Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - To Terra...

by Jason Thompson, Sep 12th 2013

Episode CLVII: To Terra

The time: the future, sometime after the year 3XXX. The thing that destroyed the Earth: pollution. With the planet unable to support life, humanity fled into space, living in spaceships and terraformed colonies to give the Earth time to heal. Thus began the "S.D. Era" ("Superior Domination: a social order for the complete regulation of life"), when computers regulate every aspect of life. Children are born in test tubes and raised by foster parents, in a society that's outwardly pleasant, but strictly controlled. The only rogue factor are the Mu, mutants with unstable emotions and psychic powers, whose erratic tendencies threaten this perfect state.

Jomy Marcus Shin, citizen #AD06223, is close to his 14th birthday, the time when his childhood memories will be erased and he'll be separated from his "parents" and taken to another planet to live his adult life. Outwardly, he's a typical boy of the planet Ataraxia, but inside he has a rebellious streak. ("They're all the same, mild and gentle, walking in neat lockstep. Look at them! They all have lifeless faces!") On the day of his ESP Test, which every citizen must take to prove they're not a Mu, Jomy is kidnapped and flown over the mountains to the lifeless desert side of Ataraxia. There, he is taken to the giant underground spaceship of the Mu (buried spaceships=AWESOME), where they dwell in secret from the rest of humanity, hidden by their psychic shields. Soldier Blue, the leader of the Mu (who looks a bit like Cyborg 009), and Physis, the blind soothsayer, welcome Jomy into their society. "Jomy, you mustn't allow yourself to feel inferior! You must become Soldier—the leader of the Mu!"

Yes, Jomy is psychic—a super strong psychic! Just as he was distrusted on Ataraxia for being a weirdo, he is distrusted by many of the Mu since he was raised among their oppressors, the humans. Jomy is both human and Mu, caught between two worlds. Initially resentful for being kidnapped, Jomy gradually accepts his fate and agrees to become the Mu's leader, to replace Soldier Blue who is nearing the end of his life. His mission: to guide the Mu back to humanity's ancestral home, Earth, which has become green again after thousand of years of recovery. ("Terra—shining green oasis of the galaxy. Land of peace and hope…") But humanity will fight them every step of the way…

Keiko Takemiya's To Terra (1977-1980) is one of the classic shojo manga, except that it isn't shojo. It was published in Asahi Sonorama's Manga Shonen, which must have been a hell of a magazine, since it published both this and Takemiya's Andromeda Stories (1980-1982). The 1970s, the decade when the "year 24 group" (famous artists like Riyoko Ikeda, Moto Hagio, Yasuko Aoike, and Takemiya) won artistic and commercial respect for shojo manga, was also the time when female artists first got their chance to draw for boys' magazines. Some artists, like Rumiko Takahashi, were very shonen-influenced, but Takemiya's To Terra is more of a mutant hybrid of the two styles. The English edition's back cover copy reads "In space, no one can hear you cry," but don't worry; To Terra has spaceships and rayguns, not just emo. In space, no one can hear you explode either.

Like Takemiya's sci-fi ecological fable Andromeda Stories (written by Ryu Mitsuse), the story is fairly simple. The Mu, blessed with telekinesis, telepathy and eternal youth, are a bit of a Mary Sue race, with their physical frailty a minor setback compared to their overall awesomeness (most of them have artificial limbs to compensate for their weaknesses, making them not only awesome psychics but AWESOME CYBORGS). It's not surprising that that ordinary Muggles humans are scared of them. Takemiya was familiar with American science fiction, and many fans have noted similarities between To Terra and A.E. Van Vogt's 1946 novel Slan, which is also about incredibly cool psychics who must go underground to escape persecution by humans. (Slan was so popular in its time that 1940s-1950s sci-fi fans referred to themselves as "Slan", something to add to your knowledge of Mad Men-era otaku.) But To Terra isn't a metaphor for racism (like, say, X-Men) so much as it is about conformity and the stifling of human potential;the line between humans and Mu is not always clearly drawn, and Jomy, as the leader of the Mu, ultimately hopes to elevate all humanity to a Mu-like state. His opponents are not just humans, but the Super Domination itself, the system that tries to stamp out the Mu in the name of controlling humanity ("If not regulated, humans become the worst they can be. That's their animal nature"). Basically, To Terra is the story of young rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime.

