Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go

Review by Rob Vollmar

With the Speed Racer live-action movie imminent, the moment is right, it seems, for a relative deluge of Speed Racer comics and manga to hit the English-language market. Balanced precariously on the peak of a still-rising mountain of reprinted American Speed Racer comics from the 80s and various more recently licensed efforts comes the Mach Go Go Go boxset from Digital Manga Publishing (DMP), an unabridged reproduction of the original manga by series creator Tatsuo Yoshida in two hardcover volumes.

Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go cover
Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go
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Like Speed himself, Yoshida is better known for his contributions to anime. In 1962, he founded Tatsunoko Studios with his brothers and eventually produced a number of classic anime series including the internationally distributed Speed Racer and Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets/G-Force). With only this material to judge his relative acumen as a mangaka, an argument can be made that the relative paucity of content needed to fill a thirty-minute cartoon (as opposed to serial manga) better highlighted his strengths as an infectious stylist if not a particularly imaginative storyteller.

For the six remaining people in North America who do not know, Speed Racer is a young race car driver who, along with his family who double as a pit crew, races his car, the Mach 5, in a variety of dangerous and exotic locations for progressively ridiculous reasons. The opening story, “The Great Plan”, establishes most of the recurring cast as well as a good chunk of the plot formulas that harshly govern these early Speed Racer manga. The introduction of Racer X adds some much needed narrative tension in the second installment, but later stories don’t so much build on it as they do recycle its more successful moments over and over until diluted beyond recognition.

The work is always at its strongest (both, I suspect, then and now) in those moments when the otherwise nonsensical plot insists on some outlandish racing and, gratefully, they come early and often. The early races are more visceral as Yoshida features his racers on the Japanese terrain he would know best. As the locales become more and more exotic (deserts, oceans, etc.), the Mach 5 threatens to draw attention away from Speed as it becomes laden with ever-more-complex technology to adapt to these new terrains. As an artist, Yoshida seems more comfortable (or more interested) drawing the cars than he does the people that inhabit them. His character design shows a tremendous debt of influence to Osamu Tezuka without exhibiting the nuance of character development for which Tezuka is widely celebrated.

Whatever its limitations might be, the Mach Go Go Go collection was an enjoyable read. To their credit, DMP did an excellent job with the design of this project that adds value to the presentation with its obvious reverence for the source material. While Yoshida’s Speed Racer manga may never exceed the narrative sophistication of your average Golden Age superhero comic, it is as undiluted of a glimpse as one is likely to get at his original vision of hyperstylized cars and racing that went on to inspire millions around the globe. And that, as they say, is something you just don’t see everyday.

Kingdom of the Winds Book 1

Review by Rob Vollmar

Most of my manga/manhwa acquisitions happen because I am familiar with the artist or because a trusted critic recommends it for my attention. Kingdom of the Winds got my money the old-fashioned way, with a striking cover and an intriguing premise well-articulated by the marketing blurb on the back. It also helps that the story is not only historical fiction, but it covers a geographic area and time period (Korea around the time of Augustus’ reign in Rome) about which I know almost nothing.

Kingdom of the Winds Book 1 cover
Kingdom of the Winds Book 1
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Kingdom of the Winds focuses on the royal family of the kingdom of Goguryeo, one of three kingdoms that were the cultural foundation for modern Korea. While the story has as many characters as King Yuri has wives and children (hint: it’s a bunch), the reader is invited to experience the story through Prince Muhyul, who will someday become king himself. Kingdom thrives on conflict and balances the threat of invasion from neighboring kingdoms with the internal power struggles taking place as King Yuri advances rather menacingly towards his own death.

Kingdom of the Winds also expands on the exploration of Korean natural mysticism that is used to such striking effect in manhwa like Bride of the Water God and Dokebi Bride. The cosmology in Kingdom hews closer to Dokebi Bride in the sense of danger that accompanies the manipulation of these primal forces. Kingdom, however, uses these gods and their powers as the engine for elaborate battles that can stretch on for several pages.

