Manga on Stage: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon’s Pluto

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon Pluto

We sit on a single row of seats, backs against a wall, hands on a railing before a drop. Beneath us is the main audience, and ahead of that is a curtained stage littered along the front with scrap metal. At first glance that’s all it appears to be, but there are a few distinguishable pieces. A robotic arm or two. Wires and grating. And something that looks like a mini sun, with beams sticking out of it.

I’m busy pondering the absurdity of our seating choice (it’s pretty nice to be on a single row, for so cheap—we have a perfect view of everything!) and the strange collection of scrap when my companion leans across excitedly and mutters, “That’s Mont Blanc’s head!”

Sure enough, in among the piles of scrap is a cartoonish face that seems recognisable. I’ve seen it somewhere but I’m nowhere near as excited as my companion, who knows exactly where they’ve seen it before. This was to be a running theme for the evening, as a person who has not read Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto manga, and their friend who definitely has, several times. But there’s not enough time to regret reading Monster first as the lights go down.

Pluto Volume 1 Naoki Urasawa Shogakukan / Viz Media 2003

I expect the curtain to rise, but instead, light is shed on an old scavenger in a hat and overalls as he explores the scrap in front of it and picks up a small, limp white robot. Its face is rectangular, with two huge eyes on either side, its arms and legs of plastic clattering as he nonchalantly checks it over. As he deems it worth selling, another man stumbles onto the tiny slip of available stage. This man is much neater, with blonde hair and a crisp tan suit—but it’s already clear he is an emotional mess as he begs for the childlike robot. The scavenger holds out his hand for coin, asking for “500 Zeus,” before leaving our protagonist, Gesicht, to cradle the child as gently as a father would and scream to the heavens in agony.

And so the curtain finally rises on our experience of director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s and Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon’s stage adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s manga, Pluto (co-authored by Takashi Nagasaki). I’d been looking forward to seeing this, as it’s so rare to see theatre adapting directly from a comic, rather than being an adaptation of an adaptation of a comic—like the unfortunate Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The closest thing I’d heard of doing it before was Fun Home, but even that doesn’t as closely adapt its source material as Cherkaoui’s Pluto does. Fun Home is essentially still a pure musical (and a very good one at that), whereas this truly feels like a comic brought to life on stage.

Pluto is the story of a futuristic world in which robotics is so advanced that many robots are indistinguishable from humans, necessitating the use of sensors/detectors and entryways labelled “Human” and “Non Human” to keep things in check. Many robots are still cartoonishly simple in design, however, with white plastic casing and inhuman camera-eyes, and work in servitude to humans. And there are those in-between: the people who have robotic augmentations, and the robots . . . who are starting to seem TOO human. The story follows two such robots: Gesicht, the blonde detective who works for Europol, and Atom, a young boy who has saved the world before. He is not referred to as such in this story, but you may have heard of his Western moniker: Astro Boy.

For you see, the Pluto manga is actually an adaptation in itself of a single storyline called The Greatest Robot in the World from another manga, Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (Mighty Atom). In this story, Pluto is the strongest robot ever built, and is sent on a mission by a sultan to destroy all the other strongest robots in the world. Urasawa’s Pluto is not dissimilar, but brings the story into a much more real, darker, murkier world. One in which the 39th Central Asian War has taken place and left areas of the world devastated and others prosperous, and the class divide has affected humans and robots. In Urasawa’s version, Gesicht, one of the strongest robots, is sent to investigate the murders (not destruction, murders) of the other strongest robots one by one by a mysterious entity that leaves horns behind as a calling card.

It’s important to establish all of this because Cherkaoui’s Pluto makes the bold decision to start its story after all of the strongest robots (bar Gesicht and Atom) have been murdered. After Gesicht wakes screaming from what he deems a nightmare, the breakfast news announces the murder of Mont Blanc (ah, I think to myself, so that’s who my friend meant), along with recapping the murders of North No. 2, Brando and Hercules (whose arms are in the scrap), and Epsilon (a solar powered robot, hence the sun-like object also in the scrap). Where Urasawa carefully crafts each of these robots’ lives up until their abrupt murders and evokes a building sympathy, Cherkaoui drops you in at the deep end of a murder investigation—and this is a masterful move. Let’s face it—you’re never going to cover eight volumes of content in under three hours. But this way, Cherkaoui makes it possible to explore the full emotional depth of Gesicht and Atom’s friendship as the last remaining strongest robots in the world.

