Danielle Leigh's Reading Diary -- Pluto volumes 4-8

There's no doubt that Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki's Pluto is a great comic but I think one of the things I admire most about the concluding volumes is the way they raise a number of questions but don't offer neat answers to them.

Pluto is both a dark vision of Tezuka's  Astro Boy and also a redemptive one.  To recap the series' plot, the seven greatest robots on earth are facing certain annihilation, one by one, from an even greater, mysterious force.  As each robot faces his fate we come to see the complexity of their existence and the beauty and tragedy of their lives.  The last volumes of the manga takes us through a beautifully, almost tortuously, complex journey to find out the mystery behind who could create an existence strong enough to destroy the best AI's ever built or even imagined by the human mind.

Although I will avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review, I will be talking a bit about the effect of the work as a whole (so, perhaps we are entering a space of emotional spoilage).  Building on my review of Pluto volumes 1-3 here, I'm going to isolate a few key themes that I found most interesting in the latter half of the series.   Everything builds on the statement I made in my first review,

Urasawa's depiction of robots is marvelously complex, as the more advanced they become, the more and more they taken on human characteristics.  I'm fascinated by Gesicht.  He looks human, can pass as human, has very human characteristics -- for example, he dreams -- but he is fundamentally not human.  However, each of the seven greatest robots demonstrate an extraordinary ability to explore what it means to be human.  What it means to have memories, to have nightmares, to physically and emotionally feel, to touch, and to experience.

This work is at its most basic level a meditation on what it means to be human.  And what I loved so much about Pluto is that there the creators offer a variety of things that inform the state of being we tend to define or delimit as "human."  Humans can lie.  Humans have memories.  Humans can hate.  Humans can grieve.  Humans can forgive.  At any one moment, any one of the robots in this book might find him or herself experiencing a "human" moment and also recognize that moment for what it is and what it is not.  But the bottom line, for me anyway, is that there is no one thing that makes us human.  It's the interaction of everything that we are, the sum of all the parts, what we might even call the "soul."

Also, the fact that the robots in Pluto question what it means to be human is in fact a very human quality.  I'm reminded of any number of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where Picard tells Data that he may be the most human person he's ever met -- I'm paraphrasing from unreliable memory -- simply because Data is always searching out human experiences.  At one point in Pluto, characters question if the simulation or mirroring of human emotions is the same thing as actually having the experience of that emotion.  I interpret the manga as saying "yes, eventually the simulation of a feeling becomes that feeling," but others might read this differently.  This becomes important because if robots are made to reflect human beings, than by performing human bonds -- such as the bonds between parents and children -- they then create those bonds through the performance of them.

The robot who takes the performative path to humanity above all others is Gesicht.   Gesicht also remains the character who stood out the most to me even though Atom is clearly a fan favorite.   In the later volumes it becomes more and more apparent that some terrible event has disturbed Gesicht's sense of himself as an individual defined by a sense of justice and reason.  The rage that probably led him to commit a terrible act was excised from his memory by his "creators" (i.e. human beings) who in doing so take away a fundamental privilege of being human.  Without the memory Gesicht is not allowed to come to terms with his own mistakes and, therefore, he's not given permission to process and overcome his fault.  Although Gesicht is not given the chance to reconcile the loss of certain memories -- both positive and negative -- his burden is bravely carried on by another and allows Gesicht to become a figure that finally inspires heroism in others.

While Pluto is a structured as a mystery narrative, the final pages resolve some things but leave a number of questions open-ended.  I actually kind of hated myself a little bit for wanting more closure in relation to the plot, in spite of the fact there the ending was deeply moving on a number of levels.  I suppose I wanted to spend a little bit more time with the seven greatest robots -- Gesicht especially -- and was sad to have to say goodbye.  Yet it is the lack of closure that increases the power of this work, somehow, in that the read as a whole nicely emulates the fragmentary nature of human knowledge and experience.  We are emotionally richer for reading Pluto, even if intellectually it offers more questions than it ever answers.

Review copies of volumes 7 and 8 of Pluto were provided by Viz Media.

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