Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 26th 2012
Asumi Kamogawa is a Tokyo Space School student hoping to become an astronaut. However, no classes can prepare Asumi and her friends for the ultimate shock: fellow classmate Shu Suzuki has passed away while preparing for the US space program. Together, they must find the strength to cope with Suzuki's death. Meanwhile, one of Asumi's other friends, Marika, is being investigated by a freelance journalist. He knows the truth about her being the result of a cloning experiment, and wants to expose her politician father for ethics violations. But is any major publication willing to run the story? Later on, Asumi and her friends face a new challenge: a full week of training on a private island run by the Space School. All the astronaut candidates will be pushed to their physical limits on the island—and their bonds of friendship will be tested as well.
Major character deaths are never an easy thing to write. At worst, they can be a lazy shorthand for melodrama, a quick grab for sympathy when there are no good ideas left. But this is Twin Spica, and knowing Twin Spica by now, it handles the issue with nothing but the utmost grace.
Although Suzuki's death is revealed at the end of the previous volume, it's here that all the details are filled in, with the series' usual calm and thoughtful pacing. Even in a flashback where he and his family learn of his life-threatening condition, it is not announced with the wailing and gnashing of teeth; rather, they hold back and try to remain strong—which, in a way, is even more emotionally affecting. When he finally does pass on, the moment happens so subtly: in a wordless two-page spread (plus one small panel), we know exactly what's happened, without the need for dramatic pronouncements or long-winded monologues. The reaction of Suzuki's peers is similarly well-executed: when they gather for the funeral and reminisce, they do so quietly, and when the tears come, it feels genuine—not just sobbing for dramatic effect.
After a dramatic masterpiece like that, the remaining two-hundred-plus pages of the book inevitably fall a little short. The brief subplot where journalist Yamaji investigates Marika's past adds some new tension to the series: Will they go after her father? How might the negative media attention affect her? Unfortunately, the resolution of the storyline ends up being less than satisfying: apparently some deep-seated regrets and a personal connection makes it okay to just drop the whole issue (not to mention an under-the-table cash exchange). Here's one case where the non-confrontational, sensitive nature of Twin Spica works against it.
The last story arc in this volume fares better, returning to the series' roots as the students embark upon their toughest training exercise yet. At first it feels needlessly repetitive, with several montages where Asumi and friends are hard at work (as if we didn't know that already). But the final stage of their training is another one of those triumphant, heart-swelling moments—a surprise challenge where the students, already pushed to their limits, must now surpass them. Although it's a solo mission, the best parts are when Asumi runs into her friends along the way; even as competitors, they always look out for each other. The series never allows itself to rest easy, though, and the final chapter ends on another gut-wrenching cliffhanger. Readers will probably find themselves screaming "What? Not this again?!", but even so, one has to admit that these twists are well-timed.
Just as gentle as the storytelling is the artwork, which as usual doesn't try to create any eye-popping effects, yet still manages to leave an impression. Even with his simple style, Kou Yaginuma is able to to give each of the characters a distinctive look, and brings out various shades of expression despite their plain, button-eyed faces. Similarly, the backgrounds are rendered with basic lines and tones, almost to the point of flatness—but Yaginuma chooses certain angles, and uses just enough shading, so that something like a hilltop view is still an awe-inspiring moment. The real magic of the series' visuals, though, is in how the images are placed one after another: the clean, straightforward layouts, with plenty of silent panels, are what give the story its honest, unembellished quality. Think of all the manga where every other page has to have a dramatic freeze-frame pose, or where the characters' inner thoughts are littered over every panel—Twin Spica does none of that, instead letting time flow smoothly through each scene.
The concise, unpretentious dialogue also helps the series flow smoothly, with simple phrases helping to communicate even the most complex feelings. Just as important as what's being said, though, is when things are not being said—the many silences where the characters simply look at each other, or continue their work, can be charged with emotion as well. Through it all, the translation is clear and natural-sounding as possible; the one big surprise is that Vertical actually let a typo ("assien" for "assign") get through this time. The bundling of two volumes into a single 350-page package also makes this edition a good value for money, not just in terms of quantity but also quality. A brief, well-informed glossary in the back explains a couple of key cultural points, although the story itself is easily understood without it.
Perhaps the only real fault of Twin Spica Vol. 11 is being too good in the beginning. The account of Shu Suzuki's death, and what happens afterward, is handled so masterfully that the subsequent story arcs can only play catch-up. After the emotional journey that comes from dealing with the death of a friend, a subplot about a freelance journalist poking around is obviously a lot further down the drama scale. Even the island training exercise, with its can-do spirit and rosy view of friendship, has stale moments where the storyline lazily revisits old ideas. But the uplifting message still shines through, and the main characters don't just lecture about getting stronger and moving forward—they actually go out there and do it. The simple but appealing art helps to illuminate this point without ever getting in the way, and the end result is a story as heartwarming as it's always been.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Handles the death of a major character with perfect emotional pitch. Gentle pacing and subtle visuals help to express the series' positive message without forcing it.
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