This post contains spoilers for Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. This should in no way dissuade you from reading the post and then reading Pluto if you haven’t.
“Urasawa is a national treasure in Japan, and if you ain’t afraid of picture books, you’ll see why,” exhorts Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz. I am 100% in agreement with Diaz. I would put Naoki Urasawa in the top 5 living mangaka (manga being the Japanese word for comic books, –ka signifying that he’s the one who makes the manga) and perhaps the greatest of all time, with only my own comparative ignorance of the field preventing me from making the claim with certainty. Comic books in America have generally been dominated by superhero books, although the medium is wider and more flexible than that. Consider Art Spiegleman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, Neil Gaiman’s phantasmagorical Sandman, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For which, among other things, gave us the Bechdel Test. Japanese readers, meanwhile, have had an incredible diversity of subject matter and style, from fastidiously accurate historical dramas to wacky workplace comedy to slapstick martial arts to sports comics to teenage romance, almost since the beginning. Since Osamu Tezuka, in fact.
Tezuka was a giant of the field, the Japanese Walt Disney. Why do anime characters have big eyes? Tezuka. (Really, early Disney, which Tezuka drew upon as his inspiration, but Tezuka was the pioneer in his home country.) And Tezuka’s most beloved and popular creation, known here as Astro Boy, was Tetsuwan (“Mighty”) Atom.
What does this have to do with Urasawa? I’m glad I asked.
Urasawa gained early popularity with a couple of early works, Yawara! and Master Keaton; the former is about a young judo prodigy, the latter about an insurance investigator and former SAS officer. From there, he wrote the psychological thriller Monster, which was finished when I first discovered it, and the sprawling pre-/post-apocalyptic epic 20th Century Boys, which was not. A note about manga creation: manga is generally published in weekly, or bi-weekly, installments of around 20 pages, the most popular of which are subsequently published, eight chapters at a time, in bound volumes called tankobon; the equivalent here would be the modern “graphic novel” format, although in America this encompasses both collections of monthly issues of various comic books and comics written specifically for that format. I read most of what had been released of Boys and opted to wait until it was finished. I don’t do well with unfinished works at the best of times (I couldn’t imagine watching The Wire as it came out, for example), and with Urasawa this problem is multiplied because he’s a master of, among other things, the cliffhanger. So when I found out about his new (at the time) work Pluto, a re-imagining of a classic Astro Boy story, I knew that I was going to have to read it, and that I was also going to have to wait to read it, because there was no way I was going to be able to handle it week to week.
At eight volumes of 65 chapters, Pluto is Urasawa’s shortest major work (Monster runs 18 volumes, and 20th Century Boys runs 22), but when you’re lost in the worlds he’s creating – the claustrophobic moral dilemmas of Monster, the flashback-driven sci-fi mysteries of Boys, the batshit (pun intended) lunacy of his current Billy Bat (which I have sampled, even though it’s not finished, and which now eats at me just as Boys did), the future world of advanced robots and AI in Pluto – you want all of it now. Urasawa, as most mangaka do, works on the Dickens model, in that he is a serial storyteller. He knows how to give an individual chapter enough weight and heft that you feel satisfied reading it, but he’s also always building to something, and often what he’s building towards isn’t completely clear until the very last panel of the last chapter. It reminds me of watching a Christopher Nolan movie. Nolan is always in control not just of what we, the audience, are seeing, but how you’re meant to interpret what you’re seeing. You can watch the end of The Prestige and see the twists and then take those revelations back through the movie again, realizing that Nolan had those ideas in place the entire time. All the information was there for you to see, but without the whole picture you’re left with an incomplete understanding until the final act. So too with Urasawa’s works, but unlike a Nolan film, which is created as a complete entity, Urasawa is working in real time, 20 pages every week or two, without the luxury of going back and adding in ideas that occur to him later. It’s difficult to know this and to then read an Urasawa story week to week, knowing that you’ll enjoy yourself, but also that you’re never really going to have the final puzzle piece until it’s finished. Some readers may thrive on this kind of anticipation, but my preference, as I’ve said, is to swallow the thing whole.
Even disregarding my own biases in favor of stories involving giant robots I think Pluto is Urasawa’s strongest work to date (the jury’s out on Billy Bat, which involves, at points, Judas Iscariot, Neil Armstrong’s visit to the moon, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and prominent figures of Japan’s Sengoku era such as Hattori Hanzo and Nobunaga Oda, and which is definitely Urasawa’s most off-the-wall work). Part of this is how tight it is; as mentioned, it’s less than half the length of Monster and almost 1/3rd as long as 20th Century Boys, and there’s not an ounce of fat on it. It is based on “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” one of the most popular of the original Astro Boy stories. The full title of Pluto is Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka; while Tezuka had been dead for over a decade when Urasawa was given the go-ahead to work on Pluto by Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka, the credit for all volumes, to my knowledge, is ‘by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka. The plot of both can be summed up as, “there is a robot named Pluto who is challenging the world’s seven strongest robots – will Atom stop him in time?” In my never-ending quest to suck every last bit of marrow from the bones of the media I consume, I read the original which, while definitely aimed at children, nevertheless manages to take what could have been a standard story of fighting robots and imbued it with resonant, timeless themes about compassion in the face of war, violence and hatred. Urasawa does this with his re-imagining as well; his future setting and the conflicts therein are clear analogs of our modern world, but the future setting cuts the analogs somewhat and enables Urasawa to speak about universal qualities.
