Sand Chronicles volume 1 – the Shojo Beat Manga Edition


By Hinako Ashihara, adapted and translated by John Werry & Kinami Watabe (Viz Media)
ISBN: 978-1-4215-1477-2

It’s never too late to take another look at first love and this subtly potent and marvellously engaging traditional romance proves once and for that all humans are basically the same when the lightning bolts hit…

Crafted by Hinako Ashihara, nostalgic, introspective love story Sunadokei (“Hourglass”) was serialised in Japan’s Betsucomi from 2003-2005; a beguiling and forthright exploration of how kids actually grow up…

It appeared in translation in 2007’s Shojo Beat magazine #26-29 before being gathered up in ten collected digest-sized manga volumes. The tale also spawned a TV series and a movie.

The story starts at ‘Age 12, Winter: Making a Wish’ as self-conscious big-city kid Ann Uekusa angrily packs a few of her most precious belongings before leaving for a scary – and probably deadly dull – existence with her mother for the country. The child is still ashamed and reeling from her parents’ divorce and blames her mother. Miwako Uekusa seems to have been dealt a mortal blow by her dream life’s ending…

One odd knickknack which somehow ends up in Ann’s bag is a little hourglass her mum got at the Sand Museum years ago when she was her daughter’s age. The memories it shakes up are powerful and painful and indicate that – in terms of love and marriage – this family seems destined to repeat its mistakes…

Her grandmother in rural, bucolic snow-stifled Shimane is a harsh-tongued woman keen to share her feelings of deep disappointment. Ann feels even more alone after meeting all the weird-talking yokel kids but eventually starts to adapt to the new situation. For one brief second the icy wastes warm for her as she almost befriends a cute bunny, but the moment ends when a boy – just as cute but in a different way – galumphs into view through the snow. He helps her catch the rabbit but then tells her it will be tonight’s dinner…

Daigo Kitamura will remember that meeting for years. Even after he became part of the school judo team years later, nobody ever left him as bruised and battered as the crazy town girl…

Seeking an escape from Grandmother Misayo’s harsh carping, Ann delivers a gift from the old lady to the wealthy Tsukishima household and subsequently sees how a proper family acts. The annoying lummox Daigo goes with her and somehow takes most of her attention…

Shika Tsukishima is Ann’s age and rather nice and her parents are wonderfully warm and welcoming. The nervous townie barely notices Shika’s quiet, studious older brother Fuji… but he notices her…

They join the family for a sumptuous meal but the repast is ruined when hasty word comes that Miwako has collapsed. Her mother’s problems are both physical and psychological. The matron has strived incessantly to provide for her child, to the permanent detriment of her health, but the shame of abandonment and divorce has broken her spirit…

To help, Ann takes a menial job with the Tsukishimas and is soon beavering away, blithely unaware of the shy attention Fuji is paying her…

Increasingly depressed, ailing Miwako takes Ann to the shrine she attended years previously and tries to get her reluctant daughter to make a votive wish for the future. It only reminds the troubled divorcee how badly her own heartfelt prayer failed to come true…

The episode tragically, horrifically ends the only way it can and in the awful aftermath Ann is stuck living alone with her mean but deeply chastened grandmother…

Following light-hearted and informative featurette ‘About the World’s Biggest One-Year Hourglass’, the drama resumes two years later.

‘Age 14, Summer: Thunder, Get Over It’ Ann and Daigo are much closer: genuine friends who enjoy being together. The little town girl has blossomed and integrated, attending the junior high school with her hulking first friend, who has turned into a human monolith and star of the judo team.

One unexpected consequence of their friendship is that female judoka Ayuma Narasaki has inexplicably become a pervasive pest: taking every opportunity to have a go at Ann, from snarky comments all the way to physical assaults. Ann can’t understand why…

The semester is ending and the entire school is buzzing with talk of the forthcoming summer camp. Feeling pressurised from all sides, Ann can’t decide whether to go or not. Grandmother is no help. She keeps going on about pointless cost and worrying about her granddaughter’s periods. The girl had just started before Miwako died, but there’s been nothing since. It’s like she’s going backwards as a woman…

In the end it’s easier to attend the gathering than stay behind and, apart from Ayuma’s constant veiled attacks, Ann actually has fun. She even takes Shika into her confidence over her problems – social, physical and especially emotional – but as the kids all boisterously let their hair down she again begins to feel the crushing pressure of her mother’s mistakes.

Dejected, Ann wanders off to be alone, straying too near a dangerous precipice which seems to call to her – just as had happened to her mother. She’s shaken out of her bleak reverie by Fuji Tsukishima who guides her back to the others.

A major storm is forecast and the supervising adults hurriedly gather the kids under shelter and bed them down for the night. Fuji however is restless. He pensively recalls the stormy night as a little boy when he caught his mother in bed with a man not his father… and what followed…

Wandering the vast cabins he meets Ann again. She too is overwrought, now obsessively thinking about Daigo. To calm her Fuji takes the agitated girl to a place of startling natural wonder and she briefly forgets her beloved lummox and everything else….

And then the worst thunderstorm in living memory suddenly erupts around her…

One of the activities planned for the campers was a huge scavenger hunt and now jealous Ayuma takes advantage of it: stealing Ann’s precious hourglass and sending her out in the storm, chasing clues to retrieve it…

By the time furious Fuji and Daigo find her, Ann is clinging to her life by a thread, but she only notices her wonderful lummox…

To Be Continued…

Fun, tense and suspenseful it also includes witty asides by the author and a full ‘Glossary’ providing cultural background and perspective.

Sharp, beguiling and strikingly illustrated, this charming tale about humanity’s most common shared experiences manages to be mature yet charming, fresh yet potently foreboding.

This book is printed in ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.
© 2003 Hinako Ashihara/Shogakukan Inc. All rights reserved.

Twin Spica volume 11


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-33-9

Kou Yaginuma first captured the hearts and minds of star-struck generation with poignant short story 2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi (2015: Fireworks, published in Gekkan Comics Flapper, June 2000), before expanding the subject and themes into a major manga epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

Diminutive teenager Asumi Kamogawa always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the solitary child gazed up at the heavens with imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially gripped by the twinkling glow of Virgo and alluring binary star Spica.

An isolated, serious girl, she lived with her father, a common labourer who had once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

When Asumi was one year old (just a few years from right now) the first Japanese manned launch ended in catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded during its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the coastal city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother.

Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised their infant daughter.

In response to the disaster, Japan set up an astronautics and space-sciences training facility where, after years of determined struggle, Asumi was accepted by the Tokyo National Space School. Slowly making friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (a classmate who had picked on her since their pre-school days back in Yuigahama), boisterous Kei Oumi, chilly, distant Marika Ukita and ultra-cool Shu Suzuki, Asumi inexorably moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Against all odds – she is small, shy, retiring, seems weak and is very poor – Asumi endures and always succeeds. She still talks with Mr. Lion, who is probably the ghost of an astronaut from the Shishigō

Individual instalments in these compelling monochrome volumes are presented as “Missions”; methodically combining into an overarching mosaic detailing the subtle interconnectedness of generations of characters, all linked by the call of distant stars.

Volume 11 includes Missions 65-75, plus a brace of enchanting autobiographical vignettes from the author’s own stargazing teenage years in his Another Spica occasional series, and the story resumes with the hopeful, ebullient dynamic shattered forever…

The gang had always bickered and competed – as friends do – but when Shu was selected to go to America to train for an actual space-shot everybody was delighted for him. Now they must come to terms with the news that he is dead…

Mission: 65 details Shu’s too-brief time at the Space Development Consortium Space Center where intense training triggers a long-incubating hidden disease into a debilitating flare-up. When the doctors contact his estranged father – a political heavyweight in the Japanese government – a flashback reveals a link to another member of the ardent group of astronaut students…

When his little sister Sakura visits Suzuki in hospital, his final inspirational words are of the friends he made by following his own dreams…

Possibly the most moving section of the entire extended epic, Mission: 66 focuses on Shu’s memorial service and how his passing affects the rest of the gang of individualistic oddballs before things lurch back to the quest for space in Mission: 67.

