MICHELLE: Hey, MJ! I’d make a joke here, but after viewing various pictures of startling amounts of snowfall, I just hope you’re staying warm!
MJ: I am! We may be buried in snow, but at least we have electricity! We’re very lucky.
MICHELLE: That’s good! I presume having some electricity means that you’re up for talking about some manga this morning!
MJ: I am indeed! Though it’s possible that the snowstorm is at least partly responsible for today’s choice of reading. As I perused my stack of books to review this morning, I was immediately drawn to Junya Inoue’s BTOOOM!, a debut series from Yen Press with a decidedly survivalist feel.
Ryouta is a “loser,” according to the book’s marketing materials, and while I think that characterization may be a little harsh, for the moment we’ll go with it. He’s an avid gamer with dreams of working in the video game industry, but with these dreams yet to be fulfilled, he’s essentially a freeloader living off his mom while rejecting her efforts to secure him some kind of paying job. He’s especially skilled at an online game called “BTOOOM!,” in which players fight each other only with a variety of small explosive devices. Having defeated the game’s entire pool of Japanese players, he’s ready to move on to world domination, but the world apparently has other plans.
One morning, Ryouta wakes up to find himself hanging from a parachute on a remote tropical island. He doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, but through a series of (occasionally deadly) encounters, soon discovers that he’s been placed into a sort of real-world rendering of “BTOOOM,” in which he must kill other real-life players in order to escape the “game.” As other players help him put the pieces together (or try to blow him to pieces, depending on their dedication), Ryouta battles his own conscience and sense of humanity as he struggles to survive.
As you may have already determined from reading my description, there’s nothing remotely original about BTOOOM! or its hero’s inner struggle, at least not so far. Stories like these are so common and so evenly spread across every storytelling medium in existence, that it’s impossible for me to even identify Inoue’s specific influences. That said, I can’t deny that I had a good time. Setups like these become cliches for a reason—when done well (or even passably), they work, and BTOOOM! is no exception. Even as I rolled my eyes at the series’ premise, I found myself becoming engaged in Ryouta’s story, and chances are I’ll tune in for more.
MICHELLE: Yeah, as I was reading your description there were various other stories that kept springing to mind, but I agree—this one looks potentially interesting. I like the cover, too. I’m not sure why little boxes with timers on them look cool, but they do, so just go with it, I suppose!
MJ: Exactly! Sometimes familiar-but-fun is exactly enough to satisfy, and I feel like the cover conveys the truth of that pretty well.
So what have you got for us today?
MICHELLE: This week I decided to check out the first two volumes of Ema Toyama’s Missions of Love (published by Kodansha Comics). Despite generally enjoying Toyama’s I Am Here!, I was fairly skeptical about this one, largely due to its Japanese title (Watashi ni XX Shinasai!) translating more or less to “Do XX to me!” I was expecting something smutty, an impression that the cover images seem to wish to reinforce. As it turns out, though, there’s really no smut in sight.
With her icy glare, third-year junior high student Yukina Himuro is known to her classmates as the “Absolute Zero Snow Woman.” Little do they know that she’s actually the famous cell phone novelist, Yupina, and the reason she always seems to be staring at them is that she’s gathering material for her stories. One student who has never been able to inspire her is the most popular boy in class, Shigure Kitami, who always maintains the same smiling, pleasant demeanor. When Yukina learns that her fans would prefer more love scenes, she’s troubled, since she’s convinced she’ll never be able to experience love herself and will therefore not be able to write about it convincingly. Luckily, she promptly stumbles upon proof that Kitami is not what he seems and uses this to blackmail him into doing things like holding her hand, clutching her to his manly bosom, etc. so that she can produce updates to her story that make her fans’ hearts skip a beat.
By the end of volume two, Yukina and Kitami seem to be on the path to developing real feelings for each other, but there’s still a lot of contention and distrust in their relationship. He has discovered her secret weakness—it’s pretty dumb—and uses this against her, but feels bad when she ends up hurt by what happens. Meanwhile, Yukina’s cousin and only friend, Akira, reveals that he loves her and wishes she’d use him for boyfriend experience instead of Kitami the creep.
Honestly, I am not sure what I think about Missions of Love at this point. The leads are struggling between their real selves and their facades, and as a result, sometimes they’re likeable and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes Yukina is smart—she skillfully deflects several of Kitami’s attempts to trip her up—and sometimes quite dense, especially when pondering such shoujoriffic concepts as “This pounding in my chest… what does it mean?” Akira has potential to stir things up, but so far his primary character trait is that he’s always snacking. There must be something to this series—after all, it won a Kodansha Award last year (for best children’s manga, while here it’s rated for older teens)—but so far the only things tempting me to continue are the brief glimpses of the story Yukina’s writing and the idea that eventually Kitami is going to give up his disguise (which has already begun to slip) and face the consequences.
MJ: Hm. Well, so far it sounds like it possibly could benefit from some of that smut its title promised. Well, maybe not for you, but I’m feeling the tediousness of the heart-pounding revelation pretty keenly here. Also, I’m already anticipating the pain of Guy #2. Am I way off-base on that?
