Chris Mautner reviews Pluto Vols. 1-3 By Naoki Urasawa

Posted by on December 29th, 2009 at 9:00 AM

Viz Media, B&W and color, $12.99 per volume

Only three of Naoki Urasawa’s manga series have been released here in North America to date. That might be too few to draw substantial conclusions about the driving themes of his oeuvre. Even so, the connections between the three are so apparent that it’s hard not to try to connect the dots between them.

To wit, all three – Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto — are obsessed with memory and attempting to correct the mistakes of the past. In each comic, characters find choices they made in the past coming back to haunt them in unexpected ways. And it’s only by relying upon their memory, digging out long-buried events, that they are able to avoid certain catastrophe.

In Monster, for example, a doctor who years ago save the life of a little boy at the cost of his career discovers the boy has grown into a monstrous serial killer and framed the good doctor for his crimes. It’s only by attempting to uncover the murderer’s sordid past that he is able to track him down and stop him.

In 20th Century Boys, a 30-something slacker learns that one of his childhood friends has become the leader of a dangerous cult bent on world domination. The only way he can stay a step ahead of him is by attempting to recall the games they made up in their youth.

In Pluto, a group of intelligent and well-armed robots are being annihilated one by one because of their participation in a messy and possibly unjust war a decade ago. Oh, and one of the robots seems to have had parts of his memory erased by nefarious forces.

Now, it’s possible Urasawa is only utilizing these motifs for dramatic effect and has no larger point to make about human nature. After all, the hero haunted by his past remains a compelling concept, especially in the thriller genre, where it gives the author the chance to deepen the various mysteries explore the characters’ relationships to each other a bit more, thus heightening the tension.

And if there’s anything that Urasawa is good at, it’s heightening tension. He’s kind of a master at it, a fact Monster hinted at and the arrival of Boys and Pluto only confirms. One would think the close repetition of plot and idioms between the various manga would make the later works seem stale and repetitive, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Both Boys and Pluto are compelling, fun melodrama and Urasawa is one of the most exciting manga-ka to be published in America this side of Osamu Tezuka (which, considering the source material for Pluto, is only fitting).

20th Century Boys shares the closest number of parallels, namely in its nice-guy protagonist who finds himself in danger and on the run. Here though, the connections are deeper and more personal. Kenji is a goofball convenience store owner saddled with his sister’s baby girl, sis having mysteriously run off.

It turns out the sister’s disappearance, as well as an old friend’s death, not to mention the outbreak of a mysterious plague and other odd, violent occurrences may all be tied to a bizarre religious cult led by a shadowy figure known only as “friend.” Worse yet, the cult’s plans bear a striking resemblance to the sci-fi adventures Kenji and his pals dreamed up when they were kids. Could this “friend” be one of Kenji’s beloved childhood playmates? And if so, who? And what can Kenji do to stop him?

Urasawa established in Monster that he had a strong gift not only for creating tension, but also for melodrama and liked to pull as many heartstrings as possible. This holds equally true in Boys, so that you have subplots like the one involving the retiring detective in Vol. 2, who has always sacrificed his family for his job and is shot by the cult because he’s too close to the truth WHILE HE’S HEADING TO HIS GRANDSON’S BIRTHDAY PARTY TO ATTEMPT A RECONCILIATION, PRESENT IN TOW! He even bought him a Pokemon!

Sappy, yes. But I really cared about this poor schlub of a detective and uttered a quiet “oh noes” when he bought the farm. In lesser hands, such soppy sentimentalism would be unbearable, but Urasawa leavens the mood considerably throughout the series. Unlike Monster, which played it somber and straight all the way though, there’s some welcome comic relief, mostly involving Kenji (who’s hardly anyone’s idea of a hero, least of all his) and his friends. Kenji himself is a rather down to earth, more identifiable character than the saintly Dr. Tenma from Monster, who was almost too decent.

But of course, suspense is what Urasawa is best known for and he pulls out all the stops here, using a variety of cinematic techniques like tight close-ups, reaction shots and forced perspectives to heighten the drama. There’s a wonderful sequence in Vol. 2 where a dying ex-cult member reveals that he was the one who killed his friend. Kenji’s reaction takes up three horizontal panels that range from tight close-up to medium shot to another close-up again but this time from a different angle so that Kenji faces the reader. All the while the speed lines going first one way, then the other, and then back behind him, while his scream tears across the page. It’s a wonderful moment in a book full of wonderful moments.

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2 Responses to “Chris Mautner reviews Pluto Vols. 1-3 By Naoki Urasawa”

  1. hcduvall says:

    I’ve dipped into all three series, and Boys is the only one that I’ve chosen to actively follow for mostly the differences in tone you’ve mentioned (for example, I decided to not follow Monster when an early hospital official declared that doctor’s should only treat rich people, but didn’t twirl his mustache at the same time). While not immune to the charms of quieter scenes, of which Pluto has a lot more of than 20th Century Boys, it’s with mild disappointment that when Urasawa pops up, on best of year lists, say, its for the former instead of the latter. Ah well.

    • Krill says:

      I highly recommend picking Monster back up, because the mustachio’d villainry of the hospital officials disappears entirely after the first volume and is quickly replaced by much better antagonist characterization. Monster starts off rough, but very quickly improves (it was Urasawa’s first chance to write a manga of the thriller-mystery type, bear in mind).

      On the subject of shared themes in Pluto, 20th Century Boys and Monster there is another major theme which is harder to specify concerning his major antagonists which I won’t specify because it would be a major spoiler for 20th Century Boys. Pluto has it less prominently, but it’s still present.