Hurled again into the exhausting drudgery of classes and physical training, the kids bury themselves in effort as they process the fact that the best of them is gone, barely reacting to the news of Suzuki’s replacement on the proposed American space-shot. They are also unaware that Asauri News journalist Ichimura is getting closer to corroborating his suspicions: Marika is not a normal human and her “father” – publicity-shy life-sciences mogul Senri Ukita – has accomplished something at once astonishing and ethically shady following the death of his first daughter years ago…

Mission: 67 finds the driven reporter meeting with even-more obsessed freelancer Yamaji who claims to have proof that Marika is a clone, an unethical secret copy of Senri’s dead daughter…

At that very moment the subjects of their furtive enquiries are also meeting. Like Shu, Marika has fallen out with her controlling father, but he has requested a meeting to discuss the strange fact that her friend died of the same genetic malady which afflicts her and killed her… predecessor…

His arguments to dissuade her from her dream of the stars only make Marika more determined to succeed…

Mission: 69 finds the kids gamely pushing in as their third year of study, acutely aware that only a few will be allowed to start the fourth, whilst in the background Ichimura and Yamaji squabble. They may both want the truth, but it’s increasingly clear that it’s for vastly different reasons…

And in one quiet moment, the grieving gang gather and Marika shares all she knows about her own condition and how it corresponds to what killed Shu…

That night on a rooftop, sad, confused Asumi discusses the events with Mr. Lion as she prepares for the term’s last push. Her entire future depends on the efforts of the next few weeks…

In Mission: 70 Ichimura heads for Yuigahama to visit the family shrine of the Ukitas and, while pondering the ethics of his big story, dreams of the days when he and the other kids talked of going into space. He almost misses Senri’s annual visit to his daughter’s grave but his perseverance is rewarded by an off-the-cuff interview where he challenges the wealthy man’s arrogance in playing with nature and asks the crucial questions “why and for what purpose?”

With answers of a sort, Ichimura then meets Yamaji and makes a deal…

Mission: 71 finds Asumi, Kei, Marika and Fuchuya with the rest of the class heading out to a remote island for another terrifying burst of survival training, but when they arrive the assembled students learn this test is a comprehensive recapitulation of everything they covered in the last three years: a sudden death, make-or-break evaluation, not of knowledge, aptitude or endurance, but spirit…

The arduous ordeal and deep soul-searching continues in Mission: 72 with the latest wrinkle being the cutting of sleep rations to 2 hours per night and news that already some of the class have failed and gone home. Asumi is stoic as ever, fiery Kei uses her anger to push on and Marika is her implacable, impassive self, but in their moments of sleep-time the girls find comfort and solidarity sharing their dreams and aspirations again and realise with relief that they are true friends at last…

After one last punishing push the survivors are congratulated and get on a bus for home, but the tests are not over yet…

Mission: 73 finds Asumi abandoned in the wilderness with a nothing but an envelope of instructions and a punishing time limit to reach her destination. The packet says stop for nothing, not even other students in distress, and the route is punctuated with alarm buttons for quitters to signal for help and admit failure…

As Asumi doggedly storms on she is unaware that nearly-beaten Fuchuya is behind her, drawing strength from her example, but when the diminutive dreamer sees Kei passed out she doesn’t hesitate for a second. Even Fucchy’s screaming that she’ll be disqualified can’t stop her helping a friend…

Mission: 74 continues the impossible race with Asumi running on her own until she encounters the equally distraught Marika. Convinced they have both failed, they proceed on together…

The epic adventure pauses with Mission: 75 as the despondent class gather back at the Academy and Fuchuya – upset that his newly-discovered colour blindness will wash him out of the program if nothing else does – remembers his youth at the fireworks factory in Yuigahama.

When the official announcement comes that the island tests were deliberately impossible to pass and nobody should consider themselves out of the running until announcements come in January, the astounded kids separate for the holidays. However as they head home exhausted, cruel fate again intervenes as the train carrying one of our stars is buried in a landslip…

To Be Continued…

Rounding off this volume are two more wistfully autobiographical ‘Another Spica’ episodes, culled from author Yaginuma’s lovelorn youth. The first finds him recalling and graphically eulogizing a teacher who died too young but changed his life-path, whilst the second shares the unsuspected stresses of living and working in isolation and how inspiration to carry on can come from absolutely anywhere…

These magically moving marvels originally appeared in 2007-2008 as Futatsu no Supika 13 and 14 in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeting male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica ran from September 2001-August 2009: sixteen volumes tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to trained astronauts, and the series has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful saga has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery and frustrated passion, alienation, angst and true friendships; all welded seamlessly into a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones, raucous humour and masses of sheer sentiment.

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2012 by Kou Yaginuma. Translation © 2012 Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Story of Lee volume 2


By Seán Michael Wilson & Nami Tamura (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1 56163-973-1

Win’s Christmas Recommendation: A Fine Tale of Families Far Apart… 8/10

After far too long a wait here’s a supremely engaging sequel to an endearing romantic confection which delighted readers in 2011: a sweet transatlantic/transpacific shojo manga, which like its subject matter and stars was the happy product of more than one country…

As written by Scottish émigré and current resident of Japan Seán Michael Wilson and illustrated by Manga Shakespeare artist Chie Kutsuwada, The Story of Lee detailed the growing relationship of a restless Hong Kong girl who fell for a young celtic poet and teacher.

Lee endured frustrated dreams dutifully working in her father’s shop. The situation was uncomfortable: although the elder meant well, he disapproved of almost everything Lee did and never stinted in telling her so. His disparagement and constant pushing for her to achieve something (becoming a dentist) whilst staying true to his old-fashioned ideas was tearing her apart, and Wang, the nice, proper Chinese boy he perpetually forced upon her, was a really creepy turn-off.

What they never realised was that Lee was a closet poet and pop music junkie besotted with western culture, particularly myth-laden London. In those unwelcome fascinations she was clandestinely supported by her frail, aging grandmother and unconventional Uncle Jun, a globe-trotting playboy who long ago abandoned convention and tradition to follow his own dreams to America…

At 24 Lee was being gradually eroded away until she met gorgeous temporary teacher Matt MacDonald. Exotically Scottish, he was polite and charming: a sensitive, talented poet…

Lee quietly defied her father and her relationship with Matt deepened, but when tragedy struck and grandmother was no longer a factor, further upheaval occurred when Matt announced that he was returning to his home thousands of miles away.

…And then he dropped his bombshell and asked her to go with him…

With the second instalment – illustrated by British-based Japanese artist Nami Tamura – the tale resumes with the lovers in flight for the UK and, after a whirlwind tour of London, on a long and gloriously picturesque train journey to Edinburgh where Lee will study for a year on a student visa. It also happens to be Matt’s home town.

A minor skirmish with rude, rowdy but generally harmless lads travelling to Newcastle is not as distressing to the sheltered, culture-shocked waif as the baffling array of accents, dialects and slang which constantly overwhelm her plainly inadequate textbook understanding of English…

The city itself is a revelation: so many old and beautiful buildings, unlike HK where everything is always being torn down and rebuilt, and perhaps it’s just that dizzying cultural adjustment which makes her feel Matt is acting a little differently now that he’s in his on his own turf again…

Or maybe it’s the oddly intimate relationship he has with the old college chum they’re crashing with? Richard is warm, welcoming and coolly into all the right music, but she can’t shake the feeling that his relationship with her man might go beyond the bonds of friendship…

Over following days Lee’s apprehensions increase as Matt gleefully shows her around the nostalgic landmarks of his past and apparent proofs of Richard’s feelings begin to emerge. Moreover, her charming man seems to be changing too: his gentle patience evaporates; he’s snappish and even reacts jealously when other students – and even the local musicians she slavishly seeks out – pay attention to her…

One thing she cannot adjust to is the undercurrent of hostility and casual aggression expressed by the young men in Scotland…

Lee has never felt more vulnerable. She is a world away from home and security and increasingly wonders if she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. As tensions rise and the nurturing warmth the lovers shared deteriorates further, unexpected aid appears in the form of Uncle Jun who pops up for a visit and offers some startling advice…

Things boil over after a particularly savage argument and the boys steam off together to a party but what Lee sees when she returns and finds them together is beyond comprehension and seems to confirm all her worst fears…

To Be Continued…

Supplemented by a copious Glossary and Notes section defining the specific vagaries of accent and slang whilst offering geographical and historical perspective on the many actual locations depicted, this is a deliciously compelling drama playing with well-established conventions and idioms of romantic fiction and teen soap opera.

