Rereading To Terra

I’ve read all three volumes of To Terra before, but I haven’t posted about it very much on this site. For an introduction to the manga, hop on over to the inaugural post of this Manga Moveable Feast over at The Manga Critic. When I read the series again these were the things that stood out for me:

Characters – The yin/yang relationship between Jomy, the young leader of the Mu and his human counterpart is carefully constructed. In fact, Takemiya takes a very cerebral approach to character development and back story which might prevent people from feeling much affection towards the characters in To Terra. Jomy functions as the ultimate outsider. Raised by humans, he manifests telepathy during the maturity check of his fourteenth birthday. The maturity check wipes the memories of a child, turning them into a perfect citizen with only the desire to serve humanity’s ancestral home Terra. Jomy preserves his childhood memories and is contacted by the next stage of humanity, the enemy Mu. Jomy is singled out by their leader Soldier Blue as his successor. Jomy is “too human” in the Mu’s eyes because he doesn’t exhibiting any of the refinements of their telepathic society. Jomy’s strength of will allows him to assume leadership of the Mu and lead them towards confronting the mechanized human society that prevents them from reaching Terra.

Jomy’s counterpart is Keith, who functions as the ultimate human insider. Created by artificial means and raised in a test tube until maturity, he has no childhood memories at all. Viewed by all who see him as the ultimate expression of the perfection humanity is engineered for, Keith has doubts about the computer “grandmother” who has molded him and given him orders. He dedicates himself to raising his rank in the hopes that he’ll eventually be told the truth by the artificial intelligence that controls human society. Keith seems weirdly attracted to and repulsed by the idea of the telepathic Mu, using hidden human telepathy and destroying them depending on his needs at the moment. Keith and Jomy both rise to positions of ultimate power in their conflicting societies, and the three volume arc of To Terra leads the reader towards their ultimate conflict.

Jomy’s telepathic nature aligns him with emotion and feeling. Keith’s closest thing to a parent is a computer. Jomy’s nurturing tendencies result in the Mu trying natural reproduction, resulting in a nine child new generation of Mu with expanded powers that represent yet another stage in evolution. Keith’s focus on bureaucracy turns him neurotic and spiteful. He has no friends, only people he commands or manipulates.

Art – I was struck by how influential Tezuka is. Takemiya does have her own style, but the way some of the supporting characters are presented as caricatures in contrast with the wide-eyed, fluffy haired main characters seemed straight out of Tezuka. Also there were several slapstick bits scenes in volume one where Jomy is acting irrepressible against the totalitarian society of the planet where he was raised that reminded me of Tezuka as well – the injection of comedy into a set piece with more serious themes. I enjoyed the contrast of the space battles with the confined spaces where the humans and mu are forced to live, either on colonies or in a spaceship hidden inside a planet. Every time I saw a field of stars or a space ship headed for attack it felt a little bit like going outside after being cooped up too long.

Science Fiction Goulash – For some this might be a negative aspect of the book. I’d really be curious to see if a bibliography exists that details some of the author’s sources and influences, because To Terra is heavily influenced by themes and plot points that were typical in 60s science fiction. There’s complications with genetic engineering of humans. The rise of a mutant race, followed by a mutant-mutant race that may have to create test-tube babies in order to reproduce. A central computer controls a weakened version of humanity. The time runs out on childhood at 14 when citizens report for brainwashing. Gleaming spaceships and colonies evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reading To Terra induced a pleasant nostalgia for me, because I read a lot of juvenile hard sci-fi when I was a young teen. Maybe if I remembered Takemiya’s influences more clearly I might find the manga too referential, but I liked all the tropes it evoked.

Style – Takemiya’s retro-futuristic style makes To Terra a lovely thing to look at. Everyone wears jumpsuits, and the gadgets of Jomy’s childhood reminded me a bit of the Jetsons. Takemiya does some lovely thing with collage in her layouts. The psychic mu are frequently superimposed over the space battles as floating in space, directing attacks with their minds. One of the things I found particularly delightful was that the new even more mutated Mu children immediately band together and start wearing a wing-like emblem on the front of their jumpsuits, setting them sartorially apart from the previous generation of Mu even as their powers and mannerisms disturb their elders. Little details like this made me appreciate Takemiya’s craft. Her paneling and layouts are very clear, making it easy to follow the action. I was impressed with the facility in the way she handled detailed spaceship and cityscape design, as well as her more cartoonish approach to portraying her characters. The contrast in styles makes To Terra very appealing visually.

Space Angst
– One of the things you don’t find so much of in hard sci-fi is people crying and freaking out. It seems like To Terra is Space Opera with an emphasis on the opera. Characters think in soliloquies about their longing for earth. The mistakes of past generations are doomed to be repeated, and Earth is represented as the ultimate dream quest that is forever out of reach. Psychic assaults cause people mental torment. The cover designs by Chip Kidd really play up this aspect of the story, showing characters gripped with emotion juxtaposed against spaceships. This is an element that is present in Takemiya’s work again and again as characters react to the space war they find themselves drawn to against their wills.

When rereading To Terra again I was struck with the impression that it really isn’t the type of manga to appeal to all readers. Some may find Takemiya’s art old fashioned or her work overly referential. I tend to think of the manga as a great sci-fi pastiche, and I’m happy that we got a little bit of early manga by an influential female creator translated over here. Early manga might not sell very well, but I’m glad that a few companies are publishing a handful of selected titles, and To Terra is handsomely served by the excellent packaging from Vertical. To Terra might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is undeniably important and I found it entertaining.