North Americans might not recognize the name Osamu Tezuka, a significant percentage of them know about Astro Boy – which, along with Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, was the first anime´ to really connect with that audience. One of the best Astro Boy adventures – both in a twelve-part manga serial and as an episode of the anime´ series – was The Greatest Robot in the World. Naoki Urasawa, best known for his manga series, Monster, has chosen to take that epic adventure and re-work it for today’s audience.
In this series, there are seven robots that are so advanced, they could win wars by themselves – and are as intelligent as they powerful. When one of these amazing robots, Mount Blanc of Switzerland, is slain, questions arise. What could possibly have destroyed such a powerful robot? Why would he have been targeted? Why was his head posed with what appear to be horns? And there’s another twist – a key figure in a robots’ rights group has been killed – and his head was found with similar horns!
Inspector Gesicht, of Europol, himself one of the seven, is assigned to the case. Between trying to solve the murders and trying to warn the other robots that they’ve been targeted, Gesicht finds himself worrying about leaving his family alone should something happen to him.
In The Greatest Robot in the World, Gesicht was a minor character. By plucking him from the background and putting him into the lead role, Urasawa and his co-author, Takashi Nagasaki, move the story from the realm of the more light-hearted Astro Boy series and into darker regions. This is a world where robots’ rights is still a bit of a contentious subject; a world in which the AI’s that are part of each robot are so sophisticated, that they can go beyond emulating human emotion to actually experiencing a form of that emotion. Gesicht can even dream! As a result, the concept of robots having families is a natural outgrowth of their evolution beyond what man created.
There are parallels between our world and the world Urasawa has developed here. One of the most obvious is the idea of robots’ rights being opposed by bigots who think that robots should remain servants. Another is that as with people, there are different types of robots; some good, some, maybe not so much. Gesicht has to deal with the same problems which detectives in our world face: some of the robots don’t take his warnings seriously; some people seemed determined to undermine his investigation for reasons ranging from the personal to the political. It’s even possible that a robot is the murderer.
When Gesicht begins to doubt his memory – which shouldn’t happen, because robots remember everything they experience unless they, themselves, erase it – he begins to doubt himself. Then there’s the wreckage of the first robot to kill a human; a robot whose programming was thoroughly checked and found to be 100% without defect – and his interactions with Gesicht, which could be vital to the investigation, if only Gesicht could figure out how… and why.
The series takes its name from the villain of the piece, who has dubbed himself Pluto. Gesicht surmises that he has taken the name because Pluto was the ruler of Hades.
In Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Urasawa and Nagasaki have created a complex and dangerous world that feels like a real world, if one from a parallel universe. Their characters are intriguing and engaging – and each of them seems to be capable enough in their own unique way, whether robot or human. And of course, the Astro Boy tribute wouldn’t work if he didn’t appear in it – though here he’s a more naturally human-looking robot boy [and Urasawa has him going by the name of Atom, in honor of the character’s original Japanese name].
I read, somewhere, that Pluto is The Dark Knight to Astro Boy’s Batman. I’m not sure if the degree of emotional difference is quite that extreme, but it does sum up the differences in approach between Urasawa and Tezuka. I can imagine some hardcore Astro Boy/Mighty Atom fans not really cottoning to this version [like some Watchmen fans will never accept the film version], but as an Astro Boy fan, myself, I have to say that Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka is the best manga series I’ve read in years.
Final Grade: A+