Artist Kimjin’s character design for the supernatural beings, in particular, is imaginative and the battle scenes frenetic sometimes to the point of abstraction. The human characters suffer some, though, from a reliance on costuming over iconic design to keep them differentiated. Visually, overall, I think Kingdom of the Winds has a lot to offer a potential reader. Kimjin makes excellent use of setting in the opening chapter, the pitch black of a rainy night to create a kind of atmospherics I might associate with Lone Wolf and Cub.

The story, however, is Kingdom‘s stronger selling point. Prince Muhyul’s dilemma of keeping peace within his family as his father grows more paranoid by the day, while maintaining his vigilance against foreign enemies, is a compelling one. Kimjin aggressively uses flashbacks to give the kind of context needed to fully appreciate the complex relationships that bind each character together. The sum is a dense story that rewards multiple reads and even comes with a little map and historical essays at the end to draw it all together. While the large cast and occasional histrionic battle sequences may put off some readers, the well-researched and compelling story was more than enough to leave me looking forward to the next volume.

*Phoenix Volume Three: Space — Recommended

Review by Rob Vollmar

[Space is collected along with Yamato in the third volume of the English language editions of Phoenix. Interested parties can read my review of Yamato.]

Phoenix: Yamato/Space cover
Phoenix: Yamato/Space
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True to its name, Space is the first of the Phoenix cycle that takes place predominantly in space. It is set during a time alluded to as past events in Tezuka’s dour opening to Future (volume 2): a time of deep space exploration as the final expression of human curiosity and know-how. What sets Space immediately apart from those portions of the cycle which proceed it is its radical departure from the worldbuilding that dominates the other openings.

Tezuka instead opts to open the book with one of the more viscerally engaging experiments in visual storytelling from his entire body of work. Here’s the set-up. Five humans are piloting a ship back to Earth over a distance so extraordinary that the voyage will consume most of their lives. An emergency claxon brings four of them out of their hibernation only to discover that the crewmen currently on active duty is not only dead (apparently of old age), but that the ship has been damaged and is nearly exhausted of its fuel. With no chance of surviving with their vessel, the four reluctantly enter separate escape pods and are ejected into the black of space. With a year and half of oxygen and six months’ worth of rations, their chance for survival is non-existent.
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Apollo’s Song

Review by Rob Vollmar

Just as his own status as Manga no Kamisama (God of Manga) was being slowly eroded by the more serious gekiga school of manga towards the end of the 1960s, Osamu Tezuka embarked on an ambitious quest to re-imagine not only the form he re-christened to his own liking but to re-invent himself and his audience’s expectations of him. This middle period of his career is representative of the most ambitious of Tezuka’s works, beginning with his recommencement of his Phoenix cycle in 1967 and concluding, arguably, with his completion of Buddha in 1983. Apollo’s Song, begun in 1970, enjoys many of the artistic successes of those two landmark works while stumbling over fewer obstacles than his Ode to Kirihito, a work begun the same year, in the process of navigating these previously uncharted narrative waters.

Apollo’s Song is the story of Shogo Chikaishi, a young man with the irrepressible urge to murder all living things that express love. The story’s narrative oscillates between Shogo’s real life and a series of extended visions in which he must act as an unwilling player; visions that function, for all intents and purposes, as self-contained parables with their own meaning and contribution to the over-arching themes of the book. His first experience, a hallucination brought about by electro-shock therapy in the state mental hospital, bears special consideration as it dictates the content of all others that follow.

In this “dream,” Shogo finds himself in a massive Greek temple that is dominated by a statue of what appears to be the goddess Athena, though she is never named as such. She demands Shogo to explain to her why it is that he hates love. In a flashback sequence that details his troubled childhood with an unfeeling mother, Shogo makes a case for his psychotic behavior and appeals to her mercy for having been shaped by forces beyond his control. Unimpressed with his defense, the goddess curses him to “love one woman again and again but before the two are united in love, one shall perish. Even in death, thou shalt be reborn to undergo yet another trial of love.”

