In a Tokyo of the not-too-distant future a young girl looks up to the stars with melancholy in her heart and hope in her eyes. Thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa's life has been tied to those stars; her future may very well be among them. And she is not alone... Asumi is one of many young people with ambitions to some day head off to space for Japan's first manned mission.
Before liftoff, like any true astronaut she must show the right stuff and overcome odds to pass numerous physical and mental trials if she even wants to be considered in the running for a rare spot in the elite Tokyo Space School.
Futatsu no Spica was first published in English as Twin Spica by Vertical from May 4, 2010 to March 6, 2012, as twelve condensed volumes. Vertical later re-released the series digitally in 16 volumes, from May 14, 2013 to May 27, 2014.
Twin Spica is a gem among science fiction manga. While the story is told in a futuristic setting, it does not always portray space development optimistically. Earth in the first quarter of the 21st century seems no different than it did in the late 20th century. It is in this premise that the protagonist, whose dream of reaching the stars was born out of tragedy, seeks to bring joy to the people around her through sharing her love for space. Twin Spica is as much a tragic story of human drama as it is an uplifting coming-of-age tale.
Kou Yaginuma's art is drawn in a way
that makes readers want to absorb every corner of the manga panels to fully immerse themselves in the environment of the story. Changes in the atmosphere of the story are reflected in subtle changes within the art style itself. This provides a refreshing approach so that readers do not become accustomed to one style. Flow of the story is as fluid as the artwork. One could not ask for better art to reflect the dramatic moments of the story, except if every page of the series were drawn in color.
Character development is a primary drive to the story of Twin Spica, and the interactions among every characters, both leading and supporting, are never without purpose. Readers follow the journey of five eager teenagers who seek to become astronauts in a prestigious national space academy. Each of the primary characters were introduced with sufficient characteristics to make them unique within the story, but readers soon find out that each has his or her own secrets that others do not know. One by one, they are forced to face these challenges together and individually. Tragedy also features prominently as a defining moment in their developmental years. Character backgrounds are explored through carefully timed flashbacks and further explain particular actions within the story.
It is difficult to not enjoy this series for its nostalgic feel. Twin Spica reflects the mixed optimism and melancholy experienced by young adults, especially in Japan. Readers can more or less empathize with the characters (through the primary storyline) and the the author (through well written semi-autobiographical sketches at the end of each manga volume). The significant number of references to historical events, objects, and persons related to space exploration makes Twin Spica a very realistic story with a small twist of fantasy. It does not aim to instruct, but rather to make readers approach their own experiences as optimistically as they can, knowing full well that there will be challenges.
Twin Spica was a nominee in the 49th Japanese National Science Fiction Convention award for best comic series, a domestic equivalent of the Hugo Awards, in 2010. It was listed by the U.S. Young Adult Library Services Association as one of the 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens.
In the near-future, the Japanese space program is rebuilding itself from the ashes of the crash of its first rocket. The deeply disillusioned have split off from the project, bitter and guilty, but there are several involved who still desperately want to go into space--even after something so horrific. And they are the ones who bear the backlash from people who think the original project was already an exercise in hubris, for which innocent people paid with their bodies. And, to their credit, hubris certainly rotted out the original project. The Lion accident, and the eventual reveal of layers of bureaucratic incompetence, are clearly inspired
by the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle catastrophes. So is the desire to continue exploring despite the losses.
The setup for the story sounds formulaic to the point of prohibiting any sort of tension: the ultimate underdog becoming the best through sheer force of will. She has a Past. People are out to sabotage her. She's tiny and not particularly innately talented in any way. But this story never feels stale or contrived.
