Saturday, January 07, 2006


Sekai Trilogy: Crest of the Stars and Planetes

Seikai Trilogy vol. 1: Crest of the Stars
Original Story by Hiroyuki Morioka
Composition by Aya Youshinaga
Art by Toshihiro Ono
Published by Tokyopop

Planetes vols. 3, 4.1 and 4.2
By Makoto Yukimura
Published by Tokyopop

It’s taken me a while to write this one as I had to read four different graphic novels. Plus, you know, being late is procrastislicious.

So here’s reviews of two Japanese science fiction comics. Sekai Trilogy seems to be more space opera-y, while Planetes is more hard sci fi-y. (They’re both good though.)

Sekai Trilogy is interesting if only because as opposed to most manga, or at least most manga published in North America, it isn’t an original idea, nor is it based on a cartoon. Instead it is an adaptation of a series of novels. There’s also an anime adaptation of the novels which I think, though I’m not positive, came first, influencing the character designs for this book.

As Crest of the Stars begins the Abh, a race of genetically engineered humans, have just taken over the Hyde star system. Jinto’s father was the ruler of the system and has surrendered instead of fighting the far superior Abh. By giving up total autonomous rule in this way Jinto and his father become Abh themselves, not in the genetically modified sense, but in regards to their status and positions. Jinto then finds himself sent off to boarding school for his own protection. The people of his homeworld now hate him and his father

Seven years later and Jinto is heading off to Abh officer school. He’s picked up at the spaceport by Lafiel, a girl who at first seems to have major personality problems. Jinto is brought up to the ship he’ll be travelling through space on and discovers the weird girl is actually a princess. After ignoring his Abh “heritage” for years, Jinto is probably the only person around who couldn’t identify her. This pleases her greatly as he’s the only one who doesn’t treat her like, well, a princess, while all she wants is to be treated according to her (not very high) military rank.

There’s soon a big space battle (a war has been declared) and Jinto and Lafiel are jettisoned out so that they don’t die horribly in space. Jinto is rather happy about this, but Lafiel, rightly, believes that she’s being given custody of Jinto to get her out of harms way. Nobody, even after they’ve died in a horrible space battle, wants to be blamed for killing the princess.

Jinto and Lafiel then spend a while trying to get somewhere where they can tell people they’re not dead. They visit a tiny kingdom on an asteroid (complete with semi-pointless fanservice) and a planet now under enemy control. There’s a lot of running around and disguises and cultural misunderstanding. Eventually they hook up with a rebel faction that doesn’t like the Abh empire, but also doesn’t like their enemy. It’s honestly better then I’m making it sound.

The art is nothing special really, though I suppose the artist was restricted by having to use the designs for the characters and vehicles that were created in the cartoon. Still, it tells the story effectively and is never actually bad.

One of the downfalls of the Sekai Trilogy is the huge amount of made up words in it. Now I expect a certain amount of made up words in any book I read, and you’ll catch on to some right away, and a few others after a while, but with the sheer number in this book I couldn’t get them all. There’s over one hundred listed in the glossary in the back, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t get them all. (The glossary itself is a mixed blessing because you keep flipping to the back and trying to find words. It really interrupts the flow of the story.)

So what’s the deal with all the fake words? Apparently Hiroyuki Morioka, who wrote the original novels, is a big fan of constructed languages. I think that in some cases this can be used pretty well. You can create words to express things that can’t be expressed in English (or Japanese or whatever). It can reflect differences in society. But why create a new word for car (usiya)? Or roses (bara)? Or others. It just doesn’t really make sense to me…

The language is however just one facet of the entire world (or worlds) that have been created here. The other comics, cartoons and books probably help flesh them out even more, and I’m interested enough to go looking for them (maybe I’ll even pick up a bit more of the language!).

Okay, now for the next sci-fi comic from Japan.

Planetes is set in the 2070s. Humankind has reached beyond the bounds of Earth. There are colonies on the Moon and Mars and piles of astronauts and spaceships going into space all the time. (It also seems to be a fully, awesomely, multicultural society. The main characters come from countries all over the world and of different ethnicities. Russian, Japanese, American, English. Black, white, Asian. It’s a world where these things don’t matter.)

Volume one of Planetes followed the debris collection spaceship Toybox and it’s crew of Fee, Hachimaki and Yuri. The stories were about the group as a whole and the members individually. Volume two was about Hachimaki and his attempts to become one of the crew of the first manned spaceship being sent to Jupiter.

