Pluto: Robots and Aesthetic Experience

Peter Wilkins offers an analysis of robots’ desire for aesthetic experience as a critique of instrumental reason in Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, a reworking of the classic “Greatest Robot on Earth” story by Osamu Tezuka.

Craig Fischer’s recent article in The Comics Journal, “Pluto and Doublingdrew me to Naoki Urasawa‘s Pluto (2009), a reconfiguration of Osamu Tezuka‘s “Greatest Robot on Earth” story arc. Fischer notes that Urasawa “subverts the typical science-fiction stereotype of robot-human interaction” because the robots explore feelings while the human characters exhibit more instrumental thinking. In Pluto, robots yearn for aesthetic experience, provoking us to meditate on the human relationship to the sensory experiences of pain and pleasure, the beautiful and the sublime.  

As examples of purpose-built technology, the robots also require us to meditate on the ironic relationship between aesthetic capacity and instrumental reason: the machines of war keep insisting on the importance or art, beauty, and feeling in general. Simply put, the robots’ aesthetic desire critiques instrumentality in the service of war in favour of a more humane, if not perhaps more human, response to the world. Consequently, Pluto demonstrates a connection between aesthetic judgment and practical reason, between what is beautiful and what is good or right.

The early North No. 2 episodes confound the distinction between instrumentality and aesthetics in the sphere of music. North No. 2 is essentially a weapon with artificial intelligence who wants to learn to play the piano. After the 39th Central Asian Conflict, he fortuitously gets a job as butler to a composer, Paul Duncan. Duncan immediately rejects North No. 2’s desire, reacting as if his touching the piano were instrumental miscegenation: “Stop, North! That piano’s not designed to be touched by a weapon of mass destruction!!” (2009: 109, 6).  
Consistently in these episodes, Duncan’s words evoke a racist response to the threat of the other.#  Racism depends upon definitions of the human being: a Jewish or black person is outside the racist’s definition, just as North No. 2 is outside Duncan’s. Belonging to “humanity” is a guarantee of ethical treatment; being inhuman means that one can be used and abused. Further, it means that whatever one produces cannot be art: “No! Your kind can’t make music!!” (2009: 116, 5) Duncan is insistent on the distinction. He believes he knows the difference between “data” and “true feelings,” mere imitation and authentic music.

Duncan has a Romantic view of art: what matters is the expression of the artist’s mind,  not the imitation of things in the world. This view emphasizes ephemeral genius over concrete technê. While electronic musical equipment fills Duncan’s house, he eschews it for an old-fashioned piano, stressing his “organic” relationship to his craft. As Duncan plays the piano, the electronic instruments “look on,” seemingly disappointed by their neglect:

Urasawa, Pluto, 2009: 99, 5 and 6
Urasawa, Pluto, 2009: 99, 5 and 6
When North No. 2 asks about the equipment, Duncan responds “High-tech equipment can masquerade as the real thing, but they’re just a bunch of machines…” (2009: 101, 4). Duncan clearly perceives the piano as more “authentic” than the synthesizer, a perception that raises questions about the distinction between machines that imitate and instruments that produce authentic music.  Duncan never answers those questions, but we can suppose that his logic depends on motivational and operational causality: the music in his mind moves through his hands to the piano in a comprehensible fashion. Duncan’s repeated banging his hand or fist on the piano, a motif of these episodes, emphasizes this causality, as if the piano were a tool, like a hammer:
Urasawa, 2009: 99, 2
Urasawa, Pluto, 2009: 99, 2

But Duncan’s violence towards his instrument–at one point he is on the verge of taking an axe to it–emphasizes his failure to make his tool produce what is in his head. He cannot fill in a particular blank in a song. The causal chain is not working for him. This breakdown illuminates the problem for expressionist theories of art: how does the work of music that emerges as notes from the piano reflect the artist’s inner genius? What is inside the black box of the mind that emerges as music? And what explains the blockage of that genius?

In the end, these questions defy answers: all we have are the results produced by some form of technê , whether it be piano or synthesizer. Whatever we can say about the distinction between piano and synthesizer also applies to the distinction between human and robot, as Duncan suggests in equating his electronic instruments with North No. 2. The robot imitates the human being like the synthesizer imitates the piano but in a way that challenges the authenticity of the thing it is imitating. 
We might argue that the most human of affects is psychological trauma, the way the mind responds to such things as shock, war, and accidents. In the world of Pluto it is taboo for robots to kill humans but not to destroy other robots in the field of battle. Urasawa imagines North No. 2’s wartime experience as an instrument of destruction conjoined with a highly developed A.I. as sufficiently traumatic as to produce art. Duncan repeatedly asks North No. 2 how many robots he killed in the war, and North No. 2 finally admits: “Tens of thousands of my own kind… and every one of those killings is played back again and again in my artificial brain” (2009: 145, 8). When Urasawa draws North No. 2 playing the piano images of the violent destruction of machinery accompany him:
Urasawa, Pluto, 2009: 129,4, 5, and 6
Urasawa, Pluto, 2009: 129,4, 5, and 6

We cannot tell from the panels whether his music is evoking these moments or working through them as catharsis. We merely see the juxtaposition of North No. 2’s hands on the piano, musical notes, and cascading disembodied mechanical parts. The violence of the background is set against the delicate image of the robot playing the piano, which in turn contrasts Duncan’s persistent smashing of the instrument with his fist. Furthermore, the idea of an artificial intelligence working through mechanical body parts on an “organic” instrument confounds the causality that links the “mind” of the genius to the music that emerges from the piano. The cascading machinery may just be the explosion of that causality.

What matters in Pluto is not so much fidelity and authenticity in expression but a kind of “art-work,” analogous to Freud’s “dream-work,” that testifies to the intensity of experience by revising it and transforming it. While we may scoff at the notion of war machines with artificial intelligence producing art, we only have to look at the history of the human capacity for war, and perhaps the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to give the idea a second thought.


“Episteme and Techne.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <>. Accessed 22 January 2012.

Fischer, C. (2011). “Pluto and Doubling.”  The Comics Journal. <>. Accessed 22 January 2012

Freud, S. (1913). “The Dream-Work”, in The Interpretation of Dreams, available at <>. Accessed 22 January 2012 

Urasawa, N, O. Tezuka, and T. Nagasaki (2009). Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. Volume 1. Trans.  Jared Cook & Frederik L. Schodt. (San Francisco: Viz)

“World War I Poetry.”  Modern History Sourcebook. <> Accessed 22 January 2012.

About the author

Peter Wilkins has contributed 6 articles.

Peter Wilkins teaches English at Douglas College in New Westminster, Canada. He coordinates and writes for the Graphixia comics blog with David N. Wright, Brenna Clarke Gray and Scott Marsden. He has a PhD in American Literature and Critical Theory from The University of California, Irvine.

Author: Peter Wilkins

Peter Wilkins teaches English at Douglas College in New Westminster, Canada. He coordinates and writes for the Graphixia comics blog with David N. Wright, Brenna Clarke Gray and Scott Marsden. He has a PhD in American Literature and Critical Theory from The University of California, Irvine.

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