Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 28th 2011
It's the winter of Asumi Kamogawa's second year at Tokyo Space School, and everywhere around her things are changing. Her favorite planetarium since childhood is closing down. Her classmate, Shu, is thinking of applying to a special astronaut training course in America. And Kiriu, the boy from the orphanage who has developed an affection for Asumi, is planning a big change in his life. Academic pressures are also mounting with the upcoming final exams, and Asumi realizes her cozy circle of schoolmates will only last another year or two, depending on whether they can qualify for the Japanese space program's extra year of training. Once the final grades come in, it's time to see who has a shot at achieving their dreams.
For a series that's supposed to be about the innocent dreams of youth, Twin Spica sure sounds mature for its age. Maybe because it's not really the voice of Asumi Kamogawa guiding this, but the voice of Kou Yaginuma looking back on his youth, trying to rewrite his high school days with a rosy tint. This is a world where uplifting life lessons are taught every thirty pages or so, and where fifteen-year-olds reflect deeply upon the choices that will decide their future. (Reality check: the average fifteen-year-old probably reflects on what homework is due tomorrow.) But we forgive Yaginuma's nostalgic self-indulgence because he does it so well, striking close to the heart with his gentle optimism.
Volume 8 starts out vaguely, though, with the initial chapters rambling on about endings and beginnings. There's the closure of Asumi's favorite planetarium, and a thought-provoking astronomy lesson on supernovae, but these are fillers at best. However, as the timeline moves into Christmas (and you know what that means in Japan), the relationship between Asumi and Kiriu takes center stage. It is here that Yaginuma shows his true talent, bringing the could've-been-should've-been romance to its peak without ever lapsing into melodramatics. All right, so Asumi gets a bit teary at one point, but it's the feelings bubbling just beneath the surface that make this scenario so subtle yet powerful. It comes to a close with an entire chapter narrated by Kiriu, his feelings pouring out in a bittersweet wave of emotion—as touching a conclusion as one could ask for.
Unfortunately, that high point arrives right in the middle of the book, leaving the remaining chapters as a pleasant but less impressive continuation. The end of the school year means focusing more on the characters' academic lives, with the oft-overlooked Shu Suzuki finally getting some time in the spotlight. A couple of flashbacks highlight the family drama between Shu, his domineering father, and his now-deceased mother—but let's face it, when the primary conflict involves getting an application form signed and taking some qualification tests, that doesn't tug on the heartstrings quite as much as blossoming young love. And the volume's inconclusive ending, with Shu in the middle of a test while Asumi and her friends prepare for the next school year, leaves a bland, incomplete taste.
Part of Twin Spica's heart-on-its-sleeve honesty comes from its simple visual style, where button-eyed character designs and precise rectangular panels present the story in an unpretentious manner. With so few flourishes to distract the eye, it's the the characters' thoughts and feelings that come to the forefront. Which is not to say that Yaginuma's art is incapable of expression: rather, he uses that simplicity to his advantage, like in Kiriu's final message to Asumi. In that chapter, heartfelt prose is laid over images that represent both action and stillness, past and present, creating an effect that only comics can achieve: the state of being in different places and times all at once. But that masterstroke is, admittedly, more the exception than the rule. Elsewhere, the visuals are more formulaic: most scenes involve the characters at school or around town chatting with each other, and once in a while there might be a dramatic spread of the night sky (which everyone's already gotten used to). Simplicity may have its benefits, but it also has its limitations.
That simplicity applies to the series' dialogue as well, where one would be hard pressed to find any words exceeding three syllables. Again, the idea is to bring out the characters' feelings and intentions clearly, so why bother getting all fancy? And when short sentences aren't powerful enough, silence becomes an effective tool: several panels passing without dialogue, letting the characters' expressions speak for themselves. What is most interesting about the script is how it remains distinctive even when translated into English—a lot of manga ends up getting filtered into bland, boilerpate language, but not here, where the terse writing style is very much part of the series' personality. This translation also includes a couple of cultural footnotes in the back—enough to understand the peculiarities of the Japanese school year, especially during the winter holiday season. Readers looking for good value for money should also note that this edition combines part of the original Japanese Volume 8 with Volume 9, making it a larger-than-average 286 pages.
Even though Twin Spica is all about a bright scientific future, where space travel is on the rise and astronaut training begins as early as high school, the secret of its storytelling success is to treat these events like someone looking back on their past. The lessons to be learned in this volume—about expressing feelings for someone you like, about striving for your dreams despite parental disagreements, about accepting the fleeting nature of high school friendship—are the kind that can really only be taught after having lived through those moments. And Kou Yaginuma, with his approach that favors subtlety over melodrama, makes the ideal teacher. He may not indulge in impressive blow-'em-away artwork, and he doesn't drop as many emotional bombs as in previous volumes, but the story still reaches to the core of the human heart. Which is an excellent place to be.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ Strikes a strong emotional chord with the Kiriu/Asumi storyline, along with other subplots that are often bittersweet but also uplifting.
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