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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Greatest Robot on Earth: Astro Boy, Pluto, and the Power of Stories.

Note: Post contains some spoilers for both Astro Boy and Pluto. Read on with caution!

Back when Viz Manga was still routinely churning out volumes of Astro Boy in English (for blogging purposes I will refer to him as Astro Boy instead of Tetsuwan Atomu), I managed to get my paws on a couple of them via my local library and fell in love with the story arc known as "The Greatest Robot on Earth", which soon became one of my favorite Tezuka story arcs ever. It's classic Tezuka: a battle between robots and humanity, illustrating how humans work and feel even through the mouth pieces of robot characters.

In "The Greatest Robot on Earth", a robot named Pluto is built and sent across the world to fulfill his creator's task: destroy the world's seven most powerful robots, thus making Pluto the most powerful of them all. Naturally, the seven robots include Astro Boy, which draws Astro and his friends into a race to stop Pluto from achieving his goal. In the end, Pluto's true self is revealed, but is inevitably destroyed to save the world. It's a story arc chock full of action and drama and it is an utter enchantment to read. 

I only wish my library still had their copies of the Astro Boy manga; I would have loved to re-read them one last time before writing this post! Alas. I could go into a whole thing about libraries and their dwindling stock, but I won't because this is a Tezuka post, dang it.

Naturally, I was drawn to Naoki Urasawa’s Astro Boy-based manga when Viz released it in English in their Signature line. Urasawa’s Pluto takes the “Greatest Robot on Earth” storyline and turns it into a dark, stylish crime noir story centered on those investigating the deaths of the greatest robots at the hand of a mystery assailant and the issues that come up during searching for the killer. 

These issues are magnified when you consider the head detective, Gesicht, is also a robot, someone who works in a police force that is mainly human and thus much struggle with his own feelings of discrimination and self-loathing as he hunts down someone who kills machines like himself.

Urasawa does Tezuka’s original story such a wonderful service with his re-imagining, it defies words. It really does. He takes a single story arc in the greater Astro Boy canon and fleshes it out into its own universe while still giving Tezuka the respect he deserves. And it’s out of respect to Tezuka that Urasawa created Pluto in the first place – respect and artistic admiration. Urasawa clearly loves the canon he is working with, and it shows in the final product.

I think that Pluto is a testament to how inspiring Osamu Tezuka’s stories can be and that they can give life to entirely new manga series and original stories influenced by a higher source material. There are new versions of Tezuka stories constantly coming out; they are even making a new Black Jack manga series sometime this year, based on real-life medical tales (pretty awesome, considering Tezuka was a medical doctor himself, and would probably appreciate the effort to further connect his fictional surgeon to real life medicine). Tezuka created stories that were approachable by all kinds of people, and it’s no wonder that the artists that followed in his enormous footsteps have decided to dedicate their own works to the creations of Tezuka’s imagination. It’s one thing for a story to entertain; it’s quite another for it to inspire so many people and so many individual works.

In other words, Tezuka doesn’t make stories for us to read. He makes worlds for us as artists and authors to play in. And that is wonderful. This is why we can have manga like Pluto – because manga like Astro Boy exists and manga-ka like Doctor Tezuka exists. I can only hope my own original stories one day inspire someone like Urasawa to put their own unique spin on my work. Not that I’m on the same level as Tezuka!

Speaking of Astro Boy and Pluto, the blog Subete Animes posted this pretty amazing essay on these two works for MMF, exploring more in depth the various themes shared between them. It’s totally worth a read!