of Tezuka's universe, robots don't kill humans.

The main character isn't the sweet-nature robot, Atom--Astro Boy's original name--but the Europol police officer robot, Gesicht. A minor character in the original series, a detective that looks like a middle-aged man is perhaps a more appropriate starting point for a story about death, hatred, and the pointlessness of war.

Gesicht is a dutiful working man, an advanced robot living in a world where many don't recognize artificially intelligent lifeforms as "real people." A sub-plot involves many unsuccessful attempts for him and his wife, Helena, to get some time off from the force and go on a vacation. It's a warmly human example of Urasawa's characterization.

Atom, one of the emotional centers of the story, is introduced in a quiet, memorable scene at the end of the first volume. Taking a break from the dark and mysterious tale of murder, Gesicht heads to Japan where he meets a good-natured school boy that just so happens to be one of the most powerful weapons on Earth. Atom's advanced A.I.--his enjoyment of ice cream when he can't "taste" it, his admiration for a toy he sees outside the window, the fact he goes out of the way to rescue a snail from the rain--comes as a revelation to Gesicht.

It's a poignant and terribly sweet scene in a masterfully crafted story.

Pluto may have cute flourishes from the original Astro Boy series, and even references to other works by Tezuka, but its story is unapologetically mature. Younger anime fans used to uncomplicated high school stories and mecha pilots are in for a challenge. And unlike Death Note, a violent psychological thriller with overall juvenile philosophies, Pluto treats its audiences like adults.

The background of the series involves a war between the United States of Thracia and the Persian Empire of Tezuka's original world. Its images purposely invoke the Gulf War and current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The connections can be pretty damning and further enrich an already intriguing story.

So. Is this book good, fun, both, or neither?

It's good.

Very good.

One of the post-scripts describes the series as a treastise by one manga-ka on the work of another. I couldn't agree more. It's an excellent analysis of the characters and their world.

The series treats Tezuka's creations respectfully, too, though they're involved in a very different sort of story.

But it's a heavy work, and no matter how engrossing the art and writing are, the unexpected and heart-wrenching plot twists are brutal.

I couldn't recommend it more.