Splitting The Atom: How Urasawa’s ‘Pluto’ Reinvents Tezuka’s ‘Astro Boy’
Without the massive popularity of Osamu Tezuka's trademark creation Astro Boy, the manga and anime industries might look very different today. By taking the hot topic of the time --- nuclear power --- and marrying it with a heroic child character and the influence of the Walt Disney cartoons that were flooding into postwar Japan, Tezuka not only secured his reputation as "the father of manga," but created an enduring icon of action and adventure.
The book also had a very specific influence on one of the greatest mangaka of the 21st century, Naoki Urasawa, who retold one of the classic Astro Boy tales in Pluto, but succeeded in making it very much his own.
Astro Boy was a huge success, both on the page and onscreen. It wasn't just about exciting robot battles and a kid with machine guns in his butt; it also allowed Tezuka to examine some serious themes. In the 1964-1965 story arc, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," he explored notions of nature of self, the purpose of war, and what power really means.
The story begins with Pluto, a mysterious horned robot who travels by using his arms to create a tornado --- hunting down and smashing Swiss robot Mont Blanc, one of the world's seven strongest robots, to pieces.
As the tension and violence escalates, Astro --- another of the world's most powerful robots --- is drawn into the conflict when his mentor, Professor Ochanomizu, is kidnapped. The story contains some remarkable work as Tezuka stages all manner of fight scenes --- aerial, underwater, cliffside --- with remarkable staging and action.
As you can imagine, the story ends on a somber, if hopeful note. It's not grim, per se, but it's a reminder that classic manga wasn't all light escapism.
It's that blending of talent, action and sincerity that kept Astro Boy in the public eye, and in 2003, as part of an anniversary celebration for Astro --- in canon, he was created on April 7, 2003 --- a new manga was announced that retold the "Greatest Robot" arc in a completely different genre and tone: murder mystery.
Written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa, the author of Monster and 20th Century Boys, with co-writer Takashi Nagasaki and supervision/visuals by Macoto Tezuka (an acclaimed filmmaker and Tezuka's son), Pluto ran for eight volumes and shifted the focus from Astro --- called Atom in the English version to reflect his original Japanese name of Mighty Atom --- to Europol police inspector Gesicht, another of the world's strongest robots.
Like the villainous Inspector Lunge from Urasawa's Monster, Gesicht is extremely dedicated to his job, despite the nightmares he suffers from due to his time in the 39th Central Asian War. Said war began with the Bora Survey Group --- which included Ochanomizu and others --- searching and failing to find weapons of mass destruction in the kingdom of Persia --- one of many echoes the series makes to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
When members of the Survey Group, as well as the robots that fought in the war, like Mont Blanc, start turning up dead with fake horns placed on their heads, Gesicht must travel all over the world uncovering a vast conspiracy involving the war, while trying to prevent Atom and the world's other strongest robots from dying, and his own murder by an anti-robot hate group.
Like Tezuka, Urasawa and his collaborators know the power of good visuals. Pluto isn't even really seen until the end of the fourth volume; before then, he's just depicted as a giant, monstrous tornado and force of nature. A blend of CGI elements and Urasawa's legendary detailed pencils, he's legitimately frightening.
More than that, Pluto is a master exercise in decompression. Reading back to back with the original Astro Boy arc, you see how Pluto not only stretches the actual story out, but also takes time to fully explore and define each of the robots and their outer and inner lives. In doing so, the stakes and threats are more shocking and suspenseful.
Pluto is well worth reading on its own, but also as a celebration of Astro Boy. It's a fine example of the ways in which great science fiction can explore a variety of modes and concepts, and a reminder that a great story idea can be taken in unusual directions and still be striking and impactful.