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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Twin Spica

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CLI: Twin Spica

"The phenomenon that is myself…is one of the imagined organic lights…one of its blue illuminations…"
-- Kenji Miyazawa

"It's those subtle movements of the heart that I want to draw just as I feel them."
-- Kou Yaginuma

It's strange that, though the United States' space program used to be the pride of the nation, pretty much every other country on Earth seems to be more excited about space exploration now. It was a Canadian astronaut who awesomely sang that David Bowie cover in orbit, and while India, China and Russia are forging ahead with manned space exploration, all the US seems interested in developing is military drones. Japan's space program has problems, but they do love manga about spaceflight; Space Brothers has become a live-action movie and an anime TV series. But Space Brothers is 20+ volumes and ongoing, so it's unlikely ever to be translated. On the other hand, Twin Spica, which ran in Japan from 2001 to 2009, was completed last year by Vertical, and it's a touching tribute to the space program, both what it really is, and the bundle of emotions that so many people feel when they think of the stars.

Asumi Kamogawa lives with her father in Yuigahama, a small coastal town. When she was barely more than a baby, her town was the site of the biggest spaceflight-related disaster ever, when the "Lion" shuttle exploded shortly after launch, scattering burning wreckage across the city. The (fictional) disaster turned Japan away from the idea of space exploration, like the Challenger and Columbia disasters in the U.S. One of the casualties was her mother, one of the many people who was caught in the raging fires of the crash.

But Asumi is affected by the crash in an unexpected way: she grows up seeing a ghost. Specifically, she sees "Mr. Lion," the ghost of an astronaut wearing a lion mask in the shape of the expedition's mascot. Ever since she was a child, Mr. Lion has watched over her, comforting her when she is lonely, playing his harmonica when she's sad. And almost without trying (since it'd seem kinda creepy if he was all gung-ho about it), he has inspired her to follow her dream: to become an astronaut. More than 10 years after the "Lion" disaster, the Japanese space industry has started to come back, and Asumi dreams of going into space.

Her father, who lost his wife to the shuttle crash, is opposed to it. But Asumi stubbornly pursues her goals, and gets accepted to Tokyo Space School, a high school for space technicians—a three-year program, no mere space camp—where she will be one of the very first students in the new "astronaut course." She leaves her hometown and moves into the women's dorm, a homey old building they call "The Seagull." Away from home for the first time, she struggles to fit in with the other students: handsome but strange Shu (he shaves his eyebrows), bossy Kei, and standoffish, mysterious rich girl Marika. Luckily, one of her old hometown friends has also come to Space School: Fucchy (Fuchuya), the son of an old blue-collar family of fireworks-makers.

They (and a few dozen others) will be her classmates for the next three years: but at the end of that time, as the teachers warn them, only one student in the class will be guaranteed a spot in the next space shuttle launch. With competition like that, of course there's bullying and hazing at first; they're not here to make friends, they're here to become astronauts. ("You should consider the fact that you need to defeat your peers. On a trip to outer space there aren't enough seats for everyone to hold hands like buddies!" ) But, refreshingly, there's not too much mean-spiritedness, because the students at Tokyo Space School are all good people deep down. Everyone comes to love Asumi, her openness, kindness and shonen-manga-style perseverance. ("Dummies like simple, straightforward effort" someone says.) Although there can be only one valedictorian, they're all classmates and comrades before anything else. After all, as Mr. Lion reminds Asumi, spaceflight is a cooperative effort that requires thousands of people: "You can't go to space alone."

And so the long three years begins. If this were a different manga with just a slightly different emphasis, it could easily be a shonen-manga-style training-and-competition story: be the best astronaut you can be!! At Space School they face not just academic tests but problem solving, strength and stamina training to face the challenges of deep space. Decompression chambers…flying in a plane and experiencing zero-G during a parabolic drop…disassembling and reassembing machinery…working in space suits underwater, for hours, without bathroom breaks, to simulate working in space…one of the hardest challenges is when they're put in a tiny, windowless escape pod, bumped and shaken around for hours, and then released into the middle of the forest to find their way back home. But if manga can be classed according to their mood, the feelings they're supposed to inspire, Twin Spica isn't a gung-ho shonen story; it's mellow, even sad. (It was originally published in Comic Flapper, which is basically a men's manga magazine, but doesn't wear its target gender on its sleeve…though it does feature an lot of cute young heroines.) Asumi's journey is haunted, not just by a ghost, but by the melancholy memories of her mother's death and the other sacrifices that make the space program possible. While she is strong, and rarely looks back at the past, we, the reader, do.

Twin Spica spends a lot of pages establishing this mood of mono no aware. It's full of summer nights and childhood memories: sitting with your friends around a bonfire, sliding down a grassy hill on a piece of cardboard, playing with sparklers and fireworks (after all, fireworks were the first rockets). While it looks forward to a future of space exploration, it also looks back on the past, to olden days before light pollution made it hard to see the stars. Like Ray Bradbury's "Mars stories", Yaginuma combines a fascination with space travel with a love of small towns and simpler times: the personal meets the cosmic, the future with the past. His most obvious influence is Kenji Miyazawa's classic novel Night on the Galactic Railroad, a fable in which a young boy travels on a train through the stars, which turn out to be not just balls of fire and stellar dust, but spiritual places where truths reside and where the dead of different religions go to rest. Asumi carries a childhood memory of a memorial procession for the dead, hundreds of people carrying candles and lights up to a hillside temple, like "a rocket on its way to heaven."