And so we are introduced to Gesicht through his morning ritual after waking from the nightmare. Oddly, he is surrounded by silent actors in white, who seem to be dictating his every move—ah. It hits me. Very clever Cherkaoui—how the heck do you represent your moves not being your own choices, but as a result of programming? You don’t; you simply puppet your actors around. It’s both eerie and amusing, watching as Gesicht is puppeted to do up his own shirt buttons as another pair of hands quickly does up the remaining ones with a flourish. And it’s even eerier when his wife Helena enters the scene, moving so elegantly yet also puppeted around by these “programs.”

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon: Pluto
Photo and credit (Maiko Miyagawa) via the Barbican event page

And have I mentioned how this scene is framed? I’m not talking about metaphorically/thematically—I mean literally FRAMED. This is what I’ve been most excited to see from this performance. The genius setpieces designed by Taiki Ueda, created to resemble manga panels (or rather, the white gutters that surround panels) and to be moved around the stage to create inset panels, multiple perspectives, and simply to direct your focus. The flat white of the panels was also used to great effect in creating a sterile city environment a lot of the time, when Atom was out exploring. This whiteness perfectly contrasted any splashes of colour that were projected onto the stage, particularly the bright fields of flowers, which are a repeated visual significant to the plot.

I also have to applaud the placement of subtitles next to their characters, almost as if they were speech bubbles—that was something I didn’t expect. It was a shame, though, that because of our seating choice the subtitles were sometimes distorted for us because the projector was at an angle that meant they were optimised for the lower-down audience to see. But that’s a minor thing.

As Gesicht and Helena discuss his dream and the unfortunate news about Mont Blanc, we don’t have to imagine what they are viewing on TV—suddenly panels are inset to the scene and Urasawa’s drawings of Mont Blanc’s murder scene are projected onto them. We get general news about the world at large, the impact of the 39th Central Asian War . . . the audience doesn’t have to work hard at all to be caught up to speed right away.

And this is how the rest of the show goes; as light fades or a curtain falls on one panel, another may open up on a scene far away. Like a claustrophobic panel of Atom eating enthusiastically with his father Dr. Tenma and being called a failure. Or a panel on the higher level of the stage, above everything, featuring a president discussing world conquest with a teddybear (yup, that took me a while to wrap my head around). Or Atom’s sister Uran getting to know a homeless robot as the panels of the city fall away. The panelling dictates exactly how much of the stage we should be focusing on, and the video amplifies the experience. For example, the homeless man is found painting a beautiful impressionist view of a field of flowers—a white panel behind him comes to life with the video projection of brush strokes as the actor “paints.” But even more interestingly, the scrap at the front of the stage is transformed into that same colourful field of flowers with a simple video projection. The way the colour and light bounces off of the sculptures means we can no longer make out the scrap, really. It’s become that vivid field in our minds. After painting, the homeless man tosses his paintbrush in a bucket that’s amongst the scrap and we are startled out of the illusion.

And that’s another interesting thing—the scrap is ADDED to throughout the show. Early on, a group of refugees are fleeing a battleground, and are blown up. The sole survivor cradles a family member as their face falls off . . . a face that lingers amongst the scrap forever. When a certain robot is killed later on, their lifeless plastic body is gently laid next to Mont Blanc’s head, and remains there for the entire last act as a sad reminder of what we’ve lost. So while it’s a shame that we can’t really feel much for the robots who are killed prior to the start of the story because we don’t know them, the deaths that we DO see hit HARD, and that hurt lingers because they remain in sight at all times at the front of the stage.

Mont Blanc, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto

Speaking of sad robots—I mean, that’s a terrible segway because that is the premise of this whole show, isn’t it. Just let me change topic otherwise I’ll go on about panels and props forever—I was honestly amazed by how attached I got to the robots played by puppets (because they aren’t as advanced, supposedly, as Gesicht). Particularly Brau 1589. The characters have these bizarre, clunky-yet-rounded designs, and are moved around the stage by one or more cloaked actors (depending on the puppet’s size). It’s the combination of these clunky yet somehow weighted movements and quirky voice acting (with some autotune filters over the top) that really makes these characters feel alive. There’s a bit of tonal dissonance again though, where that eerieness battles with riotous laughter; for example, as a man pays a begging child for a flower multiple times, he triggers their programmed “Yatta!” to stop and start over and over again against their will.

What’s truly incredible about this choice to use puppets is that these characters can never break away from their “programs.” But later in the show, as Gesicht and Atom become more and more human . . . their programs are noticeably absent. It startling because you don’t realise it at first, as it’s unnatural for an actor to be shadowed on stage anyway. But when you do notice Gesicht angrily lowering his gun, choosing not to shoot a certain robot while there’s no programs around him . . . I don’t doubt a lot of people quietly gasped like I did. It’s incredible that the absence of something from the stage tells us instantly: Gesicht is free of his programming.

