Every child born of every mother and father asks the same questions. Why is the sky blue? What happens after we die? What am I, anyway? My guess is that when the human race as a whole has its first child, it will be a sentient machine — a robot, or an AI — and we will know it is so when it, too, relentlessly asks these same questions.
I wonder if that was the reason Osamu Tezuka created Astro-Boy, or Tetsuwan Atomu (or “Atom” for short) as he was in Japan. If an AI is meant to have the curiosity of a child, then why not create one that looks and behaves like a child, and will be treated like on by the adult (read: human) world? It made sense to me when I first read Astro-Boy in English, and now that I’ve been reading Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto — itself a reworking of one of Tezuka’s most famed Astro-Boy stories — it makes all the more sense. No child remains a child forever, but how the child becomes father to the man is critical.
The end of the first volume of Pluto paired up the hero of the story thus far — the robot detective Gesicht — with Atom himself. From the outside, Atom looks and behaves exactly like an ordinary boy. He collects snails, he enjoys ice cream, he covets other kid’s toys, he uses words like “cool” and “neat”. He also fought in a major war to help protect the innocent, and (in one of many nods to the character’s true origins) spent time in a circus as a freak attraction.
Gesicht needs to only take one look at Atom to understand why this robot boy garnered such intense attention. He’s indistinguishable from the real thing, even to another robot. And if it becomes that much harder for Geischt himself to tell the difference between a robot and a human, what will that mean for his work? What will that mean for humanity as a whole? Even Atom himself has no answers; he’s just as much a, well, a babe in the woods as anyone else in this matter. He’s even mastered the art of disappearing into the bathroom to further the illusion he’s human, but the only thing we see him do there is burst into tears — over something he has seen in Geischt’s memories, something even Gesicht himself does not know about.
The further Geischt digs into the mystery in front of him, the more uneasy he becomes about himself. Before long he comes to an ugly conclusion: his mind has been tampered with. How, and to what extent, he is not sure, but the fact of it is unmistakable. His travel agent recalls that he made and then canceled a trip some years ago — one which neither he nor his wife remembers making in the first place. His service engineer cannot find any sign of tampering, which only makes Gesicht all the more suspicious. He is now damaged goods, and does not even know how he got that way. It terrifies him. It is, in fact, the first thing to ever terrify him so.
The ultimate irony of all this is how it introduces him to a quintessentially human trait: self-doubt. To be human is to be flawed, but also to be able to transcend one’s flaws. Perhaps, then, what sets the greatest robots apart from the rest of the crowd — him and Atom included — is their sense of incompleteness. They always need to be something a little more than what they are, always aware they have yet another mystery in front of them. Maybe imperfection and self-doubt is more vital than they realize: consider the Lecter-like robot Brau 1589 — “perfect in every way”, according to Dr. Ochanomizu, and yet he killed a human being. “Perfect and yet he killed a human — are you saying that’s what being human is?” Atom asks, and gets no answer.
Small wonder, then, that we see Atom and Gesicht slowly becoming a team of sorts. When Gesicht examines evidence for another possible murder, via a system reminiscent of Star Trek’s Holodeck, Atom provides a perspective that neither Geischt nor the human investigators alone had. I love how, again, Atom’s classical roster of powers are gently hinted at here. We get the impression that in time we will see him fly and wield that killer punch of his, but to do that now would be a distraction from the story’s real aims. He meets with one of his own mentors, Professor Ochanomizu (another character transported out of Tezuka’s universe and relocated here with consummate realism), worried that the good doctor may himself be another target as well.
It isn’t long before their next target more or less sticks his neck out to be killed: Brando, the Turkish robot wrestler (as in, a wrestler with an interchangeable robot body). He spars with the one who killed Mont Blanc, but doesn’t live to tell the tale — although, in his dying moments, he transmits a cryptic burst of information that the other robots puzzle over with increasing consternation. It comes as little surprise when Brando’s memory chip turns up, staked out under his robot body’s arms — positioned like the “horns” in the previous murders. But from everything we’ve seen, the contents of a robot’s memory chip are no more reliable than human memory, and maybe even a good deal less so.
What’s most striking about the way Pluto has unfolded is how the robots’ lives are all underscored with such strange melancholy. They’ve been built to emulate human behavior with scripted emotional plays, and are aware of how unreal it all is. They get married, they enjoy a good meal, they go on vacations. It’s all according to plan. Then one day the real thing, messy and difficult, barges in and makes itself known, and they finally understand what this whole sordid business of being human is really about. Sounds familiar.
There are some books where I can barely muster the interest or attention to write four paragraphs of a review. And then there are some books where I write about them for what seems like hours and I barely scratch the surface. Pluto is one of the latter. I have the feeling we’ll all be digging deep into it for quite some time.
Art: When writing the reviews for Monster and 20th Century Boys, I had the worst time finding a single adjective to sum up Urasawa’s artwork. Now I think I have it, and the word is mature. Not just in the sense that Urasawa has come completely into his own with his style and can pretty much do anything he sets his mind to (much as, say, Takehiko Inoue seems to be doing with Vagabond) — but mature in the sense that his adults look like, well, adults and not overgrown teenagers the way so many other manga artists seem to be compelled to do. Gesicht in particular — again, like Monster’s Lunge before him — is a convincing detective just standing there. (Think of how an actor like Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman can give a role weight merely by being cast in it; the same sort of thing is at work here.)
It’s in the artwork, ironically, that I also have my one reservation — or nitpick — with the series. The one place where Urasawa’s style gives way to Tezuka’s is with some of the robot designs, and it can be rather jarring. Case in point: when Gesicht visits the robot wife of a slain police officer, the fact that this is a robot is something we can accept — but the look of the robot is such a throwback to an earlier style of design that it’s distracting. I should say that by the time I finished the first volume, this wasn’t an issue for me anymore; and Urasawa does compensate for it by presenting even these things in the same matter-of-fact way as everything else. But I wouldn’t blame someone if they were tempted to giggle.
Translation: For a book of this stature, you want to bring it into English in the best possible way, and that’s more or less what VIZ did. They tapped Frederick L. Schodt and Jared Cook to do the translation, and it’s superlative work, since there was never a moment when it felt like I was dealing with a translation in the first place. The effects and possibly some signage (it’s difficult to tell since most of the book does not take place in Japan) have been retouched on the page, but the baseline quality for this kind of work has risen to the point where only another pro can really tell what changes were made. The original right-to-left formatting was also retained, although with anything Tezuka-related I’ve learned to accept that if it’s “flopped” that’s sometimes done at the insistence of Tezuka’s estate.
The bonuses this time around include a discussion of the genesis of the story courtesy of Tezuka’s son Macoto, and are remarkably candid: Macoto wanted someone who would “go to the mat” with Tezuka in the arena of his ideas, and not simply rehash things in a mechanical way (pardon the pun). He got all that and more, from the look of it.
The Bottom Line: If you were initially leery of the idea of a collaboration of this scope and scale, banish the worry. This is shaping up to be one of the best offerings this year from any creator — big or small, living or dead.