by Keiko Takemiya
published by Vertical; $13.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
For English-language readers, there is a mystic aura that has settled over shoujo manga from the 1970s that can be suggested, if not wholly explained, by both the revolution in aesthetic values that it brought to manga as a whole and the surprisingly small amounts of it that have been translated and published for English-language audiences.
While the audience for English-language shoujo manga has grown faster than probably any other sector of comics in the past ten years, there is also still doubt about that market’s ability to support work that appeals to scholarly interests over popular ones. With the landmark works of the movement (Heart of Thomas, Rose of Versailles) yet to see print in English, readers have been forced to read more peripheral pieces and infer the commonalities of its core.
Despite Keiko Takemiya’s credentials as one of the central figures in the Magnificent Forty-Nine group, To Terra… exhibits few of the stylistic qualities that make that group’s material precious to Western readers curious about the evolution of shoujo manga. Serialized originally between 1977 and 1980 in Gekkan Manga Shonen, To Terra… is a much shorter work (the English edition wrapping up at the third volume) than Takemiya’s more celebrated (and more shoujo) Kaze to Ki no Uta (Poem of Wind and Trees). While Vertical’s motives in choosing to publish this three-volume series over its much more famous fourteen-volume predecessor can be applauded as pragmatic, there is something unsatisfying about trying to figure out Takemiya and her impact on shoujo manga from reading first this lesser, later work.
To Terra… is a science fiction manga that borrows thematically from Aldous Huxely’s Brave New World but with less ambiguity about exactly how dys- the dystopia really is, sort of like Logan’s Run but in space! The narrative is split between the Terran population, as seen through the eyes of Keith Anyan, an elite cadet with a mysterious background, and that of the Mu, a variant race of human telepaths expelled and hunted by the Terran population. The Mu are led by the enigmatic Jomy Marcus Shin who seeks to return them to Terra and resolve the conflict between humanity and the Mu once and for all.
As a work of science fiction, To Terra… has identifiable strengths and weaknesses. Takemiya shows an affinity for the world-building demands of the genre, drawing together ideas from other sci-fi classics with more than a few of her own to create a believable stage on which her story may then unfold. While the pedigree of those ideas she appropriates is often impressive, too much of To Terra… feels like it is recycled from better written prose from decades earlier.
Much of the plot revolves around space and the future of humanity, but Takemiya manages here, at best, soft science fiction that treats the genre like an historical setting (a typical strength of shoujo manga) rather than a distinct tradition. People look costumed rather than clothed, give speeches instead of communicating with each other or the reader. Takemiya resorts to the mystical, rather than the futuristic, for the fantastic element of her story, often robbing her characters’ determination of its emotive value in exploiting easy, psychic resolutions rather than difficult, human ones.
Despite its shortcomings, To Terra… improves considerably as it moves along. The early stages of laying the foundation for the story ahead seem laborious and scattered in comparison to the unity of focus enjoyed by the latter third of the story. It is only in the furious pacing of the ending that some of Takemiya’s genius as a storyteller manages to work its way through all the genre machinations. Indeed, while the more detailed drawings of ships in space and the like in the first two volumes often come off as stuffy and a little sterile, her scenes of mass destruction in the closing one hundred pages or so take on an almost operatic timbre.
The problem that remains upon finishing To Terra… is a troubling one. Despite nine hundred plus pages of work now available in English, I don’t feel like I really know much about Keiko Takemiya’s manga or why she is considered fundamental to the Magnificent Forty-Niners revolution that took place over thirty years ago in Japan. To Terra… feels like hesitant storytelling from a creator who found unexpected success doing a specific kind of material for a particular audience and was encouraged to branch out on the basis of that success.
Given the noticeable improvement that seems to take hold about two-thirds of the way through, it is certainly possible that Takemiya became more adept at filtering in what made that earlier work notable while still satisfying the whims of her new, broader audience. If To Terra… is a transitional work, then beginning with a clear idea of what she was transitioning from or to might have been a more solid foundation from which to judge this critically. Robbed of this context, To Terra… comes off as dated and more than a little creatively incurious.