By William Moo
One of the most famous and popular arcs from Osamu Tezuka’s original Astro Boy manga is “The World’s Strongest.” In a 2019 Crunchyroll interview, artist Naoki Urasawa said that while Astro Boy appeared to be a lighthearted Tezuka work, on a deeper level, it told a very dark story. “The Greatest Robot on Earth” arc was not about a righteous robot hero taking down a bad one, but about the emptiness of war and how it can negatively affect everyone involved. With Tezuka creating manga in the aftermath of Japan’s loss in WWII, his anti-war sentiments were present throughout his original Astro Boy series.
The idea to then create a more serious reimagining of the story arc began as part of a homage to the fictional Astro Boy’s real birthday on April 7, 2003. Urasawa was one of many manga artists to commemorate the anniversary by drawing their own tributes, illustrations, and reimagined works of the Astro Boy series, and this is where Pluto enters the picture. Although nothing could ever replace Tezuka’s original stories and ideas, Urasawa went on to create a work that stood out for being its own thing: his own tribute to a “Manga God.” There could not have been a more perfect story for him to remake in a modern context.
The series was first published in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Original magazine on September 5, 2003. The first volume of the series was released on September 30, 2004 in Japan and in English on February 17, 2009. Osamu Tezuka’s son, Macoto Tezka, served as supervisor for the series while Takashi Nagasaki helped Urasawa write the story.
The central plot of the story in the first volume takes place in the aftermath of what is called the 39th Central Asian War. Gesicht — a German inspector for Interpol and our central character — is known as one of the seven great robots in the world. Along with Atom (also known as Astro Boy), Mont Blanc, Epsilon, Hercules, North No. 2., and Brando, they’re all known as advanced robots with powerful weapons and fighting abilities, as well as for their uncanny human appearance. The main conflict of the story begins when an unknown serial killer (later revealed to be the eponymous Pluto) starts killing them off one-by-one, with the peaceful Mont Blanc being the unfortunate first victim.
On a technical level, Pluto is an excellent neo-noir hardboiled detective mystery set in a grounded future with its own political complications. Urasawa’s illustrations greatly level out Tezuka’s original character designs in place of a more realistic imagery to them. His art has strong cinematic qualities, especially in the manga’s panels where there are scenes of seemingly random objects, juxtaposed with characters speaking to one another in a particular area. This visual storytelling element keeps the story running at a good pace without rushing to a direct conclusion. They’re engaging and you’ll be flipping through the pages to find out what happens next.
The 39th Central Asian War is a constant talking point between Gesicht and the other characters, with the former still dealing with its repercussions years afterwards. It’s a connective source of trauma among the seven great robots because of the actions they had to take in order to secure peace between nations. They were tasked with stopping the Central Asian kingdom from abusing and exploiting robots and machines into destruction, subsequently contributing to the downfall of its supreme ruler. As a result, Gesicht and the other robots vowed to use diplomatic and non-violent ways of maintaining peace and security in a world of humans and robots.
This peaceful sentiment strongly shapes Urasawa’s universe for this story, and influences his characters’ actions. For example, Gesicht works in the public sector as an inspector who refuses to use his built-in weapons against humans. Meanwhile, Brando has become a popular wrestler and Atom serves as Japan’s peace ambassador. Their public presence and influence serve as positive reinforcement for the continued status of robots in a post-war society. On the other hand, their presence is also a deterrent for some who refuse to view them as nothing but objects.
Although Urasawa has never publicly commented on his views of war, it’s evident by his statements in the earlier interview that he doesn’t view it in a positive light. We see his perspective cemented throughout the story by showing us how characters like Geischt are trying to move on with their lives, despite remembering their actions in the war. Things got further complicated when a set of far-reaching rules called the International Robot Laws were introduced after the war’s conclusion. These laws granted equal human rights to robots, protecting them from prejudice and discirmination. While this initially benefited robots on the surface, it has led to growing tension among certain individuals and groups. Much of this aspect is explored in the series’ later volumes, as we see why public robot figures like Gesicht and at further risk because of their role in the war.
Through his investigation, Gesicht also deduces that the serial killer Pluto is killing off the seven great robots involved in the war and the humans who enacted the Robot Laws in place. Pluto’s calling card in his murders also frequently involve sticking devil-like horns on the top of his victims’ heads or around their nearby surroundings.
At this point of the story, Gesicht is still gathering clues and formulating his deductions on why Pluto is killing over robots and humans associated with the 39th Central Asian War. Pluto’s motives are known through the recurring devil-horns imagery, which is a call back to the original Pluto character of the Astro Boy manga. By using these horns in his murders, he sends a threatening message to his potential victims that draws upon devil-like imagery. Moreover, Pluto’s actions suggests that an evil robot can choose to harm a human out of their own will.
This is made evident in the chapter where Gesicht interviews a robot called Brau 1589, who is known as the first of his kind to kill a human. Brau 1589 plays a similar role to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, wherein he aids Gesicht in finding out clues to the serial murders. It’s not known why Brau committed the acts he did, but it’s very eerie the way the manga portrays him as a cold, calculated machine who knows what he did.
But by contrast, another subplot further explores the relationship between human and robot. It involves the great robot North No. 2. and his service to Paul Duncan — a once famous composer who has recused himself to a distant Scottish manor. At first, Duncan despises robots and strongly believes machines can’t produce great art and music. Pluto focuses on these two characters for a good chunk of the plot, demonstrating their growing bond and Duncan’s gradual openness to North’s own music creation. Eventually, they find mutual respect in each other, but it sadly doesn’t last long as North confronts Pluto in an explosive battle in the skies. Although the aftermath of the battle isn’t shown, it’s suggested he did not survive the battle, bringing the small subplot to a tragic end.
From that story, Urasawa frames North as a tragic hero and a robot who could experience the same emotions and functions as a human could. I like this little narrative detour the manga took in between chapters of the main plot. Not only did it give us a look into another of the great robots, but it also broadens the perspective of a robot’s role in modern society and whether their actions can make them more good or evil in the eyes of others. By giving North some character depth, it make it more frustrating that he’s killed offscreen and, as of the first three volumes, isn’t mentioned or seen anymore. Despite that, I think North’s story arc connects really well with Gesicht’s role in the story, who deals with his own guilt and regrets throughout the series
The first volume of Pluto has a lot of great things working for it. It’s a prime example of the kind of deep storytelling manga can present and will no doubt entertain both Astro Boy fans and newcomers to the franchise. Things will get more exciting in the second volume as Gesicht meets a familiar face.
Pluto Vol #1
By Naoki Urasawa
William Moo is a freelance writer and video content producer. You can find his YouTube channel, which features video essays and commentary on Japanese animation, here, or follow him on Twitter here!
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