For the remainder of the book, these episodes interrupt the main narrative for extended periods and create a framework for Tezuka to explore any time, place, genre, or whim that suits his theme. In this sense, Apollo’s Song echoes the audacious narrative scope of the Phoenix cycle without taking eleven self-contained but thematically intertwined long-form manga to accomplish his task. Going down the list of genres utilized, one finds science fiction, historical fiction, general adventure with a tinge of Old Testament iconography, and Greek mythology used seamlessly as points of departure from and returning to the main narrative. These frequent location and period changes give Tezuka ample opportunity to showcase both his unequaled skills as a visual storyteller and his emerging fascination with meticulously drawn natural landscapes.

If both strands of Apollo’s Song‘s narrative were as potent as these sequences, it would definitely rank among the finest of any of his work. Several forces conspire, however, to undermine the main narrative in such a way as to render it mildly silly and, on even rarer occasion, dangerously close to incomprehensible. After his eventual escape from the mental hospital, Shogo is taken in by the enigmatic and beautiful Hiromi Watari. Hiromi, the daughter of a once-famous marathon runner, sees great potential in Shogo as he runs from the police and proposes to train him to become a world-class marathon runner at a secret mountain hideaway in order to honor her father’s legacy. In case someone is keeping score, that’s the silly bit. That strand of the story, while framing some of the more potent emotional moments, follows a continuum from ridiculous to utterly implausible and adds little or nothing beyond additional pages to an otherwise excellent story.

The good news, in contrast to Ode to Kirihito, which suffers the same problems but has no other narrative to which to turn for its salvation, is that the allegorical elements of Apollo’s Song add up to more than enough to classify it as an important, if not fundamental, work. It reveals insights into Tezuka’s own views regarding gender and sexuality (a topic which could make up an entire dissertation on its own) as well as the timbre of the time period in which it was produced. Readers should be warned that Apollo’s Song is neither gentle nor squeamish in its rendition of violence and can be thought of as Tezuka’s own Titus Andronicus in this regard. Otherwise, it is highly recommended as a substantive addition to the body of Tezuka’s work currently available in English.

Swan Book 11

Review by Rob Vollmar

This volume of Swan continues the international ballet competition begun in volume ten that will, in fact, continue and, no doubt, conclude in volume twelve. With most of the characters already well-developed and the contour of these competitions well-established in earlier volumes, the plot through this section hinges around the introduction of the enigmatic German dancer Leonhardt von Christ and the effect his presence has on the various dancers in the competition.

Swan Book 11 cover
Swan Book 11
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At eleven volumes into the series, there is little here that feels unfamiliar. Ariyoshi seems well set into her formula of presenting Masumi, the lead character, with some competitive challenge one notch beyond that which she believed herself capable. After nearly suffering an emotional breakdown, she is somehow able to reach into the core of her person and pull out a performance that is technically less impressive than her rival, but possessing some unquantifiable emotive quality that wows the judges enough to hand her a surprising victory.

This one-note samba of a plot line, ever accompanied by sobbing and wailing, would no doubt become unbearably tedious in the hands of a lesser storyteller. What makes Swan one of the best shojo manga to be translated into English, then, is Ariyoshi’s unrelenting excellence in the execution of that story. Freed from elaborate plotting, she focuses her energies on costuming and experimental visual devices designed to suggest the singular qualities of the various ballet and dance styles employed by her players. As always, her layouts positively sing with imagination and amplify the visual impact of the often-wordless dance sequences.

Even with several continuity threads yet unresolved, I don’t get the impression that Swan is likely to veer into unexpected territory before its eventual conclusion. Personally, the process elements of the series (i.e., the dances themselves) that serve as vehicles for Ariyoshi’s stunning artwork are more than enough to sustain my enthusiasm and interest in Swan for as long as CMX continues to publish it. The soap opera plotlines, limited as they are, do little to diminish the undeniable virtuosity on display, even if they add little to its narrative substance. Whatever its weaknesses might be, Swan is one of the few shoujo manga available in English that earns every iota of its status as a classic of the form.

Bride of the Water God Volume 1

Review by Rob Vollmar

Like NetComics’ excellent Dokebi Bride, Bride of the Water God is a Korean manhwa that draws heavily on the animistic mythology of that country as the source material for its plot. Though the two series could not be any more different in execution, surprisingly, neither suffers in comparison to the other. In fact, they can be appreciated in context with one another as two different attempts to integrate Korea’s spiritual past with its materialist present.

