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What I’ve Been Reading: Twin Spica vol. 1

May 16, 2010

You might have noticed that my reviews of manga that serve as the basis for anime that I've seen tend to follow a certain script.  Generally I'll say that they're fine, but what I'm really waiting for is when the stories go past the anime so I can start reading new stuff (see "Black Lagoon" or "Bokurano").  I've also seen the anime that was made out of mangaka Kou Yaginuma's "Twin Spica" a few years back, but there are things about the first volume that make me think that reading the manga will be a more enjoyable and interesting experience than the other times I've found myself in this situation.

The world of "Twin Spica" is one where manned spaceflight has proliferated to the point where kids can now enroll in astronaut training schools instead of high school.  That's the goal of Asumi Kamogawa, who wants to be a rocket pilot more than anything, in spite of the fact that she's the smallest kid in her class and hasn't told her dad that she has also passed the test to enroll in the Tokyo Space School.  She's not the only one, though, as the amount of kids who have passed the test this year is so great that the school officials have cooked up a special test to weed out the less promising recruits.

Now my first impression of the anime, which the manga also bears out, was that it was like a kiddie version of mangaka Makoto Yukimura's "Planetes" (excellent in manga form, more so in anime).  Now that's not a bad thing as I thought that the idea of seeing kids undergo training for tasks that are (at least in our reality) well above their age was potentially fascinating.  The first volume of the manga covers what I thought was the most interesting part of the series as Asumi is locked in a room with two other girls, the friendly Kei and the standoffish Marika, and has to work together with them in order to create a line of several thousand dominoes within three days.  The idea is to see how well the students work together in cramped conditions, respond to orders, and handle outside stimuli.  Even though I knew what was going to happen, it was still entertaining to see it play out on the page as the ensuing clash of personalities coupled with the task at hand makes for some satisfying drama.

The circumstances also keep Asumi's lion-hooded guardian spirit away.  Oh, did I not mention she has one of those?  As it turns out, she's had the ghost of an astronaut who perished in the worst rocket accident in Japanese history to keep her company ever since she was a little kid.  From a narrative standpoint I can understand his inclusion, since he serves to provide a sounding board for her inner thoughts.  However, this bit of magical realism co-exists uneasily with the realistic sci-fi leanings of the main story.  I'm also going to admit that I have a personal bias towards the character after seeing him in the anime since I didn't like how much of in was given over to Asumi's interactions with him, and the hints that he has some history with Makita (of the "that makes no sense" kind).

What makes me hopeful for the future of the manga is that the stories focusing on him and a much younger Asumi were not done as part of the main narrative.  The two stories included at the end, involving Asumi and her mother's ashes and a near-death dream as she helps her mother cross the river Sanzo to the afterlife, were created before the "Twin Spica" manga began.  Now while these stories aren't bad, they're actually pretty effective tales of a young girl coming to terms with the death of a mother she never really knew, they don't really add anything to the core story and had they been part of the main story I'd be more inclined to regard them as an unwanted distraction to the more interesting business of Asumi's space training.  Which is how I eventually came to regard these stories in the anime.  As they're not part of the main narrative, I'm hopeful that we'll get a more focused take on Asumi's quest to become a rocket pilot.

Now that I've discussed my issues, let me just say that I don't think it's inconceivable that people would have an issue with Yaginuma's art.  While he tells the story well in a straightforward manner, his style has all of his characters looking like kids even though they're all old enough to be in high school.  While this will no doubt please the moe fans out there, it makes the story look like it's intended for a much younger audience than it is.  I can see how people would dismiss it as a "kid's book" just by looking at it, but Yaginuma doesn't talk down to his audience in the telling of his story and that makes it something that kids of all ages can enjoy.

"Twin Spica" also represents a change on the part of its publisher, Vertical, to broaden their audience beyond the old-school manga that has been their stock-in-trade for many years.  Next up is the cute kitty manga "Chi's Sweet Home," and Felipe Smith's "Peepo Chu," which represents the first time an American creator has published a manga-style story in Japan.  It'll be interesting to see if "Twin Spica" does broaden their audience, since it would seem that Vertical's existing audience of readers who are willing to look beyond a manga's age and initial look would be the people most inclined to give this book a shot.  Regardless of how it does, the first volume is a good all-ages read that makes me hopeful the rest of the series will follow in suit.