Of course, taking a manga in a more extreme direction can backfire. This is especially true for seinen manga, which a lot of times tries to top the others by being more violent and controversial. This can lead to results like today's review, easily one of the most controversial manga releases of the year.
TERRA FORMARS (Tera Fomazu), written by Yu Sasuga with art by Kenichi Tachibana. First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.
No one knows just how the plan to terraform Mars went wrong. A league of international scientists and soldiers plans on using genetically modified moss and ordinary cockroaches to turn Mars into a planet suitable for humans. 500 years later, those cockroaches have turned into hulking humanoid beings who slaughtered the first exploratory team from Earth. Now a second crew has been sent to fight the cockroach men, each member having been genetically modified with insects with the promise of a large payday. They'll need all the powers they can muster against the forces that opposes them - not only those on Mars, but also those amongst them and those still on Earth.
A lot of fuss has been made in the last few months over this series, mostly concerning the cockroach men themselves and if they are or aren't racist by design. If you ask me, that's selling this series short. Racism is the least of this story's problems, as it's seemingly soaked in all sorts of noxious ideas and sensationalistic plot devices.
What struck me first and foremost about Terra Formars is that it's misogynistic as hell. While the male/female ratio of the crew is fairly even, by the end of the volume all but one of them is dead. The women don't get the flashy offensive powers that the men get from things like ants and hornets. Instead they get defensive powers from beetles, persuasive powers from parasitic wasps, or downright useless ones like those of the silk moth. Every woman who gets a backstory features some form of sexual abuse, be it molestation, prostitution, or female genital mutilation. They're not even safe from it in the character profiles, where their huge cup sizes are listed alongside their vital stats. The only relief from it comes in their deaths, which are too brief and brutal to use their terror as an excuse to show off their boobs and butts.
It's also got a very conservative approach, verging on xenophobic. While the crew is composed of people from across the world, only the Japanese members remain standing at the end of the volume, so being a foreigner here is just as dangerous as it is to be a woman. Worse still, the traitor amongst the crew happens to be both, and her motivation to steal a giant cockroach egg is a blatant power grab in the name of her own country. Hell, she's far from the only person who realizes the offensive potential of the cockroach men, as one of the surviving Japanese members notes that if Japan possessed them, they too could become a powerful military force once more. These are sentiments that come dangerously close to those shared by hard-line Japanese conservatives, the sort who still pine for the glory days of WWII. They're not as blatant as the misogyny, but they're no less uncomfortable.
Finally, I don't know what's more laughable: the cardboard villains or this manga's understanding of science. It turns out that the shady folks behind the BUGS project are in fact megalomaniacal madmen who do their best to divide the crew and manipulate them for their own means, laughing all the while at the circumstances that forced the crew members to join. The leader of the space program is probably the craziest of them all, as he's convinced that the cockroach men are the descendants of alien bug-gods who are the true masters of the universe. Honestly, he makes the men of SEELE look sane and rational.
Then there's the fact that evolution simply does not work in the way it does in Terra Formars. It never tries to explain how the cockroaches turned into giant black humanoids in 500 years, probably because Susaga knew any attempts at such would be laughable. He treats evolution like a ladder that a species climbs until it reaches 'human,' instead of a slow series of branches which extend only as far as the environment allows. He also struggles to keep what few facts we know about the cockroaches straight, like whether they have children or emerge full-grown from eggs or if they are or aren't capable of speech and thought. I'm not asking for pure science fact - I was more than willing to go along with the concept of being able to genetically fuse people with bugs to turn them into super soldiers. What I do ask for a little consistency, a little thought, and villains that don't make Snidely Whiplash look three-dimensional in contrast.
I cannot find a single good thing to say about the story. When it's not being ridiculous, it's being offensive. All of it combines into a nasty mixture which taints whatever potential it might have had for enjoyment.
If there's anything good I can say for Terra Formars, it's that the artwork is quite good. The character designs are distinct and solid, even if the women are all generically good looking and the men are ridiculously buff, and the insect elements are incorporated well. The fights are well-drawn with a strong sense of movement and tasteful amounts of gore. The backgrounds are nicely drawn, be the savannah-like plains of Mars or the well-detailed spaceship interiors. But then, there are those cockroaches.
It's hard to ignore that the design of the cockroach men share certain similarities to those seen in old caricatures of black men. What's really hard to determine is if these choices were purposeful or accidental on the part of the artist. Neither Susuga nor Tachibana have made any sort of comment on the controversy, and Tachibana's only other artistic credit is motion capture for a Starship Troopers movie, so we can't look to their words or their previous works for any clues. I would be willing to excuse it mere coincidence on their part, but when it's taken into consideration with the other un-PC ideas in the story, though, it seems less likely, though. It's a shame because they do get a lot of good use out the cockroach mens' unblinking, unnerving stares, and the idea of humans fighting a powerful, mute, inhuman enemy has potential. I only wish Tachibana hadn't gone and made that fateful, questionable choice in design.
Any positive qualities in the art are negated by the repellent undercurrents and laughably shallow characters and developments in the story. Such extreme content might be good for creating controversy, but it's not good at telling anything resembling a good story.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes currently available. 3 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.
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