by Kou Yaginuma
published by Vertical; $10.95 US
Inspired by the To Terra… Manga Moveable Feast this month, I’m looking at some more modern stories of young people in space.
Twin Spica, which originally began serialization in 2001, is the story of Asumi, a plucky young girl who wants to make it into space school so she can become an astronaut. She’s got an uphill climb ahead of her — no money, her tiny size, and her lack of family support. Her mother’s dead and her father, a former flight engineer, has issues we only learn about later. Both she and Japan are working to overcome tragedy. Japan’s first native spaceship crashed (in 2010, ironically, although the events of this book are 14 years past that) in a populated area, killing many civilians.
Asumi’s round head, cute demeanor, and expressive body language make her look younger than the 14 years old she’s supposed to be. She’s accompanied by an imaginary friend, Mr. Lion, who resembles an amusement park escapee in an animal mascot costume, which doesn’t help. Her struggle to follow her dreams in the face of obstacles is a common, uplifting manga story, but I still found the undertones of history overcome by hope and hard work an enjoyable read. The art has a slightly European air to it, by my eyes, a little bit of Tintin-like clear lines mixed into the traditional manga look, especially when it comes to her father.
Where American stories about astronauts emphasize their risk-taking, especially when it comes to their lives, this one tells us that “the most important qualities an astronaut needs are perseverance and a cooperative personality.” That’s very manga and very Japanese in priority. It’s not wrong — being cooped up together in a small space does require cooperation — but it puts a new light on why Asumi is well-suited for her goal.
The two backup stories included, “2015: Fireworks” and “Asumi” were published first, and they shed significant light on revelations only briefly mentioned in the main story. The first has a 5-year-old Asumi meeting Mr. Lion while the second shows how she dealt with her mother’s death. (These stories are a bit more mystical than the main sequence.) Both focus on the aftereffects of the spaceship crash, not her life choices moving on. Overall, this book reminds me that there is hope for the future and exploration, even if it comes at great cost and much hard work. I like Asumi, and I want to watch her succeed.
There are 16 volumes, lengthy but appropriate for such a detailed series. The title comes from a binary star in the constellation of Virgo (is the Virgin a reference to our young heroine setting out into the world?), as memorably explained by Mr. Lion to a younger Asumi on a starry night. If you’d like to read more manga about young female astronauts, try The Voices of a Distant Star, if you can find a copy — it’s unfortunately out of print.
In comparison to To Terra…, this story is much more focused on the individual than the society. The world is one we easily recognize, no different from ours except in the more open possibility of space travel, but still within a government organization that seems familiar. Although Asumi is reminded of the importance of teamwork during her exam exercises, it’s clear that it’s her journey, and only her skills and faith in herself will see her through.
Also, the events here are much more realistic. There are no mind powers or supercomputers with human personalities. Mr. Lion, the oddest element, is easily explainable as an imaginative figment, or her talking to herself, or even an artistic device. We aren’t supposed to believe he really exists, and he only appears when she’s alone with herself. It’s no different, to my mind, from someone being inspired by Superman or Robin Hood to achieve great things.
While To Terra… looks backwards — everyone wants to return to their home planet because of history — Twin Spica looks forward, towards exploring the stars. I enjoyed it much more, because it felt more as though I was reading it for enjoyment, to share Asumi’s struggles and find out what happened next in her life, instead of for homework, because I should be familiar with an important older work.