Now, I feel like this is a good point to talk about things that were conspicuously added to the stage that . . . well, irked me with their presence. First off, I’m not knocking interpretive dance. Heck, I love interpretive dance. It’s used to great effect in a couple of scenes, most notably Atom fighting the homeless man and being swept up in both a physical tornado and a mental one, as his brain is overloaded with information and his body is destroyed. A simple fight would not have communicated this as effectively as their combination of intense dance and video projections did. And that’s cool! The dance draws us into the illusion and helps sell the story.

What irked me was when the dance drew me back out of my immersion. It was only a minor thing, but during a couple of stage transitions there was a dancer who did this obnoxious trick, spinning his hat in the air and landing it back on his head, then bowing as if for applause. Obviously none came, because it was awkward as heck. Here we are in this intense story about gaining emotions and horrendous murder and you’re flipping your hat around like we’re at the circus?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon: Pluto
Pluto is lifted. Photo and credit (Maiko Miyagawa) via the Barbican event page

Perhaps I’m taking it too seriously, I think as he spins his hat a second time later in the show (because it was such a hit the first time), so I offer a pity chuckle. A chuckle that says “Haha, move on please.” And we do. To, um, what is simultaneously the most important and most silly of all the scenes in the show. (I think in retrospect it’s obvious now that Act Three is where everything falls apart.) You see, it’s time for the reborn Atom, who is now full of hate, to defeat Pluto, our antagonist who is actually pretty sympathetic. And uh . . . Atom flies in.

Atom flies in with the help of shadowed actors, I should say. And boy does it look silly, watching him be lifted and maneuvered as if in flight. I think this is just because of my own experience seeing this technique lampshaded before in Holy Musical B@man, as Superman whooshes into scenes grasped around the waist and hoisted into the air by an actor dressed in all black. But I can’t just forget that hilarious image as I try to seriously watch Atom fly fist-first into Pluto without giggling.

This is a struggle felt throughout the show, really, as certain moments that might have perhaps been far more serious in the manga become shockingly funny bits. Nothing encapsulates this more so than the death of Dr. Roosevelt, the ultimate AI and true villain that has been orchestrating everything from the murders to the destruction of Pluto to make way for Bora, the real strongest robot in the world. As Brau 1589 menacingly creeps up on his unassuming teddy bear body (and gosh I am embarassed at how long it took me to get that “Teddy” joke), Roosevelt begins an equally menacing monologue, only to be cut off as Brau attacks him and his head pops off, to the thunderous laughter of the audience. I catch myself chuckling as this happens and chide myself: the ultimate AI was just murdered, and Brau 1589, the first robot to commit murder against a human, is free—this is scary! But . . . that teddy’s head popping off replays in my mind and my laughter resumes. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to feel elated or terrified in this moment and it’s confusing.

Coming back to Bora, the real strongest robot in the world, I again feel a sense of dissatisfaction. I reiterate: everything falls apart in Act Three with the final fight. Atom’s rebirth was cool, his whole dance with multiple actors representing him swiftly coming up with a perfect equation for an atom bomb was excellent, but then he flies off to fight Pluto and everything becomes unclear. For one, Pluto himself doesn’t really do much for all his appearances in the show, considering he is supposed to be such a strong robot. His design was intricate and imposing and he throws some punches but I don’t get the sense he is strong—I’m far more terrified of Brau 1589 and Roosevelt, perhaps because they speak their intent. But Pluto . . . he is defeated, his true nature is revealed, and then Bora is . . . announced? Bora isn’t actually shown on stage in any form. Instead, we go to a sort of mindspace where Atom meets the real human trapped inside Pluto, and they fight together to stop Bora from exploding a volcano and wiping out the United States of Thracia. There’s a lot more nuance to the story involving a son and his father being reborn as robots after having their lives destroyed by the war, but I’m too busy trying to parse what’s going on for the father-son reunion to have much impact. This is where some more of that panelling and video from before would have been useful in helping the audience to visualise, but as it is the fight that takes place in a growing volcanic explosion (represented by a fabric balloon of air manipulated by actors that grab at Atom) is really hard to understand and the audience is having to work super hard.

All of this was stunning and exciting to watch, but emotionally it lost me. And then we have the final scene in which the actors perfectly recreate the final scene of the manga (which is projected behind them), Atom giving a message of hope and remembering the robots that are gone, and I felt . . . well, not much. I just miss Gesicht.

