Not knowing a significant amount about Astro Boy outside of having seen Atom the Beginning, I perhaps entered the stage show Pluto with a very different perspective; one of a true outsider to the source material, aware of it by reputation and not so much from personal familiarity. This open-mindedness will inform this review; I am aware of the debt so much science-fiction anime owes to Astro Boy, but only from this secondary perspective.
Firstly, an overview of the production itself; it is a staging of a 2003 co-production between Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Bunkamura Theatre to adapt elements of the Astro Boy manga; to do this, it takes the form of a hybrid of typical drama and ballet, with puppets used to depict the various mecha involved. Visually this is almost the opposite of anime or manga; the exaggeration and stylisation, and even the bold colours, are mostly gone. The striking aesthetic of Urasawa and Tezuka becomes the background art, with projections of comic panels used to show internal monologues, flashbacks and even – in scenes such as the visits to Persia – scenery. On this stylised background, “realistic” takes on the characters in modern-day clothing act out the various scenes, recognisably – through muted takes on notable aesthetics – Gesicht, Atom and Ochanomizu, but nevertheless grounded. This works, for when the production does use prosthetics and masks (as for certain of the robots) it feels incredibly, consciously, inhuman. The marionette robots add a third level of aesthetic disconnect – Ali, Gesicht’s son, and even Pluto itself all have a scrapped high-technology aesthetic (Ali especially reminiscent of modern-day robots such as the Aibo). So there are the robots that can pass as human, the robots that can but do not, and the robots that do not.
The end result – with a set comprised mostly of moving comic panel-style projection screens and white boxes that become, through projections and lighting, different things – is again almost antithetical to the comic aesthetic. It is not rich landscapes, it is abstract, theatre of the mind. What this serves to do is focus the audience on what is happening, removing it – one could argue – of perhaps its obvious, bright science-fiction trappings. The most cartoonish elements, the robots such as Mont Blanc, are reduced to newsreel clippings. Everything is brought down in the now to the plain, the scrapped, the makeshift. Over this is laid a level of artifice; if the non-human robots have puppet-handlers, so too – in a way – do the humans acting as robots. Gesicht, Atom and Uran are hovered over by white- or black-clothed attendants to mimic their actions and body language to show how the thoughts are mechanical and artificial. These allow – in their own stylised language, the stylisation of ballet – someone to “fly”, for emotion to be writ larger than even one actor’s body language. It works. It uses an appropriate stylisation, an appropriate abstraction, to bring together the medium being adapted and the medium being used.
So, that is how a comic can be adapted to the stage. But what does this serve? What does compressing, confining one visual medium into another achieve? I think it focuses the mind on the themes. Simplistically you can call Pluto a story about what it means to be human. That is the banality, I think, that all criticism of stories-about-AI boils down to. If a computer thinks like a person and becomes aware of it, it must be a story about what it means to be human. And, supertextually, Pluto does ask those questions. It is right there when Tenma tells Helena to cry, even if she does not understand what crying is. It is right there when Tenma initially refuses to repair Atom because robots cannot come back to life. And it is right there when Atom lies to Helena about Gesicht’s last moments. But that is not all we have here. And it is really only a part of the story. If anything those themes resonated with me less than the other themes, the story of the Bora expedition, of Alexander and Roosevelt (played stunningly reminiscently of Monokuma in Danganronpa) and of Abullah and Pluto themselves. I’ve seen, in some way, the story of Tenma and Tobio played out. Of Atom as the robot that acts human. That is almost what you expect from an Astro Boy story. But the straight-out, angry, sparse polemic about the Gulf War, about the hunt for WMDs in a fictional Middle Eastern state, the whole plotline about how it takes unimaginable privilege to coldly claim revenge is useless, hit hard. The scene of Tenma playing chess with Abullah, and the downfall of Gesicht, worked extremely well. It was, plainly, undeniably, an anti-war science-fiction story that used history as its inspiration. And it used the what it means to be human story, the laws of robotics story of Brau and of Gesicht’s faulty memory, to show how far people will go to adjust the perception of wars. And after all that, Tenma asking Helena if she would just delete her memory of Gesicht to get over the grief process in the easy way only robots can was immensely powerful.
Pluto was not really an easy watch; it was an abstract balletic thematic adaptation of a seminally important manga that really assumed a little familiarity with what was going on. But it was, in its own way, a distillation of those themes into something very powerful and disarming, a quite unexpected experience. It used the expected Astro Boy material to shout loudly the themes that one expected, but presented it in a way that left no ambiguity. And I think that – that cold, clean thematic honesty – felt in its own way very manga- or anime-esque. There was a sincerity in straightforward moral questions, and in that sincerity a clear anger.