Manga

For whatever reason, manga has been strangely absent from Xenomorphosis. This wasn’t a conscious decision, because I love (certain) manga. Unfortunately, my particular taste in manga accounts for maybe 5% of everything produced in the medium. Most of my favorite series originated in the late 80s and 90s, at a time when Japanese entertainment was considerably more infatuated with Western media than it is now. Franchises like Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator, Mad Max, and Rambo inspired a generation of Japanese characters, settings, and stylistic conventions. Now, anime and manga seem to be largely inspired by other anime, manga, and video games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it has led to the intensification of anime-centric tropes. Which tropes am I referring to? Well, to name a few: clueless, spineless male protagonists (and the girls who compete for them), angsty teenage heroes, plenty of fanservice (upskirts, bath scenes, perky boobs, etc.), lolis, otaku culture, pointless long-winded pseudo-philosophical speeches (sometimes in the middle of battle), etc. For the most part, I can’t stand these tropes, so I tend to choose series that have as little of them as possible. Of course, doing so is nearly impossible, so I’m usually forced to comprise. On the other hand, I love the creativity and incredibly skilled artwork found in manga and anime, so I’m happy to sort through the mountains of titles that don’t pique my interest for those one or two monumental gems.

As far as sci-fi comics are concerned, I think I can safely say that Japan has offered us more classic examples of the genre than the States has. One of the masters of sci-fi manga is a man named Tsutomu Nihei. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he loves Western media more than Japanese media, so the tropes I mentioned are mostly absent from his works. I don’t mean to imply that the only good manga creators are those that are influenced by the West; instead, I’m just suggesting that these days this is no longer the norm, so you’re guaranteed a different feel from the average series.

Knights of Sidonia Covers

The series is much grittier than the covers imply.

Knights of Sidonia
Writer: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
Publishers: Kodansha (Japan), Vertical (USA)
Magazine Serialization: Afternoon (2009-Present)
Featured Chapters: 1-15
US Release Dates: February 5, 2013 (Volume 1), April 16, 2013 (Volume 2), June 4, 2013 (Volume 3)

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Opening the first issue with tentacle body-horror is always a plus in my books.

Tsutomu Nihei is best remembered for the cyberpunk series Blame!, and Biomega, which were serialized in 1998 and 2004, respectively. Both of these series have a dark look, super violent content, and in the case of Blame!, sparse text and storylines that can be difficult to follow. Luckily, the art is so awesome in both series that you can pretty much enjoy them as standalone art books. Fast forward several years to 2009, which saw the introduction of Nihei’s latest, currently ongoing series, Knights of Sydonia. You’re probably thinking the same thing I did when first introduced to that name, “wait, isn’t that a Muse song”? The answer is yes; the Japanese sure do love to reference their favorite music.

Knights of Sydonia is definitely Nihei’s most accessible work to date. Compared to his earlier comics, the story is easier to follow, the characters are younger, the action is less violent, the art looks more streamlined, there’s more humor, and there’s a decent amount of fanservice. These choices might be enough to turn off hardcore Nihei fans, but let me assure you, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from KoS. Despite this being more streamlined than his previous series, KoS has gorgeous artwork, a compelling story that’s much deeper than it appears at first glance, likeable characters, mechs, and best of all, gigantic body horror.

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Sadly, there are only a few full color renderings.

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Nihei’s sci-fi designs, including this pressure suit, are always a joy to look at.

In the year 2109, while exploring outside the solar system, humanity encounters alien life. They dub the aliens “gaunas”. Gaunas are composed of a core that creates organic tissue refered to as placenta. Gaunas can take on any form they absorb, which means they often have a grotesque human appearance. They can form energy weapons with the placenta, but mostly attack with tentacle appendages that subdue their enemies. Gaunas can only be killed by first exposing their core, and then piercing it with a spear weapon known as a Kabizashi (the origins of which are explained later in the series). This is much more difficult than it sounds, because the placenta can regrow faster than you chip away at it. Gaunas form together to create “cluster ships”, which are the vessels they use to traverse through space. Cluster ships are often thousands of kilometers in length, and are composed of thousands of gaunas. Over 200 years after the first encounter with the gauna, they myseriously reappear and destroy the Earth. Humanity survives by fleeing in massive seed ships that escape in separate directions. KoS’s story take place on the Sidonia, one of the massive seedships, over a thousand years after the destruction of the Earth.

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As far as I know the Gardes are Nihei’s first attempt at mech design.

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The protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze, in a simulated mission.

At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to a teenager called Nagate Tanikaze, who lives alone in a hidden underground section of the Sidonia. His grandfather was his only companion, but has been dead for 3 years. Tanikaze decides to venture into the outside world, which is populated by hundreds of thousands of humans. He is immediately an outsider, but is mysteriously granted a spot in their pilot academy by the captain of the Sidonia. Humanity’s weapon against the gauna are mechs called “gardes”. Tanikaze spent most of his time underground in garde simulation chambers, so he is already an expert pilot. The story takes place through his eyes as he tries to integrate into society, and is tasked with aiding in the fight against the gauna, who have recently reappeared.

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Apparently Nihei studied architecture, which makes sense given his impressive environments that often contain challenging perspectives.