The story begins in the aftermath of the 39th Central Asian War. The United States of Thracia, after accusing Persia of harboring robots of mass destruction, sends in an inspection team, who find a number of discarded and destroyed robots. Thracia, with the rest of the world, invades, and destroys Persia’s advanced robot army, with the aid of the world’s seven most advanced robots; five of these engage in actual fighting, while one abstains and one is sent as a peace ambassador. What struck me when I checked the publication history of Pluto was that it was begun in September of 2003, while the Second Iraq War, upon which the 39th Central Asian War is clearly based, began in March of that same year. The link may seem too on-the-nose, but it doesn’t play that way when you read the story chapter by chapter. I don’t know how well the story would work if the analogs weren’t quite as stark, if the 39th Central Asian War had no clear real-world equivalent or if it were based on a less-immediate war. Urasawa’s message is a common one, and one with which I happen to agree, which is that conflict breeds conflict, that hatred and revenge is a cycle creates no good. As one of his characters says near the climax, “Nothing comes from hatred.” Urasawa means this in two ways: one, hatred creates nothing, and two, hatred leads us to nothing, or nothingness, to an annihilation of self, of community, of the world. Hatred destroys. We’re losing any perspective but hindsight on the conflicts which shape our modern world, our politics, our economies, losing sight of the subtleties of the forces which led us into the American Civil War, World War 2, Vietnam. Even the Second Iraq War has suffered from whitewashing, but it’s still immediate enough to provide a more visceral reaction for anyone who reads Pluto. Urasawa isn’t without subtlety, but his themes and his passionate advocacy for a world free from hatred, an idea as important as it is utopian, requires a bit more of the hammer instead of the chisel, as it were.
However, the 39th Central Asian War, unlike the Second Iraq War, is fought almost entirely (at least in the pages of Pluto) by robots. Humans are present, but mostly during the mopping up. The actual fighting is between the robot armies of Persia and, at least from what we see, five of the strongest robots in the world; Mont Blanc of Switzerland, North No. 2 of Britain, Brando of Turkey, Greece’s Hercules and Germany’s Gesicht, the robot policeman who serves as our main character. All of them are haunted by their actions during the war, actions depicted as starkly, as brutally, as any war comic or movie, yet which have a pristine quality due to the black-and-white artwork and the fact that a combat between robots is, in a literal sense, bloodless. This removes the reader a little emotionally, but Urasawa’s expertise is in emotion and psychology, and most of his advanced robots are quite expressive, the pain of their past actions clearly showing on their faces, meaning that he more than bridges up any emotional gulf he’s created. Memory is a theme in the book, and it’s emphasized multiple times during the story that robots, unlike humans, have perfect memories, given that it’s all data in their “brains.” Their advanced AIs let them approach human emotion, and their perfect memories ensure that, unlike humans, they will always have immediate access to every action they’ve ever taken, no matter how painful.
Most of the emotional anchors in the story are robots, but beyond Mont Blanc, North No. 2 and Pluto itself, all of these robots are indistinguishable from humans. Urasawa isn’t asking the question, “can robots feel emotion?” He’s taking it as a given that they can, and using that assumption to go further. (He’s aided by his medium; a black and white drawing of a human face looks to us like a human face, regardless of whether that character is supposed to be a human, or a robot, or a Martian, or a collection of robot cockroaches animating a human skin. Where a live-action movie might alienate with visual clues Urasawa’s pictures win us over.) Pluto is a robot created by a Persian scientist to act as an instrument of vengeance against the inspection team and the world’s strongest robots, to clear the way for a plot to destroy the earth. However, the Pluto body is occupied by the AI of a robot named Sahad, who was originally created as a robot to assist with the greenification of Persia and who displays a talent for nurturing flowers. He is manipulated by his creator into becoming Pluto, his hatred literally twisting him and making him monstrous. In analyzing it here, I’m making it more obvious than it is in the story, making explicit what Urasawa knows to leave implicit. There are layers to the story, some more obvious than others, but nearly all are working in tandem to stress that simple message. “Nothing comes from hatred.” Violence and war might be, or seem, necessary, but they create nothing, improve nothing. None of the seven strongest robots are served by violence and hatred. Mont Blanc is shown through flashbacks to be tortured by his role in the war; outside of it his greatest happiness is reforestation efforts, and his death causes sadness for people around the world. North No. 2 says, “I never want to go to war again. . . ,” and wants nothing more than to learn to play the piano, and his presence gives a kind of peace to Paul Duncan, the composer who hires North as his butler. In the end, Paul is left alone again once North is drawn back to the battlefield for one last, doomed fight against Pluto. Brando leaves his wife and children behind, while Hercules, who seemed the most at peace with what he did, eventually expresses regret, and even before his death lives a lonely existence as a fierce professional wrestler. Epsilon, who refused to fight in the war, in favor of rescuing and taking care of children orphaned by the conflict, is destroyed, leaving the children without a protector. Atom finds a way out by realizing how futile hatred is, helping Pluto to realize the same thing in time to join forces to save the world, but the victory comes at the cost of Pluto’s life. And Gesicht? Gesicht, one of two robots in the world to kill a human in violation of the robot laws, understands deeper than any of them how futile hatred is.
