Combining elements of Noh-Theatre, traditional dance, puppeteering and some frankly brilliant acting, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui/Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon’s Pluto can be glibly described as Blade Runner the Ballet. Europol robot agent Inspector Gesicht is charged with finding out who has killed the most advanced robots in the world, and uncovers a dark conspiracy at the heart of a war that should have never happened.
Fans of Japanese pop culture will happily tell you that manga is a big topic, with its own tropes, artefacts and greatest works. Among these is the comic book Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. It’s an adaptation of the Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot on Earth” which turns it all into a noir-style murder mystery. For the uninitiated, Astro Boy is the western name for Tetsuwan Atom, a Japanese superhero as iconic as Batman or Spiderman.
The stage version takes the story one step further. The director, Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, has turned this classic manga into a beautiful and cinematic work of art. Dancers surround the robot characters as they come to the stage, gracefully moving like puppeteers, giving us the illusion that these actors are something more than human. These visual cues not only look incredible but give us further insight into each character. They achieve with motion and music a level of depth and feeling that is unique to this art form. The result is a smooth transition from one complex media (comics) to another (dance).
The premise is so well communicated and the world so immersive that when we meet ‘Doctor Roosevelt’ a powerful AI in the body of a sinister teddy bear, the audience doesn’t blink. It’s all in the spirit of manga-style sci-fi, after all.
The themes include unjust wars, loss of innocence, loss of childhood and a meditation on what truly constitutes a human soul. Pluto is the name of a god of the underworld, which should be a clue as to the darkness at the heart of this work.
It’s mostly in Japanese, with certain key characters (such as the ‘President’) speaking English. There are, of course, subtitles, projected onto the stage and the set is designed to make these clear and stand-out. Subtitles should pose no problem to any anime fan; anyone who’s devoured the likes of Bleach or Full Metal Alchemist will tell you that subtitles are entirely part of the experience.
The production values are lavish, and the lighting (which also includes ‘manga’ style panels as part of some scenes) is nothing short of brilliant. This is a production made with love with true fannish joy at its core.
Astro Boy is chapter one in the story of Manga (and therefore Anime) and this adaptation to the stage has been treated with a massive amount of respect, skill and care. The result is something unique and incredible, one that will delight devotees of Japanese comics and cartoons. The production has baffled the usual culture vultures somewhat, a great shame as it means they’ve not dived into the endless joy that is good Manga.
Catch this show if it comes near you. You never know; Death Note, Akira or even Tokyo Beat Cops may get the same sumptuous treatment someday. We can only hope.