The more I read of Pluto, the less averse I am to the idea of remakes. Or, rather, of an artist of high caliber having his work revisited by another artist in the same stratosphere. Osamu Tezuka is about as up-there as manga artists get, and Naoki Urasawa has been racing up the rungs of the same ladder for some time now. Pluto is Urasawa’s reworking of one of Tezuka’s best-loved stories from Astro-Boy (aka Tetsuwan Atomu), and the best thing I can say about it is that it does not for one moment feel like a “remake”. It stands alone.
The third volume is a frenzy of twofold plotting and character development, with a fair amount of page time occupied by Uran, Atom’s sister. Just as Atom himself stepped into the picture at the end of volume 1, Uran (short for Uranium, mayhaps?) popped in at the end of volume 2 — just in time to calm down a batch of escaped zoo animals. She’s as cheerfully blithe as Atom is focused and serious, but maybe that’s just her way of dealing with her peculiar sensitivity towards things around her. She’s the sonar to Atom’s radar: he can sniff out a robot that looks like a human, and she can sense disturbances in the Force, sorta-kinda, that bespeak of bad tidings for both machines and men.
They’re both going to need all the help they can give each other. Because at the start of the volume, someone else who makes both of their heads spin enters the picture: the Persian scientist Professor Abdullah. His detached little smile and convenient explanation for why even Atom can’t figure out if he’s human or not (he allegedly had a good percentage of his body replaced with robot parts) conceal a large and dark agenda. He is, as we learn, at least partly responsible for the deaths of the world’s greatest robots, with Atom next on the hit list — but knowing this alone still leaves plenty of mysteries unsolved. Namely: why?
The whole question of why drives another parallel plot development that runs through this volume. Adolf Haas is a successful businessman — wife, son, house in the best neighborhood in Düsseldorf. He is also a member of an underground anti-robot movement, one that borrows heavily from the KKK for both their iconography and their logistics. The other members of the group are as well-placed as he is, and their plan is to make as many of the high-profile robots — for instance, robot detective Gesicht — look as bad as possible. Haas, however, is a little too obsessed with finding the robot that killed his brother — obsessed enough to go off the deep end and do something stupid and dangerous for all concerned. The way this particular thread plays out is best when it sticks to emotion and motives, less credible when it feels like it’s making up clues on the spot to justify the man’s ongoing search.
Another detour that Uran takes towards the end of the book is all about emotions and motives, and all the better for it. In an abandoned corner of a city park, Uran’s senses pick up what feels to her like a cry for help. Said cry comes from a humaniform robot, one as hard to tell from robotkind as Atom himself is. With Uran’s help he creates a mural (shown in the one color panel in the entire volume!), and also with Uran’s help he unwitting unlocks the door to his diabolical true nature.
It might not make sense at first to think of Pluto as a collaboration — after all, how can you collaborate with a man who’s been dead for almost twenty years? But somehow Tezuka makes his presence felt on every page, and not just because his son Macoto Tezuka oversaw the project. Sure, Urasawa dots Pluto with plenty of subtle references to Tezuka’s other works — one of the lions in the zoo was a rare white lion, get it? — but they’re for flavor, not as compensation for an underlying lack of substance. And entirely outside of that, there’s the same eternal longing, a longing for answers to questions that only a child can ask.