Exploring Robot Crime in "Pluto"

As an editor at VIZ, Andy Nakatani has seen his fair share of manga, but some of his highest praise is reserved for "Pluto," a sci-fi series that boasts revered manga creators Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka at its helm. Though the series began after Tezuka's death, it's linked to his significant work "Astro Boy," inhabiting the same universe as Tezuka's world-famour robot boy. Indeed, the series goes further than that, making references to events that occurred in other Tezuka-created manga series, such as "Phoenix" and "Black Jack."

Nakatani is currently overseeing the process of translating "Pluto" into English, and with the sixth volume available now, CBR News spoke with Nakatani about the series and why it receives such high praise from fans and creators alike.

CBR News: How would you describe "Pluto" to people who are unfamiliar with the series?

Andy Nakatani: "Pluto" is an amazing series by Naoki Urasawa, and really, it's one of the best things out there. If you're unfamiliar with Urasawa, he's one of those rare manga artists who consistently makes blockbuster hit after hit with series such as "Monster" and "20th Century Boys." His work is mainly for your older reader, so I'd say mid-teens and up. To get back to "Pluto" - it's set in an alternate future filled with sentient robots. In terms of mood and feel, think "Blade Runner" and "I, Robot." In terms of what it does for manga, many people here [in the U.S.] have likened it to manga as what "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" did for comics.

The story opens with a sort of hard-boiled mystery setup with two homicide incidents. The first is the killing of one of the seven great robots of the world, and the second is the murder of a leader in the movement for robot rights. What links these crimes together is the murderer's calling card - makeshift horns shoved into the victim's head. Europol has designated our main character, Gesicht, who happens to be one of the seven great robots of the world, to these cases, and it soon becomes apparent that the killer is targeting all of the seven great robots.

What's "Pluto's" connection to "Astro Boy?"

"Pluto" is a revisionist telling of a specific story arc from "Astro Boy" called "The Greatest Robot on Earth." The original Tezuka story is available in English in volume three of Dark Horse's edition of "Astro Boy." But "Pluto" isn't just a homage to Tezuka, and Urasawa doesn't just retell the story. He expands upon it and adds layers of complexity and depth to really put his own mark on it. For the serious Tezuka fan, the series includes references to other Tezuka works beyond "Astro Boy," such as "Phoenix" and "Black Jack." It's fun to come across them and reference where they came from, but "Pluto" definitely stands on its own as a series. Encyclopedic knowledge of all things Tezuka is definitely not a prerequisite for enjoying it.

What sort of reception has "Pluto" received in Japan?

As I mentioned before, pretty much anything Urasawa creates is a blockbuster hit, including "Pluto."

What has the reception for the manga been like in the United States and elsewhere?

It's doing well, and we've gotten great critical reviews.

It's got all the elements for great manga - a compelling and intelligent story with a great premise, and dynamic artwork. But I think there are three specific areas that make "Pluto," and Urasawa's work in general, stand out. The first is the amazing way Urasawa uses panel layouts and different perspectives to drive the narrative. In a sense, it's very cinematic. The second is the incredible talent Urasawa has with facial expressions. And the third is the intricately woven, complex plots that have come to be characteristic of an Urasawa series.

You're obviously a great fan of Tezuka and Urasawa, but for those who might be less familiar with their work, what is it that makes these two manga creators so special?

Tezuka is nicknamed the "god of manga" for good reason. The industry, for both manga and anime, is what it is today because of Osamu Tezuka and his legacy. I love "Phoenix," as well as some of his darker, trippier stuff, like some of the stuff Vertical has put out like "MW." When you think about it, Tezuka just had an incredibly broad range, from "Princess Knight" to "Astro Boy" to "Phoenix "and "MW."

I think Naoki Urasawa is a master artist who is putting out some of the best stuff that's out there. When I read "Monster," I thought it was incredible. And then I read "20th Century Boys," and that blew me away. And then I got my hands on "Pluto..." Really, really amazing stuff. I can't wait to see how his latest series, "Billy Bat," develops as it continues.

I met Urasawa once maybe about five years ago at a meeting in Japan, and it took just about all my self control to not act like a crazed fan. At least I think I was successful at maintaining composure...

What sort of readers ought to check this series out?

"Pluto's" got something for everyone. Of course manga fans and people who have read other Urasawa series will love it, as will those devotees of Tezuka that are out there. But I also think this series can hit a sweet spot with (non manga) comics readers and prose science fiction people. But really, just about anyone who craves a great story will enjoy it.

"Pluto" is an extended retelling of one of Tezuka's "Astro Boy" stories, but it changes many of the specific details of the original, from plot points to the look and feel of the characters. Was this done intentionally, to make sure that "Pluto" was seen as more than a simple "remake?"

Something I got a kick out of doing was comparing Tezuka's original to Urasawa's version. In Japan, a deluxe edition of "Pluto" was released and volume one is packaged with a new edition of Tezuka's "The Greatest Robot on Earth." For English readers, as I mentioned before, this arc is included in volume three of Dark Horse's edition. But it's fun to take the two and see how Urasawa's take on the seven robots compares to Tezuka's original versions. When you look at them side by side, you can tell that they're drawn very distinctly in Urasawa's style, yet you can definitely see that he has captured the essence of Tezuka's character designs. If you get chance, compare both version of North No. 2 and Hercules.

It's also fun to see the different versions of Nakamura and Tawashi from the Japanese police force. And of course the way Urasawa handled Atom's look is just perfect. Macoto Tezka, who is Osamu Tezuka's son, was involved in the "Pluto" project, and I think it's in his postscript to volume one, where he explains that he gave approval for Urasawa to do this project on the condition that the look of it would be distinctly Urasawa's own and not over-emulating his father's character designs. And then you can go beyond just the look of the manga and go into comparing the content and the themes. Actually, Urasawa and his co-author Takashi Nagasaki want readers to do just this and they mention that in their message to the American audience, which is included in our edition.

I also wanted to mention that I was fortunate enough to get Fred Schodt and Jared Cook on board to do the translation for "Pluto." In addition to being great translators, both Fred and Jared personally knew Tezuka, had a friendship with him, and often served as his interpreters when he or other people from Tezuka Pro were in the U.S. Fred did the translation for Dark Horse's edition of "Astro Boy," and he also recently came out with a book called "The Astro Boy Essays," which traces the history and influence of "Astro Boy." I don't think anyone else could have been better qualified for this project, and I like to think that having them on the team added another layer of dynamism, or synergy, that "Pluto" has between past and present, as well as that between manga in Japan and the U.S.

Finally, when can English-speaking fans expect to see the final translated volumes in the series?

Volume six will be out in November 2009, volume seven in January 2010, and volume eight, which is the final volume, will be in stores in March 2010.

Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka (all volumes)

PLUTO © Naoki URASAWA/Studio Nuts, Takashi NAGASAKI and Tezuka Productions

Original Japanese edition published by Shogakukan

Based on "Astro Boy" written by Osamu TEZUKA.

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