Yaginuma is less ambitiously weird than Miyazawa, and often in Twin Spica, stars are just shapes: origami stars, maple leaves, the star on top of a Christmas tree, etc. Similarly, a ghost is just a ghost; Mr. Lion has an emotional role as Asumi's mentor, and seems not to just be make-believe, but it doesn't really go any deeper. (Notably, they left Mr. Lion out of the Twin Spica Japanese live-action drama.) Perhaps even without a ghost, it's the story of a haunted town: all of Yuigahama is haunted by the memory of the crash, and Yaginuma's haunting, detailed backgrounds, his pages of late-afternoon streets and screentoned skies, show this even more than his words. Yaginuma is good at backgrounds. His art has a simple, naïve look—it looks like he uses a different kind of pen than most mangaka, with less variation in line width—but becomes finer as the series goes on.

Twin Spica has been rightly praised for its accurate space science; there's nothing in it, or at least not much, that isn't possible with current technology. Yaginuma also deals with some of the political complications of space travel. One of the things Mr. Lion does is provide a link to the past generation of space explorers who lost their lives in the "Lion disaster." The survivors (a scientist who worked on the shuttle, an astronaut who was rejected from the flight at the last minute) feel guilt, and there is some intrigue about exactly why the "Lion" crashed: one subplot suggests it might have been due to outsourcing the construction to "a certain country" (although Yaginuma then backtracks: "I can't say that country's engineering is what caused the crash. The problem was the development team's morale.") Back in the present day, the new rocket which Asumi or her classmates will fly on is 100% made in Japan.

But in a realistic twist, there's still a threat to the young astronauts: while they train and train, a separate branch of the space program is working on unmanned space probes, robot pilots which may one day replace them. "If our technology gets better, we'd be able to get to space more safely. But then we might not need human pilots anymore," Kei ponders. The scientist in charge of the robots defends himself: "It's not that I think robots can replace astronauts. I just don't want any more deaths in the space program." Anti-space protesters still remember the hundreds of deaths in the "Lion disaster" and continually protest the new rocket launch. "It costs billions to launch one rocket. When they say the money'd be better spent on health care or welfare, it makes it hard to argue," says Kei. "Can't we go to space without making people mad?" thinks Asumi. While she's out on a day trip, Asumi runs into a group of protesters, including one boy who looks just like Takashi, a classmate of hers from middle school. "Is that a Space School uniform? That makes me sick," the boy tells her. "Space development? Rockets? Don't make me laugh! Rockets are weapons!" His words stab her in the heart.

Emotions matter too, not just technology. As in most manga, the characters' feelings are really what Twin Spica is about. (Spoilers ahead!) All of them have personal challenges to overcome. Shu, it turns out, shaved his eyebrows as a show of rebellion from his father, a status-obsessed politician who disowned him when he went to Space School. ("Can't really call it homesickness because I've got no home," he says with his usual coolness.) Marika has an even bigger secret: she's a clone, created by her 'father' to replace his real daughter who he lost to a vague but deadly disease. In this manga where ghosts exist, this leads to an interesting question: is the clone a different person, or does she have the same soul? Asumi seems at first to be stronger than her friends, not burdened by the past, obsessed only with space ("You love the stars and you long to go to outer space. That's all you need to think about. Don't worry about the past," one character tells her. Another character says "You've got nothing but stars in that peabrain!") But she, too, has to make sacrifices. This isn't a "tragedy porn" manga, and Asumi is a strong heroine, but sad things happen. I thought of Chris Hadfield's video proving that in space, no one can hear you cry, because tears don't drip in zero G.

If his autobiographical comics at the back of the books, "Another Spica," are at all true, this is what Ko Yaginuma really thinks about all the time: the past, melancholy sunsets, lost loves. ("These memories get me all flustered and bothered. Their forlornness wraps around me so tightly that my heart aches. But I love that ache. I love that crushing, aching, unbearable forlornnness.") (In fact, I've never read a mangaka 'fessing up about so many crushes on girls; they couldn't have all been unrequited.) Yaginuma, who didn't become a successful mangaka until he was nearly 30, is also clearly a bibliophile; books about space (some of them real, like Carl Sagan's Cosmos) are plot points and the characters are forever reading books and loaning them to their friends. The stories of the "Lion" generation of characters—now people in their 30s and 40s, around Yaginuma's age—are a parallel to the stories of the main teenage characters. Some of them are happy with where they ended up, but others have regrets. They hope that the new generation will be happy, that they will do what the adults could not. From the teenagers' perspective, it's more like what Asumi thinks: "I wonder why all grownups smile so sadly."

Twin Spica is 12 volumes long (the Vertical edition compresses the 16 Japanese volumes into 12), spanning the three years that Asumi and her friends are in high school. It's a slow-paced manga, and it could have been a few volumes shorter; some plot lines never develop, and one major one is dropped midway through. But it's a nice, soulful read, which is partly about the space program, but also about high school students growing up and preparing to step into the world. It's about boldly going where no one has gone before: into the future.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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