To Terra… Books 1-3

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.

To Terra... Book 1 cover
To Terra… Book 1
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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... Book 2 cover
To Terra… Book 2
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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.

To Terra... Book 3 cover
To Terra… Book 3
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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.

Similar Posts: Read To Terra… Samples Online § To Terra… Against Hubris § To Terra … Book 1 § To Terra… Book 2 § To Terra… Reviews

16 Comments

  1. [...] At Comics Worth Reading, Rob Vollmar reviews vols. 1-3 of To Terra. Julie reads vol. 18 of Red River at the Manga Maniac Cafe. At Anime on DVD, Ron Quezon has mixed [...]

  2. I had many of the same thoughts running through my head while reading “To Terra…”. I can see how it influenced later works, but it didn’t come across as one of those 70′s shoujo masterpieces I’ve heard so much about.

    A TV anime series was made of “To Terra…” in Japan recently, and it has been licensed for western release. That may have had something to do with why this manga was chosen for translation over others. It seems to be easier to market manga, especially obscure manga, when there’s an anime version available.

  3. Reeve,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll be interested to see how a modern reimagination of this as an anime turns out! If that was a factor in Vertical’s decision, I can’t fault them for their pragmatism as I said before.

    I guess I’ll just have to start re-reading SWAN again to get my decadent shoujo fix…

  4. [...] Rob Vollmar on Keiko Takemiya’s To [...]

  5. john morrison

    Hello Rob,

    Interesting review,it echoes some others I have read too, but your point about To Terra… being a transitional work are new. It was nice to learn a bit more about it in context of Takemiya’s work, and shoujo in general.

    I had already decided based on the reviews that I would like to read it anyway,simply because it is a “historical” piece, but your review got me thinking a little more.

    You mention themes that are recycled from previous SF, that isn’t a problem per se, (I remember seeing the first LotR movie and thinking how cliched it was), so the questions then becomes what makes it unique? What does Takemiya herself add to the genre? What does it being Japanese SF (as opposed to (US/Western)? Or what about its audience being women? (esp since in the 1970s at least SF was mostly read by men I believe).

    anyhow, intriguing review, I look forward to reading To Terra… all in one go myself.

    PS, now I have to Google Swan,darnit.

  6. EricHenwood-Greer

    Takemiya long had an interest and a small past in sci fi (perhaps due to her closeness with Moto Hagio) and I think calling this a transitional work is unfair–and shortsighted though with little historical context I can see why it might be made.

    I think Terra held up much better for me but I agree it has a weird format–almost like this HUGE ongoing epic, and we just “touch base” with the story at various times within the big epic. the 1980 theatrical anime is even more of this but the TV anime fills in ALl the blanks–and I think to the works detrimewnt. to me it felt WAY more “common” and stereotypical when told that way and it made me appreciate Takemiya’s story sense better.

    Andromeda Stories, the current and later sci fi work published by Vertical in which Takemiya worked from a story written for her by Ryu Mitsuse (the HUGE Japanese sci fi author who Moto Hagio also adapted) is fascinating in how it’s similar and how it’s different from Terra.

    The art is less spectacular for one–both Takemiya and Hagio dropped that gorgeous, over the top, shoujo style that became less fasionable in the 80s and for lack of a better term masculined their art a bit (way less full page montages, etc)–though the art is still insanely creative as is the paneling to tell the story. But in doing another “space opera”, but this time focusing on it much more from a personal/character level the outcome is very different–i think to Western manga readers, perhaps more successful.

    Here’s hopign Vertical does go all out and do some of her shoujo works. Kaze to Kino Uta would be a huge commitment and is also unfortunately a work I feel could maybe cause some (unfair) child pornography problems if published in the US. It might be better to work with one of her volumes of her masterful 70s short story collections (maybe the one with La Porte a L’ete the less extreme Kaze prototype)–I’m also a big fan of her late 80s, 6 volume Spanish Harem, a pansexual story about life and romance among a bunch of rather bohemian 20something Brits in the 80s.

    And PLEASE we need more Moto Hagio in English NOW. She and Takemiya worked with trhe same elements in their various stories but Hagio–to not take any credit away from Takemiya–had a bit more philosophy and thought behind her works while Takmiya was more focused on plot–i think.

  7. I would love to see more Hagio! I think I could much better appreciate it now than when Viz was first experimenting with it years ago.

  8. EricHenwood-Greer

    Reading A Prime when I was 14 was probably what got me into manga. What I find almost criminal is that we haven’t gotten ANYTHING by Moto Hagio translated (besides that 16 page short story in Comics Journal) translated into English in over 10 years. The market now is very different than back then and is somewhat overflowing with filler titles yet no one seems commited to even attempting one of her shorter series or another volume of short stories, even though really she is the Teazuka of Shoujo–I almost feel like it should be a priority…

    I wonder if Vertical has any plans to do more Takemiya or classic shoujo authors/ i hope low sales aren’t scaring them off

  9. It’s always easier to go forward, though, with more recent series. Since there’s always new coming out, it takes a lot of drumbeating to get an older reprint.

