Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

06 Aug 2011

(Graphic Novel Series) Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka by Urasawa Naoki

(Reaction) Robots - Children of a Lesser god by: Jose Angelo Singson

Personally, I live by the credo if it ain't broke, don't fix it and it has worked perfectly for me on a number of levels. As such I am generally wary of things that bear the words retelling , re-interpreting or re-imagining. I am wary for a good reason: re-telling/re-interpreting/re-imagining has been known to ruin a perfectly good thing be it food, cars, movies, comic books and graphic novels.

Occasionally there are re-makes that do justice to their precursor. The graphic novel series Pluto is a fine example of truly exemplary re-imagining. Pluto is a graphic novel serialization of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, specifically "The Greatest Robot on Earth (Chijo saidai no robotto) story arc, and the series' title is taken from the arc's chief villain, Pluto (Puruto).

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka remains true to the Astro Boy series in that it too, much like the original, features heavily the dynamics of human-A.I. social interactions. The further you read into the series the more you realize that although robots have been given rights and privileges as citizens and are generally acknowledged as a completely separate species of intelligent life, at least by law, humanity still views intelligent machine-dom with the same regard as they did their toasters and laptops.

Ergo, machines are still just that, ...an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work... with the additional twist of these devices as being self aware. This twist though makes for some serious, serious considerations and having said that it begs the question: what makes something human and at what point do we need to confer human rights on non human life?

In the series, self-aware robots are everywhere and have come to play key roles in most every dimension of human society: human police enforcers often have robot partners. Hospitals have robot nurses on the staff roster and often these robot nurses are programmed to be particularly kind in their demeanor, especially towards patients with lethal or highly communicable diseases. 9.9 times out of 10 robots are programmed or inclined to act more humane than the average human does.

I recall a particularly moving scene where Officer Gesicht sees a garbage man lugging the broken remains of a police officer robot nicknamed Robby. Gesicht stops the garbage man from unceremoniously dumping the remains in a compactor to search for the memory chip of the downed police robot. He wanted to retrieve the chip to hand it to Robby's wife as a memento. Upon seeing a renowned police robot rooting through scraps of machinery the garbage man automatically assumes that Gesicht is looking for salvageable robot parts, possibly for his own use and the garbage man flatly tells him ...there's nothing else in there but junk....

Again the artist's vast understanding of the nuances of human emotions translated into illustrations comes into play. Gesicht flashes a look of vehement revulsion and disbelief at the indifference displayed by the garbage man towards the remains of what was once a valiant and valued member of the police force that kept their city safe. The garbage man of course is taken aback by this strong reaction but is completely clueless as to what prompted it. Gesicht again, in disbelief of how dense this human was to the outrage he felt simply shakes his head and the tired, defeated expression he typically has on his face returns.

This particular scene strikes me because of it proves the following postulates: 1. Robots are capable of feeling an amazing spectrum of emotions 2. Robots are capable of forming and developing social bonds and relationships of surprising profundity 3. These characteristics were previously solely the ownership of humanity; that no longer holds true. 4. These are characteristics that by its very existence require rights to uphold and defend their interests. Ergo, for all rights and intents robots cease to become robots but become human or rather a variant thereof.

This then leads to an even more uncomfortable realization: robots, for all intents and purposes, are the new de facto slave race. Societally, robots fulfill the niche that used to be filled by subjugated tribes, people in debt, orphans, P.O.W.'s and whoever wasn't strong enough to defend his liberty at the time.

Robots in the series are all programmed with The Three Laws of Robotics which state: 1. a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. a robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These laws (a direct application of Asimov's Law of Robotics) are the source of all conflict within the series and the conflicts are manifold both internal, such as those occurring within a robot when it makes a decision for itself, and external, such as when a robot interacts with human society. This primary directive and by their very design and intended function they are slaves. Even the Super 7 by these definitions are little more than ridiculously powerful, highly specialized slaves.

If you scrutinize these The Three Laws of Robotics and boil it down to its most basic components it may be summed up thusly: 1. Don't hurt/kill/maim humans 2. Obey humans unless they command you to hurt/kill/maim humans or hurt/destroy yourself 3. Keep yourself functioning. As a set of guidelines for tools, this is ok; however these laws speak nothing of the dignity of living as a human. These laws are focused wholly on self-preservation and the preservation of human life, a perfect backdrop for a subservient species or thinking tools.