With beguiling subtlety The Story of Lee uses powerful themes of cultural differences, mixed-race-relationships, family and friendship pressures and the often insurmountable barrier of different childhood experiences and expectations to weave an enchanting tale of independence, interdependence and isolation.

It all ends on a gentle cliffhanger and I can’t wait to see how it all resolves in the next volume… and so will you when you pick up on this evocative, addictive story of cultures in conflict and union…
© 2015 Seán Michael Wilson & Nami Tamura.

Barefoot Gen volume 10: Never Give Up


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-601-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 10/10

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, Barefoot Gen is the quintessential anti-war tract and message of peace for humanity. It is angry, uncompromising and never forgives those who seek to perpetuate greed, mendacity and bloody-handed stupidity.

After many years of struggle the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen (One Day, Suddenly).

The scattered tales eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still generally prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Just like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the newly-constituted Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas; all spreading the message across every continent and all generations.

This concluding volume brings the story of irrepressible, ebullient Gen and his friends to a close, once again pitting the forceful vitality of a select band of bomb survivors against the constant shadow of tragedy which implacably dogs them in the city slowly recovering from nuclear conflagration.

Here the indomitable idealistic individualist, having finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which lets Atom bombs fall and is seemingly incapable of learning from its mistakes, at last strikes back at the demagogues and monsters who still keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Barefoot Gen: Never Give Up begins following the inspirational ‘Gen’s Message: A Plea for Nuclear Abolition’ by the Translators and Editors and, as always, the other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

The graphic manifesto resumes in March 1953 as Gen prepares for his school graduation ceremony, despite seldom attending the hidebound institution for the past few years. Fellow bomb orphans Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi – who have shared his shabby shack for years – are also in high spirits. They have been constantly selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcast Katsuko on Hiroshima’s rebuilt street corners, diligently saving the proceeds until she has enough money to open a shop. Now the manager of one of the big stores wants to buy all the clothes they can manufacture to sell in his fashionable venues…

At the Graduation Ceremony Gen once again loses his temper when the faculty begin memorialising the past and celebrating the failed regime of the empire. Later, his savage confrontation with teachers and visiting dignitaries sparks a minor student revolution. For many of the juvenile delinquents it also presents an opportunity to inflict some long-delayed retribution on the educational bullies who have beaten them for years…

Encouragingly, however, not all the parents and attending adults take the teachers’ side and a potentially murderous confrontation is (rather violently) defused by Gen…

The boy’s life then changes forever when he bumps into a young woman and is instantly smitten. His pursuit of lovely Mitsuko will bring him into conflict with her brutal father, former employer and unrepentant war-lover Nakao; now a highly successful businessman going places in the reconstructed city…

Gen has been studying with elderly artist Seiga Amano, learning the skills his own father would have passed on had he not died in 1945. The mentor/father-figure encourages his protégé to pursue Mitsuko and it costs them both their jobs…

The seeming setback is in fact liberating and before long the star-crossed youngsters are in a fevered euphoria of first love. So engaged is Gen that he is not there when stolid Musubi is targeted by a cruel Yakuza honey-trap who addicts him to drugs and fleeces him of all Katsuko’s hard-earned savings…

With a happy ending so close he can touch it Gen is dragged back down to earth by a trio of tragedies which leave him near-broken and all alone. The legacies of the bombing have again cost him almost everything…

After a horrendous bout of death and vengeance-taking, Gen seems to have nothing to live for, but the despondent young man is saved by aged Amano who rekindles his spirit and wisely advises him to get out of Hiroshima and start his real life in the world beyond it…

Keiji Nakazawa’s broad cartoon art style has often been subject of heated discussion; his simplified Disney-esque rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

The style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young illustrator. Even at its most bleak and traumatic the epic never forgets to shade horror with humour and counterpoint crushing loss with fiery idealism and enthusiasm.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses but never dilutes the horror of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

Bleak and violent but ultimately impossibly uplifting, Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen is without peer and its legacy will be pervasive and long-lasting. So now you’ve been warned, buy this book. Buy the entire series. Tell everyone you know about it. Barefoot Gen is an indisputable classic and should be available to absolutely everyone… © 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.

Barefoot Gen volume 9: Breaking Down Borders


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-600-9

I first found the Educomics magazine I Saw It! in 1982; initially seduced by a garish cover and the Chester Gould-like illustrations. There was precious little translated manga around then and the magazine was lumped in with the wild, wacky and often salaciously outrageous “Underground Comix” on the racks of my regular comics shop, across the road from Goldsmith’s College from where I had just graduated before starting as tea-boy on iconic Warrior magazine.

I was cocky, big-headed and, I thought, extremely well versed in all aspects of comics but still utterly gobsmacked after I read it…

In England we’ve had educational comics for decades, but this was something completely new to me. There was no tasteful distancing here; just an outraged scream of defiance and a direct plea to make things right. This was history and politics and it was deadly serious, not played for laughs or to make points as British cartooning traditionally did.

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, I Saw It! became Barefoot Gen, and now the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen, (One Day, Suddenly).

These eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still often prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the original Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author at long last completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas.

Undoubtedly mirroring Nakazawa’s own creative journey, this penultimate volume shares the moment it all changed for a hardy, forward-looking and indomitable idealist and individualist who finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which had let Atom bombs fall, and at last challenge those pedagogues and self-seekers who chose to keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Possibly the most inspirational volume of Keiji Nakazawa’s graphic masterpiece, Barefoot Gen: Breaking Down Barriers begins following ‘Some Thoughts About Keiji Nakazawa’ by Project Gen Editor Alan Gleason, who has been with the grand design since 1977 – practically from inception – and offers here telling insights and historical perspective. The other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

This stunning graphic manifesto resumes with an ancient history lesson as fearful peasants are told their precious rice paddies are to be destroyed by the local military in order to make a road for troop movements. As one bold serf dares to protest and suffers grievously for it, Gen awakes in the communal shack he and his friends cobbled together out of rubble and scavenged debris of Hiroshima. He shares it with other “bomb-orphans” and, until this morning, his last surviving family member.

Now however older brother Koji Nakaoka is moving out to get married, but at least rambunctious Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi are staying put. The former reform school kids have become super-salesmen, selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcasts Natsue and Katsuko on Hiroshima’s gradually restored and rebuilt street corners. The long-term goal is typically ambitious: the girls will sew and the boys will sell until they have saved enough money to open their own shop.

Today however Ryuta is in an excitable state. He’s the most devoted follower of the city’s woefully sub-par baseball team the Hiroshima Carp and is sharing his hopes and fears for the new season with any highly amused passer-by he can corral…

By the time the hapless sports fan returns to uncharacteristically gloomy Gen at the shack another crisis has arisen: a horde of military types are besieging the hovel intent on tearing it down to make way for a proposed “Peace Memorial City” and they don’t care that the kids have lived there for years and have nowhere else to go.