Geischt, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto

Gesicht and Atom, to me, represent the two sides of this show: the strong, human story and the weak, global story (though I hasten to add, the actors that play both were incredible—I’m talking more about the plot itself). After learning the truth about his nightmares—that they are actually memories of the death of his son, and the first time he ever killed a human—Gesicht remembers that he can feel real emotion. He is now essentially human. His memories had been erased, so we finally have an explanation for that scream at the beginning of the show before the curtain rose. It seems like he’ll be able to get over his trauma now and be content with his wife, but of course this is when tragedy strikes. He is killed by the beggar child from before in a beautifully realised scene, in which he is shot through a bouquet of roses, the petals of which then scatter into the air as he keels over. It’s a wonderful scene that shows just how caring Gesicht has become, as he tries to help the child that has just shot him, right up until he dies.

A few scenes after this, Helena seeks help dealing with his death. Dr. Tenma, the creator of Atom, who so far has been a very unsympathetic character, teaches her how to cry. What starts as a simple imitation of “Ooh” and “Aah” breaks down into guttural wailing as Helena realises she is crying for real and cannot stop.

THIS. THIS IS WHAT I CAME FOR. It was my favourite scene. Geez, it messed me up. It’s so simple and clear and heartbreaking and suddenly Helena is human—she is alive. On a side note, Helena’s actress Tao Tsuchiya played both Helena and Uran—two polar opposites—and made them both so emotionally real. She was brilliant.

But what I’m getting at is that Gesicht and Helena’s story is easy to follow, emotionally and visually, and everything that happens to them messes you up. Whereas I just didn’t feel that with Atom and Pluto, because their story became so murky towards the end. Instead of feeling the struggle between Atom and Pluto’s motivations, it felt like a struggle between vague anti-war and save-the-world notions. And perhaps that’s the point of Urasawa’s reimagining of the black and white good-vs-evil story by Tezuka as a morally grey one about humanity, but I just couldn’t find satisfaction watching Atom defeat Bora.

Is that even what happened? Did Sahad defeat his father and Atom just escaped the blast? Again, I CAN’T TELL.

I feel like I’m Dr. Ochanomizu in the final scene, slumped to his knees and staring at Atom, knowing what has happened but not really comprehending. My real beef is that I cannot comprehend what Atom is: the perfect robot. The perfect human. Neither. Both. And this new person he is remains a mystery. It’s a bit like watching the newly reborn Motoko Kusanagi leave at the end of Ghost in the Shell, wanting her to come back so you can ask more questions. So it’s not that it’s dissatisfying, but rather, it leaves you wanting so much more. Perhaps it’s time I actually read Pluto.

I asked my companion (Josh Randall, my Bitten by a Radioactive Podcast co-host) who had read the manga beforehand, how he felt as the show concluded:

“Even before taking my seat, I knew I wouldn’t be witnessing a full adaptation of Pluto’s eight volumes. I knew that I wouldn’t see some of my favourite scenes realised through the form of interpretive dance. In the just under three-hour length, there was no room for a small side story featuring a robot who wants to push his away his memories of war and just learn to play the piano. So it didn’t surprise me when we open to find that five of the World’s Strongest Robots had already met their demise, but as a reader of the manga, it became a morbid delight to investigate the set and notice objects relating to and part of those robots adorning the set.

Pluto is probably my favourite of Naoki Urasawa’s works. I have gone back to it many times, but every time that I do, I can’t help but feel the tonal shift imposed on the work after the protagonist Gesicht’s death to be awfully jarring. Up to the point of this character’s departure, Pluto is primarily a mystery series as Gesicht investigates these murders and comes to terms with his past. It is these volumes that feel most like an Urasawa work, tales of morality and mystery. The final volume, however, embraces much of the action you would expect of Astro Boy as it focuses on Atom foiling a plot to wipe out all of humanity.

“This tonal shift is very much felt in the theatre production.

“It feels like hyperbole to say it, but I would say that it is a perfect adaptation of the source material in this case, portraying that same uneven tone. As a realisation of the manga, it did everything as it should have been, even down to page layouts, but it also added something more. Whilst the dancing portions sometimes felt out of place, there was a lot of inspired choreography to be seen too.”

So there you have it: we’re pretty much on the same page (uh . . . stage?).

Cherkaoui’s Pluto tells a story on a grand scale, getting the audience to question everything about war, class, emotion, and the nature of humanity. The serene music of Shogo Yoshii and Olga Wojciechowska, featuring what sounds like delicate string instruments and chimes, lulls you into this dreamlike state where humans and robots co-exist. The quirky performances of the actors breathes life into those humans and robots (I particularly loved the energetic performances of Ochanomizu and Uran). And the white panels upon a black stage carefully break up the story into multiple scenes and perspectives for you to ponder. It really was a fantastic spectacle, and I think I’d have sat through a whole ’nother three hours to be quite honest.

With thanks to Dean McKnight
Jade Sarson

Jade Sarson

Comic Artist/Writer and Illustrator. Creator of Cafe Suada and For the Love of God, Marie!. Host of @BBR_Podcast.