The genre of stories about robots who want to learn what it is to be human is large, so it’s only reasonable that I would have a spectrum of reactions to its various examples. I’ve read exactly as much of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (Dark Horse) as I feel like I need to read, in spite of the fact that it’s by Tezuka. Naoki Urasawa’s revamp of Astro Boy and his robot associates in Pluto (Viz) was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, in spite of my general aversion to dark retellings of more innocent properties.
The Vision was always one of my favorite members of the Avengers (Marvel), but I always found the Justice League’s Red Tornado (DC) to be kind of ridiculous and whiny. I was pleasantly surprised by the gentle intelligence of Yuu Asami’s A.I. Revolution (Go! Comi), or at least what circumstances allowed me to read of it, but I could barely manage to sit through Steven Spielberg’s A.I. I’ve never been able to finish either CLAMP’S Chobits (Dark Horse) or Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend (Viz), since “built to love you” stories make me a little queasy.
To make a long story short, the genre isn’t a slam dunk for me like some others are. Julietta Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette (Tokyopop), the subject of the current Manga Moveable Feast being hosted by Anna at Manga Report, lands comfortably in the pro column of this kind of tale. It’s gentle, smart, and funny. I’ve read the first three volumes, and I’ll certainly read the rest.
It begins with Odette, a highly lifelike robot, telling her creator that she’d like to go to school like humans do. There isn’t anything mawkish or aspirational about her decision, and her rather blank bluntness is instantly winning. She never declares that she wants to be a real girl, and she doesn’t really make much of an effort to pass as one. Odette isn’t about pretense; she’s more focused on gaining experience and understanding, which is a promising starting point.
Her athletic prettiness works in her favor as a character. She’s not some robot-girl bombshell, looking instead like an averagely attractive teen-ager. It negates the possibility that she’s a grosser kind of toy, cutting off some of the more unsavory possibilities of this kind of story. You can be reasonably certain that she was created in the pursuit of a scientific exercise rather than to fit the maid’s costume, if that makes sense. And she’s perfectly capable of defending herself; she’s an innocent, but she’s unlikely to ever be a victim.
With an engaging protagonist in place, Suzuki surrounds Odette with interesting, in-scale people. The professor who made her is generally benevolent though not fully parental in his relationship with Odette. Her classmates ostensibly don’t know that she’s a robot, but they certainly know she’s different from the average student, and their general reaction is to find things that they like about her differences rather than viewing her as an object of pity or ridicule. They’re willing teachers, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.
Without knowing she’s doing it, Odette sets off a sort of mutating romantic geometry. Her frail best friend, Yoko, likes a boy who seems to kind of like her in return, but Yoko is admired by bad-boy Asao. He forms a brotherly relationship with Odette, whose blanket approval of and interest in Asao cause people to question their assessments of his character. Other characters phase in and out of the romantic undercurrents without Odette ever really realizing what’s going on, though she’s trying. (A sweet recurring joke involves people trying to explain the difference between liking someone and liking someone.)
None of the specific plot developments are very novel or surprising. If you’re at all familiar with robot-in-school or just plain innocent-abroad stories, you’ll be able to see what’s coming with a good degree of reliability. Suzuki distinguishes her version through style and tone, tending to find the just-right balance of funny and thoughtful, handling her characters with consistency and compassion and looking at their circumstances with straightforward warmth. I was quite surprised that Karakuri Odette was Suzuki’s first ongoing series, since her writing is so restrained and self-assured.
I think the art actually does reflect someone in the early stages of a career, though. The best parts tend to involve faces, particularly Odette’s coolly curious expressions. Suzuki seems more at ease with stillness than movement, though. On the plus side, it seems like a distinct and interesting style is in the process of cohering as the series progresses. I’m very curious to see Suzuki’s later works to watch that process continue.
And I’m definitely eager to read the last half of Karakuri Odette, which runs a total of six volumes. It’s not ambitious or innovative, but it’s got the kind of gentle, quirky likability that’s always a pleasure to experience. Suzuki has an engaging, slightly off-kilter sensibility that helps make the predictable become winning.