In Netflix’s Heartrending Pluto, Androids Dream of Much More Than Electric Sheep

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In Netflix’s Heartrending Pluto, Androids Dream of Much More Than Electric Sheep

Naoki Urasawa is widely considered one of the most accomplished manga authors of all time, having penned classics like Monster, 20th Century Boys, Billy Bat, and more. But despite widespread acclaim, commercial success, and acknowledgments from his peers like Bong Joon-ho, who described him as “this era’s best storyteller,” strangely enough for a popular mangaka, very little of his work has made the leap into animation. The notable exception is Madhouse’s take on Monster, which perhaps unsurprisingly, is frequently counted among the best anime ever produced.

Finally, another of Urasawa’s beloved creations has made the jump to the small screen, and the wait was well worth it. Through its thoughtful exploration of this futuristic setting and ability to deliver heart-wrenching twists, Pluto is a sprawling mystery tale that elegantly intertwines heady themes with the personal realities of its characters. It may be easy to trace its influence, but thanks to its exceedingly specific touches and unique emotional tenor, it’s hard to think of another work that comes together quite the same. Simply put, it’s a masterstroke of science fiction.

For those unfamiliar, Pluto is a murder-mystery reimagining of the “The Greatest Robot on Earth” arc from Osamu Tezuka’s seminal manga Astro Boy. Plenty of comparisons have been made to Watchmen, and it’s easy to see why, as it also takes a style of story originally aimed at younger audiences and introduces geopolitical complexities and harsh realities (although it’s worth noting that Urasawa pushes back on this characterization, and insists these elements were present in Astro Boy to begin with).

We follow Gesicht, a robot detective dispatched by Europol to unravel a string of human and machine killings that have rocked the international community. The target of these crimes are high-profile roboticists and the seven most advanced androids in the world (including Gesicht). Beyond their graphic nature, these deaths are a shock because the suspect is a machine, shattering the common belief that robots are incapable of taking human life. From here, Gesicht is pulled deeper into an elaborate case that invites questions about the personhood of artificially created lifeforms and ties into the scars of an unjustified war.

On its face, many of this story’s ideas have already been interrogated ad nauseam, stretching as far back as when Asimov first penned the laws of robotics, but it finds unique angles on these conflicts that make them feel vital. In this futuristic society, humans and androids live side by side, and despite attempts at reform, machines are generally forced into roles of subservience. One nuanced element is that the series features characters with dramatically different points of view on the subject—some see robots as equals or close friends, while others either downplay their personhood or are outright human supremacists. Despite these debates over the sovereignty of machines, the narrative’s stance on the issue is clear, and it’s conveyed early on that these androids are clearly people who can form close bonds with those around them.

While many works in the space often feel as cold as the chrome exteriors of these machine lifeforms, this tale focuses on the warmth of the buzzing circuity beneath. In the first episode, we see the pain of humans publicly mourning the loss of Mont Blanc, an environmentalist bot they all looked up to, and later, we witness the beautiful friendship between a former war machine and a bitter, reclusive composer—an unlikely companionship that plucks at the heartstrings. This narrative’s speculative musings aren’t just fascinating in a cerebral sense but also hit in the gut, and it finds a unique emotional wavelength by portraying brutal realities alongside fleeting moments of heartfelt sentiment that are enough to leave an android teary-eyed.

Much of this success extends from its central characters. Although our protagonist Gesicht initially comes across as a perfectly assembled detective, it becomes apparent he’s more of a tragic noir figure as we witness flashes of a hidden past. The other six advanced robots in the crosshairs of the big bad have similar degrees of complexity. There’s North No.2, who hides his death machine frame under a flowing robe as he tries to find a place for himself beyond government-sanctioned robot killing. Epsilon is a pacifist who resisted attempts at being used as a weapon, a fact thrown in his face by both humans and his peers. His stance becomes even more justified when we see that he carries the terrifying power of a thermonuclear warhead. And then, of course, there’s Atom (aka Astro Boy), the protagonist of the story Pluto is derived from, who is also tied up in this brutal state apparatus.

While there is a borderline maudlin aspect to how these characters are depicted, particularly when it comes to their idyllic adopted families, each is defined by complexities and ghosts from their pasts that ensure they are far more nuanced than the unquestioning “helpers of humanity” their creators envisioned them as. Much of this comes from their reactions to the horrific battles they were forced to participate in, and we see how their experiences during the 39th Central Asian War are etched into their unchanging digital memories. Although fictionalized, this plot point is a fairly direct analogy for the United States’ heinous instigation of the Iraq War (the manga began in 2004), depicting the brutality and lack of justification for this conflict in a surprisingly frank fashion. It probably didn’t sit well with the frothing-at-the-mouth patriotism of many Americans at the time, but that is very much a good thing. During flashbacks of this struggle, we witness the tortured visages of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and the hollowed expressions of the robots forced to fight their own kind, these moments conveying that this war accomplished little besides stoking hatred. In the process, it also creates clear ties between how these people being invaded are othered, and how machines back home are treated.

The winding mystery at the center of the story smartly connects this anti-war sentiment and ruminations on artificial consciousness, and while shotgun blasts of information briskly introduce new concepts and perspectives, Gesicht’s investigation is defined by a propulsive drip feed of information that keeps everything focused. As a thriller, there is an unbroken tension as the unstoppable murderer lurks in the background, waiting to pick off our beloved characters. Powerful compositions that mirror the manga’s most striking panels help wring out this drama—at one point, Gesicht visits a Hannibal-esque robot in a decrepit prison, the convict’s metallic arm stretching impossibly into the foreground, his attempted embrace highlighting the uncomfortable parallels between the two.

A relatively unique element of this production is that this is a rare anime that reaches the end of its source material in one go, covering most of the manga’s details in eight, 60-plus minute episodes. It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is for this story to be complete and that we don’t have to eagerly anticipate if the previous season sold enough Blu-rays or whatever to warrant a follow-up from the production committee. While a storyline or two was awkwardly condensed (for those in the know, I’m mostly talking about the teddy bear), these episodes are fairly 1:1 with the manga, and the soul of this tale is very much intact. Production was handled by Studio M2, who only have a few credits but sport plenty of industry connections thanks to being helmed by Madhouse and MAPPA co-founder Masao Maruyama. These ties are apparent in some of its more beautiful cuts of experimental animation, like a phantasmagorical portrayal of a brain’s death kneels or gorgeous tracking shots through a vibrant field of flowers. Futuristic cities come alive in the glow of metallic skylines, and the character art generally looks quite faithful to Urasawa’s designs. It’s evident that this project was given multiple years to come together, as there aren’t the usual dips in detail necessitated by weekly release production schedules.

All that said, there were also a few odd visual choices that proved distracting throughout. For instance, although the character designs mostly looked impressive, certain figures could appear strangely low resolution in some shots, which seemed like attempts at rack focus gone wrong. Additionally, its extensive use of digital effects, some of its compositing, and certain attempts at simulating lighting could be off-putting. Thankfully, the strong storyboarding and direction meant that this adaptation generally kept pace with the intensity of its source material, so despite a few off-kilter elements, its visuals usually at least matched pace with its storytelling.

As a whole, Pluto makes for one of the most moving pieces of animation in recent memory. Its reflections on artificial intelligence are bolstered by an underlying empathy for its characters, breathing life into concepts that have been done to death in myriad other tales. While ambitious, it welds together disparate themes as it explores the intricacies of this futuristic setting and castigates senseless warmongering. It all makes for a beautifully constructed work of sci-fi that, much like the robots at the center of this story, is full of humanity.

All episodes of Pluto are now streaming on Netflix.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves videogames, film, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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