Urasawa MMF: A Challenger Appears — Urasawa’s Astro Boy

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

And now, let Sweetpea, AnimeEmily, Manjiorin, and I tell you all we can possibly tell you about the Urasawa X Tezuka combination: Pluto. Spoilers included! -Justin

Justin: Out of all of Urasawa’s manga, Pluto is the one title that features many of his trademarks (suspense, mystery, etc), but this is one work that manages to be different from Monster and 20th Century Boys, and one of the reasons why is because he decided to take on who many consider “The God of Manga” in Osamu Tezuka. Normally, there are a number of arcs in manga that anyone could say they liked in other works, but rarely would one be captivated enough to decide to want to draw it again, and then in a way that’s completely different style wise from the original. But Urasawa wanted to honor the anniversary of Tezuka in some way, so what he did he do? With Tezuka’s son’s permission, he ended up developing an 8 volume series based on one of the Astro Boy arcs, “The Greatest Robot in History” in Shounen Magazine. With it, he showcased a long ago work with a somewhat modern day spin, but completely made it into something that provided mystery, suspense, and powerful themes to rise to the surface.

The obvious note to make (thanks to the information at the end of each volume) is the development of each and every character in the Naoki Urasawamanga. Atom, who we also know as Astro Boy, is not the main protagonist in the story at the start. Instead, we follow the main character Gesicht, a German Detective working for Interpol who is also a robot. This is definitely one of the reasons why I liked Pluto. If you have searched up for information on how “The Greatest Robot in History” starts and ends, some of the robots and characters don’t seem to get a lot of the limelight — however, Urasawa made sure to highlight many of the characters and give them roles beyond the original arc. At the end of Pluto, I started to wish all of the characters, characters who had fought in the 39th Middle East war would come back and show up again. I started to try and figure out what Pluto, one of the more powerful robots to appear in the series, was forced to go through and what would ultimately happen to him. And I even started to decide how I should feel about Atom’s creator, Dr. Tenma. In the end, the characters helped sell Pluto for me, and that is why I like it; how come you three like Pluto as well?

AnimeEmily: Like Justin, one of the main reasons I came to like Pluto as much as I do is because of the characters and how they developed. Although, going in, I figured I would probably end up only really caring about Gesicht, but by the end, I found myself attached to nearly every one of the major characters. I suppose what I liked the most about them is how human they felt. A major theme that is built up throughout the course of the manga revolves around what makes a human human and whether or not those same concepts apply to robots. Each robot that was introduced was capable of, and often expressed, a full range of human emotions from happiness to sadness to hatred. The emotion that Urasawa was able to convey through his characters and their actions and facial expressions is an aspect of Pluto that drew me into the manga more. In addition to their simple emotionality, the characters are also well developed, something I appreciate seeing in any manga. Each character has a past and Urasawa shows us how that past has affected the development of that character into who he is today. Even the supposed villains or characters who walk the fine line between right and wrong are made sympathetic and go beyond the typical “I am evil” villain, again going back to how Urasawa makes his characters feel a bit more human by putting them in the grey area.

Urasawa’s drawing style is another major reason why I like Pluto. As I said before, I tend to read a lot of romantically inclined manga, big eyes and shoujo sparkles included, so reading something like Pluto with such a clean and expressive style was really refreshing and interesting to see. Urasawa once mentioned that one of his goals when drawing manga is to try and capture not only the grittier side of human nature, but also human expressions and the ambiguity that sometimes comes with them. With Pluto, I think he did a really nice job of doing so. It’s a bit of weird reason, but the expressiveness of the art style really grew on me over the course of the manga and became one of my favorite aspects.

Naoki Urasawa's PlutoManjiorin: I was still dead smack in the middle of reading Monster when Pluto first began coming out in English, so I picked up Pluto on name recognition alone. I didn’t have to get through Monster to know I already loved Urasawa; the fact that Tezuka co-signed on Pluto made picking it up a no-brainer. I hardly knew anything about Tezuka at that point, nothing about Astro Boy, but I’d already grown to love the “trademarks” that Justin mentioned —  mystery, suspense, and lots of seemingly loose ends that somehow all tie back into one another at the end.

For me, Pluto is one of the few series where I very clearly remember the emotions I went through while reading it. One of the things I really love about Urasawa — that’s a particularly strong suit in Pluto — is the cinematic feel. The entire eight volumes felt like one intense thriller movie. I wish I could remember what volume it was, but I distinctly remember getting to the end of one of the earlier volumes and realizing that my heart was racing! It’s hard not to get really pulled into Urasawa’s works. For me, Pluto took those Urasawa trademarks that I was just beginning to love in Monster, condensed them into eight volumes, and really took me for a ride. I think it says a lot that while I was in no way familiar with the Astro Boy arc that Pluto was based on, reading Pluto made me want to go read the original story.

