By Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Young Jump. Released in North America by Viz Media.
I should note up front that I actually noted this as a license request a long while back, as part of a post where I looked at Japanese bestsellers and gauged which was most likely to succeed over here. This take on the ‘Starship Troopers’ type story looked like a winner, and indeed I think still will do pretty well. It has some very good action sequences, the art is well-defined with every character easy to recognize, the horror and gore are overflowing (this is a title whose primary readers I think may be horror fans), and the villains are truly loathsome. And no, I don’t mean the roaches, I mean the human villains. That said, there are a few reasons why I think this is not the title for me.
Let’s start with what was discussed on the Bookshelf last week when we did our picks: the aliens that are being fought here are the descendents of cockroaches, which were dropped on Mars to help terraform the planet, with humanity planning to simply kill them off once they’d achieved their purpose. Now, they’re evolved, and look much like homo erectus, a somewhat controversial ancestor of humanity. The problem here is they look African, and they spend most of the book silent and killing off the mostly White and Asian cast. There is a crewmember from South Africa, notably… but she’s a villain, betraying the team in order to get a specimen back to Earth. I don’t think this was intentional racism on the part of either author. But it’s an unintentional racism that I’ve been discomfited by in Japanese manga before, reminding me of other Jump series like One Piece, where Luffy wears an Afro to give him the strength of black men, or Eyeshield 21, where the football players extol black tendons.
That said, the reason I’m so cool to the series did not end up being that, but rather the entire attitude of the manga, which falls squarely into the ‘kill 90 percent of your cast so that you can show off the strength of humanity against adversity. (Humanity being the two Japanese guys who are the only members of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic crew to survive.) I’d mentioned that most of this manga is an extended action sequence, but what most of the manga really is is a horror movie, killing the crew off one by one and showing the surprise and horror on their faces. Some of them fight back valiantly, or get to take out a bug or two. (Each of the crew has been genetically modified to have insect powers, which they use in lovingly detailed ways against the enemy – this is another drawback of the manga, as the author expects me to care about the various insect powers more than I really do.) And of course we get a few backstories to make it extra tragic – the tsundere childhood friend who was rescued from an abusive father is the first one to die.
This is all being orchestrated by forces from Earth, all of whom seem to want to exploit the crew in various ways – they were all chosen as they were under desperate circumstances, and are cheerfully told they have no rights and are no longer really human anymore. The villains even conspire against each other, with one set trying to get a cockroach egg to Earth while the other merely watches the carnage from hidden cameras while chuckling. I’ve no doubt that the next volume of this series (it’s 9+ in Japan) will introduce a somewhat longer-lived cast, with this first volume serving as sort of a prologue.
As I said, the series has its strengths – good action, lots of intrigue, some interesting if overly explained sci-fi concepts. But I don’t want to read about a series this bleak and cynical, especially if it’s already making me uncomfortable in how it’s portraying race. So I’m going to move on.