What does it mean to be human?

That is the core of the stage adaptation of the manga story Pluto. Set in a world with highly advanced robots, Pluto questions the ability of sensing emotions as a measurement of humanity. Furthermore, it explores the balancing act of being a master and a slave to one’s emotions, which forms our very being in this world, triggering the debate about being human or being robotic.

In a post war scenario, Pluto tells the multi-layered story about revenge and love featuring hatred-absorbed murderer, who kill the world’s highly advanced robots. As five of the seven targets have already been murdered, detective Gesicht (Shunsuke Daitoh), a Europol robot, investigates in the murder case and crosses path with Atom (Mirai Moriyama), a human-like robot boy, as the two of them are the last robots on the list of the mysterious murderer. The storyline focusses on their lives. Gesicht is a hard worker and is, despite his robotic existence, tormented by nightmares and possibly even memory loss. Atom is raised by Professor Ochanomizu (Kazutoyo Yoshimi) with his robot sister Uran (Tao Tsuchiya), who is highly advanced in detecting emotions. Although, her kindness is the greatest achievement, it engenders their little family when Uran helps a lost robot (Masaru Ikejima). This robot has a distinctive human talent as an abstract painter but suffers from a lost memory. Then all of a sudden, he attacks Atom. Who is this robot? What are the connections to the murder? Who is pulling all the strings in the background?

The story of the hero Atom, also known as ‘Astro Boy’, was created by the Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka in the aftermath of the Second World War. Atom’s story of being a mediator between humans and other existences inspired Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki for their creation of the manga story Pluto. Tezuka’s heir of a love story of life and of all living creators is timeless. The director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui thus revived Atom’s story in Pluto for the stage, currently presented at the Barbican.

The stage adaptation is a treat for the eyes. The multi-disciplinary approach merges performance, dance, video art, music and puppetry to create a heart-warming, thought-provoking and entertaining theatrical experience. The video and set design by Taiki Ueda divides the stage in action and observation, past and present, and manga original and revived stage scenario. Willy Cessa’s light design adds another layer to the visually stunning creation of diverse atmospheres between magical fields of flowers, moments in the rain between decay and awakening, and gloomy scenes of darkness and destruction. Furthermore, the music by Shogo Yoshii and Olga Wojciechowska reinforces the audience’s immersion on the staged journey.

Cherkaoui’s emphasis on dance ‘brings to the story a profound awareness of physicality, of movement and stillness as the two poles of expression’, as Helen McCarthy states. The feeling of being alive is, through dance, much more in the focus of the story as a represented heartbeat and as the discovery of human emotions. The idea of presenting dancers as manipulators of the robots challenges the question of being puppet and puppeteer in the own life. Moreover, it visualises the sensory input in daily life and thus demonstrates data processing by the robots. The use of several dancers on stage has another remarkable effect on the revival of the robots, especially of Pluto. The magnificent combination of well-choreographed dancers and puppeteers breathes life into the animated objects.

It is important to note that the story is told within three hours and in Japanese with English subtitles. This great commitment should furthermore be made aware of the manga style storytelling of the stage adaptation implying dramatic and exaggerated action-taking and emotions. Additionally, even though the female characters are skilfully embodied with bravura by Tsuchiya, the stereotyped male hero overshadows the whole plot. Nevertheless, this three-hours performance is worth to see every minute. The premiere’s audience responded with standing ovations for the dedicated and highly-skilled artistic team around Cherkaoui.

Pluto is a testimony to aliveness and being human and revives the impressive work of Tezuka’s coping with war, post-war trauma and the Allied occupation of Japan masked in a manga story. Cherkaoui’s staged revival presents an action-packed, visually stunning and heart-warming adaptation of Pluto.  Accompany Atom on his journey to become human and his fighting for hope of a world without hate!

Pluto is playing at the Barbican until 11th of February. For more information and tickets, see www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2018/event/sidi-larbi-cherkaouibunkamura-theatre-cocoon-pluto.