By Naoki Urasawa
Few manga earn a place on western classics shelves. Pluto, an 8-volume series by Naoki Urasawa, garners excellence from readers who can appreciate its timelessness, limitations, and culture references.
Pluto follows a Europol robot detective, Gesicht, as he investigates the deaths of advanced robots and humans specializing in robotics. The only thing linking the murders are horns adorning the dead. As Gesicht delves into the complicated world of robotic and human politics, the secrets beneath the murders, the 39th Central Asian War, even Gesicht’s dreams, foreshadow the world’s destruction. Could Gesicht, a stoic figure standing between the human and the robotic worlds, be as fallible as his creators? While Pluto is a mechanical version of cat-and-mouse, the manga brings Urasawa’s specialties in science fiction to the forefront.
Despite Pluto being Urasawa’s interpretation of “The Greatest Robot of Earth” arc from Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, the story reads as original content, as its predecessor thanks to its ageless themes and literary techniques. The main aspect of timelessness in storytelling is how well a story can relate to anyone in any time. Many of Pluto’s tropes include people’s conflicts with reality, the psychological effects of trauma, and the situations leading to hatred and revenge. Similar to Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, to manga like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, great writing grasps unchanging themes without lending themselves to their current slang or pop culture. As the story behind the murders unfolds, the robots’ personalities are established through memorials, flashbacks, and conversations. Pieces from the 39th Central Asian War, a war between the United States of Thracia and Persia, surface with each character’s involvement in the battles. Though the plot development is shrouded in mystery including Brau 1589, a robot who killed humans, and Gesicht’s conflict with his emotions, the story is set at an accessible but unyielding pace for readers.
Science fiction is meant to exaggerate humans’ fallacies and victories, and Pluto does this well. The science fiction elements in Pluto, such as robots, mechanized weapons of the 39th Central Asian War, and the surrounding technologies, can’t be removed without scrapping the entire story. However entrenched in mechanisms Pluto are, the manga focuses on humanity. At the center are family, friends, lovers, rivals, and emotions—components central to the core principles of humanity. Detective Gesicht and his fellow robots, including Atom, are the most advanced robots on Earth, mostly indistinguishable from humans. Atom eats in the same fashion of Tobio Tenma as a recreation of his inventor’s dead son, while robots such as Hercules and Epsilon surround themselves with children, constant reminders of human fragility. The robots, along with readers, are aware that robots will and can never truly be human, but machines still function as protectors of humanity. Through Gesicht, the heavy inquiry, “What makes me human?” is imposed, alongside the search for the prime suspect to the deaths, without feeling coerced into Urasawa’s focused pace.
The fault of manga, especially in an increasingly connected world, is most stories are positioned to compare the differences between Western culture and Japanese culture. In Assassination Classroom and Neon Genesis Evangelion, both Irina Jelavic and Asuka Langley Soryu are portrayed as loud and showy characters when standing next to their quieter Japanese counterparts. Once this cultural framework dissolves, the story becomes more organic and applicable to readers around the world. All of Pluto‘s robots are from different countries, and none of them seem to care or dwell on their cultural gaps. They instead look at the events that unite them. The bonds between the 39th Central Asian War soldiers, mainly Mont Blanc, North No. 2, Brando, and Hercules, are as strong as the bonds forged by survivors of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
With the Japanese standpoint removed, Urasawa also makes the reader an integral part of the story. By centering on a global perspective through Gesicht, the story looks out into the world and questions more than general humanity: the story and its author are questioning the reader’s humanity. Just as the internet allows audiences to see more graphic photos, and videos of the post-9/11 wars and ISIS executions, people have become desensitized to war and its casualties. Gone are the wonders of giant robot fights; even decapitations have zero shock factor. What is rising instead is a psychological state that distances the gravity people’s deaths at thousands of miles away and treats real issues as unimportant blips like the last generation of iPhone.
But it’s only human nature to care more about one thing and care increasingly less about another. In humans, this is called “reciprocal inhibition,” a term triggered in reverse to Pavlov’s classical conditioning, or learned behavior. For viewers to not feel anxious about, for example, a live feed to an ISIS beheading, humans must inhibit another feeling, mainly empathy, and distance themselves from anxiety-causing stimuli. “It’s not me. It’s not hurting me. It’s not something I care about.” This leads to desensitization to protect from distress and anxiety.
This is where the robots from Urasawa’s Pluto have humans beat. Whatever Gesicht or Brando care about, they keep caring about it until they die. Even if they can’t do anything about it because their memories were erased, inside their circuits and chips is a program that does degrade or erode without notice. The characters’ hatred may surface, but their other qualities—love for their adopted children and willingness to better their homelands—don’t grind away. Humans, on the other end, compress emotions to survive. Pluto wants readers to care not just about the story, but about showing empathy to others.
While Pluto wants readers to validate their humanity, the story also highlights several occurrences typical to wartime. During war, the arts and free expression are persecuted in the form of budget cuts to art programs whereas the most progressive thinkers are silenced, (such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Minoru Yasui), or recruited for creating weapons, (like Leonardo da Vinci and the multi-barreled cannon, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim and the Maxim machine gun, Enrico Fermi and the A-bomb). In Pluto, the first robots destroyed were proponents of peace and the arts. Mont Blanc, a nature lover, and North 2, a pianist, are the first to die. Later on, a robot who can paint beautiful murals, is hunted by humans. As the story progresses, the least involved robots from the war—the ones who follow orders very well (Gesicht) and the ones part of a late-arriving peace corps—are the last machines to be picked off. When Gesicht begins disobeying orders and visiting Braus 1518, he becomes a prominent target.
From a distance, Pluto is just a manga. From a closer perspective, it contains timeless science fiction elements with embedded cues reminiscent of wartime in an interconnected world. To overcome desensitization, wartime thinking, and human nature, Pluto shows how anyone, or anything, can become one of the greatest humans on Earth.
- Fink, George. Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster. Academic Press, Nov 25, 2010 – Medical – 896 pages 592. https://books.google.com/books?id=rOq4XV94wLsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q=desensitization&f=false
- University Communications. “Has New Media Desensitized Consumers To Graphic Images?” The University of Arizona, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, June 10, 2011. http://web.sbs.arizona.edu/news/has-new-media-desensitized-consumers-graphic-images