In any artistic medium, you’ll find a certain number of incredibly successful, well-respected artists that command respect, to the point that some people have come to respect them a little too much. Japanese comic circles have many such figures, the most obvious being manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka. While he has certainly earned a great measure of respect, there is a creeping tendency among some to treat him as though he’s incapable of fault. An honest look at his body of work, however, forces a different conclusion. He was a master of page-turning action and gripping, likeable characters, but his freewheeling authorship often produced work that resembled collages of ideas more than cohesive narratives. While he was indeed great, he wasn’t the untouchable being some have touted him as.
One unfortunate effect of Tezuka being placed upon such a pedestal is that very few artists have attempted to touch his work outside of tribute, reference, or pastiche. Much like Shakespeare, Tezuka left behind an enormous body of work ripe for reinterpretation, but relatively few artists have been courageous (or audacious) enough to make the attempt. It’s only fairly recently, 14 years after Tezuka’s death, that someone has finally produced a major manga work based off one of his creations.
Pluto is the brainchild of Naoki Urasawa, the award-winning creator of Monster, who based it off one of Tezuka’s most beloved stories: “The Greatest Robot on Earth” from Astro Boy. It is not, however, a straight remake in any sense. While Urasawa retains the core elements of Tezuka’s concept, Pluto bears little immediate resemblance to its source material.
He reframes Tezuka’s relatively straightforward yarn of robotic conquest as a mystery about a rash of serial killings involving humans and robots alike. The role of central protagonist is no longer strictly given to Atom (nee Astro Boy), but spread out among several characters who had previously played only minor roles. As these shifts in narrative focus might suggest, Pluto is in no way aiming for the younger set — this is very much aimed at a more mature audience.
Although it’s difficult not to cringe a little when using the term “mature audience”, given how loaded a concept it can be when used regarding entertainment (and especially comics), it’s the only phrase that can effectively describe Pluto‘s target demographic. The story is intelligent, but not overly impressed with itself. While it’s hardly kid-friendly, it doesn’t wallow in gratuitous violence or sex. In some ways, Pluto is actually less violent than Astro Boy was.
Astro Boy was quick to condemn violence on a philosophical level, but its individual stories often glorified, even celebrated, violence as a means to heroic ends. In Pluto, most of the bloodshed takes place off-panel; while we often see the morbid results of sundry violent acts, we seldom (if ever) actually witness the acts themselves.
This is something of a reversal of a common manga trope: many popular manga tend to portray violence primarily as a visual or conceptual process. In an attempt to gain attention or crank up the melodrama, many titles become preoccupied with making each violent scene even more bizarre and bloody than the last. Trouble is, such grotesquery often comes at the expense of plausibility.
While the cartoonishly gory and twisted murders in anime like Elfen Lied and When They Cry might arguably be cool to look at, their overt tendencies suggest torture porn or black farce more than anything genuinely terrifying or suspenseful. Rather than simply crank up the violence, Urasawa has made it his mission to give each instance of violence in Pluto a genuine sense of weight and meaning.
It’s fitting, as the search for meaning is one reason for Pluto’s existence: Urasawa’s primary objective in writing Pluto was to fill in the details that Tezuka left out, and explore the backgrounds of the characters that only played minor roles in the original story. As much as this provides an opportunity to make the story totally his own, Urasawa remains careful to let Tezuka’s hand show throughout the proceedings. That’s not to say he’s merely channeling his inspiration, however. He all but dispenses with Tezuka’s notorious penchant for joking around (even at inappropriate times) and produces a story that’s very solemn, almost dour in tone. It’s a little surprising, considering his ample experience writing comedy, but not entirely inappropriate for the material.
Considering the caliber of the talent involved, the fact that Pluto is an artistically successful comic is hardly something to marvel at. What is surprising, however, is just how successful it is considering how wildly disparate the storytelling styles of the two artists are. Whereas Tezuka’s style was endlessly inventive, frequently comedic, and almost unhinged, Urasawa’s is meticulous and restrained. Yet Pluto marries the two more successfully than anyone had any reason to expect, and somehow makes a compelling adult suspense story out of a fairly straightforward kid’s comic. While there’s still a wealth of reasons to be skeptical of “reimaginings” of classic properties, Pluto makes as strong a case for such projects as any we’ve seen in a long time.