Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pluto: Too much philosophical pondering for a comic about fightin' robots

Elsewhere: I've got a review of the first (and, so far, only) volume of Cla$$war up over at Comics Bulletin. I thought it was a strong piece, or at least I was pleased with the results.

And I contributed my usual weekly TV ramblings to The Factual Opinion, covering Fringe andThe Venture Brothers. Yay, boob tube!

Link: The blog The Eastern Edge has been posting some interviews with Naoki Urasawa here and there, and I find them fascinating, since he's such an amazing creator. This latest one sees him talk about his process, and also mention some complaints he's had about his manga having too many scenes of talking heads, which seems crazy to me, since while that sort of thing sounds boring, he never makes it less than exciting. Also, some rough sketches and layouts of his art; essential stuff for an Urasawa-holic like me.

And speaking of Urasawa:

Pluto, volume 5
By Naoki Urasawa

The great thing about science fiction is that while it can ostensibly be about fantastical concepts and futuristic technology, it's often at its best when examining the nature of humanity itself, whether through symbols or by placing people in an unfamiliar situation that can provoke thought about how they would react. That's exactly what Naoki Urasawa does in this series, following in Osamu Tezuka's lead after he spent a career doing much the same thing. And what's even better, pedants like me can try to tease out brainy interpretations, but people who aren't interested in that sort of thing can ignore it and just enjoy the exciting action and wonderful storytelling, which Urasawa delivers here as well as he ever has.

The plot this volume sees Hercules facing off against Pluto, with what are probably the expected results; Gesicht struggling to deal with his returning memories and the emotions that come with them, while trying to protect Haas from being murdered; and Professor Ochanomizu and Dr. Tenma trying to figure out how to fix Atom after his "death" at the hands of Pluto. And, in a surprisingly touching chapter, Uran runs around Tokyo trying to help people whose sadness she can sense:

That's a nice moment in a chapter full of them, with Urasawa highlight the caring and concern on Uran's face as she begins to wake up to the ideas of compassion and empathy. He's so good with the emotion, and he's able to convey it in such a range of ages and character types. In another nice flashback scene, we see what Dr. Tenma was talking about last volume when he called Atom a failure:

The way Urasawa shows the sadness on his face as he realizes that his dream of recreating his dead son is palpable, yet also understated, and at the same time, we see Atom's realization that he's not meeting his "father's" needs, beginning his own emotional maturity. Beautiful work.

This scene also shows the way Tenma has closed himself off, reserving his emotion and passion for his work. The contrast between the cold way he deals with Atom and the excitement he shows about his ideas for artificial intelligence is surprising:

Urasawa really highlights the body language in this scene, in which Tenma has been working for 18 hours trying to revive Atom. He spends most of it laying on a couch, but the discussion of science makes him sit up straight and become more animated than ever. But when the possible consequences of what he's talking about become clear, revealing that Atom might come out the other side drastically changed, he's back to his reserved self, coldly discussing the possible results:

The way Urasawa takes pains to detail the emotion of his characters really brings the main conflict of the series to the fore. But, aside from the obvious message of humans versus runaway technology, what is the underlying message here? At first, I was thinking about racism and colonialism, since the hate groups and robot civil rights laws seem to point in that direction. And that's not necessarily wrong; the way the robots seem to be slowly growing into their role as full-fledged members of society does seem to correspond with freed slaves figuring out their place in the world, or lower-class countries trying to relate to the rest of the world. But I think it's deeper than that, with Urasawa examining the very nature of emotional maturity itself. Early artificial intelligence makes the robots like children, unable to comprehend adult matters like hatred and vengeance, but now that AI is getting more sophisticated, the robots are waking up to matters that adults have to deal with, whether it's anger, or pain, or sadness, or guilt. And it's fascinating to see this exploration. Tenma's discussion of a robot that has every possible human personality loaded into its circuits is a good metaphor; as with the robot that wouldn't wake up in that state, people need something external to push them in one direction or another. You need a lifetime of experiences and emotions to make a person.

And that's the tragedy of Pluto, or so it seems at this point; he's got too many external stimuli pushing him in conflicting directions, and he can't understand them, causing him to lash out violently, but in a way that certain forces can control. In fact, one could relate this to the anger and repression that certain forces in this world use to spread violence and work toward their evil goals. Maybe that's reading too much into this though; for what it is, Urasawa really brings this conflict to life, demonstrating the terrifying hatred that consumes Gesicht and pushes him into murder:

Or the guilt that consumes a robot during the war, as he's so broken by the destruction of his fellow machines that he can't stop washing the "blood" off his hands, Lady Macbeth-style:

Urasawa even wrings poignance out of a robot couple whose child has been destroyed, as they struggle to comprehend the sadness and anguish that humans feel:

As always, it's masterful work, the kind of thing that you can't put down, needing to know what's going to happen next, but never sure where Urasawa is going to go or what he's going to show you. He'll follow an exciting action scene with an intense confrontation or a fascinating conversation, or even a cute character-based interlude, but never deviating from the main theme, always working to unite everything into a cohesive whole. It's beautiful stuff, every page a demonstration of his talent and skill. There are only three more volumes to go, and it should be amazing to see the finish.

Bonus: Urasawa's version of Mr. Mustachio!

At least, I think that's who he is. He's also quite similar to Monster's Dr. Reichwein, who can be seen in one of the images in this post. Cool!