Among manga artists, Urasawa Naoki is certainly one of the few to benefit from a worldwide reputation, acclaimed for his mastery of suspense and celebrated for the success of his two series Monster and 20th Century Boys both in Japan and abroad. It comes as no surprise that his latest project should become an even in itself — and this, even more so when it comes along with the Tezuka name : Pluto, which just finished its run in the pages of Big Comic Original, boast a very impressive “Urasawa Naoki x Tezuka Osamu” on its cover.
While it could be seen as a collaboration, the end result has more to do with a remake. Urasawa finds inspiration in a Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom in the English version) story dating back from 1964-1965 named «Chijô Saidai no Robotto», and reinvents it in his own style — turning the 180 pages of the children-oriented original in an adult series of 8 200-page volumes.
Indeed, such an exercise has to be judged based on the alchemy that rises between the respect of the original narrative, and the boldness of the re-interpretation that is made. On the first point, Urasawa is nearly faultless, strictly following the relationship between the characters and the key moments of the story, only allowing himself to slightly adjust its chronology (delaying in particular the first confrontation between Pluto and Atom).
Urasawa’s homage is also largely graphical, leading to a little game that goes beyond the (easy) identification of the characters borrowed from Tezuka presented in a more modern and realistic style : entire scenes have been reproduced, until the concluding frame which is redrawn with the exact same composition.
Beyond those deliberate references, one should note a stranger echo, as this homage to Tezuka nearly reveals the existence of another “star system” that would belong to Urasawa himself. Scrutinizing the faces in the book, one can spot here the employee at the prison holding Braun 1589 (the spitting image of the inspector Runge from Monster), or there the professor Abra (identical twin to the younger version of the “Kami-sama” nicknamed homeless of 20th Century Boys).
Moreoever and another defining touch, if Pluto is a science-fiction work, Urasawa makes no real effort to widely display that aspect. To the contrary, it would seem as if the (occasional) landscapes of futuristic buildings are more included as a reminder for the author, than to actually root the story in a technological future. The whole narrative is rather bathed in this atmosphere that Urasawa particularly likes, that of some sort of Central Europe in the mid-80s, where life revolves around family reunions and children games.
While the original plot of Tezuka was simply turned toward action and robot confrontations unleashing their horsepower, Urasawa weaves a search for a serial killer, and introduces a more complex political context by progressively exploring the 49th Asian Conflict, opposing the United States of Thrace to the Persian dictatorship of Darius XIII — a clear parallel with the last Gulf War, extending to the search for weapons of mass destruction and a mustachioed dictator with an unquestionable inspiration.
Following the author’s pet themes, the question of the past and of memory is once again central to the plot. Completing this come also the question of identity (of the main villain in particular), of the knowledge of the other, and Urasawa’s renewed fascination for Absolute Evil. And lastly, we find here again the importance of children, in their games but also in the stakes that they represent — even reusing the gimmick of the illustrated book, with its heavy-handed symbolic.
It is true that with a shorter format (8 volumes only) and a rather imposed storyline, Urasawa avoids the failings of his two previous, longer stories. There will be no logical conclusion avoided by a last-minute improbable turnaround, key revelations are delayed more to sustain the suspense than trying to buy time, and the whole thing is rather well constructed. And yet, remains the durable impression that Urasawa is here on auto-pilot, using his talent as “maker” to deliver an intelligent and well-directed homage, but eventually lacking any soul.
Thus, the first volume holds a striking example : while he is about to establish the series of “murders” of the planet’s most powerful robots, Urasawa introduces North II, now attached to the service of an old, hot-tempered composer. If his talent for establishing secondary character has been regularly prove, the dynamic that he establishes between the old man and the robot borders on caricature heavily laden with pathos — of course the old man is going through a creative crisis, of course this crisis has to do with an old trauma linked to his departed mother (searching for the lullaby she used to sing for him), and of course the robot is trying to learn how to play the piano to eventually become a catalyst for closure.
Here probably lies the paradox of this adaptation : by establishing the source of inspiration for the story, it allows for a clear identification of the author’s addition — and eventually, to observe his narrative techniques. The interest of the story then suffers from having its plot devices thus exposed, and then even more so when those are being recycled from previous works.
This forces then circumspection while reading the first pages of Urasawa Naoki’s new project, Billy Bat published in Morning. Indeed, once again the reader is caught up in the heavy atmosphere of this historical thriller, set in post-war occupied Japan in 1949. But already the questions of identity and memory are raised, against a background of secret societies and manga for kids. And one starts wondering if the formula, tested and tried over the years, still leaves any room for true surprises…
- Please note that Urasawa Naoki is a self-confessed Tezuka admiror, and that reading the classic Tetsuwan Atom and Jungle Tatei encouraged him to become manga-ka.
- Literally, “the world’s strongest robot”.
- Since each robot was ready to claim its might using this deliciously retro unit.
- Who replaces here the Sultan of the original story, which only ambition what to become immensely rich to indulge in all his pleasures.
- Here, the story of Pinocchio and Gepetto being used to provide a parallel to this story involving robots and a gallery of scientists overwhelmed by their own creations.
- In the original story, the (nameless) old man is more simply North II’s creator.