Gen and Ryuta’s vigorous, violent and initially successful “Dirty Protest” defence of their home is savage and disgusting but ultimately doomed to failure…

When the little war is finally lost Gen is painfully marked for life and carries another burden of stored anger, but at least ailing Natsue is not present to see the loss of their home. She is in the mountains, completing a ceramic urn to contain her ashes after she dies…

Gen has known her since the earliest aftermath of the bomb: a young dance student he twice saved from her own fatalistic intent, but recently she has been physically failing. Never quite recovering from appendix surgery, she is now convinced her remaining days are few and is preparing for the end…

Forcibly relocated to a tiny riverside shack, the disparate band gather to celebrate surviving another day, but when exhausted Natsue finally joins them and proudly shows off her beautiful funerary urn Gen “accidentally” shatters it. Next morning, increasingly furious Ryuta attacks his best friend for his clumsiness and apparent lack of remorse in upsetting Natsue and learns the true depth of Gen’s compassion. As their brutal clash accidentally envelopes and infuriates a haughty street fortune teller, Gen reveals he acted deliberately to shock Natsue out of her pervasive death-spiral, believing he can keep her alive by sheer anger. Eying the enraged seer screaming at them, he then concocts an even bolder plan to reinvigorate her vanished will to live…

When Ryuta later leads the entire gang past a heavily-bearded prognosticator-for-hire, the oracle predicts long life and a fabulous future for the fatally-depressed girl but can’t resist also having a hilarious pop at her mouthy Carp-loving companion. The session works splendidly however and Natsue agrees to return to hospital for doctors to treat her still unhealed surgical wounds. Sadly not even unflagging optimism and Gen’s guile can fix everything…

In the tragic aftermath fresh horror emerges as two pious gentlemen intrude upon the youngsters’ grief, offering to arrange a splendid funeral for Natsue. Gen however is not fooled and realises they are simply clever “Vultures” working for the Americans…

In occupied Japan news media was absolutely forbidden from discussing or reporting the effects of atom bombs and the populace had no knowledge of exactly what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, amidst the rubble of the destroyed cities, most of the 300,000 terrified, bewildered survivors had no idea what was happening to their bodies – or that they were not unique or even isolated cases – but were consoled by the seemingly-benign and tireless humanitarian efforts of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.

These were officials employed by the US Occupation forces, tasked with acquiring – even often buying – bodies of recently deceased bomb survivors for scientists to examine. The bomb-makers were hungry for information on the after-effects of their hell-weapons and apparently did not see victims as human. They simply dissected bodies, harvested organs and collated facts: always hungry for more data. Gen had dealt with them before, when they stole the fresh corpse of his little sister Kimie

The ABCC even pay for teams to go into schools to regularly examine the health of children, working to a hidden agenda aided by local Japanese doctors bribed to send everyone they could to the Americans. For each referral they were rewarded with fancy drugs, many sold for profit to the black market. No one with bomb-related symptoms was treated or cured; just tested and catalogued.

Now with the knowledge enflaming him, Gen responds with brutal violence, beating and driving off the Vultures before he and his friends steal Natsue’s body…

She had died on the 6-month anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War just as General Douglas MacArthur (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers and de facto Emperor of Japan) convinced US President Truman to announce the deployment of atomic weapons for that conflict too. Thankfully, concerted global outcry convinced them to withdraw the threat…

In January 1951, Gen, Ryuta, Musubi and Katsuko are on a pilgrimage to inter their lost friend’s ashes above the city on Mount Hiji, but are thwarted by the discovery that the ABCC have built a vast complex on the once-beautiful site. After displaying their disdain in the approved scatological manner, the weary mourners decide to place the urn Gen worked so long and hard to reconstruct within the Nakaoka family grave, but as they trudge to the cemetery their precious cargo is stolen by a street urchin.

Giving ferocious chase they corner the little thief and administer the customary beating, leading to a confrontation with an old man who would change Gen’s life forever…

At first artist Seiga Amano cannot believe his grandson Tatsuro would stoop so low, but when he realises why the boy has turned to thievery, his proud heart almost breaks…

Eventually everybody calms down and Gen gives the old painter art materials he has stored ever since an old, dying man briefly stayed at their shack, sharing with the grateful painter the knowledge that his own father was also an artist before the bomb. Their riverside conversation inspires a life-changing aspiration within the lad that turns his life to a new path. Gen begs the elder to teach him everything he knows so that he can prove his new, all-consuming mantra “Art Has No Borders”…

The next lucky happenstance occurs when Gen stumbles onto a sign painter producing a cinema poster for a Kurosawa Double Feature. Toro Otsuki boasts he is the greatest exponent of his craft in Hiroshima, a claim brutally backed up by his thuggish assistant Kurosaki who foolishly attacks the loud-mouthed young gawker only to be soundly trounced for his temerity.

Sadly in the melee the painting is wrecked and honourable, guilt-struck Gen swears to make amends to the artist and his sadistic boss Nakao; an unrepentant former-soldier now bullying his way into civilian life…

When Seiga Amano and grandson Tatsuro pass by and see Gen enduring savage abuse in his attempts to atone, another fight begins and Otsuki breaks an arm, compelling Amano to step in and complete the poster. The rapidly-completed masterpiece instantly mollifies the militant Nakao who sees another business opportunity…

The constant stream the Boss provides is the making of Gen who serves as assistant and willing, eager student to Seiga, rapidly learning the basics of a discipline which will change his life.

As spring arrives more change is in the air. General MacArthur is summoned home and older conservative citizens begin to panic as their surrogate Emperor deserts them. Ryuta is typically scathing of the nervous old farts and isn’t there when a band of thugs target Gen, seeking to chop off his arm. The plucky little scrapper quickly ends their threat and knows jealous Kurosaki is behind the scheme, but after taking a measure of vengeance Gen surprises himself by getting to know his enemy and learning the horrific story of the abuse his fellow bomb orphan suffered at the hands of priests who were supposed to be protecting the lost children of Hiroshima…

With a deeper understanding but no real resolution to their stalled conflict, Gen returns to his diligent studies but his peace of mind will soon be shaken by the return of an old enemy…

Militaristic elements of Japan were deftly re-establishing themselves as the city grew again: attempting to whitewash their pasts for the New Japan. When ardent – and genuine – anti-war protestor Gen sees a poster announcing Denjiro Samejima, running for political office, claiming he opposed the war and was a “soldier for Peace”, Gen boils over at the villain’s hypocrisy and reacts with his usual earthy passion…

During the war that wily demagogue was a secret Black Marketeer who denounced Gen’s father – a genuine anti-war dissident – and led a hate-campaign that tormented the entire Nakaoka family. Now the rogue is profiting by stealing and feigning his beloved father’s ideals and dreams, just like so many other criminals who would deny history and the truth in search of self-advancement…

The scathing insights into the sordid character of political opportunists are potent reminders of why society never changes, reminiscent of George Orwell’s polemics, and by seemingly moving slightly off-message Nakazawa actually drives home his points with far greater force. Barefoot Gen is positively Reithian in its ability to Educate, Inform and Entertain and its legacy will be as pervasive and long-lasting…

And yet even at its most bleak and traumatic Keiji Nakazawa’s magnum opus never forgets to be funny, compelling and enjoyably Human. The broad cartoon style of Keiji Nakazawa’s art has often been the subject of heated discussion; the Disney-esque, simplified rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

Mister Nakazawa’s style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young boy.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses, but never dilutes, the terrible facts and scenes of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose the drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

So now you’ve been warned, buy this series. Better yet, agitate your local library to get a few sets in as well. Barefoot Gen is a world classic and should be available to absolutely everyone…
© 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.

Twin Spica volume 10


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-24-7

Kou Yaginuma first captured the hearts and minds with poignant short story 2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi (2015: Fireworks, published in Gekkan Comics Flapper, June 2000), before expanding the subject and themes into a major manga epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

2024 AD: diminutive teenager Asumi Kamogawa always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the solitary child gazed up at the stars with imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially gripped by the twinkling glow of Virgo and alluring binary star Spica.

An isolated, serious child, she lived with her father, a common labourer who had once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

When Asumi was one year old, the first Japanese manned launch ended in catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded during its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the coastal city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother.

Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster Japan set up an astronautics and space sciences training facility where, after years of determined struggle, Asumi was accepted by the Tokyo National Space School. Slowly making friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (who used to bully her as a child back in Yuigahama), boisterous Kei Oumi, chilly, distant Marika Ukita and ultra-cool Shu Suzuki, Asumi inexorably moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Against all odds – she is small, shy, retiring, looks weak and is very poor – Asumi endures and always succeeds. She still talks with Mr. Lion, who seems to be the ghost of an astronaut from the Shishigō

Individual instalments in these compelling monochrome volumes are presented as “Missions”, methodically combining into an overarching mosaic detailing the subtle interconnectedness of generations of characters, all linked by the call of the heavens.