The gun that Urasawa leaves on the mantle from the very first chapters of Pluto is Brau 1589, the only other, and the first, robot to kill a human. Characters talk around the killing, but we’re never given the real circumstances of it. Brau, according to online dictionaries, can mean brew, brewery, inn, or pub, so this might imply that Brau 1589 used to be a bartender. When we see Brau he’s horribly damaged, impaled through the torso with a long metal object that looks like a spear, chained in a dark basement somewhere; it is implied that, if the spear is pulled out, he will cease to function. It’s not a conventional prison, and what it really looks like is that the police took the crime scene (or the place where Brau 1589 was brought down) and built the prison around it. Gesicht, Dr. Tenma (Atom’s creator) and finally Atom himself visit Brau 1589 at different points in the story as if her were a robot Hannibal Lecter. In those chapters where he’s introduced we get a sense of how afraid the police are of what exactly would happen if Brau 1589 escaped. And after the climactic battle between Atom, Pluto, and Bora, the robot who plans to destroy the earth, we get a coda where we find out.
The real villain of the piece is a Thracian supercomputer called Roosevelt, the most advanced computer intelligence in the world, an intelligence that is completely immobile and who communicates through a teddy bear with the Thracian president. This intelligence is what manipulated the events that led to and followed the invasion of Persia; what it was attempting to orchestrate wasn’t the destruction of the world, but the near-annihilation of human life. What it wanted was a world where robots ruled over human slaves, and so it manipulated the seeming villains, using their hatred to eliminate its opposition. Atom seemingly dies midway through the story, but his creator, Dr. Tenma, manages to bring him back, and once Atom comes back and visits Brau 1589, he has the robot (who greets him as an old friend) promise to do him a favor.
After defeating their final foe, Atom eulogizes the fallen robots and wishes for a better world. Then we cut to Brau 1589’s prison, which is empty, and a panicky police force, who have no idea where he is. He’s in Thracia, confronting Roosevelt, the supercomputer; the final page of the manga is Brau 1589 brandishing the long metal pole that impaled his body for so long and throwing it at the bear. We see the bear’s face. We see what shows on the screen after a TV or monitor switches off. We see the word END and the logo.
I didn’t understand how this fit with Urasawa’s message at first. It seemed to fly in the face of everything that came before, until I reread the end again. Atom never says, “Now that Pluto and I have forgiven each other and teamed up and saved the earth, hatred is banished forever.” ‘Nothing comes from hatred’ is a simple idea, but it’s a difficult one as well, and Urasawa never pretends otherwise. What Atom says, standing in snow next to one of Pluto’s horns, a horn Atom ripped off with his own hands just moments ago, is this:
Atom: “What was all that fighting for…nothing good comes from hate. . . [Sahad] said that his real work was to create fields of flowers. Professor, do you think we’ll ever live in a world free from hate?”
Professor Ochanomizu: “I don’t know, Atom. We can only hope that day will someday come.”
Atom: “Mont Blanc, North No. 2, Brando, Hercules, Epsilon, Gesicht, and Pluto…I know they all prayed for the same thing…I know they all prayed for that day to come someday.”
Then we cut to Brau 1589’s violent favor, an act of revenge against the orchestrator of all the bloodshed and death, an act Atom orchestrated and which has to be very much on his mind in that field of snow. ‘Nothing comes from hatred’ is easy to say (although when Gesicht says it, it’s anything but easy, given what he’s been through) but hard to live up to. It’s easy to condemn the hatred of the fanatic when you don’t believe what they believe. It’s easy to condemn that hatred born of prejudice. It’s harder to condemn the hatred that comes from injuries against you and yours. Two parties locked in a cycle of retributive violence will destroy each other unless an epiphany is had, but that epiphany must be life-changing, and a sudden turn to non-violence by one party may well lead to a dagger in the heart. We are all Brau 1589. We hurl our hatreds out in an effort to destroy and in so doing kill ourselves, one hatred at a time.
As highly as I think of Urasawa, it may be beyond him to fully offer a solution to the elimination of hatred in the pages of a Tezuka tribute manga. I don’t know, nor, do I think, does he, how we can ever live in a world free from hate, but every day I see evidence that we need that day to come someday.
Sahad loved flowers. Maybe we start there.