Argh, nothing like the holidays to get a girl off schedule. So, I had better start getting caught up! So, the first of tonight's reviews is another selection from Vertical - a mecha series this time, from a surprising source.
KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA (Shidonia no Kishi), by Tsutomu Nihei. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.
Nagate Tanikaze has spent his whole life living within the depths of a massive spaceship. He is unaware of anything beyond his hand-to-mouth existence. His only companion is his grandfather. His days are spent searching for food or practicing in a flight simulator. When his grandfather dies and the food runs out, Nagate wanders out into the larger world and is caught.
Now he's surrounded by humans...of a sort. Humanity and science have advanced so much that people can clone themselves, or alter their bodies into that of animals or even photosynthesize. Humanity is not alone in space, though, and they are often in conflict with strange alien beings. Nagate's time in the simulator makes him a natural choice to pilot one of the ship's fighting robots, and Nagate begins to learn that the universe is bigger, stranger, and more dangerous than he could have ever imagined.
This may be the most mainstream story Nihei's ever done. Sure it's science-fiction, just like everything else he's done, but this is not the bizarre cybernetic dystopias of Blame! or Biomega. It's not a huge stretch for him to turn his fascination of combining men and machine into a mecha series, it is a stretch for him to create something that often verges on pleasant slice-of-life.
I really like the way Nihei gradually expands Nagate's world, as he ventures out from his little room into the heart of the ship (and humanity) at large, and in turn it expands out into space. The pacing is as gradual and steady as a river, and the tone is surprisingly quiet and toned-down, even in the middle of the mecha battles. I also appreciate Nihei's ability to do so much of his world building with little to no dialogue, expository or otherwise. He trusts the reader to put things together on their own, and the silence on the page only enhances the quietness of the tone.
Because he says so little, Nagate remains something of a cipher as a character. He's mostly there as the reader stand-in, to marvel at and react to the new world around him. Mind you, nobody gets much in the way of deep characterization, and only a few stick around long enough to start bonding with Nagate. These are the parts that make the story feel like a slice-of-life series at times - one chapter is simply Nagate going to a party with some of his shipmates in a simulated wilderness, and there's a delicate sort of loveliness about it which serves as contrast to the battles which shortly follow.
It's during the mecha battles that this manga starts to feel like more like Nihei's previous works. The Gaura - the alien forces humanity is battling - are strange, gross, tentacle-laden, oddly fetal, disturbing things. The battles are brief and brutal, as ships and mecha are torn apart like tissue paper. Nihei also gets into the after-effects of surviving such a battle, as we see Nagate suffering from depression, bad dreams, and nausea afterwards.
Knights of Sidonia looks rather light and unusual on the surface, but close reading shows that a lot of Nihei's familiar touches are present, along with his masterful control of tone and pacing. It's different from much of the mecha manga out there, and I for one am thankful for such a difference.
The artwork is also rather drastically different from Nihei's previous works. These are not the harsh, gaunt figures of his past works, drawn in crude, harsh lines. Here the characters are drawn in a more rounded, plainer, flatter, and overall more conventional style. They are beautifully and subtly expressive, though, which helps the reader to fill in the blanks that most others would fill with dialogue. The only exception to this are the Gaura, and to a lesser degree the different layers of the ship. There's clearly some degree of socioeconomic stratification going on even in the future, because some characters live in areas which look like a cross between a Japanese back-alley and an industrial warehouses while other areas are slick, clean, and streamlined. The mecha designs are nothing special. These are blocky, practical machines, more for utility than for flair. Space itself is mostly just a inky black void - here, the wonders are found inside the ship, not outside.
There are color pages in the front, but true to form it's rather minimally colored in shades of black, white, and red.
Knights of Sidonia isn't as visually strange and distinct as most of Nihei's work, but it's still a fascinatingly quiet, moodly little bit of sci-fi, one that is more of an exercise in world-building than epic mecha battles.
This series is published by Vertical. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes available so far. 6 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!
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