Bride of the Water God Volume 1 cover
Bride of the Water God Volume 1
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The “Bride” in question is a young girl named Soah who is sacrificed by her village to the god of Water, Habaek, in order to end a drought. To her surprise, she is not killed but rather brought to Suguk, Habaek’s kingdom, as his bride. Soah’s designation as sacrifice and subsequent voyage to the realm of the supernatural take up almost no space in the book at all. The reader is given very little information about Soah herself and is, then, forced to speculate on the details of her character as she goes through the process of orienting herself in an unfamiliar land.

Whereas Dokebi Bride juxtaposes a more grotesque imagination of these nature spirits against the ugliness of the modern world, Bride of the Water God presents them as an beautiful race of eccentric immortals and offers their world an escape from the brutish world below. Though the latter Bride lacks the former’s mystical leanings, it has plenty of strengths of its own to draw upon instead.

Foremost among them is creator Mi-Kyung Yun’s stunning artwork. Though working from the Korean sunjeong tradition (a style aimed at young women), Yun embraces with reckless abandon the decadent detailwork of the halcyon shoujo manga of old. As one might suspect, enormous detail is spent on costuming and architecture, both crucial in establishing Suguk and its inhabitants as otherworldly. Knowing nothing about the production arrangements that might have gone into the production of Bride (like how many, if any, assistants were employed in its creation), lavish illustration, however ambitious, doth not alone a good manga make. But Yun also demonstrates a comprehensive and dynamic palette of visual storytelling techniques that can not be explained away by a talented production staff. She deftly weaves the reader’s attention between the verbal and visual narratives, keeping both occupied and engaged as the story unfolds. There are a number of stirring, silent passages that, garnished by the relentless embellishments, taken on a transcendent lyrical quality reminiscent of Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan.

The plot, at least in volume one, is textbook fantasy romance material, but given Yun’s obvious ambitions as a visual storyteller, I am open to having my initial expectations surpassed in her execution of a timeless story. Even if what we’ve seen so far is representative of Bride of the Water God‘s average depth, there is already ample excuse to consider it as a satisfying diversion and an important addition to the sum of well-executed Korean manhwa now available in English. Highly recommended.

*Phoenix Volume Three: Yamato — Recommended

Review by Rob Vollmar

The third segment in the Phoenix cycle, an historical tale called Yamato, is collected in the English-language edition with the fourth segment, Space. Without precluding the correspondences between these two stories (the urgency of which is no doubt magnified unnaturally by their proximity in this collection), I wanted to focus our full attention on each narrative segment as a stand-alone sequence as the cycle unfolds. After each book has been thus dissected, perhaps then some time can be spent discussing the threads and themes that tie them together into a cohesive whole.

Phoenix: Yamato/Space cover
Phoenix: Yamato/Space
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Set a mere fifty years after the end of Dawn, Yamato speculates on the continued hostilities between the native people of Kumaso and the more-developed people culture of Yamato. It can, despite the essentially self-contained quality of each Phoenix segment, be read as a sequel to Dawn though the continuity ties between them are ephemeral enough that it is not necessary to have read the former to appreciate the latter.

The commonalities between the two volumes do not stop there. Yamato‘s plot can be read as a distillation of Dawn‘s, like an echo having become more simplified in its second rebound. To Tezuka’s credit, this decision proves to be a valuable one creatively as his recurrent meditations on the sacred nature of all life are able to resound with a greater clarity within this narrowed scope.

Like Dawn, Tezuka begins his world-building process with a glimpse into the everyday lives of the respective leaders of Yamato and Kumaso. According to Wikipedia, the Kumaso were “a people of ancient Japan, believed to have lived in the south of Kyûshû until at least the Nara period” which began in the 8th century of the Common Era. Kyûshû is the southern and westernmost of the four main islands of modern Japan. While the Kumaso may have persisted as a culture until the 700s, this particular story is set roughly four hundred years earlier, in what is known as the Kofun period.

