By William Moo
In the final pages of Pluto’s first volume, Gesicht meets a young boy named Atom — also known as Astro Boy to many. That Pluto creator Naoki Urasawa goes with the character’s’ real’ name here doesn’t surprise me, as his original Japanese name can be translated into English as “Mighty Atom.” Atom is depicted as a normal boy with advanced technical skills and detailed analysis. Whereas Tezuka’s design was more cartoonish and rounded, Urasawa’s design for Atom is much more realistic and human-looking. This expands upon the line between machine and human and which one inherits more characteristics from the other.
Although the first volume primarily focuses on Gesicht’s investigations into the murders and his personal life, the beginning of volume two sees him interact with the young Atom.
Japan has always had a fascination with personifying robots by giving them unique human expressions. I feel like Urasawa chose to design Atom in this way because he wanted to highlight his humanity and break some stereotypes associated with a typical robot (e.g. bland personality, narrow expressions, etc). For example, there’s a scene here where Gesicht asks Atom if he can really taste food like other humans. He tells him no – but after a while, he eventually gets a “feeling” of how delicious foods can be, even if he can’t feel the sensation himself. This goes back to the idea of how we truly define what humans and robots are.
We’re also introduced to Atom’s father figure and mentor, Professor Ochanomizu. In Osamu Tezuka’s original manga, he is the creator of Atom’s sister, Uran, and takes care of the boy after he’s abandoned by his original creator/father, Professor Tenma. In Pluto, he serves a similar role in the story and is revealed to have also taken part as a special inspector in search of robots of mass destruction during the 39th Central Asian War. It’s great to see Urasawa’s own interpretation of the character because he plays a key role in Atom’s life and is the one often helping him in dire situations. Moreover, he also helps guide Atom’s moral compass through every kind of conflict.
The second volume provides more details on the 39th Central Asian War concept and why it’s an essential point of focus for the story. Urasawa’s drawings and narrative strongly alludes to the real life United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, with two characters in particular resembling George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. There are also subtle connections to the ensuing conflict that took place afterwards, as well as other wars in areas of the Middle East. We learn that Gesicht and the other robots were sent over to Central Asia to stop its corrupt leader, liberate enslaved robots, and end a mounting conflict.
Pluto ultimately continues Osamu Tezuka’s trend of anti-war sentiment in his stories, as Urasawa conveys the clear-cut message that war only hurts both parties in the end and the reasons behind it often come back to the pursuit of power and greed. Most of the robots involved in the war were just following orders, but soon realize their actions have caused great harm to many innocent people in a foreign land. This is evident in a particularly heartbreaking moment in the manga.
In a flashback to Gesicht’s time in Central Asia, he and his men are confronted by a distraught citizen affected by a bombing in his neighbourhood. The bombing was done to kill off dangerous terrorists, but had – as in the real world – killed many innocent babies also sleeping in the building. The man pleads with Gesicht and the others to take responsibility for their attack, before sobbing in despair. In that moment, an emotionless Gesicht could only offer shallow platitudes for the man and said he was only doing his job. Gesicht still retains that memory and it seems to affect him in a very subtle way because of how often he’s able to recall it. The scene delivers a lot of emotional impact without being violent and exploitative and is a strong example of Urasawa’s anti-war theme at work.
This theme is also apparent in the character arc which robot-turned-wrestler Brando goes through as well. In a flashback he, along with Mont Blanc and Hercules, questioned why they were taking part in a war that was hurting people. At first, they thought it was in the name of justice, but gradually realized it was done in a vicious cycle of hate. This experience helped shape Brando into a character with strong moral principles and a steadfast belief in using his abilities for the greater good. He used his powers to become a world-class wrestler in the ring, gaining the respect of many. Afterwards, he started a big family with another humanoid robot and was enjoying a seemingly happy life.
When Brando hears word of Pluto’s attack on his fellow robots, he decides to confront the murderer and bring him down himself. Ultimately, Brando is portrayed as a lovable guy who wants to confront his past and rectify his mistakes. He wills himself to confront Pluto in an explosive battle that pretty much occurs off-panel. However, as a last sign of defiance, Brando uses audi waves to broadcast his last words to Gesicht and his friends as Pluto lands the final blow on him. Though he dies, he damages Pluto heavily and reveals some clues about him. Though he was defeated, he went down swinging and with great pride because he had heavily damaged Pluto in the fight.
Brando’s last stand against Pluto is spurred by the death of his former comrade, Mont Blanc. His sacrifice was the most altruistic action he could’ve done to protect his family and his fellow robots. He gained success and respect from humans after the war and threw all of that away to try and stop a menace that was harming others. His story arc portrays him as a very sympathetic character who just wanted to do the right thing and protect the people he cares about. His feeling of accomplishment and lack of regret is particularly felt as he falls into the ocean, passing the baton to Geischt and the others to stop Pluto.
Once again, the second volume of Pluto provides a lot of great insight into its overarching narrative. Not only do we get more background and context about the 39th Central Asian War, but we’re also shown what Geischt and the other robots had to deal with during that conflict. The manga is great at portraying its characters as neither good nor bad in different situations. They thought at first the war was justified in defeating the bad guys, but they gradually became concerned that they had become the bad guys themselves. As such, it’s highly suggested that the murders are some sort of retribution towards Gesicht and the other robots.
Pluto’s motives on why he’s killing the seven great robots is still a mystery, and we don’t know if he’s working alone or with an accomplice so far. He’s an interesting character in that his actions have a deep impact on the story and characters, even when he’s not seen. I feel like this is necessary to build up to an exciting reveal of what the character is really like and know what his motives are. It’s a slow build-up, but not one that is unearned overall. The second volume leaves us some subtle clues as to who’s behind the serial murders, which will no doubt be explored in the third volume.
Pluto Vol #2
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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