What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
Naoki Urasawa has a knack for turning simple ideas into sprawling manga epics. Monster told the story of a doctor who, while trying to fight back against a hospital’s bias in deciding which patients to treat first, inadvertently saves a serial killer and lets the town mayor die. 20th Century Boys turned the superhero genre on its head when a group of childhood friends discover that the cult threatening to take over the world bears eerie similarities to the story they made up as kids. His work Pluto, which takes on one of the most famous robots of all time, is no exception to the rule. In fact, it might be the best robot story ever told.
Pluto begins as a murder mystery. The Europol detective Gesicht, a robot, is investigating a possible serial killer who has been targeting both humans and robots. As the investigation continues, however, the story unfurls, drawing in the seven great robots of the world (the most technologically advanced, that is) and the preservation of a set of laws that grant robots equal rights. The twist: Pluto is an adaptation of “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” an arc in Osamu Tezuka’s iconic Astro Boy series, and features Astro Boy himself as a prominent character.
But Pluto’s Astro Boy, called “Atom,” isn’t the same cheery robot found in Tezuka’s comics. His distinctive hair spikes have been tamed, and he now wears a complete outfit rather than just black underwear and red boots. This more solemn take on a famous comic superhero fits with Pluto’s overall tone. Tezuka’s work has always been unusually thoughtful, with “The Greatest Robot on Earth” questioning why people go to war and what true power means. Urasawa’s adaptation blows those themes out into an entire series, and builds in ideas that have been ever present in robot-centric and sci-fi media.
When does artificial intelligence become too intelligent? Does the fact that robots were created by mankind invalidate the emotions they feel? Are their emotions real? Urasawa handles these age-old questions beautifully, building a grand story while still taking the time to flesh out small pieces of the world the action takes place in. He takes the time to explore each character’s life, with chapters focusing on everything from a blind composer and his disbelief that a robot could ever play music with real heart, to robot wrestlers famed for their exploits in the ring, and a robot struggling with the question of whether erasing her memories of her murdered husband would make her happier than remembering him.
On top of how rich the story is in its addressing of classic science fiction themes, Urasawa also grounds his narrative in more contemporary references; the conflict that directly predates the events of the manga is clearly a mirror of the Iraq War. And Urasawa’s art is gorgeous throughout, so detailed in execution and cinematic in framing that it’s almost surprising that none of the plans to adapt the manga as a live-action film or anime have yet come to fruition. But on that same token, what adaptation could ever live up to such a perfect work?
Robots with feelings form a huge chunk of science fiction and are arguably the genre’s most vital part as real-life advancements with artificial technology mean that the questions posed in science fiction media aren’t as far off into the future as one might think. Pluto stands above the rest in how thoughtfully, carefully, and compellingly it’s executed. It’s both a tribute to one of the greatest cartoon robots of all time, and an essential entry into the robot story canon.