When you combine the 3 Laws and human rights you find yourself at an impasse. How do you protect the rights and privileges of a human species that is by its design and function intended to be a slave? How do you as a robot fit into a society that has given you civil liberties such as suffrage and protection from persecution but has designed you to be obedient to the point of possible and actual abuse?

Surprisingly, the answer comes from the robots themselves. Although they live out their days as slaves they take to it with a sense of dignity and a knowing sense of purpose. This is what they were made for and so they suffer no indignity in knowing in carrying out their function. Virtual poster beings for the passage in the book of Colossians chapter 3 verse 22 ...Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord... but in this case Lord would refer to their creators, mankind. This noble fulfillment of their functions and deliberate adherence to their primary programming then turns these robots into something else entirely: the ironic paragon of the higher aspirations of humanity. Robots possess immense power but it is wielded judiciously, and always applied for the betterment of all.

Throughout the series the Super 7 as well as other human characters ask the question, will humans and intelligent robots ever learn to live together? It is also interesting to note that even the Super 7 or the 7 most powerful robots on Earth have been drawn to appear more human than their original incarnations. This attempt to blur the lines between robots and humans was done so effectively through the art that one cannot help but feel truly sympathetic when one of them is destroyed when an inevitable face off with the series' titular villain happens.

The series ends, at least for me, a bit abruptly with this question never being fully answered. I guess this is also appropriate because really who can say how such a pairing will turn out? People can barely get along with other people, how much more with people that ultimately have been created in our own flawed image and likeness?

Review:

Off the top of my head I can name a number of re-imagined things that have failed to live up to or give additional glory to the original concept. The American version of Godzilla/The Ring/The Grudge, the recent re-make of Clash of the Titans/The Day the Earth Stood still/I Am Legend, The Green Hornet, etc ad nauseam.

That being said though, Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka is one of the best re-makes/re-imaginings I've read, bar none.

The series is written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa published in Shogakukan's Big Comic Original from 2003 to 2009. It has been licensed for release in English by Viz Media, under the name Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. It has been released in over 8 volumes between 2009 and 2010. Takashi Nagasaki is acknowledged as the series' co-author. The supervision of the series was carried out by Makoto Tezuka, Osamu Tezuka's son.

For individuals who grew up watching Astro Boy and who could actually remember the episode The Greatest Robot on Earth Pluto is both an impressive homage and a truly original twist on the much beloved story arc. Urasawa reinterprets the story as a tightly-wound suspense murder mystery. He further distances his re-telling of the tale from the original by featuring Gesicht, a Europol robot detective trying to solve the case of a string of robot and human deaths instead of the eponymous Astro Boy, or Atom as he is called in the series (In Japan Astro Boy is known by his original name Tetsuwan Atom). The case becomes more puzzling when evidence suggests a robot is responsible for the murders, the first one in eight years. The mystery further unfolds as the series progresses into a tense globe-spanning conspiracy that endangers the entire planet and the delicate fabric of human-AI relations. The series ended after its 65th chapter.

The series' art is a departure from the usual manga/anime format of big eyes, small mouth. Urasawa's art is markedly different from many mangaka (manga artists) in that he draws many of his characters with prominent noses (but not comically so) and small, frequently tired-looking eyes. These two facial features are typically highly exaggerated, especially the eyes, and stunted, in the case of the nose in many anime/manga series. However the writer-artist's decision to take a different route on these two particular facial features has worked to the series advantage. The prominent nose and smaller, less comical eyes makes it easier to convey a broader spectrum of human emotion, including the subtle nuances of it, more effectively and helps establish the overall noir atmosphere of the series.

Urasawa's refreshing take on an old and well-loved series was so original that initially I had no idea what the series was about until I came across the name of the first murder victim, and even then it was a vague hint. That's how different his take on the series was. Urasawa also managed to breathe new life and depth into other characters within the series who were originally mere two-dimensional characters or worse, simple victims on Pluto's hit list.

Although the art is at first blush seems unimpressive, and in certain situations, downright depressing you realize that it is indeed an integral storytelling element. It is a gloomy graphic novel and an obvious homage to the film-noir genre of mystery murders. The world that the graphic novel is set in is a ticking time bomb of potential danger: danger from clandestine forces that want to destroy the world, danger from the fragile balance of human-robot interactions and as a result you get a world that is weary from manifold perils and constant balancing act of human-robot relations.

Overall Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka is a wonderful read that will appeal to classic anime fans as well as sci-fi and mystery novel enthusiasts. The series is a grab bag of multiple genres that blend well together and prompts the reader to think and ask important questions regarding what it really means to be human.

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