Constructing Humanity– a review of Pluto Volume 6

Pluto6It’s been fascinating seeing how Naoki Urasawa constructs stories.  In a relatively short span of time, Viz has released his Monster, Pluto and 20th Century Boys and in each, Urasawa has put together his stories in different ways.  Monster was a marathon, with the main two contestants being Tenma and Johann.  It was a slow, long race that was as much about those characters endurance as it was about one or the other of them winning.  On the other hand, 20th Century Boys is all about chaos and end of world type stuff.  It’s a jumbled mess that’s carefully orchestrated.  It’s loud and brash and really a lot of fun so far.  And then there’s Pluto.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the time to read all 6 volumes that’s out so far and I was struck by just how quiet Pluto is.  Compared to the other two series, it almost feels like Urasawa is holding back a bit here.

There’s a neat trick that Urasawa does on almost every page of Pluto that really establishes the rhythmic nature of the story.  On nearly every page, there’s one wordless panel, usually a smaller panel, that just captures perfectly an expression of a character.  In the beginning of Volume 6, as Detective Gesicht is walking through a Persian market, looking for clues about Pluto, he bumps into something.  “You okay, little fellow?” he asks.  The next panel we see who he bumped into; a small, badly damaged robot.  One arm is missing and the other holds a surprising bouquet of flowers.  The panel where we see the robot is completely silent.  The robot almost looks like a turtle on his back.  There’s so much said in that panel but you have to actually stop for a moment to “read” it.  Urasawa, a master of body language and shading, packs so much into that sad little robot without every saying a word.  But he makes you stop on that panel.  It’s easy to get swept up in the words and dialogue that you sometimes forget about the art and the power of the image.

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The panel with the robot is possibly even an extreme use by Urasawa of the silent panel.  We’re supposed to feel sadness for that little robot and Urasawa maybe milks that image just a tad to get that emotion out of us.  Most of the time when Urasawa uses that technique, it’s to capture a moment or an emotion in one or two of his characters.  At a funeral for his creator, the conscientious objector robot Epsilon has a discussion with Doctor Abdullah, the master behind Pluto.  The two characters talk about the Persian War that was the catalyst for the current events and how much they’ve both lost; Epsilon’s creator and Abdullah’s family.  Again, Urasawa holds the panel on each of them for a moment, capturing their moments of mourning.  In a single image of both characters, he establishes their humanity and their loss.

Throughout Pluto, he does this.  He forces the reader to stop and consider the characters and their emotions for at least a brief moment before continuing with either the mystery of the action of a scene.  The effect it has it that it makes all of his character amazingly human even when they’re not.  Epsilon is a robot.  Gesicht and his wife are robots.  Abdullah is mostly robot, having lost a large part of his humanity in the Persian war yet they’re the most human characters in the Urasawa’s story.
pluto6-epsilonGesicht’s journey during the series, tracking down the killer Pluto, has forced him to examine his own life, a strange pre-occupation for a robot.  Why does he do the things he does?  Why has he done the things he’s done?  In this latest volume, he finally tracks down Pluto and at the moment when he could finally kill the killer robot, he walks away.  In Pluto, Gesicht sees himself and also discovers his own humanity, with all of the successes and failures that it means to be human.  Staring into Pluto’s glowing eyes, Gesicht sees everything that he could be and everything that he is.  And he walks away from it.  Maybe humanity is all about choices?  Does Gesicht have choices that he can make that Pluto couldn’t?

Maybe our humanity is what we make it to be?  By showing us how these robots, these constructs, can reflect on the moment, maybe Urasawa is trying to tell us that we need to consider the moments of our lives as much as these robots do.

Pluto Volume 6 is available on Amazon.com.

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2 comments for “Constructing Humanity– a review of Pluto Volume 6

  1. Krill
    December 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Wow. What a wonderfully insightful post. I think it helps explain why I’ve always considered Pluto far more melancholy and tragic a series than, say, Monster despite the fact that Monster is a lot more brutal.

    I definitely agree with your reading about the central role of choice in one’s humanity. Pluto is a very existentialist comic: the notion of passion collapsing endless reflection that paralyzes choice and the development of a self (which is the entire dilemma in the ‘perfect AI’) is pretty much straight out of Kierkegaard. Not that Urasawa has probably read Kierkegaard.

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