TWIN SPICA (Futatsu no Supika), by Kou Yaginuma. First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2010.
PLOT: It is the year 2024, somewhere near Tokyo. Asumi Kamogawa is 14 years old, and her dream is to travel to space.
It's a sadly ironic dream for her to have. In 2001, Japan launched its first rocket into space, only to have it end in disaster when it crashed into the heart of Tokyo. This crash cost Asumi's mother her face, most of her senses, and eventually her life, all while trying to protect her infant daughter. Her father, an engineer, lost his job because of the disaster and now he and Asumi barely get by on his dead-end construction job. Still, she is not unhappy; Asumi is an avid reader and excellent student, as she memorizes every fact about the stars and planets. She also often wanders off into the woods to stargaze and talk of space with her imaginary friend Mr. Lion, who speaks of space as if he's been there before.
Asumi finally gets a chance to live out her dream when she is accepted to the Tokyo Space School, where the best and brightest will be chosen to become a new generation of Japanese astronauts. Some of the faces she encounters at her new school are familiar, like that of the intelligent but rude and priggish Fuchuya, but most are brand new to her. She and many other students pass the written exam, but they also must pass a unique practical exam. All the students are grouped into threes into a small, plain room. They must open a chest using the room number as a code, and then they must complete the puzzle inside within seven days. At any point, they may opt out with the press of a single button, but doing so will cause all the students inside to fail. Now Asumi and her new roommates (the peppy, friendly Kei and prickly, standoffish Marika) must learn to live and work together if they want to pass.
STORY: Twin Spica is one of the best and most sincere stories that I have read since I started this project. I know that's a bold statement to make, but I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it, and it's mostly because of Asumi.
Asumi is such a wonderful lead. She's sweet and kind, but also determined to achieve her dream. She's smart and even kind of geeky, and while she can be a bit socially awkward she easily makes friends with her new classmates and never once questions having a friend who looks like an amusement park mascot whom only she can see. I think anybody who was ever a nerdy kid, the kind who would devour every book in their favorite section of the library, would relate more than a bit to Asumi.
Mind you, the rest of the cast are no slouches either, even if some of them come off as a bit dickish. True, some of them have their reasons (we get hints that Marika was a sickly shut-in as a child), but other were mostly pedantic and rude from the beginning (I'm looking at you, Fuchuya). I'm particularly fond of Shu, who is - forgive the pun - something of a space cadet, but you get hints that this is something of a front, and that he is smarter and more observant that he lets on. Of course, the aforementioned dickishness may just be due to the practical test, which is meant to test the kids' reactions to working with others in close quarters under stress, so only time will tell if it will stick.
Half the volume is dedicated to the main plot of Asumi at the space school. The other half consists of a couple of side stories, both taking place when Asumi is five years old. One involves something of an adventure involving her mother's ashes and her kindergarden teacher, which hints at Mr. Lion's true identity. The other happens just after her mother's funeral, as Asumi ends up on a strange sort of spiritual journey to come to acceptance about her mother's death. The first story was bittersweet enough, but the second one made me cry. Let me assure you that this is no mean feat. I do not cry easily at any form of media. I can count the movies I have cried at on my hands and still have fingers to spare. I don't think I can recall a time where I outwardly cried over a book until I read this one, and that onto itself is a powerful testament not only the quality of the writing, but the emotional sincerity of the story.
ART: The character designs are very simple and childlike, without a lot of excess lines or details. Amazingly, though, that does not stop the art from conveying the subtle and complex emotions in the story exceedingly well, which is a credit to Yaginuma-san. The backgrounds are also simple and clearly handrawn instead of traced. They don't possess a lot of flourish, but they suit the characters and story to a T.
One thing that I must note is the composition of the pages. There are some sections that are just beautifully put together, such as the sequences where Asumi and Mr. Lion go stargazing or the endings to the side stories. It's not so much about how the pages are framed -the panels are fairly standard in size and shape - but more about the way the images are assembled. It's almost akin to a well-drawn storyboard for a movie, and there's just something indefinably poetic about them. I wish I could show you the scans so that you might understand, but doing so would spoil the stories and without the rest of the manga, much of the emotional impact is lost. They are truly beautiful to behold, and the only way to really experience it is to read it yourself.
PRESENTATION: There are some translation notes in the back, as well as a personal story from the mangaka in the form of a comic. Otherwise, it's a simple but handsomely presented volume, one typical of a Vertical release.
GOOD GOD, BUY THIS. BUY IT NOW BECAUSE IT GOES OUT OF PRINT NEXT YEAR. VERTICAL DESERVES A REWARD FOR PUTTING THIS OUT IN FULL, AND THAT REWARD IS YOUR MONEY IN THEIR POCKETS!
In all seriousness, this is one of the best manga I have ever read, a true hidden gem of the manga world. I would recommend this to just about anyone, but in particular to sci-fi fans who don't mind trading spaceships and robots for a more personal tale.
This title was published in the USA by Vertical. All 12 volumes are currently in print, but will go out-of-print in 2013.