New to Manga: Trying Pluto by Naoki Urasawa

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As the title of this post suggests, I am a relative newcomer to manga. I’ve seen my fair share of anime and devoured every volume ofPluto Volume 1  Naoki Urasawa Shogakukan / Viz Media 2003 Sailor Moon and Full Metal Alchemist, but I’ve never really attempted to explore the great body of work that is Japanese comics—which in hindsight seems rather silly, given how much I enjoyed those earlier forays. But now I can happily add Pluto by Naoki Urasawa to my small (but growing) list.

Trusting a recommendation, I decided not to read the synopsis before diving in. Despite that choice, I was not at all surprised to find that the story involved robots. Not that I expected robots, but shows like Gundam and Neon Genesis have taught me that they are a prominent part of many manga/anime stories. As a long time science fiction fan, I’m not opposed to robots. From Asimov to more modern writers, like Daniel H Wilson, robots have long been used in fiction to explore greater questions of humanity. Since the robots in Pluto often look exactly like humans and work alongside them, it seemed poised to explore those questions as well.

(left) Pluto Volume 1  Naoki Urasawa Shogakukan / Viz Media 2003 (Right) Ghost in the Shell  Masamune Shirow Kana, 1996However, what did surprise me was the location. Much of Pluto takes place in Switzerland and Scotland, rather than Japan. The aesthetic, however, still felt like it drew heavily on things I associate with Japanese fiction. For example, there’s a scene where the main character is undergoing “maintenance” that reminds me of images I’ve seen from other stories like Ghost in the Shell, but the different locations gave the story a much more global feel. The other thing that really surprised me was the art. It was far more sophisticated than I expected based on earlier encounters with manga. The level of detail and the shading really made it stand out and brought not only the characters, but also the settings, to life on the page.

The story revolves around a Europol detective named Gesicht. Gesicht is very good at his job and has all the personality quirks that come with it. He’s quiet, withdrawn, and moody with other law enforcement officers. Not necessarily my favourite kind of character. And to make matters worse, the first two acts felt a little chaotic. I felt disoriented being dropped into a complicated post-Robot War world with machines that looked like people around every corner. At times I struggled to follow the course of the investigation and the seemingly intuitive leaps Gesicht would make about the case.

Pluto Volume 1  Naoki Urasawa Shogakukan / Viz Media 2003

Where did a demon come from?

But then act 3 happened. Gesicht believes a robot may be responsible for the murders he is investigating. But that is impossible, because robots can’t harm humans (yay the first law of robotics! Something I recognized!). The exception being Brau-1589. Gesicht goes to visit him in prison, much the same way Clarice goes to visit Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs—he may have information that could help catch this new criminal. This encounter was what really sucked me in to Pluto. Brau-1589’s very existence raised so many questions: who was this strange robot? If robots can’t harm humans, then why had this one been able to? Why weren’t people more worried about that?Pluto Volume 1  Naoki Urasawa Shogakukan / Viz Media 2003

But as interesting as Brau-1589 was, it was acts 4–6 that made me a true fan. These acts relate the story of North #2—a retired soldier-turned-butler to a blind (human) composer. He is easily one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters I’ve read in awhile. North #2 wants to learn to play the piano, partially because he thinks his master’s music is beautiful, and partially because he doesn’t want to go back to war. The composer, however, refuses to teach him. He believes that while machines like North #2 may technically be able to play the notes perfectly, it would still be “false” because their data “doesn’t contain any of the truly important things.” But North #2 persists, and the interactions between these two characters are emotional, thoughtful, and heart-warming.

From Brau-1589 to North #2 and later Brando, the robot boxer, this story constantly raises the question “can robots feel emotion?” This leads to some even bigger questions: what does it mean to be “human” and can artificial intelligence reach that stage? I am curious about the murders Gesicht is investigating, but it is the more metaphysical aspects of this comic that will keep me coming back for more.

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