Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy has evolved many times over the years, and with Netflix's Pluto, the classic returns in arguably its finest form yet. Opening with the mysterious murder of one of the world's most powerful robots, dismembered and with branches like horns rammed into its head. As the world mourns one of its great heroes, a scientist is found murdered with a similar motif. Somewhere, a killer is stalking the robot community.
Tasked with solving the murders is the robot detective Gesicht, a humanoid robot with a gift for unravelling mysteries, though not without his own mysteries preying on his unconscious mind. It soon becomes apparent that the seven most powerful robots in the world have been targeted for murder, and it becomes a race against time to find the culprit and their motives.
While the first episode is a little slow to get started, it's worth looking at Pluto as less of an anime and more like an HBO series. The pacing isn't that of the usual Shonen anime fare, rather it places meaning in literally every scene. No conversation or observation is without importance, and once you get used to the methodical nature of the plot, it becomes utterly gripping fare.
That the original material from 1952 can be so relevant today shows just how timeless and visionary Tezuka's manga was. The idea of sentient AI, back then a pure fantasy, is so much more immediate today. The threat of what it can do, the idea of mimicking human emotions to the point of pure folly is ominously present not only in this series, but in society in general.
Not only is the science looming large, but the central theme of hatred also seems to be sadly reflective of the current state of human affairs right now. With unrest seemingly taking over every corner of the globe, a show that looks into the power and unforgiving nature of hate, justified or driven by fear, feels unnerving. Never more so than when it deals with the atrocities dealt to children during wartime - the source of Gesicht's private pain is absolutely devastating when it's all pieced together.
All of which is to say that Pluto feels more relevant now than ever.
Backing up the thoughtful and layered plotting are some absolutely stunning visuals. With the classic designs given a modern twist (Atom somehow manages to look extremely current and yet retains the silhouette of the original design with his nappy hair) it feels retro-futuristic in a way that reminds me of Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Robot designs like Pluto himself should look almost silly, but despite the rounded, bulbous limbs, it feels very modern and threatening. The animation is smooth as silk and very stylishly directed, every interaction looking moody and rather wonderful. The idea of having a killer arrive surrounded by a tornado creates for some chilling fight scenes, with much of the action obscured by nature's wrath.
At the end of the 8 episodes, each lasting an hour, you'll have taken a pretty draining journey. That's not to say there isn't an element of hope scattered into proceedings, but it can really take it out of you emotionally. The idea of an elderly Professor finding an injured AI dog and working tirelessly to keep it alive is strangely one of the most moving scenes in the series. The way in which even artificial life struggles to continue is genuinely affecting, and I can only take my hat off to director Toshio Kawaguchi for framing each scene so elegantly.
The voice acting is also top-notch, but the second I heard Keith David (Gargoyles, They Live) as Tenma I got genuine chills. The man just drips gravitas and he plays a man who is both cold and grieving with such conviction that every scene he's in is just incredible. Laura Stahl gives us a great Atom and Jason Vande Brake makes for a familiar narrator when playing Gesicht. The man appears in so many video games you'll likely recognise the voice even if you can't place it. Everyone in the cast is on-point, almost all veterans by now and each bringing their A-Game. You'll recognise Nolan North (Uncharted) hidden in there too as Adolf.
So Pluto has a timeless quality, feels frighteningly relevant and has tremendous production values. Fair to say the pace might take a little getting used to, but once you're in, it's breathless stuff. Even if you've seen Astro Boy's story in a previous incarnation, there's enough movement in the plot to make it more than just a pretty rehash of an old tale. This is highly recommended viewing and a tremendous example of the true power of story telling through Japanese animation.