Volume 10 comprises numbers 56-64, and includes another enchanting autobiographical vignette from the author’s own teenage years in his Another Spica occasional series.

The story resumes as the students all head out to the mountains for another gruelling series of metal and physical tortures claiming to be training exercises, which give the fated five another chance to bond as arduous underwater repair protocols take on an added dimension as they compete against robots.

The daunting subtext is simple: the mechanoids are far more appealing to the government and funding authorities. They cost less to train and there’s no public outcry if they are lost. The stars-struck kids’ only hope is that the machines cannot yet compete with the pluck and ingenuity of living astronauts…

Whilst the students fret and train, back at Space School Asauri News journalist Ichimura is getting closer to corroborating his suspicions: Ukita is not a normal human and her “father” – publicity-shy life-sciences mogul Senri Ukita – has done something at once astonishing and ethically shady following the death of his first daughter years ago…

The thought triggers another flashback when, as a boy in Yuigahama, Ichimura (and his doomed friend who became an astronaut on the Lion) waited by the bed of a pale, chronically ill little girl and begged her unfeeling father not to take her away…

Mission: 57 opens with Asumi and her companions still valiantly giving their all in a modern “John Henry” battle against encroaching automation, but the stakes subtly change when she talks to the robot designers and understands the tragic passion which drives them to remove the necessity for humans in space. They too learn something from her counterarguments before 58 sees the end of the one-sided exercise and the dejected students’ glum return to school for the dog-days of summer in Mission: 59.

As Kei tries to lift everyone’s spirits Marika slips away to pick up another 90 days worth of the experimental drugs which keep her unique condition under control and time slips back again to the long-ago days when she read the diary of the other Marika: the weak one who preceded her…

Later the gang meet up and – due to a just a little chicanery – opt to spend another summer vacation in the unlikely seaside resort of Yuigahama. Later Marika confides in Asumi; suggesting that whatever happens in years to come, those who are left should always meet there in summer. Later, as they all trundle down on the scenic train their spirits rise, except perhaps star-boy Suzuki who sleeps quietly, utterly unaware that he has yet another nosebleed…

The restful recuperation begins in Mission: 60 with a visit to the shrines to the dead from the crash and gentle little bonding moments – except for grouchy Fuchuya who is once again pressed into service at the family fireworks factory. It’s the not the work he minds: it the continuing frustration that he cannot find again the specific blend of chemicals which produced just that special shade of green flaming flare that his beloved grandfather could…

As the Annual Fireworks Festival approaches in Mission: 61, a casual gift from Shu to one of the girls (a trinket victoriously claimed at the one of the bustling game stalls) takes on special significance whilst they all pass time on the beach discussing his imminent departure for America. The mood affects Marika who finally shares the truth about her genetic disease/medical condition… and why it means she will probably never make it to space…

The journey back to Tokyo is subdued and as Kei incessantly takes more photos, she feels no urge to wake her sleeping comrades…

Asumi has stayed behind with her father and spends time mulling over the complexities of life with Mr. Lion in Mission: 62, as does Fuchuya, whose discussions with his big brother about the disposition of the fireworks business inevitably leads to his meeting up with annoying Asumi and pondering how and why they got to where they are.

Mission: 63 finds them back in Tokyo a little later, amidst an increasing Press scrum as Suzuki’s departure nears, before everything changes in Mission: 64 as shocking news comes that the inseparable five are now only four…

To Be Continued…

Rounding off this volume in a wistfully autobiographical ‘Another Spica’ episode culled from author Yaginuma’s lovelorn days as a part-time server on a soft-drink stand in a theme park; focussing on his lonely journeys to distant places on the local railway line gathering images which would one day become the book you’re reading…

These magically moving marvels originally appeared in 2006-2007 as Futatsu no Supika 11 and 12 in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeted at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica ran from September 2001-August 2009: sixteen volumes tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to trained astronauts, and the series has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful saga has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery and frustrated passion, alienation, angst and true friendships; all welded seamlessly into a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones, raucous humour and masses of sheer sentiment.

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma/MEDIA FACTORY Inc. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

Twin Spica Book 8

New, Revised Review

By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-13-1

Kou Yaginuma first captured the hearts and minds of the public with poignant short story 2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi (2015: Fireworks, published in Gekkan Comics Flapper, June 2000). Following its unprecedented success, he expanded the subject and themes into a major manga epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

2024 AD: diminutive teenager Asumi Kamogawa has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the solitary child gazed up at the stars with imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially gripped by the twinkling glow of Virgo and alluring binary star Spica.

An isolated, serious child, she lived with her father, a common labourer who had once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

When Asumi was a year old, the first Japanese launch ended in utter catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded on its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the coastal city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother.

Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster Japan set up an astronautics and space sciences training facility where, after years of determined struggle, Asumi was accepted by the Tokyo National Space School. Slowly making friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (who used to bully her as child in Yuigahama), boisterous Kei Oumi, chilly and distant Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool Shu Suzuki, Asumi daily moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Against all odds – she is small, looks weak and is very poor – Asumi endures and always succeeds. She still talks with Mr. Lion, who seems to be the ghost of an astronaut who died on the Shishigō

Individual episodes in these compelling monochrome volumes are divided into “Missions”, all methodically forming a vast tapestry explaining the undisclosed interconnectedness of generations of characters, all linked by the call of the heavens.

Volume 8 comprises numbers 39-46, and also includes a brace of enchanting sidebar stories plus another autobiographical vignette from the author’s own teenage years.

Mission: 39 opens as the still guarded and aloof Asumi undertakes a devout daily personal ritual – absorbing the wonder of the Heavens at the local Planetarium. Times are tough, however, and the venerable old edifice is about to close forever, a victim of economic cuts and dwindling public interest…

Later she rejoins classmates Oumi and Ukita on the school roof for more stargazing. Excitement rises when they think they might have discovered a new supernova…

Mission: 40 concentrates on the rapidly approaching end of semester and exams. Oumi is ill and might not pass, whilst enigmatic Shu reveals yet another hidden talent after being given the shocking news that he is confidentially considered for participation in an American Shuttle mission.

Meanwhile, with Christmas near Asumi shares an intimate moment trimming a tree with shy, diffident Kiriu from the local orphanage. Even this is fraught with implications: he’s apparently an anti-space program activist and she can hardly afford any distractions. With her workload and part-time job she barely has time to think as it is…

Mission: 41 only sees Asumi’s concentration-slipping intensify and we learn some tragic truths about golden boy Suzuki’s dysfunctional and abusive home life. Most disturbingly, Miss Kamogawa’s closest girl classmates now think they’re catching odd glimpses – and even finding physical evidence – of Asumi’s ludicrous “imaginary friend”…

When Kiriu unexpectedly reveals he is leaving Japan, she then has to make a choice between her current feelings and her life’s dream. It takes another typically brash and dramatic intervention during a crucial exam by old rival and “frenemy” Fuchuya to set her straight on what she really needs in the heartrending Mission: 42

The focus switches to orphan Kiriu’s history and his amazing secret is revealed through a poignant letter to Asumi in Mission: 43, whilst 44 concentrates on mounting school pressure with the conflicted Fuchuya recalling the pivotal moment in his childhood when his fireworks-making grandfather sparked his own interest in the stars… and Asumi…

The Americans’ tantalising offer to send a Japanese astronaut up with the US shuttle becomes public knowledge in Mission: 45 and fierce competition for the single placement ensues. The jolly rivalry is counterpointed by more agonising reminiscences from Shu over the mystery malady that took his mother, before the main storyline concludes in Mission: 46 as the students are made to realise the importance of their final years, and solitary Asumi at last realises how her life has changed. With some surprise she grasps that she has actual friends she might lose so very soon…

The going is getting tougher and, now that they are all nearing the end of their preliminary training, it becomes increasingly, painfully clear to the determined star-students that the bonds so painstakingly forged are on the verge of being severed. After only one more year, final selections will be made: most of the class will fail and vanish from each other’s lives. A countdown clock is ticking…

Also included in this volume are two ancillary tales: ‘Giovanni’s Ticket’ returns to Asumi and Fucchy’s formative years in Yuigahama following the Shishigō crash, exploring their tempestuous relationship whilst the poignant ‘Guide to Cherry Blossoms’ reveals the power of making art and following the path to love whilst examining roads not taken by pensive teacher Kasumi Suzuki during the highly symbolic spring festival.