  10. EricHenwood-Greer

    I know I know but they still should be ashamed to be ignoring such important works :P Some of hwat has made publishign Tezuka a modest success here–ie advertising it as something many true manga fan needs to read–would help.

  11. Whoa! It’s a shoujo-palooza happening down here in the comments section!

    My thanks to you, Eric for taking the time to read and respond to the review here. I sympathize with your position that a better knowledge of Takemiya’s work (of which exists only the smallest fraction in English at this time) might have offered more context from which to support a pronunciation that To Terra feels like a transitional work.

    But I stand by my assertion in the review that at the end of 900 pages, I felt (and still feel) like I didn’t get the full sense of what she was about and why her influence is so important. There is no dispute that To Terra was originally created and serialized for a shonen audience and, by any reasonable definition, is a shonen manga. My disappointment came, I suspect, from expecting to read a landmark shoujo manga (a presupposition I derived from her importance to the form) and got something else.

    I share both yours and Johanna’s sense of urgency to get more work from Takemiya, Hagio, Ikeda and others into print. I do believe that it will take an editor from an established manga company to properly select, market and promote these works in exactly the manner you sugggest. Until someone proves that there is gold to be mined from that material (something I genuinely believe), it’s just going to sit there, untranslated into English and I’ll have to keep reading Rose of Versailles en Francais.

  12. EricHenwood-Greer

    Hey it’s nice to actually be able to discuss a review that’s half a year old–I wasn’t expecting any replies but was in a Takemiya/Hagio mood and had just been scouring the English blog-sphere for everything I could find.

    I get what you mean though I feel I have to point out Terra E *is* to Japanese audiences probably Takemiya’s second best known work, it did have a big female readership (and certainly shares a lot in common in terms of storytelling style with the shoujo of the era–Andromeda Stories, maybe as a reaction was actually published right after in Duo, the shortlived “asexual/duo sexual” magazine). Her award in 1979 was a duo one for Kaze *and* Terra.

    I’m bilingual so also read a lot of manga in french, and I suppose it should be pointed that those awesome 3 (I still haven’t gotten the third…) volumes of Versailles are an exception–probably due to the popularity of the anime in France. For a while I was hoping/expecting that a bucnh of Oshima, Tamagishi and of course Hagio and Takemiya would be out there in French but of course–that’s not true. For a while the French had a much better slection of shoujo in general than us, but I think the opposite could be true (they don’t have Swan, never got my beloved Banana Fish, the little Hagio and takemiya we did get…)

    Still I know many English translation houses are more likely to translate if there’s a French version out there–and Rose of Versailles is one of the few classic manga titles that (thanks to the anime and Manga Manga! and Utena I suspect) nearly every English speaking otaku knows–I’m kinda surprised no one has attacked it yet–even if I’m a much bigger fan of Ikeda’s Oniisama and especially Orpheus’ Window (frankly outside those three titles I find her work pretty disappointing–which is maybe why she’s not mentioned in quite the same breath as Takemiya or Hagio– but those are huge classics).

    I admit when I found out Terra E–ANY Takemiya–was being translated (and I didn’t even find out from a blog but from a review in Ent Weekly) I was blown away–I just had taken it for granted none of this stuff would make it out. So maybe I’m a bit more forgiving of To Terra than I would be if I hadn’t waited 10 years to read it, and been so thankful for the crumbs we get.

    However reading it again after watching the anime series did make me appreciate it all the more and I think Takemiya was more innovative in the title than you maybe give her credit for…

    I only recently finally got the terrific Moto Hagio issue of The Comic Journal–and reading and re-reading the bibliography of her works just gets me more depressed. Surely after reading how great and important her manga are and Matt Thorn’s offering to translate Otherworld Barbara for anyone who will publish it should leave any self respecting manga publisher embarassed for not following suit. (I say Vertical should go all out and publish a deluxe edition of Hagio’s Cruel God Reigns, establishing clearly that it’s Literature manga dealing with Important Themes and go for the most critical praise they can get…)

    But I appreciate the review and we fans who want more of this stuff have to stick together ^^;; LOL I’m sure you’re aware but Shaenon Garrity’s blog at http://shaenon.livejournal.com/tag/overlooked+manga+festival is also pretty great for emphasising this kinda stuff (i’m ehgsuperstar on there)

    /end of ramble

  13. Rumor has it that old manga just doesn’t sell in the numbers publishers expect/want. Until someone is willing to try again *and* gets a huge success, I suspect that’s going to stay the perception.

  14. EricHenwood-Greer

    I bet thwere’s some truth to the rumour–that’s why perceptions have to be changed–as they have been partly with Tezuka.

    But something like Hagio’s Cruel God Reigns is pretty “modern”–Tamiya’s Tenma is as well and in its take on fantasy is fairly typical of some shoujo manga on the market–maybe not the ideal place to start but I’ll take it.

  15. Sadly Vertical said a while back that they couldn’t get the rights from Moto Hagio, which is just depressing. Maybe she’ll change her mind someday ;_;

  16. [...] assessment of its artwork and heartfelt themes. Draper Carlson also furnished me with links to her site’s original review of To Terra, penned by Rob Vollmar in 2008, and a brand-new review comparing To Terra with a newer Vertical [...]

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