Things get more interesting midway through the first volume, as the story jumps into the future and the main characters change. To Terra spans decades, and we get to see the characters grow older and see the human-Mu conflict from different sides. In Part 2 we're introduced to a bunch of people on the human side, especially Keith, an honor student, the ultimate product of the system. Keith is one of the elite; everyone's fascinated by his talent and beauty, but he's so frosty and arrogant that he has no close friends. Shiroe, a rebellious, bishi young lad, dislikes Keith, and tries to get a reaction out of him by fighting and teasing him ("Cool and objective to the end. No wonder your mother computer's dream child! Bet your skin's cold, too, like a computer!") As for Keith, he's smart enough to know that the system isn't perfect, but for his own private reasons, he's dedicated to preserving it. ("The absurdity of life…only superior humans understand such things…")
Perhaps Shiroe and Keith's feelings for one another are more than just rivalry; Keiko Takemiya and Moto Hagio invented the Boy's Love genre together, but Keiko Takemiya may have had the farther-reaching influence, by being the first artist to put gay subtext in shonen manga. (The first artist to do it intentionally, that is.)

The stage is ultimately set for a confrontation between Keith and Jomy, but there are many twists along the way. The Mu flee from planet to planet ahead of the human fleet dedicated to destroying them. A new, even more powerful type of Mu arises, ones who tower above ordinary Mu the way that Mu tower above humans. Finally, the Mu and humanity go to war, and the manga turns to sweeping tableaux of Legend of the Galactic Heroes-esque interstellar battles (To Terra fits right into the late '70s era of interstellar sci-fi, like the original Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, which came out after the manga started but before it finished). Takemiya piles on the explosions and space battles and drama, (SPOILER) working up to an epic ending that reminds me a little of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä.

With all this melodrama, and its great visuals, I'm surprised that I don't like To Terra more than I do. It's a good manga, but not one of my favorites. Perhaps, as this spoiler-packed review of the 2007 anime series pointed out, it's because it's a little predictable. Takemiya tends to express her themes by telling us rather than by showing us. Perhaps most importantly, To Terra at 900 pages feels a little compressed by manga standards; among all the spaceships and supercomputers and energy bursts and the detailed art that makes the series so cool to look at, I was surprised to find myself wishing for the character-development subplots, the lulls in the story that give so many manga their emotional power. Without the quiet moments, the loud moments don't have as much impact. It's a good match that To Terra was made into an anime TV series (albeit 30 years after it was first printed), since its grandiosity and action are perfect for animation. Furthermore, expanding the story from 3 volumes into 24 half-hour episodes gives space for those slow bits, the filler that, in this case, could actually improve it. (Don't quote me on that; I haven't seen the anime.)

Undeniably, it's an artistically impressive manga. I feel it's a bad habit to overuse feminine-beauty words like "beautiful" and "gorgeous" to describe the art of female mangaka (why not "handsome"?), but To Terra has great imagery and page designs. Among the Mu, emotions are literalized as psychic energy, characters are blasted backwards by bursts of anger or pain. When characters communicate psychically, they are drawn suspended in psychedelic patterns, soaring among the stars and asteroids, embracing in orbit in one memorable scene. The scenes of the futuristic cities remind me of the sci-fi segments of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix. In the second half of the manga, when the Mu and humanity go to war, Takemiya doesn't stint on pages with countless spaceships blasting each other in intricate detail.

To Terra made history by winning the 1978 Seiun Award for Japanese science fiction, the first time the Seiun judges created a category for science fiction manga. Certainly, it is full of sci-fi elements that have now become tropes: psychics, space warfare, evil supercomputers, totalitarian states. If it interests you, guess what: get it now because it's going out of print and Vertical won't be able to sell it after January 1, 2014. Despite my criticisms, this manga is fascinating, and defies shojo and shonen categorization in a way most manga still don't dare to do 30 years later. It makes me want to read a longer Takemiya story, to see how she operates when she really has a lot of pages to play around in. Now when will someone translate Song of the Wind and Trees?
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