What is so amazing about Asumi is her perseverance. I don't mean in that every-once-in-a-while mega challenge. Asumi succeeds beyond anybody's expectations because she ekes out the same grueling routine, every day, for years on end, without payoff. That is what perseverance really means. It's easy to pull yourself together every now and again, for the big moments. It's amazing to get up every day and push yourself through the same boring, taxing tasks. I am strongly reminded of Tamora Pierce's handling of Alanna, the little girl who would be a knight, throughout the Song of the Lioness series. While Alanna and Asumi have radically different personalities, they are both stubborn and determined, and have to work for their achievements. They're both tiny women working toward a goal that requires considerable physical strength and endurance. And the stories are honest in admitting that they start out at a disadvantage, and that they will have to work hard to even meet expectations. But Alanna and Asumi bust their asses above, and beyond, what is needed to be average--they become exceptional. The best. And most people would not even put in the extra effort just needed to catch up, let alone be the best. Hell, their achievements would be exceptional even if they started on a level playing field. But they didn't. And that's all the more amazing. And women, or members of any minority group, have to be better-than-average to just be perceived as average or barely worthy--and this is also in areas in which women have no average inherent disadvantage, i.e. anything not involving brute strength.
We also see a world in which there are far more fully competent applicants for a position than spots, a scenario that should seem entirely familiar as of late, and witness an administration's attempt at choosing who is most 'worthy' for the position with arbitrary brutality. The logic goes: the person who wants it most will go through the most hell to get it, and therefore deserves it, 'it' in this case a place as an astronaut.
Though I would not venture to call current Japan, and therefore near-future Japan, feminist, Twin Spica is one of the most gender-egalitarian works I have seen in a while. Tokyo Space School has just as many female students as male. And, it is a feminine-feminist story. Asumi is many of the things that society deems feminine, and, therefore, a sign of weakness--cooperative, humble, affectionate, soft-spoken, shy, prone to liking cute things and fluttery blouses and wispy skirts. She indicates a desire to teach elementary school students. And none of this ever seems discordant with her ambition.
This is a true example of magical realism, pulled off with a deft subtlety few would have the nerves to keep. There is a ghost companion-mentor and a visit to the River Styx, but it runs under the surface of a world rooted in hard science fiction. The indignities and realities of astronaut training are part of that world. It has the paper stars pastel aesthetic of a storybook, and I suspect that is why it sold so poorly in the US. Most customers probably thought it was some waffy moe bullshit. It couldn't be further from, and as an atmosphere-setting technique, the art style works very well. I don't know if I could count characters dying of the coughing-up-blood disease with the romantasized aesthetic of consumption as a form of magical realism. The story makes it clear it is not tuberculosis, though it is disquietingly plausible that by that near-future point a totally drug-resistant strain would develop, if our current rate of antibiotic abuse and lack of interest in basic research continues. It's a nebulously-described genetic disorder that makes people artfully cough up crimson during times of stress or exertion, as a visual representation of the refusal to stop in the face of ruinous odds. But, refusal to stop in the face of ruinous odds is a recurring motif in this story.
I was sad to hear Vertical had to take the English version out of print due to abysmal sales. Many casual browsers of the manga selection are being denied the chance to stumble on a real gem. I speculate, again, that people completely misjudged the nature of the work based on the art style and the covers. Given the glut of moe crap the past few years, I suppose I can understand that. But, Vertical is releasing the English version in ebook format, so it is still accessible in a way that supports the publisher. I most highly recommend it.
This was one of the first manga I ever read, and I was finally able to reread it recently. To be honest, it was a bit sappier than I remember, but still severely enjoyable.
Yes, the story does lean a lot on the "follow your dreams no matter what" cliche, but it's portrayed in a very earnest, realistic, and genuine way. The characters face real challenges in their pursuit to become astronauts, and thus are able to go through some real character development. The story essentially takes place from elementary school to graduating high school, and it's very satisfying to see how Asumi,
Kei, Marika, Fuchuya, and Shu evolve into mature young adults.
Additionally, the artwork is gorgeous. The way Yaginuma draws people is pretty unique, and each character is very distinct and expressive. The really great artwork is the scenery, though. There are gorgeous one- and two-page spreads of the night sky, forests, the sea, sunsets, all breathtakingly illustrated. Even smaller panels of scenery are gorgeous.
I think this manga might be hard to come by, but if you can find it, read it. It is endlessly touching and uplifting.