As you can tell from the previous paragraph, KoS’s story is fairly atypical for sci-fi manga, which usually take place on Earth in either a cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic setting. The concept reminds me more of a 70s sci-fi novel than of any manga I’ve read previously. That being said, fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will note some striking resemblances. Both series feature mech battles against an enemy whose true nature is very much uncertain. In both cases, a mysterious shadow organization calls the shots, and we’re led to believe that they know more about the situation and the nature of the aliens than they let on. Also, in both cases, the aliens continue to adapt to human tactics, meaning that no two battles are ever the same. One of my criticisms with KoS is that like in Evangelion, the battles against the aliens follow a pattern that is predictable to a tee. Essentially, the pacing of the story goes something like this: “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “rinse, and repeat”. Also, despite Nihei’s best efforts, I found the alien fights were almost always fairly dull. I’ve always wondered why mechs are predominantly found in anime and not manga. I think the answer is that mech action just lends itself better to film. When dealing with static images, the intensity of a mech battle is lost, and furthermore, it can be difficult to discern what’s happening on each panel. I don’t consider this a fault of Nihei, because I think he does the best job possible; it seems to be a shortcoming of the medium. Luckily, the series is scheduled for an anime adaptation, which I think will give the mech battles a better fighting chance.

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Had I drawn this, I probably would have been tempted to just copy and paste the mechs in the upper panel. Nihei, on the other hand, drew each one individually.

Back to KoS’s story; other than the tedium of the battles, I love the way Nihei handles the pacing. Each scene is relatively short, but never fails to add a valuable tidbit to the overall plot. To Nihei’s credit, there’s very little filler. The nuances are subtle, meaning that nothing is overly explained. There are no monologues, and almost no captions. Instead, you’re expected to glean story elements from visual cues, or from small interchanges between characters. For example, the other students initially don’t like Tanikaze. How do we know that? Is it because Tanikaze complains about how nobody likes him? Instead, we glean it from a scene in which he opens his locker to reveal that someone has put an “odor neutralizer” inside. Turning around, he sees some students covering their nose, implying that they think he smells. Again, Tanikaze never openly asks “why does nobody like me”? We discover this ourselves by paying attention to the visual cues in each panel. I found this approach really refreshing, especially compared to some manga/anime series, in which nobody ever shuts up… As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer when a comic writer imparts information from visuals rather than text whenever possible. KoS’s story takes some time to get into, and you’ll undoubtedly be slightly confused at first, but give it time and you’ll start to feel really involved. After reading the first three volumes, I went back and reread them. Not only were they a breezy joy to read the second time, everything made perfect sense and “felt right”.

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This looks much more like a page from Blame! than most of the art.

As with any story, especially in the realm of manga, the degree to which you get absorbed into the work is largely dependent on your emotional investment to the characters. KoS’s characters are fairly one dimensional, and to be honest, we learn very little about each one, but I still really like the cast. It could be said that Tanakaze is somewhat bland, but he’s a huge breath of fresh air compared to most anime protagonists. He’s strong and capable, but not cocky. He’s friendly and innocent, but not overly shy. And, best of all, he actually seems happy most of the time, rather than angsty! Essentially he’s the exact opposite of a character like Shinji from the similarly themed Neon Genesis Evangelion. His classmates conform to typical anime character tropes, but I still enjoyed them. There’s the cute reserved girl, the loyal friend, the super outgoing girl, the wise superiors, and the shady rival. Slight spoiler warning: people die in KoS, and when they do, it feels pretty crappy. As expected, there are several girls who are romantically interested in Tanikaze, and of course, he’s mostly oblivious. Back to the loyal friend: this individual, who goes by the name Izana, is a really progressive character. Essentially, Izana is a hermaphrodite, and seems to lean towards different gender norms based on the situation at hand. Mostly, he/she seems to lean towards the feminine side, and is romantically interested in Tanikaze. I’m actually really rooting for the relationship between the two; the LGBT community would be proud of his/her character. On the other hand, KoS contains quite a bit of fanservice that might annoy progressive communities. I’m not going to lie, I like the occasional T&A in my manga, but even I find it slightly sketchy that there are a couple of instances where when women get killed, their clothes get ripped off in the process…

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Tanikaze and love interest Hoshijiro.

As I mentioned earlier, KoS’s art is cleaner than Tsutomu Nihei’s previous works. There’s less use of crosshatching and ink splotches, which overall results in a look that’s less dark and muddy. Shading is accomplished with solid black ink rather than hatching. In the end, KoS has a more calculated, less chaotic look than Blame! or Biomega, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your outlook. After spending some time comparing KoS to his earlier work, I think Nihei’s artwork has matured, contrary to my initial reaction. In particular, I love the way he’s able to impart scope using the occasional zoomed out shot. Nihei’s understanding of composition is excellent, which leads to plenty of beautiful panels that feature mechs as small specks compared to the enormity of the Sidonia. A quote on the back of Volume 2 praises Nihei for his ability to render the beauty of empty space; I couldn’t agree more. In addition, Nihei does body horror like no other. It was actually his depiction of the flood in Halo Graphic Novel that rekindled my interest in Blame!. The gauna are giant hulking monstrosities that gush tentacles and embody human characteristics. Nihei’s depiction of body horror is second to none.

Knights of Sidonia is a series that I would recommend to any fans of sci-fi manga. The content, which might seem off-putting to longtime Nihei fans, is very much a step in the “Japanese entertainment will only sell if it has a teenage school setting”, but the end result is much better than you might expect. Despite the initial school setting (which actually goes away pretty quickly), the story is hard sci-fi, and contains numerous interesting sci-fi concepts in additions to the ones I mentioned. The writing, art and characters are all great, so I definitely plan to continue reading the series. Japan is already up to Volume 10 (Chapter 42), so we still have a long way to go to catch up. Luckily, the American publisher, Vertical, has committed to translating a new volume every couple of months.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Knights of Sidonia