A little historical context, in this case, goes a long way towards illustrating how adroitly Tezuka understands the task before him in rooting his story in exactly this place and time. A kofun is a particular type of burial mound that appeared during this period, the same type of burial mound that is one of the two central focii of this story. The Kofun period is distinguished from all those that preceded it by the development and codification of the first written Japanese language, using Chinese characters but a diverging vocabulary base and grammatical structure sometimes referred to as Old Japanese.

While Tezuka was forced to rely on myth and oblique historical references from the Chinese for the foundation of Dawn, Yamato marks the boundary of Japan’s own written historical record. The second focus of the story is on the production of the oldest historical document written in this first language, the Kojiki. In order to plausibly tie Yamato into Dawn‘s continuity, Tezuka plays a little loose with the history here, essentially producing the landmark work four hundred years early, excusing himself, one supposes, by never insisting that THIS Kojiki is THE Kojiki.

But even as the king of Yamato is compiling his kingdom’s version of the history of the world, he catches wind of a competing volume being written by the king of the Kumaso. Fearful of his own scholars’ inadequacies, he sends his youngest son to Kyushu to subdue the Kumaso people and subjugate them under Yamato rule. This setup is a convenient if effective means to illustrate the old aphorism that history is written by the victor and works exceptionally well as the motivating force to keep the players moving towards their final (and often grisly) destinies.

As with Dawn, Tezuka’s narrative sympathies lie clearly with the Kumaso, despite the obvious gaps in development between them and the dominant Yamato. The King of Yamato, who is nameless beyond his title, is portrayed as a monomaniacal buffoon and his court populated by incapable yes-men. Only the youngest son, Oguna Yamato, shows signs of being immune to Tezuka’s disdain. He serves essentially the same function as Em Dee, the doctor from Yamato that betrayed the Kumaso in Dawn, as a narrative bridge as both between the two cultures. As Oguna infiltrates the Kumaso people and slowly gains their trust, he develops three relationships that are important to the outcome of the story.

The first is with Lord Takeru, king of the Kumaso. Despite the counsel of his ranking warriors, Takeru welcomes Oguna into their presence and treats him as an equal, despite his status as foreigner. Though Oguna is open about his mission to subdue Kyushu for the Yamato people (which cannot be accomplished without murdering their king), Lord Takeru openly shares the singular aspects of his culture with the young prince. Though they are clearly adversaries, Takeru and Oguna come to respect one another as equals and the eventual loser in their inevitable clash bestows his name upon his killer as a sign of respect for his character.

Oguna also develops a relationship with Lord Takeru’s sister, Kajika. Kajika, like all Kumaso women, is a skilled warrior and distrustful of Oguna’s presence among them. Though she persistently encourages her brother to have Oguna killed to protect himself, the pair eventually become romantically involved, again mirroring the relationship between Em Dee and his Kumaso bride. Like Nagi from Dawn, Kajika also winds up in Yamato after fleeing the unrest in her homeland in order to gain revenge, only to find herself forging a strong emotional bond with the very person she sought to kill. Given the insistence with which he repeats this theme over and over, Tezuka seems to suggest that the assimilation of one culture by another is an act that is, at once, about both death and love. Put another way, it is a process that almost always begins with horrific violence but, within less than a generation, is often perpetuated by strong emotional bonds that develop between once sworn enemies.

Lastly, Oguna is our window to the Phoenix herself. While in Kumaso, Oguna subdues the Phoenix peacefully by playing music for her every night. For the first time in the Phoenix cycle, the mythic creature willingly gives up a portion of her blood to a mortal as payment for his kindness. Though he, like nearly every character in Yamato, commits murder to further his own agenda, his motivation in coming to Kumaso is as means to convince his father to end the practice of burying servants alive in the king’s tomb upon his death. The Phoenix is moved by his compassion for his fellow man and allows him to stain a piece of cloth with her blood that he might use it to preserve those lives in the event that he is unsuccessful at changing the ingrained traditions of his people. Though the Phoenix is given time in the story as a transcendent mythical figure, Yamato’s version of the Firebird is less aloof than most to the plight of humanity, at one point, actually interfering directly in the battle between Yamato and Kumaso in order to save Oguna’s life and allow him to return to his people.

