Tsutomu Niehi is certainly an acquired taste. The mangaka behind “Blame!” and “Biomega” definitely prefers style over substance and his storytelling can be frustratingly opaque more often than not. However, his art is certainly distinctive with its Geiger-esque influences and the narrative in “Biomega” showed that he was growing as a writer. So when Vertical announced that they had picked up his latest series last year I knew that it’d be something that I’d be buying when it came out. Now that I’ve read it, this first volume of “Knights of Sidonia” strikes me as a litmus test for how much of a Nihei fan you are.
If you’re like me and enjoy picking apart what works and what doesn’t about his series, then there’s plenty to analyse here. The one thing that will be immediately apparent to readers of his past work (besides the art, which I’ll get to in a little bit) is how clear and straightforward the story is here. Nagate Tanikaze is a teenager who spends his days in Garde mecha VR training while his father’s long-dead corpse collects dust nearby. When he runs out of rice one day, Nagate decides to take another route to get food in the vast superstructure he occupies and winds up coming face to face with the outside world. It turns out that he’s been living on a spaceship all this time, and they’ve been on the run from aliens known as the Gauna. Before he can even get a handle on the world, the young man winds up being sponsored as an actual Garde pilot and thrust in with all of the other teenage pilots to stave off the alien threat.
This is a pretty simple setup with recognizable characters and a clear direction for the story as well. It’s also the most accessible beginning I’ve ever read from Nihei as well and that accessibility carries on throughout the volume. You can also see the drawback to this as it’s also about as derivative and unoriginal as you can get. If the murkiness in the mangaka’s storytelling had one -- perhaps unintentional -- benefit, it was that there was always this air of mystery about what was really going on that drew you in and kept you hanging on the hope that everything would be made clear later on.
Nihei got ten volumes out of “Blame!” using this method, but he toned things down on “Biomega” and got a much stronger work out of it. Here, any sense of mystery comes from imagining how humanity wound up in this ship and where it came from. It’s all relegated to the backstory which you’re free to puzzle about at your convenience and not a pressing concern on the narrative. The problem here, for the first volume at least, is that you’re left with a setup that doesn’t have anything to distinguish it beyond the mangaka’s own personal style.
For me, for now, that’s enough as the execution of “Knights of Sidonia” is so odd and awkward that it eventually becomes endearing in a weird kind of way. There are plenty of scenes that head straight on to cliche, such as where Nagate falls down a hole into a rice processing plant and hits his head while trying to escape or where he walks in on a bunch of the female pilots while they’re changing. You’ve also got familiar running gags regarding how Nagate smells and the growling of his stomach when he gets hungry. While this stuff would normally come off as utterly dire and predictable in a more conventional talent’s hands, Nihei executes all of these scenes with such deadpan that it defies convention.
I can almost imagine his editor coming to him with the idea of doing a more conventional story that includes teen mecha pilots fighting against aliens with all sorts of wacky hijinks in between to liven things up. Nihei probably went, “Okay,” and then did just that without bothering to modify his style at all for mainstream considerations. This is how you get moments where, after coming through the rice processor and seeing two of his fingers bent clean back, Nagase goes “Whoa!” The scene where he walks in on the girls changing also features him getting a brutal elbow to the nose, which leads to him leaving a bloody streak on the wall as he slides down it. There’s also a part when he’s launched in his first mission and “URINATING” pops up on the feed designed to monitor pilot functions back at base. It’s almost (well, maybe even quite probable) that Nihei didn’t even realize that these scenes were meant to be funny. They’re just genre conventions that he’s doing in his own way because he can’t see how they could be done otherwise.
Of course I can also see people coming to this and screaming that it reeks of incompetence and an utter lack of imagination. I disagree because after reading his other works I can see Nihei’s style permeating every page here no matter how conventional the moment or story beat. But there’s no doubt that this series won’t appeal to everyone. Fans of the mangaka’s past work will likely be disappointed by how simplified his art is here. After the immense superstructures of “Blame!” and the futuristic robotic and biotic horrors of “Biomega,” the relatively simple linework of “Sidonia” isn’t nearly as impressive. When the aliens show up, the visuals get a bit more interesting and you might think that things are about to pick up. That’s not the case and “Sidonia” ultimately comes off as the least interesting, visually, of Nihei’s works.
Now that I’ve said that, I also want to say that the art suffers from how it looks on the page as well. Normally I’m not one to critique production values in a manga as I can always tell myself, “Be glad that you’re getting it in English at all” and with black-and-white art the contrast isn’t usually too much of an issue. While I thought this was an issue with the paper stock, a quick comparison between the Viz edition of “Biomega” and other Vertical manga shows that they’re not really that much different. Yet it feels like there’s more of a contrast between the darks and the lights in “Biomega” which probably comes down to the fact that Nihei was throwing a lot more stuff on the page than he was here. This is probably the only title I’ve ever read where I thought it would benefit from a “pure white” paper stock, and I guess you can chalk that up to being one more problem with the art overall.
If you’re looking for the definitive Tsutomu Nihei work, then you’ve probably gathered from reading this far that I think it’s still “Biomega.” That’s a series with fantastic art and a narrative that works just well enough to keep you involved throughout. “Sidonia’s” appeal for me doesn’t hinge on any of that, just in seeing the mangaka’s talent bend utterly conventional material to his own liking. It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly unique and far more interesting to observe than if it had been done in a more conventional manner.