MICHELLE: Not even a little. This is about as clear-cut a case of Guy #2 as there could ever be. Kitami might be a jerk, but he’s the one. Here’s a scene in which Yukina describes why Akira’s not suitable for her experiment:
Yukina: Akira is my cousin; he means a lot to me. I could never do to him what I’m doing to you.
Kitami: So you can’t use him, but you can use me?!
Yukina: Of course I can use you!! You’re the one that makes my heart skip a beat!
Of course this is said while clutching the back of his jacket in the way shoujo heroines do.
MJ: Poor Guy #2… sigh.
But now for something completely different! I am really eager to talk about this one, but I’m curious to see how you’d describe it, so you wanna introduce it for us?
MJ: Sure! So, our mutual read this week is volume one of Knights of Sidonia, a new science fiction series from Vertical, created by Tsutomu Nihei, the author of Blame! I’ve never read Blame! nor seen the anime adaptation, but after getting this taste of Nihei’s work, I can’t deny that I now want to.
Nagate has lived his whole life in the “underground” of an enormous space ship, with only his now-deceased grandfather for company. Though it was grandpa’s wish that Nagate never leave their isolated environment, hunger sends Nagate on a quest for rice that ultimately brings him to the attention of the ship’s larger human society. Things have changed drastically since grandpa’s days, with most humans now possessing the ability to photosynthesize for sustenance and some bred from both human and animal species. Humans have also officially developed beyond the gender binary to include people who are neither male nor female and who can reproduce with either (or even just by themselves).
Human evolution aside, however, there is at least one aspect of Nagate’s lifelong isolation that has made him a real asset to his new human community. With little else to occupy him, Nagate logged an enormous number of hours in a battle simulator designed to train humans to operate a type of mecha known as “Garde”—the humans’ only defense against the alien Gauna who wiped out human life on Earth centuries ago. Nagate’s skill earns him the right to pilot Tsugumori, an older Garde with legendary status, much to the dismay of at least one other young trainee. Though piloting mecha and fighting the Gauna are the focus of Knights of Sidonia‘s plot, the story’s real drama so far really comes out of Nagate’s attempts to navigate a new social environment that still holds a lot of mystery for him.
MICHELLE: I am not going to be coy. I pretty much loved Knights of Sidonia with every fiber of my being.
I have read BLAME! (and really liked it), so I can’t help but approach Knights of Sidonia with an eye for comparison. It’s true that BLAME! had many story elements that weren’t fully explained to the reader, but so far, there is less of that with Sidonia. On a few occasions, readers are propelled into scenes without explanation, but Nihei’s very good about filling in the details in a timely fashion. The characters are more accessible—more human, despite whatever evolution they’ve undergone—and the overall tone and look is lighter.
But oh, that look. I’m not the greatest connoisseur of manga art, but there’s just something about Tsutomu Nihei’s style that pushes my buttons in a big way. I LOVE the labyrinthine feel of the place, which reinforces Sidonia’s immensity. Doors, pipes, tubes, stairs, deep dark abysses… I simply cannot get enough. I even love the mecha, and the fact that the chapter title page illustrations constitute a gallery of random spots around the ship is just icing on the cake.
I feel like I should probably comment on Nagate’s attempts to adapt—and don’t get me wrong, I loved all of that, too—but I’m so rarely bowled over by art that I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to wallow in it a bit.
MJ: Wallow away! This manga earns it. I can get right on board with your admiration of Nihei’s artwork, too. It’s detailed and mysterious—much like the story itself. But while there is still a lot of mystery still for readers (as well as for Nagate) at the end of the first volume, that sense of the unknown is far from overwhelming. I’ll admit that I had to read the book twice in order to feel that I really understood it, but I honestly don’t consider that a negative in any way. I’m a fast reader, but it’s not too often that a single volume captures me so easily that I’m really happy to re-read it immediately afterwards, just to catch more of its details.
I’m also really anxious to find out more about some of the series’ mysteries, both in terms of the sci-fi plotline (What are the Gauna? What really happened back on Earth? Why does Nagate seem to possess inhuman skill?) as well as the already-complicated human relationships (What’s Izana’s story? And what’s the deal with Kunato?). I’m very much on the edge of my seat at this point.
MICHELLE: Me, too! And that’s why it delights me to report that this series is at nine volumes in Japan and still ongoing. This is longer than Nihei’s six-volume Biomega (recently released by VIZ and which I now feel an urgent need to finally read) and likely to be longer than BLAME!, which has ten volumes. A story like this needs as much time as possible to really unfurl its layers. Happily, it looks like Vertical has scheduled volume two for April, so maybe we’ll get regular bimonthly releases!
I did want to note… even though mecha stories certainly aren’t new, and even though there were a few scenes (like the assembly wherein the awesome and capable captain informs everyone about the threat) that reminded me of Battlestar Galactica, Knights of Sidonia never once felt derivative to me. I think the details and careful world-building are largely responsible for that.
MJ: Agreed all-around! Knights of Sidonia is a real treat, and I’m anxious for more!