Moving beyond the mechanics of the plot, Yamato exhibits a few singular traits, both visual and narrative, that bear mentioning. Known for regularly relying on a star system from which to choose his players, it is surprising to see that most of the characters in Yamato are not derived from the normal batch of visual archetypes. While the burden of creating new character designs for this people-dense piece finds Tezuka occasionally teetering on the edge of ridiculousness (like Kajika’s outfit, which looks like something out of a third-rate production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle), Yamato is definitely richer for the extra effort required to execute that particular creative decision.

Another curious trait is Tezuka’s urgent reliance on what I like to call narrative frontality; an intuitive term, not unlike “graphic novel”, intended to borrow elements from its constituent components without being held to the strict restraints placed on each as a formal term. Frontality, as it might broadly be applied here, is a key feature in portraiture prior to the development of modern Western perspective techniques and persists in many global art traditions to this day. A recognizable example of partial frontality is the well-documented Egyptian paintings that feature a profile shot of the head and a frontal shot from the neck down. While drawings of this kind do little to satisfy those acculturated to Western standards of realism, their facility as a tool for communication was greatly enhanced by a creative decision to openly decry their fictional status in presenting a known thing in an unrealistic way. The drawing of the thing should not and, by virtue of its design, could not be mistaken for an actual object or, in this case, person.

Narrative frontality then might be thought of as a tendency in the work to routinely reveal itself to the reader as a fictional story and not as a facsimile of life itself. Whatever you want to call it, this disruption of the audience’s suspended disbelief is at the absolute core of Tezuka’s entire body of work. The more obvious examples of this include his aforementioned use of the star system, the hyoutan-tsugi (a weird, pig-gourd looking thing that appears generally out of nowhere for a panel or two), and Spider, the nonsensical dwarfish figure that nearly always proclaims that he is “here to meet ya!”

In Yamato, Tezuka takes this disruption to a whole new level as he hinges most of its comedic asides on anachronistic references to issues and ideas contemporary to his own time. This kind of juxtaposition for comedic effect is one of Tezuka’s slapstick staples, but here, he seems to bet the entire funny farm on this one joke. In one sequence, he actually frames a character’s internal monologue in the form of an advice column while in another, student protesters picket the environmental damage caused by the construction of the king’s tomb. Without an obvious tie into Tezuka’s loftier themes that otherwise work so seamlessly here, the amount of space in the book dedicated to these comedic asides remains something of an enigma. It becomes a mystery tinged with irony when one considers the great lengths that Tezuka goes to in order to immerse the reader in not only the physical aspects of geography but the more intangible aspects of culture (religion, politics, etc.) specific to this historical period in time. Just as in Future, the creative value for Tezuka seems to be in the irreconcilable differences between these two opposed concepts.

A moment should also be set aside to remark on not only the splendor of visual storytelling techniques that Tezuka packs into this dense piece but the almost uncharacteristic precision with which they are largely applied. There is a restlessness that haunts all of Tezuka’s work that often finds him preoccupied with testing out new experimental storytelling techniques at the occasional expense of clarity and emotional focus. In Yamato, we see this same drive but in service to the thematic focus and dramatic punch of the work as a whole.

Early in the book, Oguna must participate in a ritualized stick fight elevated high off of the ground with one of the Kumaso warriors. This eight-page battle sequence truly ranks towards the top of Tezuka action scenes in terms of dramatic staging and use of perspective to reinforce the sense of danger. A good deal of the story also deals with music and Tezuka uses the presence of this abstraction to dabble in playful psychedelia that would resurface in his later examination of the life of the Buddha.

The final profundity to be taken away from Yamato is how many facets of interpretation it manages to present in a paltry 174 pages and, in the end, I think it is representational of why I believe that the Phoenix cycle is one of the most important works in the history of narrative art, whether comics, manga, bande dessinee, or what-have-you. From volume to volume, Yamato included, Phoenix is not without its flaws. It is a deeply human work whether or not it articulates Tezuka’s often cited but rarely defined humanistic philosophies. It asks the existential questions that plague every human being, of any culture or time, while simultaneously dissecting the worldviews and ideologies that have guided, do guide, and will continue to guide the course of human events. It’s a lot to ask of lines on paper but, that is why there will only ever be one Osamu Tezuka.

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.




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