While there are plenty of manga about robots or dystopian futures, it doesn’t seem to me like there are many old-fashioned men in space science fiction manga available in English. The first volumes for two recent series dealing with life in space have recently been published, so today I’ll take a look at Vertical’s Twin Spica and Viz’s Saturn Apartments. I think both series would appeal to science fiction fans, but I found one charming and the other left me cold.
Twin Spica by Kou Yaginuma
Tiny thirteen year old Asumi’s greatest wish is to go into space, but she hasn’t told her father that she’s applied to Tokyo Space School. Space exploration has been overshadowed by a horrible accident that took place when Asumi was just a baby – the explosion of the first Japanese-made spaceship nicknamed “The Lion.” Asumi also has a companion – an imaginary friend or a ghost, who has a human body and the head of a lion. As Asumi walks through her town Mr. Lion provides a sounding board as she works through her decision to follow her dream. Mr Lion pokes her back, she chases him, and they both pause to look at an airplane climbing into the sky. Asumi’s father is upset when he finds out about her application, not because she wants to go into space but because she didn’t confide in him. As long as he has the ticket for a “Free ride on Asumi’s rocket” she made for him when she was a child, he’ll support her ambition. The first chapter of the book has a great deal of emotional catharsis, which made me instantly warm to Asumi and want to read more of her adventures.
Asumi does manage to get into space school despite her small physique and she and her classmates are thrown into an intricate test. They have to live in a sealed room for a week with two other classmates, setting up dominoes in an intricate pattern. Asumi’s new roommates are the open and enthusiastic Kei and the angry bacteriaphobe Marika. Asumi initially adapts to her test with ease, thinking “Mr. Lion said that the most important qualities an astronaut needs are perseverance and a cooperative personality.” Asumi’s powers of observation allow her to reveal a hidden message about the test. But a change in the test conditions causes Asumi to confront her memories of the crash of “The Lion” and her feelings towards her dead mother. Asumi’s companions have to come together to ensure that the entire group doesn’t wash out of space school. As Asumi works through her memories, Twin Spica ceases to be just a slice-of-life science fiction story and becomes infused with magical realism as Asumi meets Mr. Lion for the first time and comes to terms with her mother’s death.
Yaginuma’s character designs invoke a feeling of nostalgia. His art looks more like something from a manga series of the ’60s or ’70s, with gentle rounded faces and simple background designs. The art is simple, but all the essential elements to portray the character’s emotions are in place. The artistic elements in the manga are carefully considered. Yaginuma’s forays into magical realism work because his characters are so grounded in the world he creates. Mr Lion interacts with the parks and streets Asumi passes through. The flashback to Asumi’s childhood features more hand drawn cross-hatching and less grey tone, which sets it apart from the present day story.
Twin Spica is very much a first volume. The story and heroine’s situation is set up and hopefully her world will be explored more in the future. While there was plenty of depth to Asumi’s emotional journey in this volume, her classmates were only just introduced. I’m looking forward to seeing how Asumi approaches the rest of her time in space school. While she might be tiny, Asumi has the type of mental toughness that can only be achieved from dealing with tragedy. I’m curious to see what type of astronaut she’ll become, and I’m wondering if she’ll ever need to say goodbye to the faithful Mr. Lion. The simple art and childlike main character in Twin Spica might not appeal to the casual adult reader. But this series is seinen manga (originally published in a magazine for men) and has levels of symbolism and emotional complexity that I think only more mature readers would appreciate.
Saturn Apartments by Hisae Iwaoka
Reading Saturn Apartments was an exercise in frustration for me. An accomplished pie maker could offer me some key lime pie, and it might be an awesome pie to many people but I think key lime is horrible. Saturn Apartments is the manga equivalent of key lime pie for me. I know many people might like it, but I’d rather take a pass and have some cheese danish. Yummy yummy cheese danish….
In the future humanity has left Earth, which functions as a planet-sized game preserve. Humans live in a giant ring that circles the Earth in a highly stratified society. People have to pay window cleaners in order to get a decent view of their home planet. The wealthy on the upper levels have sky and sunlight, while the people in the lower levels exist in a dingy world. A young window cleaner named Mitsu is about to join his father’s old crew. His father mysteriously disappeared while out on a cleaning job, but did he suffer an accident or was he murdered? Mitsu decides to use his new job to find out more about his father, and on his first day he’s sent out to clean the area where his father had the accident. Mitsu sees evidence that his father struggled to live when he finds hand prints and a fabric fragment caught in the outside surface of the ring.
Saturn Apartments is episodic by nature. There isn’t an overarching plot holding things together as Mitsu learns more about the class differences in his world, meets his father’s old friends, and learns how to be a good window cleaner. Perhaps because of the general “just another day cleaning Earth’s space ring” atmosphere that pervaded the book, I never felt much urgency even when Mitsu was menaced by a co-worker. Mitsu’s reaction to finding the site of his father’s accident is to think “Someday I’d like to find the spot down there where Dad landed. Mitsu’s father is referred to obliquely in the rest of the book, but I was expecting more of a narrative payoff that never happened.
Iwaoka has a unique style of art. I enjoyed her detailed backgrounds which did a great job detailing the run-down ring circling the Earth where the humans live. Mitsu and his co-workers live in ordinary rooms and the occasional shots of the grid lines in their artificial sky and the presence of the Earth below did effectively evoke the feeling of a space colony where people have been living for years. What I found least attractive about the illustrations were the character designs. Iwaoka gives all her characters the body proportions of young children which made her portrayals of elderly people seem jarring and surreal. Character faces are almost entirely flat, even in profile. The facial features look pinched and doll-like, which gave me a feeling of distance from the work even when I was reading about someone’s emotional pain or watching Mitsu’s gruff co-worker Jin mid-outburst.
Putting down Saturn Apartments after reading it I was left with a cold, clinical feeling. I didn’t care to read more of Mitsu’s story simply because he just seems to be experiencing life without much direction or ambition. Mitsu has tendencies towards internal soliloquies that I found a bit annoying. He thinks “I thought, if I can try as hard as Dad did, if I can do the job like he did, than I should discover someting.” There’s no indication at the end of the volume that Mitsu is much further along in discovering anything at all, and the journey to get to the conclusion of his narrative just seems tedious to me. Someone who finds Iwaoka’s artistic style and meandering storyline more appealing might enjoy Saturn Apartments very much, but I won’t be reading further in this series..