Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 12th 2010
For as long as she can remember, Asumi Kamogawa has dreamed of becoming an astronaut. But now she's having second thoughts after hearing that her father may have been at fault for the disastrous crash of Japan's first manned spacecraft, The Lion. Asumi runs away from the Tokyo Space School and returns home to reconsider her feelings, and thankfully, her imaginary friend Mr. Lion is there to help sort things out. When Asumi returns to school, she and her friends make a pact to pass the training program together—and that includes quiet, aloof Marika, who doesn't seem very interested in making friends. But a summer excursion with Asumi, Marika, and everyone else reveals that even a cold exterior may conceal some surprising secrets.
It's all too sad! For a story that is supposed to be uplifting and heartwarming, Twin Spica is just too sad. An astronaut who died in a rocket crash, a mother killed by that same crash, a father and daughter left behind as a result—it's like a litany of unspeakable tragedies, and that's just the premise of the series. Volume 3 piles on even more, with Asumi's academic career on the brink, her father's reputation clouded by scandal, a schoolmate trying to escape her psychologically stunted upbringing, and a flashback about a terminally ill childhood friend. What kind of manga-ka does Kou Yaginuma think he is? Is he a masochist who likes to make his characters suffer? Is there anything in Twin Spica that doesn't culminate in heartbreak and death?
Surprisingly, yes there is. In fact, the series isn't really about heartbreak and death at all—but those bleak siutations are necessary for the characters to grow stronger in the first place. When Asumi has her crisis of conscience in the first chapter, the uplifting part comes when she talks herself out of it (along with the help of Mr. Lion, who as a spectre of the afterlife has some issues of his own to tackle). The same happens with Marika later on as she struggles to come out of her self-imposed shell, and this time it's Asumi extending a hand of support. Friends helping friends, seeking solace wherever it can be found, "making up for what was lost" (to quote Mr. Lion)—this is what the story is really about. Not wallowing in tragedy, but showing how it can be overcome, one step at a time.
This volume also deals out plenty of backstory, filling out character histories to help us empathize with them better. Marika is the biggest winner in this regard, having come out of Volume 2 with a reputation as an unlikable ice queen. However, the reasons for her aloofness are finally revealed here, in poignant flashbacks that fit themselves neatly into the main story. The adults in the story also clear up the situation about what really happened during the building of the ill-fated Lion rocket, with a rollercoaster of conflict and redemption surrounding Asumi's father and a rival engineer. There's even room for a side story that, while not essential to the plot, offers a glimpse into Asumi's first childhood crush (if it can be called that) without getting too maudlin about it.
And really, that emotional restraint is part of Twin Spica's magic—that Yaginuma can subject his characters to such emotional highs and lows without going overboard, that any of these events could have led to Asumi breaking out in tears, but most of the time she doesn't. The only thing lacking, perhaps, is actual elements of astronautics and space science in the story—sure, the kids go on a multi-axis trainer as part of a test, but aside from that this could be any story about friendship and self-discovery. Perhaps the space-cadet stuff will work its way in as Asumi comes closer to her goal?
The series' restrained approach also applies to the art, where Yaginuma—perhaps aware of his own limits—keeps things refreshingly simple. With button eyes, baby faces and stubby hands, the character designs rely on the appeal of cuteness without forcing the fetishes of typical otaku fare (this volume originally came out in 2002, a time that seems almost innocent and nostalgic by 2010 standards). Simplicity also applies to the page layouts, with clearly marked borders between panels and straightforward sequences that tell the story without pretension. While the overall style may not be anything spectacular, the book's deepest, most touching moments are often depicted in panels without words—Asumi and company pledging their eternal friendship, Mr. Lion watching over the lives he left behind, Marika dreaming of a world beyond her own. With some nuanced shading and carefully chosen angles, even the most mundane scene can evoke a strong emotional response.
A similar effect happens with the dialogue, where simple words and phrases combine to tell heart-piercing truths. (Compare this against other forms of dramatic manga dialogue, where words and phrases ... combine ... into ambiguous utterances ... that make no sense.) That gobbledygook effect doesn't happen in this translation, where every line is clear and precise, whether it's Mr. Lion sharing his wisdom or Asumi and friends chatting boisterously about their summer plans. Some of it may lean toward the sentimental side, but it's never overly melodramatic. The occasional sound effects in the artwork are also handled without fuss, being unobtrusive enough that a small English translation next to each set of characters does the job. A brief notes section in the back also explains some of the wordplay and cultural in-jokes that sneak their way into the story.
What Twin Spica is really doing, then, is piling on all that sadness and tragedy for the express purpose of having the characters overcome it. It's not so much about everyone dying and suffering as it is about learning to move on and make something of your life after the bad stuff happens. And for Kou Yaginuma to express this wisdom in such simple yet profound terms, with just a hint of the fantastical, is why the story grabs the imagination so effectively. Asumi is not an impossibly cheerful heroine, nor is she a butt-kicking force of nature, nor is she a yelling, screeching drama queen bemoaning her fate. She's something in the middle, a likable everyday character for the rest of us—and that is what makes her story so resonant and real.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Characters continue to grow, key details in the backstory are filled in, and deep truths about life are revealed through simple yet effective storytelling.
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