New, Revised Review
By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
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 Japanâ€™s Space Program.
When Asumi was a year old, the first Japanese launch ended in utter catastrophe after rocket-ship ShishigÅ (â€œThe Lionâ€) exploded on its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the coastal city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumiâ€™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 ShishigÅâ€¦
Individual episodes in these compelling monochrome volumes are divided into â€œMissionsâ€, 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 authorâ€™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 interestâ€¦
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 supernovaâ€¦
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: heâ€™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 isâ€¦
Mission: 41 only sees Asumiâ€™s concentration-slipping intensify and we learn some tragic truths about golden boy Suzukiâ€™s dysfunctional and abusive home life. Most disturbingly, Miss Kamogawaâ€™s closest girl classmates now think theyâ€™re catching odd glimpses – and even finding physical evidence – of Asumiâ€™s ludicrous â€œimaginary friendâ€â€¦
When Kiriu unexpectedly reveals he is leaving Japan, she then has to make a choice between her current feelings and her lifeâ€™s dream. It takes another typically brash and dramatic intervention during a crucial exam by old rival and â€œfrenemyâ€ Fuchuya to set her straight on what she really needs in the heartrending Mission: 42â€¦
The focus switches to orphan Kiriuâ€™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 starsâ€¦ and Asumiâ€¦
The Americansâ€™ 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 soonâ€¦
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 otherâ€™s lives. A countdown clock is tickingâ€¦
Also included in this volume are two ancillary tales: â€˜Giovanniâ€™s Ticketâ€™ returns to Asumi and Fucchyâ€™s formative years in Yuigahama following the ShishigÅ crash, exploring their tempestuous relationship whilst the poignant â€˜Guide to Cherry Blossomsâ€™ 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 â€˜Another Spicaâ€™ vignette culled from author Yaginumaâ€™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 passionsâ€¦
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 eyesâ€¦
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 bestâ€¦
These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
Â© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma/MEDIA FACTORY Inc. Translation Â© 2011 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.