Volume three continues to focus on Hachimaki as he trains and prepares for the upcoming mission to Jupiter. And by “prepare” I mean “goes insane.” Despite this being everything Hachimaki’s dreamed of he doesn’t really seem to be able to deal with it. He keeps blanking out and almost dies after a strange “vision quest” thing on the surface of the moon. His crewmates for the mission worry about this, some because they don’t want something bad to happen to him, and some because they don’t want to deal with a nutcase on a seven year mission to Jupiter. (Which is, you know, understandable.)

Tanabe, the replacement for Hachimaki onboard the Toybox, also gets feature fairly prominently in this volume. We learn about her past (her adoptive father is an aging rocker with an inverted cross tattooed on his face, awesome!) and about her and what she thinks and feels.

Volumes 4.1 and 4.2 again focus on Fee and Yuri as Hachimaki is off on his seven year voyage. I think I prefer these stories of…working class astronauts and how they deal with their lives and their families to the big awesome space project. About people trying to do their job for themselves and their families. Trying to do their best to stop the stupidity of space war in whatever small way they can. The characters try to figure out who they are and what they stand for.

The stories at time have a dreamlike quality to them. Maybe. They seem slow moving. Both meandering and purposeful (even when they feature explosions). The characters act like, well, possibly how I would act if I lived in the future. I love space and space exploration. I think it’s really cool. I wish everyday that I could go up there at some point. I would jump at the chance to be a garbage collector in space.

The problem is that I’m both a slacker and a pessimist. Could I become an astronaut? The possibility does exist, I’m young, fairly intelligent and pretty healthy. I could go back to university, get engineering and science degrees, master Russian, join the air force (or something) and get flight training. I could do it all.

But…the pessimism. Even if I did this I don’t think I’d cut it. I’d do something that would get me cut from the running to be an astronaut. Either I wouldn’t be good enough or my morals and ethics wouldn’t allow me to do something. Something. If I was promised a place in space would I do it? Would I drop everything and spend ten years (or more) studying and training and everything? I don’t know. I think so. Maybe I’d be too scared to do so. Maybe I’m not tough enough to do it.

Not good enough.

This is what Planetes does to me. It makes me think. It makes me hopeful. It makes me sad.

(This review sucks.)

The art in Planetes is really good too. Makoto Yukimura manages to capture the grandeur and the emptiness of space. The loneliness and the silence. These comics sound quiet to me. When they’re in space (where there is no sound) I sometimes have a hard time playing music because I don’t think I should hear anything either. The characters emotions are also captured beautifully and you’re able to tell what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.

Volume three has a beautiful cover that reminds me of Russian science fiction movies (like Solaris and this weird soviet cartoon).

(Click for cover.)

Volumes 4.1 and 4.2 have had a lot of care put into their production. As you may know many manga have their first few pages printed in painted colour (sometimes when a new storyline stars they’ll get another few pages in colour). Usually when these are collected they turned to gray tones and you get a few pages that look odd. Sometimes you’ll get the colour pages bound in at the beginning of the volume, but not always.

With Planetes 4.1 and 4.2 you not only have the colour stuff bound at the beginning of the volume, but bound throughout the book, wherever it appeared. Okay, so admittedly the colours don’t look that good (though whether that’s down to reproduction or the original colours I don’t know), but nonetheless it’s a cool thing to do.

The backs of 4.1 and 4.2 also have piles of text material. This is partially to bulk up the pagecount (4.1 is only about 160 pages, while 4.2 doesn’t hit 180), but also because the likelihood of Tokyopop reprinting the text book talking about science and history from now until the 2070s is pretty slim. (Hell, I wouldn’t even buy it.) I guess they might as well print some of it somewhere.

(Why are they numbered 4.1 and 4.2? Well that’s how they’re numbered in Japan. And there’s the possibility that the author will come back and do a new volume. It seems sort of unlikely though, as while the ending is incredibly open (to the point of not really resolving everything/anything) he’s working on another comic now. About a viking.)

Planetes got a fair number of reviews with its first volume. A hard sci-fi comic about garbage collectors in Earth orbit is not what most people expect from manga. The second volume received a fair amount of backlash as it changed tack slightly. I still liked it, and I like these volumes as well. Though I don’t think they’re as strong as that first volume.

I honestly can’t say I was expecting much from Crest of the Stars, but I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from a bit of fan service it was a pretty solid Sci-Fi comic. Not as good as Planetes, but still pretty good and I’m interested in reading more.

Planetes on the other hand is just so good. I wish I had the first two volumes here so that I could reread them. Even though I don’t think these volumes stand up as well as the first two they’re still excellent comics. Thoughtful and thought provoking. Full of science and dreams. (I could only wish this was my life.) It’s realistic science fiction (with an emphasis on the science part) that is more about the people then the world they inhabit and the technology they use.

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