20th Century Boys and Pluto

I read and enjoyed the first few volumes of Monster, but I ended up not reading that series to its conclusion. While Monster was very good, I was more interested by what I’d been hearing about Urasawa’s other series. So I was excited when I heard that 20th Century Boys and Pluto were being translated.

20th Century Boys Volume 1 by Naoki Urasawa

20th Century Boys features a challenging narrative structure, as flashbacks are interwoven with scenes from the present day. In 1973 T Rex’s 20th Century Boy plays on the PA system of a middle school. In 1969 Kenji and his friends build a secret hideout in a field, collecting a bunch of junk – manga, magazines, and an old radio. They vow to save the world when they grow up, united by a symbol of an eye superimposed over a hand with an index finger pointing up. Sometime else, a mysterious cult grows around the figure of someone calling himself a “friend” who appears to have the power of levitation. The cult uses Kenji’s childhood symbol as an emblem.

In 1997 a grown up Kenji is far from achieving his childhood goal of saving the world. He’s living in his old neighborhood, taking care of his sister’s baby, and running his family’s convenience store. The police visit Kenji about a missing family, and Kenji is dismayed that they have vanished without paying off their liquor account. Kenji goes to collect the missing bottles from their house, and sees a strange symbol painted on their wall. Where does he remember the symbol from?

Kenji’s forgotten childhood may hold the key to solving the missing persons case. His old gang reunites when one of them, a semi-outcast named Donkey, kills himself. Kenji’s memories of childhood are filled with seemingly ordinary events – breaking into a school room that might be haunted, staying up late to watch the moon landing on TV, and going to a local candy stall. But as Kenji becomes more aware of events taking place outside his familiar neighborhood, it seems like a member of his old gang may be instrumental in manipulating a horrible conspiracy.

In the hands of a less talented author, the abrupt changes from scene to scene in 20th Century Boys might be annoying. But it is obvious that Urasawa has meticulously plotted out his story, and I think that this is a manga that will reward the reader even more when it is read for the second and third time. Kenji is a sympathetic protagonist as both a child and adult, and his position as an ordinary man soon to be caught up in extraordinary events promises great character growth. This is one of the most intriguing manga that I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to the second volume.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Volume 1 by Naoki Urasawa

Pluto was structured with a more traditional narrative. It opens with a horrible forest fire and the death of the beloved environmental protection robot Mont Blanc. A world-weary robot detective named Gesicht begins to investigate a series of robot deaths that appear to be linked in a bizarre fashion. Debris in the shape of horns has been placed on the victims’ heads.

The mixed society of humans and robots with artificial intelligence was interesting. Many robots look human, and often pair off in couples just as humans do. Pluto starts exploring questions about the nature of emotion and memory as Gesicht meets with the wife of the murdered police robot Robby, bringing the dead robot’s memory chip with him. As he continues with his investigation he begins to sense that something is killing off the best and brightest robots, a group that includes himself.

A haunting episode occurs in the middle of the book. A retired war robot serves as a butler to an elderly blind composer named Duncan. North 2 wants to learn to play the piano because he never wants to go to war again. Duncan is enraged by the thought of a machine trying to play music. North 2 ends up helping Duncan with his compositions when he decides on his own to research Duncan’s past. North 2 flies into battle against a mysterious enemy, singing Duncan’s song.

Gesicht continues his investigation by visiting other potential victims of what appears to be a robot serial killer, and Pluto’s connection to Astro Boy is made clear with the final pages of the volume.

While the murder mystery and the mixed human-robot society portrayed in Pluto were very intriguing, I got the feeling that I’d be catching more of the nuances if I were more familiar with Astro Boy. I don’t tend to have very much time to read, and I don’t think I’d be able to give Pluto the attention it deserves by reading more Tezuka as homework before embarking on reading the complete series.. I might revisit Pluto in the future, but I don’t think I’ll be collecting all the volumes as they are initially released.

Both volumes have been given the deluxe treatment from Viz. They are printed slightly larger than the usual manga, with full color pages and supplementary material included. Urasawa’s skillful character designs make it easy to keep up with the large number of characters he introduces in both manga. I’ll probably regret just sticking to one Urasawa series by just following 20th Century Boys, but I figure I can always catch up with his other works later on.