As for the actual story, like everyone else I enjoyed that each of the main robots had a backstory, but I think it was really important that the everything was mainly told from Gesicht’s point of view. I quickly forgot that he was a robot, then forgot that anyone was a robot. They were all characters with emotions and stories. It still surprises me that Urasawa took an Astro Boy story and so distinctly injected his own style into it, but I loved the final outcome.

Naoki Urasawa's PlutoSweetpea: Pluto is the first Urasawa manga I read. It’s really what made me fall in love with his work. Unlike all the others who are in on this, I’ve also read the original storyline by Tezuka, so I am familiar with both versions. Tezuka’s original story is short and sweet. I mean, it’s totally a shounen. Atom wasn’t meant to be deep or dark (though it occasionally went there, in surprising ways). And this storyline – when I read it post-Pluto – shocked me because it is far more simple in the original version.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s inferior in any way. I really do appreciate Urasawa’s re-imagining of the storyline. It’s deeper, darker, and grittier in every way, shape and form. But at heart, both versions are pretty much the same: They deal with self-identity and hatred. Tezuka’s story isn’t as cut-and-dried as his other arcs in the manga: There is an ‘ending’ to it all, but it’s an ending that leaves a lingering feeling of sadness for the antagonist. The ‘bad guy’, of all people! Because that’s who was most affected by his place in the world, and he rebelled against it the only way he knew how. He hated how people used and abused him. The way he acts it out is wrong – it can’t be anything but wrong – but this is a shounen and the bad guy always has to be wrong. The story ends with Atom saving the day and having rid the world of something very dangerous.

Urasawa’s version explored self-identity through the eyes of the minor characters (in the original manga). Tezuka’s manga always had it explored through Atom, which left the other characters feeling flat. So seeing all the others that were so important brought to such vibrant life was astounding. You do forget that these are robots – something that’s pretty much impossible to do with Tezuka’s original version. But there is also hate there. Hate of people, hate of self, hate of the world. And there is no conclusive ending here. Nothing says that the wars are over, that the actions against the robots won’t occur again, that everything will be okay. And it won’t – families are left without fathers, kids without their beloved teacher… things that are glossed over in the original. In some ways, I think this makes the themes and message more powerful than Tezuka’s original version.

However, when all is said and done, Tezuka and Urasawa told the same story and told it well. Both left me with incredible feelings of… discontent… with the ending. Things were left hanging. Happiness is still something that people have to fight for. And that makes Pluto rather timeless, in it’s way, no matter which version you read.  It’s a story that people can relate to because real life is so often like that.

My personal preference is for Urasawa’s version because for me that fits in more with the ideas and themes that Tezuka was trying to convey. Tezuka had some serious limitations on him given his primary audience and the expectations of the manga at that point, so that makes me feel Urasawa did what Tezuka would have written if he were really able to, with a grand, epic scope and deep characters. Definitely an excellent read.

Justin: Urasawa’s version definitely had a bit more freedom in what it wanted to express as opposed to Tezuka’s version since expectations of manga, while they had some dark manga creep up during that time, had a certain audience that could only accept some themes as opposed to today. The art was also a major factor as well, as Urasawa valued realism of humans as much as he could, and that aided in re-telling Tezuka’s story.

But it was interesting how, as Manjiorin pointed out, how his designs were so human like that you could even forget some of them were actually robots, the emotions they were able to express is great. Even the ones who you could tell were robots ended up invoking a certain amount of emotion or interest from me. I think the one that had found myself very interested in was Brau-1589. He was a weird case: he had killed a human, which meant he violated the Robot Law set forth where robots are not supposed to kill humans, and despite the fact that he should have had multiple fail safes to ensure he wouldn’t kill a human. He should have been disposed of, but instead, he found himself unable to move and unable to die for a good while. What happened? What was his reasons for killing? Whatever the case, he understood what Gesicht was going through, and only as the manga continued did his role in the story start to expand and we learned why he is in this state. And for me, we know he does die in the end (he can’t have the lance removed), but he didn’t leave the world by himself.

