Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pluto: The Movie a possibility?

The Daily Yomuri Online has an article about the famous and prolific manga artist Naoki Urasawa, the creator of the Astro Boy tribute "Pluto". In the article, Urasawa's newest work "Billy Bat" is discussed, as well as the coming end of the Pluto manga in Japan. Apparently, their are negotations in Hollywood going on right now for a Pluto movie! Whether this movie would be live action or animated should it ever come into fruition is unsaid, but it's very exciting all the same. Could we be getting two completely different Astro Boy movies within a few years of each other?

Also in the article, Urasawa discusses how Pluto came about and his own apprehensions towards creating it as a Tezuka fan. You can read "On a wing and a prayer: Hitmaker mangaka Urasawa turns to period fiction with his new 'Billy Bat'" on the Daily Yomuri Online or by clicking the link below for an archived version right here.

On a wing and a prayer: Hitmaker mangaka Urasawa turns to period fiction with his new 'Billy Bat'

Cristoph Mark / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

It's already been an eventful year for Naoki Urasawa, whose manga have garnered myriad awards and sold more than 100 million copies--nearly one for every person in Japan--since his 1983 debut. In 2009, his critically successful 20th Century Boys series is seeing the second and third installments of its cinematic release, Urasawa has released his debut rock album called 1/2 Century Man, his Pluto manga series is coming to an end and he is freshly into his new Billy Bat serial, set against an unstable postwar Japan caught between GHQ and communist agitators.

"A lot of young Japanese don't know who Japan fought against in World War II," Urasawa says to The Daily Yomiuri at his Tokyo home as he talks about Billy Bat, which recently saw its sixth installment in Morning, a weekly manga magazine. "It's nice to feel that peace is enough, but we need to study the past so we can create our future. It's like, 'Come on, study even a little bit!' I don't expect people to use this manga to study history, but I do hope to draw some attention to that period. You know, how did our society become what it is?"

Takashi Nagasaki, Billy Bat's cocreator and Urasawa's longtime editor-cum-collaborator, explains in a separate interview at his office elsewhere in the city: "One reason I wanted to focus on the postwar period is because today's society has completely forgotten about it. It would have been our fathers' generation. I thought it was about time for a manga to tell the younger generations how Japan rose from the country it was after the war to become the country it is today.

"This was inspired in part by a recent book called Tokyo Year Zero. [Author David Peace] told the story of postwar Japan so Japanese, we couldn't let an Englishman tell our story better than us. I was a bit perturbed by that," he says with a laugh.

Still very early in its run, Billy Bat tells the story of Kevin Yamagata, a Japanese-American comic book artist in the United States who is wildly successful with his series "Billy Bat," about a private eye (and bat) often hired to follow unfaithful spouses. When FBI agents decide to use Yamagata's office to spy on a neighbor who has been fingered as a communist sympathizer, one of the agents says he has seen the Billy Bat character somewhere before. This comment leads Yamagata to his ancestral homeland of Japan, which is going through a major transformation under the U.S. Occupation.

To highlight the instability of the era, Urasawa and Nagasaki took inspiration from and made reference to 1949's Shimoyama Incident, which saw the death of Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of the then Japanese National Railway, which was preparing to lay off 8,000 workers as part of its restructuring. "It remains a mystery in Japan whether it was suicide or murder. There even were rumors that either the communists or GHQ was behind it. But we don't know. And Japan rose from this sort of gloom," Nagasaki says, explaining the early origins of the setting for Billy Bat.

The massive story was four years in the making, with the two writers taking each other's ideas and transforming them into something better. "People often think he's the pitcher and I'm the catcher, but in our discussions for this story, I was the pitcher, he was the batter," Nagasaki explains.

The mystery of Billy Bat quickly expands to include murder--seemingly involving Yamagata--and a mysterious bat symbol that seems to have a religious following, not unlike the now-familiar hand-eye symbol associated with the sinister Friend in 20th Century Boys.

"Human history is tied to that kind of thing [symbols], and it has always been the expression and source of culture. It has repeatedly brought out the good and evil in people and guides them in good and bad directions. I think it's a pretty consistent theme," Urasawa says, refusing to expand on which direction the mysterious bat symbol will lead the reader. Nagasaki, however, drops a few possible hints: "When we started thinking about the series, we thought about, for example, what if Billy Bat was like Jesus Christ, and it might have this sort of ancient mystery about it? I was also interested in the idea of what if the very first image of God that humans ever saw was this [image of a bat]?"

There is another idol, however, that Nagasaki imagines Urasawa may have been considering when he was developing the story: "I have a feeling Urasawa wanted to tell the story of Walt Disney. I, however, had no intention of telling Disney's story."