The book ends with a wistfully autobiographical ‘Another Spica’ vignette culled from author Yaginuma’s lovelorn days as a part-time server on a soft-drink stand in a theme park; one more charming insight into creative minds, art in the raw and unrequited passions…

These deeply moving marvels originally appeared in 2005 as Futatsu no Supika 8 and 9 in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeted at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica ran from September 2001-August 2009: sixteen volumes tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to trained astronauts and the series has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful saga has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery and frustrated passion, alienation, angst and true friendships; all welded seamlessly into a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones, raucous humour and masses of sheer sentiment.

Rekindling the irresistible allure of the Final Frontier for the next generation (and the last ones too) Twin Spica is quite simply the best…

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma/MEDIA FACTORY Inc. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Twin Spica volume 7

New, expanded review

By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-12-4

The yearning, imagination and anticipation of space travel is paramount to this inspirational manga series from Kou Yaginuma, who first captured the hearts and minds of the public with his poignant short story 2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi (2015: Fireworks, published in Gekkan Comics Flapper, June 2000).

Following its unprecedented success, he expanded and enhanced the subject, themes and characters into a major epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

2024AD: teenaged Asumi Kamogawa has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the lonely child gazed up at the stars with her imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially at the twinkling glow of Virgo and the alluring binary star Spica.

An isolated, serious child, she lived with her father, a common labourer who had once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

When Asumi was a year old, the first Japanese launch ended in utter catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”), exploded on its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother.

Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster Japan set up an astronautics and space sciences training facility. After years of determined struggle, Asumi was accepted by the Tokyo National Space School. Slowly making friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (who used to bully her as child in Yuigahama), boisterous Kei Oumi, chilly and distant Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool Shu Suzuki, Asumi daily moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Against all odds – she is small, looks weak and is very poor – Asumi endures. She still talks with Mr. Lion, who is apparently the ghost of an astronaut who died on the Shishigō

Individual episodes are divided into “Missions” all slowly forming a vast tapestry explaining the undisclosed interconnectedness of all the characters and volume seven comprises numbers 30-38, as well as a brace of enchanting autobiographical vignettes from the author’s own teenage years.

‘Mission: 30’ begins with Asumi and her classmates enjoying their seaside vacation in the largely restored resort town of Yuigahama – even Ukita. Nevertheless the still-quite-formal living enigma is plagued by feelings that she has been here before. These phantom memories increasingly draw her to a secluded shrine dedicated to the disaster.

As previously seen in a sequence of flashbacks, she has an ancient and inexplicable connection to a boy who grew up to be Mr. Lion…

Long ago in Yuigahama, a lad obsessed with rockets met a frail, sickly rich girl stuck in isolation in a big house. Her name was Marika Ukita and they became friends despite her condition and the constant interventions of her furious father.

She was beguiled by the boy’s tales of space flight and the history of exploration. In return she shared the only joyous moment in her tragic life, when her over-protective dad took her to see a play called Beauty and the Beast

During the big annual Fireworks Festival the boy made a lion-mask of the Beast to wear, but she never came. He had to break into the mansion to show her. She was very sick but wanted to dance with him…

Later the dying daughter had quietly rebelled when told she was being packed off to a Swiss sanatorium. She slipped out of the house when no-one was watching and vanished. The boy knew where she had gone and rushed off to save her…

‘Mission: 31’ finds Marika succumbing to her inner torment and wandering off to find the isolated commemoration monument. When she becomes dangerously lost and her mysterious medical malady overwhelms her, Asumi, moved by her own memory-ghosts, tracks her down just in time…

As they wait together to be found in ‘Mission: 32’, deep bonds are forged and Marika at last reveals that she is not a real person but “just a copy” of a sick and lonely girl who died long ago…

We are afforded a glimpse into events prior to and following the crash of the Shishigō and it becomes clear that both girls are afflicted with the same unquenchable need to escape Earth…

Asumi’s father Tomoro Kamogawa is no fan of the space program, having lost his wife, his engineering job and his pride to the race for space. In the wake of the catastrophe, despite being a grieving widower himself, he was assigned by his heartless bosses at the corporation who built the ship to lead the reparations committee.

Guilt-wracked and bereaved, the devastated widower had to visit and apologize to each and every survivor and victim’s family. He raised his daughter alone, working two and often three menial jobs at a time for over a decade…

Now with ‘Mission: 33’ the truth over those terrible events starts to unfold. His old engineering colleague Takahito Sano is now one of Asumi’s professors at the Space School and when they meet again, their men’s previous history and relationship is examined and reviewed for the first time in years…

As five young astronaut trainees further bond in an atmosphere of unravelling secrets and far too many persistent ghosts and memories, a potential cause of the crash is mooted. The years leading to the construction of the Lion are revealed to be littered with political in-fighting, unscrupulous double-dealing, thwarted ambitions and corporate cost-cutting.

Moreover both Sano and Kamogawa were extremely attached to the woman who became Asumi’s mother…

The second half of this book concentrates on the students’ return to school and their next semester of training. In ‘Mission: 34’ Asumi’s relationship with orphan student (and apparent anti-space program activist) Kiriu seems to be developing into more than mere friendship.

He volunteers at a hospice and is trying to learn the harmonica so that he can play to an old woman with dementia. He so very much reminds Asumi of her school friend Shimazu who died from cancer after the Yuigahama disaster…

Diffidently bonding, Kiriu tells her of a Sunday concert he’s playing a week hence and she promises to be there…

Elsewhere, the clone Ukita recalls how she began severing ties to the controlling dad who spent a fortune and broke the law to make her, and realises that her true home is with Asumi and her star-bound fellows…

‘Mission: 35’ focuses on school where the latest tests of strength, ingenuity and fortitude find the class divided into teams and transported to a decommissioned prison. Their task: to break free within seven days. Worried Asumi surprisingly convinces the teachers to drive them back to the city early if they all finish the task before Sunday…

The test continues in ‘Mission: 36’ as the jailed students face isolation and a seemingly insurmountable problem whilst back in the city a boy with a harmonica tries not to fixate on whether a certain girl will stand him up.

In his cell Fuchiya is also thinking about her: why he can never say what he wants to her and why he can’t see Mr. Lion…

In their shared dungeon Asumi, Kei and Marika are finally working together and have conceived an escape plan in ‘Mission: 37’. Not long after they are joined on the outside by Shi and Fucchy.

However in ‘Mission: 38’, even with things working her way there’s a snag in Asumi’s return to Tokyo and her date. Surprisingly, grouchy, unpredictable Fuchuya steps in to help the girl he spends so much time studiously annoying and ignoring…

Even with his brusque assistance she’s too late for the concert, but arriving despondent at the park she finds Kiriu waiting…

Even with her all her dreams coming true, however, Asumi is still sad. Despite appearances, the new boy is no Shimazu, whom she misses so very, very much…

To Be Continued…

The main event suspended, this moving tome then concludes with two more ‘Another Spica’ featurettes which find author Yaginuma in autobiographical mode again. Harking back to his ambition-free teens, the first reveals how a crappy job in refreshment retail afforded him time one Christmas to recall that special girl in school he tried to grow taller for, after which the summer drudgery of the job leads to memories of first dates, first drives and first loves…

These powerfully evocative tales originally appeared in 2004 as Futatsu no Supika 7 & 8 in Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comic Flapper, aimed at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica filled 16 Japanese volumes from September 2001 to August 2009, tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to accomplished astronauts and has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This compulsively addictive serial has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the savvy extrapolation, an ever-more engaging cast, enduring mystery, tender moments, isolation, teen angst and true friendships; all wrapped up in a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones and masses of sheer sentiment.

Utterly defining the siren call of the Starry Reaches for a new generation (and the older ones too) Twin Spica is quite simply too good to miss…

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc.

