Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pluto: Action and emotion make a good manga combo

No links today, but come back tomorrow for something...special?

(watch out for SPOILERS below, by the way)

Pluto, volume 6
By Naoki Urasawa


I don't know if there are any great insights to be had in this volume of the series (from me, at least), but it's still a pretty amazing one, seeing the culmination of some long-running plots and at least some partial answers to the mysteries that have been lurking in the background for the entire series. And action! The robotic fight scenes here are some of the lengthiest and most exciting yet, with the fights actually taking place on-panel, demonstrating yet another area in which Naoki Urasawa excels. Just look at the dynamism of this sequence:


This fight, in which Gesicht finally comes face to face with Pluto, gets drawn out across several chapters and intercut with other scenes (including another exciting fight, making for some nice corresponding panel transitions), and it's amazingly tense and nail-biting, both since we've seen the lethal danger of facing Pluto several times already, but also because it's the point where Gesicht really comes into his own, the end of his emotional journey throughout the series, and his internal struggles are just as compelling as the more obvious external ones. As always with Urasawa, it's incredible to watch.

One of the themes of the series seems to be the manipulation of robots (or the less-powerful; that is, those being controlled by those in power) by humans, and their continuing development as they come to understand and learn to deal with their growing emotions and intelligence. Before the big fight, we learn along with Gesicht about Pluto's past, as a peaceful robot named Sahad who studied botany, hoping to learn how to turn the barren deserts of Persia into fields of beautiful flowers. But he was manipulated by his "father" Abullah, the head of Persia's Ministry of Science, into sacrificing his growing humanity and becoming an agent of violent revenge for the destruction of his country and the death of his family. It makes for an achingly sad portrait of a being struggling with anger and hate and trying to understand himself while being goaded into horribly murdering others like him. So when Gesicht finally confronts him and, against his programming and orders, refuses to destroy him, choosing instead to plead with him to recognize his true self, it's one of the most powerful moments in the series so far:


There are plenty of other arresting moments and scenes here, but that's the one that grabs me, and makes me realize the storytelling ability of Tezuka and Urasawa. We've seen how much programming and the "robot laws" mean to these characters, but that manipulation and control can only stand for so long against a being of intelligence and emotion, so when Gesicht refuses to kowtow to his masters' wishes and encourages others like him to do the same, it's enough to make you want to stand up and cheer.

And of course, that's not the only thing of note here. A flashback to a discovery of Sahad's is another fascinating moment that sees Urasawa use some spot color similar to what he's done in previous volumes:


I'm not sure of the meaning of that scene (in which a flower that holds its bloom indefinitely is created, destroying all the surrounding flowers in the process); is it Pluto/Sahad discovering the extent of his powers (i.e. intelligence), along with their destructive capabilities? More might be revealed, or it might be left tantalizingly ambiguous; either way, it's a fascinating sequence.

There's also an incredible bit of emotion in the final chapter, as Gesicht's wife meets Professor Tenma, and is unable to hide her grief at his death (I mentioned spoilers, right?):


As ever, the sadness that shows through on her face is a testament to Urasawa's skill at character art. It's so goddamn believable that you want to cry along with her, and the tenderness of the moment is striking. And interestingly, there's a similar moment earlier in the volume with Abullah himself, as he meets with Epsilon:


Seeing the sadness he experiences over the loss of his family humanizes him, making him more than a simple moustache-twirling villain. It's more great character work on Urasawa's part.

One other aspect in which others have noted Urasawa's excellence is the way he depicts barely-glimpsed horror, and he certainly delivers on that here:


Pluto's hidden form there is terrifying, huge and scary, with shadowy, almost organic parts of his body bulging from the shadows. We still haven't gotten a full view of him, but we know he's incredibly dangerous and deadly, so the idea of what's hiding in that tunnel is as scary as what we actually see, which is just enough to intensify that scariness. But even though this is one area in which Urasawa excels, he can deliver fully-seen, on-panel horror as well:


That's just not right, and the inhuman look of those bald-headed robots only adds to the awfulness of insects pouring out of their mouths. Yikes.

Yes, it's incredible work all around, as always. With each new volume, Urasawa gives us more to look at, process, think about, and discuss; it never gets tiresome to watch him work. He seems to be winding down a bit here; the big confrontation in this volume could well be the climax of the series. But there are still a few revelations yet to be had, along with the inevitable resurrection of Atom (and also Gesicht, one hopes) and the final defeat of the bad guys; I can't wait to experience it.
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Bonus: Hyoutan-Tsugi appearance!