Though this may seem like a bit of a stretch to the casual reader, the influence could be seen in the first two installments, both of which were drawn as a "Billy Bat" comic within the manga. The style, inspired by the likes of Dick Tracy and other comics of that era, was nothing like that found in Japanese manga. It was even printed in full color--very unusual for the cheap, weekly comic magazines--complete with the look of aged, browning paper, to add to its initial claim of being a genuinely rediscovered American classic. For this reader, it was a refreshing change of pace to see an established mangaka try something new and adventurous. On Internet blogs and fan sites, however, there was a backlash against the "new style."

"When we were with [publisher] Shogakukan," Nagasaki explains, "I think our readers would've gone along with Urasawa's different style for Billy Bat. But since moving to Kodansha, I think we lost a bunch of readers with the first couple of stories. There are mangaka who want to do an American-style comic, but nobody has succeeded with doing it."

Urasawa, however, didn't think much of the reaction. "Recently, there are more readers who expect that I wouldn't continue in that way [the first installment of Billy Bat], so there were a lot of people who expected it was a gimmick, since I'm a writer who uses a lot of gimmicks like that," he says. "So they were wondering when I would switch back to normal, and that's fun for me to play with.

"I want to experiment with the freedom to switch back and forth between styles and storylines; I don't think too far ahead in the story; I want to see if I can get the readers to follow along with me. That way, I can maybe push things further."


Life beyond 'Pluto'

As Urasawa settles into his new series, he is preparing for the final installment of Pluto in April. The series, which has received awards including the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, is based on "The Greatest Robot on Earth" from Tezuka's Astro Boy, a story arc about the murders of the world's most advanced robots. The project was a successful, but stressful, one for both Urasawa and Nagasaki.

"I can finally relax; the weight is off my shoulders," says Urasawa, whose other hit series have included Yawara, Monster and Pineapple Army.

"I won't do that again," Nagasaki exclaims.

The trouble with Pluto, the movie rights for which are currently under negotiation in Hollywood, was in the duo's own expectations. "For Japanese, Osamu Tezuka is known as the God of Manga. And for me, I wouldn't be doing this job if it hadn't been for him. To be given that major work to see through to the end--that's a lot of pressure," Urasawa says. "There was this one Tezuka fan that kept telling me his fans would hate what I was doing--and I realized only recently that Tezuka fan was actually me."

It was the end of a series that began in 2003, to coincide with the 40th birthday of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy). Urasawa and Nagasaki negotiated for a year to get the permission to do the story, despite Urasawa's reluctance--based on both existing workload and a bit of fear--to get involved. "I said somebody ought to do something on the level of 'The Greatest Robot on Earth,' otherwise the younger readers wouldn't get Tezuka's accomplishments. But I had no intention of doing it myself. Everybody told me I should do it, and I said, 'No, no, no, no, no.'"

After prodding from Nagasaki and a series of brainstorms, the resulting story idea seemed too good to let anybody else do, according to Urasawa, who describes that particular story as a manga that opened his generation's eyes. "It wasn't about a righteous robot that took down bad robots, it was about the emptiness of war," Urasawa recalls. "When I read that when I was about 4, I felt like I had been told a very deep story, something meant for adults. I think everyone felt that way when they read it. It was never actually meant for kids."

Both Urasawa and Nagasaki say the story sticks to the original plotline, but there are a couple of revelations for readers in the final installment, one about the protagonist, a robot detective called Gesicht, and the other "a pretty good surprise."

Urasawa's most recent works have all been hits critically and commercially, with each of them big-screen bound. (Monster is currently in preproduction.) The still-young Billy Bat is promising, but nothing, according to Nagasaki, is a given. "There's no one who can always stay at the top," Nagasaki says. "Naoki Urasawa has always been at the top. It's only natural that he will fall from that position at some point. For me, each venture is risky. I might end up thinking, 'If we had only stopped at that last one...' I like him: That's why I work with him. But every time, I think, 'This might be it.'"
(Feb. 13, 2009)


Anonymous said...

This is amazing news if it happens. Pluto is a great series (well, I've only read the first volume so far but it's excellent). This could be the answer for all those who wanted a live action Astro Boy. The series doesn't focus on Atom as the main character though.

On a side note, check out Naoki Urasawa's Monster, and 20th Century Boys. Two of the best manga series I have ever read.

Unknown said...

Hi, I'm the writer of the original story. I don't know why I didn't include this in the original article, but Urasawa and Nagasaki both said the Hollywood version of Pluto would be live-action, not animated. There are also a few Japanese companies looking at it for different kinds of releases, but the Hollywood take on Pluto was something I thought we should all hope for...

Ninjatron said...

Thanks very much for your insight, Cris. Glad you found this post. I'll be adding your new info to a new post now.


LK said...

I end up being the 4th comment, but for people that click the link and find it's a dead link to a Japanese site, I used the Wayback Machine and got to the article.