Twin Spica volume 6


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-03-2

This beguilingly intimate paean to the unyielding allure of the stars came out of Kou Yaginuma’s poignant vignette ‘2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi’ (‘2015: Fireworks’), published in Gekkan Comic Flapper magazine in June 2000.

Subsequently expanded and enhanced, the themes and characters grew into a spellbinding coming-of-age epic which wedded hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism wrapped up in traditional tales of school-days friendships and growing up.

Small, unassuming Asumi Kamogawa has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the lonely child gazed with intense longing up at the stars, her constant companion and confidante an imaginary friend dubbed Mr. Lion.

When Asumi was a year old, the first Japanese space launch had ended in catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded: crashing back to earth on the city of Yuigahama where the Kamogawas lived. Hundreds were killed and many more injured.

Among the cruellest casualties was Asumi’s own mother. Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die and the long, drawn-out tragedy deeply traumatised her tiny, uncomprehending daughter. The shock also crushed her grieving husband who had worked as a designer on the rockets for Japan’s fledgling Space Program.

In the wake of the disaster, Tomoro Kamogawa was assigned by the corporation who had built the ship to head the reparations committee. Guilt-wracked and personally bereaved, the devastated technologist visited and formally apologised to each and every survivor or victim’s grieving family. The experience harrowed and crushed him.

He is certainly no fan of the space program now; having lost his wife, his beloved engineering career and his pride to the race for the heavens. He raised his daughter alone, working two – and often three – menial jobs at a time for over a decade and cannot countenance losing the very last of his loved ones to the cold black heavens…

In response to the Lion disaster, Japan set up an Astronautics and Space Sciences Academy. After years of passionate struggle and in defiance of her father’s wishes, in 2024 Asumi – an isolated, solitary, serious but determined teenager – was accepted to the Tokyo National Space School. Without her father’s blessing, she reluctantly left Yuigahama and joined the new class.

Amongst the year’s fresh intake were surly, abrasive Shinnosuke Fuchuya (an elementary school classmate who used to bully her as a child back in Yuigahama), jolly Kei Oumi, chilly Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool style-icon and fashion victim Shu Suzuki who all gradually became the shy introvert’s closest acquaintances.

Every day Asumi closed inexorably upon her stellar goal. Ever since the crashing rocket had shattered her family, she had drawn comfort from the firmament, with Mr. Lion staring up at the heavens by her side; both especially drawn to the twinkling glow of Virgo and the alluring binary star Spica.

And now she was so tantalisingly close…

Small, poor, physically weak but resolutely capable, Asumi endures and triumphs over every obstacle and she still talks with Mr. Lion – who is very probably the ghost of a Shishigō crewman…

All any student at the Academy can think of is going to space, but they are harshly and constantly reminded that most of them won’t even finish their schooling. At just four feet, eight inches tall Asumi constantly struggles to meet the arduous physical requirements but has already survived far greater problems. She is still adjusting to the busy life of Tokyo, sleeps in tawdry communal women’s dorm “The Seagull”, struggles with many of her classes and subsists on meagre funds, supplemented by part-time jobs…

Individual stories are divided into “Missions” with volume six covering numbers 25-29, and also including a mesmerising sidebar tale of Asumi’s childhood as well as another entrancing autobiographical vignette from the author’s own teenage years.

‘Mission: 25’ begins with standoffish Ukita in big trouble in the deep woods. Asumi’s entire class are enduring a brutal survival exercise in the wilds but the former rich girl – who has recently escaped her overbearing father’s domination – also suffers from some secret mystery malady. Moreover she has recently decided to go off her meds.

Now she is weak and bleeding, lost where no one can help her…

As the carefully monitoring teachers move in to save Ukita, Asumi reaches her classmates at the designated target zone. They are astounded to find that she has made her way to them without the compass they all had in their survival kits…

With only Ukita a no-show, Asumi abandons her own position of safety to go back into the woods and search for her, unaware that the object of her concern is slowly recovering at the teachers’ monitoring post.

As previously seen in a sequence of flashbacks, the enigmatic girl has an ancient and unexplained connection to the boy who became Mr. Lion…

Long ago in Yuigahama, a lad obsessed with rockets met a frail and sickly rich girl, stuck in isolation in a big house. Her name was Marika Ukita and they became friends despite her condition and the constant angry intervention of her father.

She was beguiled by his tales of space flight and the history of exploration, and shared the only joyous moment in her tragic life, when her over-protective dad took her to see a play called Beauty and the Beast

During the big annual Fireworks Festival the boy made a lion-mask of the Beast to wear, but she never came. He had to break into the mansion to show her. She was very sick but wanted to dance with him…

Later the dying daughter had quietly rebelled when told she was being packed off to a Swiss sanatorium. She slipped out of the house when no-one was watching and vanished. The boy knew where she had gone and rushed off to save her…

In the Now as slowly recovering Cadet Ukita see her classmates all head back into danger for her, she experiences awful memories: visions of a man wealthy enough to replace a lost daughter through money and science but not show her any love. Furious yet inexplicably delighted, Ukita begins to realise that she has friends who will risk everything for her…

‘Mission: 26’ finds the exhausted little astronaut-to-be back home safely at the Seagull hostel, blithely unaware that romantically interested party Kiriu and his fellow orphan Akane have been missing their Asumi.

Instead she is busy teaching Ukita – still plagued with memories of her father’s draconian efforts to keep her healthy but never caring if she was happy – how to be sociable. Soon they realise how much they share in respect to love of the stars…

Asumi’s joy soon dissipates when she learns of Kiriu’s latest crisis and that little sister Akane has been hospitalised with sunstroke. The determined tyke was sitting outside waiting for her astronaut friend to visit…

Returning to the orphanage that night Kiriu is astounded to find Asumi there, and even more astonished when she invites him to come see the stars with her…

‘Mission: 27’ offers more insight into Mr. Lion’s past as a special guest lecturer visits the Space School. Astronaut Ryohei Haijima is a god to the star-struck kids but he seems almost apologetic and embarrassed to be there, with no pride in his achievements.

Mr. Lion knows his story. As boys they were at school together and worked on rocketry projects that gave them both ineffable pleasure. They both became astronauts, and if Haijima hadn’t artfully relinquished his position to the desperately eager Lion, he would have died in the Shishigō disaster.

On hearing this, Asumi decides to reintroduce the despondent victim of Survivor’s Guilt to his boyhood friend…

Focus shifts to ultra-cool Shu Suzuki with ‘Mission: 28’ as the laconic rich kid goes missing for a week whilst his classmates suffer the next devilish practical course devised by their tutors to separate potential space explorers from ordinary mortals. Concerned, they all begin searching for him and learn an extraordinary story.

Suzuki too has problems with parents. As the first son of a wealthy business and political dynasty he was groomed from birth to inherit the mantles of duty and government, but when he refused and chose the stars he was disowned. As his friends converge on the lost boy he invites them all to sit with him and fold origami stars, wryly revealing he’s been working for the past week to pay for his tuition…

The ongoing saga pauses here after ‘Mission: 28’ finds the class practising in a space shuttle trainer. As usual the tests are rigged, unfair and a complete surprise but as she bitterly complains – as always – Oumi realises that a strange calmness and complacency has become Ukita’s new emotional state.

Stressed to their limits the students look forward to the imminent summer vacation and when Oumi stridently suggests they all head for the beach together, Fuchuya states he has to go home. Undaunted, Oumi points out that Yuigahama is a seaside town – and must have a beach – whilst Asumi reminds them that the town’s annual Fireworks Festival is forthcoming…

With the holiday plans a fait accompli, the kids separate and Ukita finds the irrepressible Suzuki moving his meagre belongings into the library. Soon all of them are helping him kit out the attic he intends to squat in, astounded at the beautiful book-crammed annexe, filled floor to ceiling with tomes about space…

And then it’s time for the holidays and Asumi heads back to Yuigahama, looking forward to the Festival and seeing Fuchuya’s wonderful grandfather again. She’s going to be very disappointed…

To Be Continued…

Although the main event goes into a holding pattern here, further insights into Asumi’s childhood are forthcoming as ‘Tiny, Tiny Aqua Star’ reveals how the little outcast was ostracised and bullied by her fellows for claiming she had an astronaut lion ghost for a friend. The unflaggingly honest waif never knew her shy classmate Shinnosuke Fuchuya was quietly keeping the worst of the class’s abuse away from her…

Life was still pretty unpleasant, however, but took a sweet upturn when old Mr. Fuchuya (the lad’s granddad) gave her one of his handmade sparklers to light at the Fireworks Festival.

