Wednesday, July 27, 2011

PLUTO by Naoki Urasawa & Osamu Tezuka, part 3

Here's part 3 of my look at the ending of Pluto from the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog:


It seems a lot of people were disappointed with the ending of PLUTO by Naoki Urasawa. And I can understand why.

Urasawa crafted these 8 volumes as a murder mystery – who is killing the seven most advanced robots in the world? – wrapped in the patina of a classic science fiction narrative, complete with futuristic cityscapes, artificial intelligence, robots that look and act like humans, and some retro-bots that hearken back to Isaac Asimov’s robot cycle of stories. It was well-suited to my tastes.

Despite the fact that PLUTO is a relatively “quiet” story – there are far more conversations than confrontations – that does not mean the story is lacking in tension. On the contrary, Urasawa deftly drives the narrative forward, running through the first few advanced robots rather quickly, in order to set up the premise and showcase how powerful the antagonist, Pluto, is. It seems we are no sooner introduced to the robot North No. 2 than he becomes the next victim of the rampaging force that is Pluto.

It’s this constant forward motion – moving from one robot victim to the next, while affording readers some space within which they can get to know these characters – that compels Urasawa’s audience (if I am to be considered a typical reader) to keep reading “one more chapter,” until one finds that within a single sitting, the latest volume has been devoured. PLUTO is a quick read, but a more than satisfying one. Urasawa’s skill, combined with the tendency in manga of using the imagery more than the words to tell the story, are what help to propel his narrative along. And it is aptly applied to this particular tale.

I should also note that Urasawa’s artistic skills are exemplary. His figure work and body language are well-honed, and I believe the fact that his style does not fall into the “typical” manga style, but has a more western feel to it, would appeal to a broader fan base, particularly here in America.


The first 7 volumes feel as if they are leading to a great confrontation, a final climactic battle worthy of Superman and Mongul in Alan Moore’s & Dave Gibbons’s “…For the Man Who Has Everything.” And even as we begin the final volume, we can see that Atom (Astro Boy) and Pluto are heading for a helluva battle.

At the end of volume 7, the enemy believes it has won, with Pluto defeating Epsilon, the final of the seven advanced robots. But we, the readers, see Atom (Astro Boy) reawaken in a stupor that leaves the audience wondering if Atom will be able to do anything to stop Pluto’s rampage.

For all intents and purposes, Atom has been in a “coma” the entirety of volume 7. But Professor Tenma, Atom’s creator, as well as the creator of Pluto, introduces “a biased emotion … a program to simplify the chaos in [Atom’s] mind.” Tenma uses Gesicht’s A.I. to revive Atom, believing that Gesicht’s final emotions as he was killed will spur Atom to wakefulness, which it does. And with the opening of volume 8, we realize that Tenma’s two greatest creations are on a collision course.

This introduction of an emotional bias is something Tenma had done previously. Contracted by Abullah, a great Persian scientist, to invent an even more advanced robot than Atom, the professor conceived of utilizing all 6 billion human personalities for that robot’s psyche to make it as human as possible. But, when put into action, Tenma discovered that the A.I. of this robot was unable to cycle through all these personalities fast enough and could not achieve consciousness. So, he had introduced an emotional bias then, the anger that Abullah felt when he died. This rage caused an imbalance in the robot’s psyche (the robot that we discover is Abullah, whom we have seen throughout this story and who believes himself to be a cyborg rather than a full robot) and led to the creation of Pluto.

If that sounds convoluted, I would recommend picking up and reading the 8 volumes of PLUTO, as my quick summary does not do the story justice.

All the momentum that Urasawa builds through the first seven volumes continues to roar ahead, driving toward the ultimate battle between these two advanced robots. Urasawa deftly draws this out, subverting our expectations of this “new” Atom while injecting an emotional resonance as he prepares for his final battle. It’s wonderful storytelling, and, like previous volumes, I found myself unwilling to stop reading before the end.

Finally, with chapter 61, Pluto and Atom face off. It’s big and brash and fairly typical, but the scene is elevated by the beautiful artwork on display. This is a battle for the ages.

And then, Gesicht’s legacy (as chapter 62 is titled) comes to bear on this situation. The battle ends as Atom and Pluto start to cry uncontrollably. For this was Gesicht’s final emotional response – he was not angry at the world for his death; he loved his wife and was saddened at the loss of the future he might have had with her.

Love defeats Pluto.

Like any good video game, there is still a “boss” for Atom and Pluto to defeat, buried deep beneath the surface of the United States of Thracia. But, as the audience has been awaiting the conflict between these two robots, that battle is really more denouement than climax.

And, on a purely emotional level for many reading this story, it falls flat. All of the emotional tension that Urasawa has built up over the course of the 8 volumes and 60+ chapters is washed away when we “stop short” in the middle of the melee. It’s as if the air goes out of the balloon that is Pluto, when we hit that point in the narrative, and I can understand why it misfires for so many.

But, is it a well done story? I’ll discuss that in the final installment.

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