You need to watch Pluto on Netflix, a small miracle of a show

A crucial part of the Netflix experience is seeing something incredible debut on the service with basically no fanfare. It could be the best thing Netflix has ever done or the worst, almost all of it gets the same treatment: A trailer on YouTube and a spot on the queue right between Wednesday and Too Hot to Handle. It happens all the time — but don’t let it happen to Pluto, the anime miniseries that premiered on the streamer Thursday. Pluto is incredible. It’s a wonder the series even exists.

Pluto is a bit of a unicorn in the manga world. Created by Naoki Urasawa in collaboration with Takashi Nagasaki and the estate of Osama Tezuka via his son, Macoto Tezuka, the series is a mature retelling of Tezuka’s Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” While this kind of revisitation is the norm in American comics and pop culture, in manga it’s far less common, and this is before you account for Tezuka’s stature in the medium.

The gutsiness of remaking Astro Boy this way will always get a little lost in translation — I’m not sure I fully grasp it, but I imagine it’s something like HBO making a Twin Peaks-level miniseries starring Mickey Mouse. You know: A beloved all-ages icon, rendered for a new generation by a master storyteller who largely makes things for adults, while still, somehow, being reverent and faithful to the spirit of the all-ages character being reinvented! It’s a mind-boggling thing to attempt, but from 2003 to 2009 the Pluto manga somehow pulled it off, one month at a time.

Pluto on Netflix is a beautiful tribute to Urasawa and Nagasaki’s comic: a lavish, unhurried, and faithful translation of the eight-volume manga. Arriving six years after it was first announced, and thought abandoned for a time, Pluto was one of anime’s white whales: a critical and commercial manga hit that didn’t get an anime in an era when just about every manga hit does. Looking at the series now, the time appears to have been spent making sure the adaptation was done right.

The head of the robot Mont Blanc is placed on a hilltop between two tree branches in a forest ablaze, in a scene from the Netflix anime Pluto. Image: Netflix

Even without all that impressive history, Pluto is one of the best sci-fi murder mysteries you can watch this year. In a future where humans live uncomfortably alongside robots, a serial killer is traveling the world, destroying the greatest robot heroes in existence and also human activists for robotic rights, arranging the corpses of both in Hannibal-esque tableaus. Pluto follows Gesicht, a robot detective, as he tries to catch the killer and meets Atom, the boy robot who’s the most advanced ever created — and next on the kill list.

With eight hour-long episodes — each roughly corresponding to a volume of the manga, with some adjustments — Pluto takes its time to dig into every character it introduces. The story begins where a lot of science fiction about artificial intelligence does, with questions about what makes humans human, and if man-made life forms can ever truly feel, and uses them as a springboard for stories that drip with pathos. Almost every character Pluto introduces is learning to move past some prior tragedy, or struggling with finding meaning in what is beautiful with knowledge — unforgettable knowledge, in the robots’ case — of how hateful people can be.

Pluto’s adaptation is a strong contender for one of the best anime of the year, but it’s also just one of the best new shows on Netflix, period. It’s got a little bit of everything: It’s draped in a thoughtful air of melancholy, but it’s also wistful and surprising. Here is a remake of a beloved character that isn’t interested in introducing him as a dramatically powerful or charming hero, but instead shows him as a child crouching over in a downpour, stopping to pick up a snail he found on the road, an hour into a story we didn’t yet know was his.