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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Manga review: Pluto (Volume 1)

Review by Matt S.

I don't know how Naoki Urasawa manages to keep having me literally race through the pages of his mangas in order to find out what happened next. I don't know how he manages to keep leaving me feeling deflated when I reach the end of a volume and have to wait for the next one. But everything he seems to think up appeals to me at a very core level. Monster was trilling, 20th Century Boys is, so far, gripping.

Pluto, which Urasawa produced in collaboration with Osamu Tezuka, is even more to me. Pluto is personal.

At its heart, Pluto is a manga about racism. Supposedly inspired by the classic Astro Boy (I'm not sure how - the influences are light, to say the least), Pluto is a detective story in which a vicious killer stalks a modern city, killing intelligent robots who have been programmed not to harm humans. Blade Runner might be a more apt comparison, going by the tone of the first volume of the manga. It's dark, gritty and hardboiled. Just the way I like my detective fiction stories.

These robots go through hell. They're forced to fight wars for the humans. They're treated by humans as inferior beings, incapable of expressing even basic creativity, expected never to have emotions or have worth for anything but the tasks that humans don't want to do.

One robot broke away from his enforced code, and what the humans did to him in return was nothing more than a vision of horror; a punishment far beyond what a human would experience for the same crime.

This is an exact parallel to racism in the real world. Not the kind of over racism in which one race rounds up "lesser" races and imprisons or does worse to them. Oh no. It's the far more subtle kind of racism that most of the world is happily complicit in; it's the kind of racism which very few question and plenty are complicit in without even thinking of themselves as racist. It's the kind of racism that allows us to call immigrants "aliens," that allows us here in Australia to subject desperate individuals fleeing their homelands to concentration camps. It's the kind of racism that allows us to tolerate ethnic minorities being imprisoned in greater numbers than the dominant ethnic majority. It's the kind of racism that we justify as being either "for their own good" or us exercising our "freedom of speech."

Pluto recognises all of these social themes within its work, and then explores them in a way that's difficult to ignore. Rather than being explicit, we're shown the sympathetic side of these downtrodden robots. We're introduced to the lead detective as a human, only to later discover that he's actually a robot. We're shown that the robots do experience emotion. We're shown that they're able to overcome the discrimination and racism of the humans in order to live healthy, productive lives.

And so we care that they're being killed.

Being the first volume, we don't exactly have much answered. We're introduced to a couple of different robots and the fact that they're being killed. Urasawa's trademark snappy pace is there in the dialogue and flow of the story, but at the same time he understands that for his themes to work, we need to get to know the characters and their personalities. Otherwise we're not going to care when they start to show up dead. So the first volume goes on great, lengthy tangents away from the murder mystery (most notably the chapter about the butler robot), which only becomes part of the broader story right at the end.

The manga is the stronger for it. Already I feel invested in the characters that have survived, and I badly want to see who this villain is and learn the motives behind his actions. As someone who has come to understand just how insidious this breed of racism that Pluto speaks to in modern culture is, I'm very keen to see how Urasawa and Tezuka continues to explore it.

In short this is another manga that I feel an overwhelming desire to read through to completion.

- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

Madman Entertainment will release a new edition of this manga in August for Australia and New Zealand
Manga review: Pluto (Volume 1)
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