On January 28, 1986, a stunned America watched helplessly as the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff. I was a grade school student at the time, and I remember that this disaster hit us particularly hard due to the presence of Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, on the Challenger crew. It took years for the American space program – and the American nation – to recover, and some might argue that even today it still hasn’t fully returned to its pre-Challenger level of vitality.
I couldn’t help but think of this tragic event as I watched the opening moments of Twin Spica, an anime based on the seinen manga written and illustrated by Kou Yaginuma. It tells the story of a near-future Japan entering the space race with its first manned mission, Shishigou (Lion), which ends in disaster when the rocket’s booster catches fire shortly after launch.
In addition to the loss of the astronauts, the accident caused a great many civilian casualties, as the debris from the destroyed rocket crashed into the town of Yuigahama, causing much devastation and loss of life among the townsfolk. The effects of this are still being felt even five years after the disaster, where our story begins, as the city is still undergoing reconstruction, the townsfolk are still dealing with the loss of friends and loved ones, and the space program has undergone many public inquiries and setbacks.
The story focuses on young Asumi Kamogawa, whose mother received grave injuries during the Shishigou accident, causing her to fall into a coma and eventually die. One day she meets a strange man wearing a lion mask, who soon reveals himself to be a ghost and calls himself Lion-san. They strike up a friendship, and he comforts Asumi during these troubled times. We learn soon that he is the spirit of one of the Shishigou astronauts, and as their friendship deepens, he begins to tell her stories of space. It is these stories combined with a desire to revisit her mother’s spirit, which Asumi believes has turned into a star in space, that make Asumi decide she wants to become an astronaut. Flash forward several years. Asumi has graduated middle school and is preparing to take high school entrance exams. Meanwhile, the Japanese government, continuing their recovery from the disaster, forms the Tokyo Space Academy, a vocational school dedicated to training a new generation of students in the space sciences. The anime follows Asumi and the new friends she makes at the academy as they struggle towards their goal of graduating from the space academy. The series takes its name from the binary star Spica, Asumi’s favorite star.
The story is well written and very approachable. Even though it’s billed as a seinen (mainly targeted at a middle-aged male audience) I think it’s approachable from almost any age or gender. It’s deep and complex but not overly so. The characters are believable (with the possible exception of Lion-san, that is). Asumi, as the main heroine as it were, is neither one of those passive damsel-in-distress types, nor is she one of those superwomen who can take anything without so much as breaking a nail. She, like the rest of us, has her dreams, her worries, and her flaws. The same goes for the rest of the characters. There are no age-inappropriate moments either (no ecchi, etc.). It’s a very emotional, heartfelt story that will have you feeling every nuance of the characters’ lives, from the exhilaration of success to the terrible sadness and loss from the devastation caused by the Shishigou disaster. I really felt that I got to know the characters this way, even the ancillary ones. The story also gets high marks for technical accuracy. It contains quite a few references to actual events in space exploration history. For example, the harmonica that Lion-san is seen playing is a Hohner Little Lady, one of the first instruments to fly in space. Also, the nickname Asumi is given by one of her classmates, Seagull, is the callsign used by the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova.
The artwork and animation is about average – nothing to write home about, but not too bad either. The characters and environments are drawn in rather muted colors and there is a general lack of detail in the scenes, their clothing, etc., which some might find appealing and others not. It’s rather reminiscent of a early to mid 90s Studio Ghibli release. One thing that did irritate me somewhat is the way Asumi was drawn, with rosy red cheeks. I’m not sure why it bugged me so; I just kept having this sensation of “that looks… wrong.” She is the only character drawn in this manner, and honestly she would’ve looked just fine without those rosy cheeks.
Music and sound is also “meh.” It mostly consists of slow lyrical guitar, piano, and/or harmonica pieces, and the occasional orchestral interlude when something particularly dramatic happens. In other words, it’s okay, but again nothing to write home about. I found the opening theme, “Venus Say” by the J-pop group Buzy, to be an odd choice however; this fast-paced poppy tune seemed rather out of place with the other slower paced music, and the general slow pace of the series as a whole. Voice acting is on the whole well done.
The show is, as I mentioned before, slowly paced. You won’t like this show if you’re an action junkie. There aren’t any explosions or giant space battles or giant robots either. (Well, aside from the explosion of the Shishigou rocket that is) Again, not for the action junkie. And if you’re expecting lots of cool space action — space stations, EVA walks, that sort of thing — you’ll be sorely disappointed. This ain’t no Planetes or Moonlight Mile. Although it’s much less gritty, and a great deal more optimistic than either of those series, which is a plus.
I also got rather irritated by the story recaps placed at the beginning of every episode. (“Hi! I’m Asumi Kamogawa, and I want to be a rocket driver when I grow up!”) These shorts were very cute but repetitive and annoying. I felt like I was being beaten over the head repeatedly with a steel bar wrapped in a layer of feather pillows.
Most of all, though, the series’ ending left me rather disappointed and wanting for more. When the series ended in 2004, only 30 chapters of the manga were written. As a result the ending was, in my opinion, rather weak and ambiguous, and left me generally unsatisfied. In particular, we learn very little of some of the characters’ back stories, especially the enigmatic and interesting Marika Ukita. (The manga ended just this year.)
Even with all of these deficiencies, Twin Spica is still a very well done series, with its main strength being the characters and how they interact with each other and work together. If this intrigues you, you can check it out yourself by downloading the fansubs. Vertical announced at their New York Anime Festival 2009 panel that it has licensed the Twin Spica manga for a “summer 2010″ release date (you can pre-order it now from Amazon.com; they are showing a release date of May 4, 2010). There is also a Japanese live action adaptation that was broadcast Summer 2009.