Searching the Intemperate Inside

To Terra… Vol 1 (of 3)

I don’t know nearly enough about the Magnificent ‘49ers (aka: the Magnificent 24s, or the Year 24 Group) -- that famed, loosely-tied group of female manga artists who exerted a significant amount of aesthetic, thematic and social influence over female-targeted Japanese comics in the ‘70s -- to compose for you a full portrait of Keiko Takemiya’s place in the history. Sorry.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times before, ‘70s manga are not easy to come by in English; probably the best known of the ‘49ers to English-reliant readers is Moto Hagio, and I’ve managed to read very few of her works, only Hanshin, the short piece published in The Comics Journal’s shōjo issue, and the linked short story collection A, A'. Unfortunately, that also means I’ve read everything of hers printed in English, save for her story They Were 11, which appeared in VIZ’s long out-of-print anthology trade Four Shojo Stories (and unlike the vast majority of VIZ’s out-of-print back catalog, used copies go for quite a tidy sum, so I don’t know if I will be reading it anytime soon). She’s the one I’m most familiar with. As for connections between her and Takemiya, I know they were (obviously) respected peers, literally roommates at one point, and that both were pioneers of the shōnen ai (boy’s love) subgenre. That’s all for background.

But now Vertical has brought us a spanking new English-language release of one of Takemiya’s signature series, the 1977-80 shōnen sci-fi saga To Terra…, which was popular enough to inspire a 1980 theatrical anime adaptation (released in the US on vhs in 1994 under the title Toward the Terra), and remains so to the point where a new television anime version is just preparing to air next month. Clearly longevity is on its side, and now US readers will have a chance to see what’s up for themselves. And yet, in spite of my ignorance of the historical period in question, I detect some compelling similarities between the works of Takemiya and Hagio available in English.

Most immediately and profoundly, there’s the art. The visuals. That’s not to say that the two styles resemble one another perfectly -- Hagio’s characters are a bit more angular and feathery, while Takemiya employs a more dashed-off, cartoony line, with extra-sparkly eyes -- but that they both focus quite profoundly on channeling half-spoken emotions into their panels and page layouts, perhaps to the detriment of their plots’ crispness.

I’m beginning to get the feeling, from my limited viewpoint, that crafting wide-reaching stories simply isn’t as important to these artists as perfecting page after page of perfectly expressive visions of the interior state, stories employed as simple vehicles for metaphors about all types of youthful discomfort - sexual discomfort, peer discomfort, body discomfort, social role discomfort. These themes are potent in all the (few) works of Takemiya and Hagio I’ve read, and I wonder if someday, when many more their peers’ works are available to read, an enterprising soul might analyze the undercurrents of ‘fitting in’ (for lack of a more sophisticated phrase) present in the comics of these artists charging through a then-male dominated artistic environment.

Or maybe I’ll be proven wrong. It’s hard to say from here, you know?

Anyway, To Terra… is probably going to live or die by your appreciation of two things: Takemiya’s visuals, and her moment-by-moment examination of her characters’ hearts and spirits. The two also happen to be inseparable.

The plot is workable enough, though nothing outstanding on its own: Jomy Marcus Shin is a teenage boy on a distant ‘education’ planet in the future, raised (as is every child) by foster parents and about to undergo something called a Maturity Check, in which the all-powerful computers that run humankind mentally blast away much of the childhood memory of each young citizen, and ensure that they are fit to take their places in the controlled society of humankind. Jomy, an unusually compulsive boy, is snatched away by the Mu, a race of physically-weakened extrasensory wonders and outcasts, who’re the unexpected result of the mechanized breeding schema of the computers. Jomy, as you’ve already guessed, is a classic chosen one, armed with latent, massive, not-entirely-controlled Mu psychic power, as well as human physical might, and he must lead the Mu on a journey to humankind’s home of Terra, where they might establish a true settlement.

But that’s just the main plot. A little under half the book (which is a chunky 344 pages for $13.95) is devoted to the saga of the tale’s likely semi-antagonist, Keith Anyan, a highly talented young man who’s tight with his space station’s mother computer, on the fast track to big-time elite success, not one to question the system, and strangely drawn to a young prodigy named Seki Ray Shiroe, who’s a cocky rebel itching to live free and die independent (he also has exactly the same character design as Jomy, save for darker hair, a resemblance that’s explicitly pointed out mid-story - subtlety is not in Takemiya’s arsenal). Competitive sparks fly, vaguely homoerotic tension swirls, and Keith learns the awful truth about his own past, a secret that’s kept him isolated from even admiring friends, clutched tight to the cold bosom of the mother computer. As you can tell, there’s plenty of room for plaintive self-examination and impassioned declarations, and Takemiya never misses an opportunity - it gets to the point where the book becomes exhausting every sixty pages or so, even as you wonder if the story is ever going to progress.

And yet, everything is handsomely bolstered by the art, which leaps gracefully from awesome views of space technology, to thick-outlined emphases on a given character’s individuality, to lovingly sketched comedic character moments so effortlessly rendered they seem like the author signing her name, to smart layouts that often reflect the tenor of a sequence and mimic the feelings of the characters, to purely dazzling flights of bombast (sixteen pages of which are still up at Chris Butcher’s site). Some of the abstraction-tinged ‘mental state’ bits seem spookily precognitive of similar work Dave Sim would be doing in the Mind Game portions of Cerebus just a few years later, while others are sheer border-blasting Tezuka-fueled manga intuition. If absolutely nothing else, you will come away from this book both convinced of the skills that allowed Takemiya and her associated to change the (well, one) face of the medium, and appreciative of the ability emphatic visuals have to supercharge the impact of simple words on the page.

But is it a good story? That might come down to whether the reader shares the author’s apparent feelings on what makes a story good. Much lip-service is paid to how Japanese comics tend to be more focused on character and journeys than American comics, which concentrate on events and destinations. To Terra… is the type of Japanese comic that embodies that old notion completely, far more so than something like, say, Death Note, which under the hood is nearly as plot-focused as Uncanny X-Men. And plot-focused readers may find this book to be nagging in its slow pace and its endless twirls of its favored themes, inching through what’s truthfully not a fresh premise. I did think the Kieth storyline was a bit more successful than the Jomy storyline on the whole, but that's really because that's where Takemiya's art/emotion/theme mix is at its most focused, perhaps because it's a little detatched from the grindings of the main story. Heaven knows Jomy's plot is at its best near the end of this volume, where the storytelling becomes so loose as to appear pointillist.

Again, I don’t think Takemiya’s heart is in those types of things. At least not in this book. Hers is an attention fixed on the most primal sensations of the line, leaping up and kissing panel after smooth panel of deep-seated unrest. The remainder might as well fend for itself.

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