More disturbing was the urgent and savage demand of one of her tormentors. Following the death of her mother, Yuzo wanted Asumi to show her the place where you see ghosts, even if it cost both their lives…

The manga miracles then conclude with ‘Another Spica’ which sees author Yaginuma in autobiographical mode once more, harking back to his ambition-free teens, chopping pineapples in his crappy job and enduring the self-castigating hell of a first date…

These unforgettable tales originally appeared in 2004 as Futatsu no Supika 6 in Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comic Flapper, aimed at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica filled sixteen collected volumes from September 2001 to August 2009, tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to accomplished astronauts and has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This sublime serial has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery, frustrated passion, alienation, angst, enduring friendships and just the right blend of spiritual engagement with wild-eyed wonder; all welded seamlessly into an evocative, addictive drama.

Rekindling the magical spark of the Wild Black Yonder for a new generation, this is a treat no imagineer with head firmly in the clouds can afford to miss…

© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.
This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

Dirty Pair: Dangerous Acquaintances


By Toren Smith & Adam Warren (Manga Books)
ISBN: 978-1-900097-06-0 (UK edition)

In the fast and furious future of 2141AD, intergalactic proliferation of human civilisation has led to a monumental bureaucracy, greater corruption and more deadly criminals preying upon the citizens of the United Galactica.

Thus the constant need for extra-special Trouble Consultants: pan-planetary private paramilitary police employed by the 3WA (or Worlds Welfare Work Association) to maintain order in hotspots across the (sort-of) civilised universe…

Kei and Yuri are team #234, officially designated “The Lovely Angels” after their sleek and efficient starship. They are lethal, capable and infallible. Whenever they are deployed, they strike fast and hard and never fail…

However, the collateral damage they inevitably cause is utterly unimaginable and usually makes client worlds regret ever asking for their aid in the first place….

Much to the crisis agents’ disgust and chagrin, the ever-present media have dubbed them “The Dirty Pair” and any planetary government unlucky enough to need them generally regards them less as first choice and more a last resort …

The concept was originated for light novels by Japanese author Haruka (Crusher Joe) Takachiho in 1985 before making the jump to TV, movie and OVA anime. Oddly there was no comics iteration until over a decade later. This situation prompted Adam Warren and Toren Smith of manga translation company Studio Proteus to approach independent publisher Eclipse Comics with an idea for a US comicbook miniseries…

The result was Biohazards; a riot of light-hearted, manic murder and monstrous mayhem which was then swiftly collected in a brash and breezy graphic album. The reprintings from US franchise inheritor Dark Horse (and Manga Books in the UK) heralded a blistering run of wry and raucous adventures that still read as well today as they did when the Japanese comics experience was seen as a rare, quaint and exotic oddity…

In the follow-up Dangerous Acquaintances – originally released as a 5-issue miniseries from Eclipse between June 1989 and March 1990, before first being gathered into a trade paperback in 1991 – the catastrophically unlucky private sector peacekeepers are enjoying a spot of well-deserved downtime on planet Rocinante – a world riotously celebrating its 25th year of independence – when soused-to-the-gorgeous-gills Kei spots an unwelcome but very familiar face…

‘Things Past’ explains that although free, single and over 21, the planet is in turmoil due to the imminent arrival of a host of dignitaries on experimental super liner “The Lyra” (one of only three vessels capable of jumping to warp within a planet’s gravity-well) and the increasingly desperate outrages of terrorist cell United Galactica/Free Rocinate.

None of that means anything to the drunken danger girl: all she can think about is getting her hands on a woman who once betrayed and nearly killed her…

Back when she and Yuri were mere trainee cadets they were constantly and humiliatingly surpassed in every discipline by Shasti. Their rival was a bioroid built by 3WA to be the ultimate Trouble Agent: a tetrad possessing a perfectly designed body and, thanks to multiple uploaded personalities, able to shift instantly between being the ideal warrior, detective, spy or social specialist, amongst others.

She never failed on any mission but there were worries that her schizoid mind-menu might have made her crazy…

Back in the present Kei refuses to calm down and chaotically pursues her target through massing crowds with the constantly complaining Yuri hot on her heels. As ‘Dangerous Acquaintances’ opens, they track Shasti across town and Yuri casts her mind back to their last mission with her, when they were all assigned to bring in a deadly sociopath named Lacombe

On present-day Rocinante the totally-tanked pursuers catch up with the oblivious target at a shopping plaza in time to see her trading a briefcase with a suspicious-looking bearded stranger. Unfortunately, when they confront her, Shasti has lost none of her combat advantages…

As the bioroid orders her accomplice to flee, Yuri’s mind flashes back to the mission when Shasti’s instability kicked in and she inexplicably proclaimed her love for the lethally compelling Lacombe…

The reverie is shattered as the planet’s Special Police storm in, brutally arresting the Trouble Agents whilst letting their meek-seeming “victim” go, and ‘Unquiet Zone’ finds the furious, sober and mortally hung-over operatives sprung simply because the cops need their cell for more provably-crazy UG/FR fanatics.

As Kei and Yuri hit the streets their fragile ears are bombarded with a public broadcast announcing the imminent arrival of the dignitary-stuffed, treasure-laden “Lyra” and, horrified, they realise where Shasti will strike, even if not what exactly she’s after…

Whilst the determined pair are planning to sneak aboard the wonder-ship, in an opulent hotel room their despised foe is giving her band of revolutionaries a final inspirational pep-talk, but her minds are focused on the moment long ago when she and her team of Trouble Agents cornered Lacombe.

The mission was going perfectly until she switched sides, joining the insanely seductive terrorist and murdering all her comrades. Or so she thought…

On the Lyra, Yuri and Kei have endured all manner of hell, (barely) dressed as hospitality hostesses constantly groped by the great and good of many civilisations. The ruse has however allowed them to find Shasti’s inside man and after a little “enhanced interrogation” he reveals his freedom-loving leader’s plan.

Except, of course, Shasti has been lying to the UG/FR all along. Now in control of the prototype ship, the bioroid activates the lockdown protocols and sealing everybody in. Whilst the still oblivious rebel cadres carve a bloody swathe through the imprisoned plutocrats, she undertakes her true goal: stealing the entire experimental warp section right out of the super-liner…

Locked cabins and robotic security lasers are no match for angry Angels and in ‘One of My Turns’ the apparently unkillable agents bust out and, tooling up with ballistic ordinance from the Lyra’s museum exhibit of ancient weapons, go hunting…

As the suddenly engine-less Lyra plunges to fiery doom at the ‘Ground Zero’ of Rocinante’s capital city, in deep space the engine section module reappears and Shasti waits for a rendezvous with her murderous beloved. She has no idea that the women she betrayed, almost murdered and unforgettably humiliated have made the jump with her and are hungrily approaching to take a decade’s-worth of bloody vengeance…

At once incredibly information-dense and astonishingly addictive, these deliciously daft yet cool, light-hearted cyber-punk space operas offer a solidly satisfying slice of futuristic fantasy to delight all fans of tech-heavy blockbusters. Also included is a pastiche-packed, behind-the-scenes farcical feature as Adam Warren shockingly reveals ‘Just How the Dirty Pair Gets Done!!’ to leaven all that savage comedy with some outrageous silliness…

The digest-sized (210x150mm) UK editions have the tag line “in the tradition of Red Dwarf” and that assessment is not a million miles from the truth – as long as you factor in sexy death-dealing ingénues, sharp socio-political commentary, incomprehensibly skimpy costumes and utter oodles of cartoon carnage.

Brutally wry, explosively funny, hilariously action-packed and extremely spectacular, this is a truly stellar romp to get every sci fi aficionado panting for more.
The Dirty Pair © 1994 Haruka Takachiho. English language version © 1994 Adam Warren and Studio Proteus. All rights reserved.