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

Manjiorin: I think the strength of the series is that you came to care for all of the robots as individuals. It’s ironic that a story about “robots” quickly becomes a story about very human emotions and conditions such as hate, love and family. I think three robots in particular stand out to me: North #2, Brando, and Epsilon. Brando and Epsilon stood out for similar reasons, mainly their devotion to the children they cared for. Brando in particular seemed to have a full and happy family life, while Epilson was a noted pacifist who cared for orphaned children. Still, for Brando and Epilson, they seemed to carry this weight of their pasts and the Middle East War.

I would love to hear what you all thought of North #2, since my recollection is a little fuzzy; the thing that stuck out to me is the impact the presence of North #2 had on his “master,” despite the fact that the master seemed to more than actively dislike having a robot in his home. What did you all think of that particular arc and the other robots in general? Did you have a particular favorite AnimeEmily?

AnimeEmily: Before I get to who my favorite was, I wanted to say a quick word or two about North #2 since you brought him up, Manjiorin. His story is one of the ones that managed to stick with me pretty well throughout the course of the manga despite his early demise. The way he gradually caused his master to open up and accept him; how he continued to try and play the piano despite being earlier told that, as a robot, he could never play with the same emotion as a human; and how the mass destruction he had caused in the war continued to haunt him were all aspects of North #2 that struck a particular chord with me. I felt a genuine sadness when, at the end of his arc, his master can only stare up the sky and forlornly call him back, saying he still has his piano lesson.

Justin: When I think of North #2, I can only feel like his existence could have been more, but it ended in swift fashion. Right after it seemed like he and his master finally would be able to get along, Pluto arrives and destroys him. It’s amazing when I think about it, how he only appeared in one volume, yet he found a way to stay with me even towards the end of the series.

AnimeEmily: Oh, yeah, I totally agree. I was left with the same feeling which only made me feel worse about the poor robot’s destruction. Going along that same train of thought, for me, at least, it was always the little things that made me like my favorites (Gesicht, Epsilon, and Atom) the most.

Naoki Urasawa's PlutoGesicht was a serious and kind robot constantly haunted by recurring dreams of a man offering him something. He wanted nothing more than to finally take that trip to Japan with his wife and to try and get away from the memories that seemed to haunt him. It’s odd, but one of the things about his story that absolutely haunted me for literally days after I finished the manga was finding out what actually happened during that time period that he couldn’t remember. Seeing his memories of his child and how utterly happy he and his wife were, only to know what happened and how it affected him, crushed me. In the same sense, Epsilon and his devotion to the war orphans he was raising was something that I really loved about him as a character. He may have been seen as a coward for not accepting the call to war, but he proved himself to be one of the bravest robots showcased in Pluto. As for Atom, his interactions with his “father,” Tenma, who seemed to both hate and love his creation, were some of the moments that evoked the greatest emotion from me. Atom, the one left behind, always seemed to be carrying such an immensely heavy weight for someone so young looking.

What about you, Sweetpea, did you have any character or character arc that stood out in particular while you were reading?

Sweetpea: Believe it or not, yes. I have two characters that I”m particularly attached to: Robby’s wife and Brando. Why? Because both of these robots are family robots. Robby’s wife  is one of the first robots we encounter besides Gesicht. Her ‘husband’ was destroyed, and Gesicht gives her a memory chip that was his, and offers to erase her memories. It’s the first time we’re really brought face-to-face with the idea that these robots feel for each other, and, dare I say, love each other. Brando is where there’s an affirmation that robots can love. He has a gaggle of kids around him that he dotes on and treats as if they are his own in every way, shape, and form. They aren’t – he’s a robot, they aren’t – but it doesn’t matter. His family loves him as he is and wouldn’t change a thing about him. They love him unconditionally and are as grieved as anyone else when he dies. And Brando feels the same way as they do, equally torn about facing his death.

There’s a lot to be said about death and grief and loss and how it humanizes people, and these instances really shone in how it humanized these robots. And on a personal note, I very much connect with these characters because I live with two women who’ve lost husbands and children and parents, and when they talk about all this, it parallels what I read in Pluto. It’s almost scary. But it’s also very enlightening about how Urasawa is unbelievably skilled at showing true emotions – whether they’re from people or robots.

Justin: I think, in discussing Urasawa’s version of The Greatest Robot in History, we’ve come to an understanding of why his works have been revered in numerous countries. Of course, only someone with the guts that he had would want to take this challenge of honoring Tezuka this way. But because he did so, he’s created a wonderful piece of fiction that no manga fan, or maybe any reader should miss, and in this discussion, I think we see why Urasawa has been successful with his works.

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

So, what did you all think about Pluto? Share whatever you have to share about the series in the comments below.

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Basically a get together of geniuses. Or something like that.