May 26, 2010

When Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra… (Vertical) was first released in English, I remember there being one of those mildly contentious discussions about branding. The publisher seemed to be marketing it as shôjo (comics for girls), which led to a prompt reminder that the series had originally run in a shônen (comics for boys) magazine, Asahi Sonorama’s Gekkan Manga Shônen. While Takemiya is undeniably one of the founders of modern shôjo, the original target demographic for To Terra… was undeniably shônen.

The original demographic of To Terra… presents some interesting topics of discussion. While a number of women work in shônen, I strongly suspect that wasn’t the case back in the 1970s. This adds another aspect of Takemiya’s status as a trailblazer. She was also one of the very first creators of shônen-ai, manga that focuses on romantic attachments between two men. I find Takemiya’s shônen-ai inclinations very much in evidence in To Terra…, a flavoring that feels wonderfully transgressive in retrospect.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what the regular readers of Gekkan Manga Shônen might have expected when they cracked open a new issue of the magazine. It was also home to Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, so one might reasonably guess that it trafficked in ambitious science fiction and fantasy. But back then, was it commonplace for shônen fans to see so many boys making eyes at each other?

It is now, of course, or at the very least there’s an open invitation for some fans to overlay whatever kind of sexual tension they like on protagonists and their allies and rivals of the same sex. The fujoshi phenomenon of imagining what non-canonical pairings has gone from subversive to seemingly inherent in manga marketing, at least in some imprints. (It’s hard to believe anyone at Square Enix thought the audience for Yana Toboso’s Black Butler was exclusively composed of young male fans of ass-kicking domestics. Interestingly enough, Square Enix published the reprint of To Terra…)

It’s always dangerous to assume intent on the part of a creator. To Terra… is clearly about yearning, for home, for family, for connection. Perhaps that pervasive wave of need is leading me to project more personal yearnings onto the characters. But what I know of Takemiya’s creative history and what I see on the page leads me to conclude that I’m not making such a big leap.

It’s easy to view Jomy Marcus Shin, leader of the telepathic rebels who long to take their place in Terran society, and Keith Anyan, the ultimate product of humanity’s repressive methods of breeding and upbringing, as (forgive the pun) star-crossed lovers. There’s a connection between them that transcends their individual symbolism, and there’s a degree of tragedy that doesn’t seem confined to their representation of warring generations. I believe that Takemiya is calculatedly leading the reader to wonder what might have been between these two if they’d been allowed to make their own choices, if they hadn’t been burdened by racial, spatial destiny.

And let’s face it. Keith is kind of a man whore. Wherever he goes, he seems to draw the hypnotized eyes of frailer male figures. I can’t be alone in seeing the just-kiss-already tension between Keith and Seki Ray Shiroe, the brash young man who rejects cultural norms even as he excels in the point-by-point qualities that society seeks to foster. Seki seems obsessed with Keith beyond his standing as a rival; their encounters are deliciously charged with a desire to transgress, if you know what I mean.

Also among Keith’s conquests is Makka, a closet Mu, if you will, who demonstrates a self-destructive level of loyalty to Keith at the expense of his genetic kin. Keith’s dismissive control of Makka is one of the more unsettling aspects of To Terra… for its cruelty. Keith recognizes Makka’s fascination, and he uses it. He’s moved beyond the cat-and-mouse business with Shiroe to something more functional and more unsettling.

But, of course, the core question is whether or not Keith and Jomy can overcome their respective societal programming to reach some kind of accord. I’m reluctant to spoil the answer to that, but I will just note that To Terra… is a tragedy. And back in the day, shônen-ai, even when cloaked, didn’t offer many happy endings.

I tend to be of the opinion that accurate characterization of a comic’s demographic matters mostly in the way that knowing that allows you to trace the evolution of a those demographics over time. The fact that a noted shôjo creator was able to create a long-form science-fiction epic for a shônen magazine and infuse it with so much shônen-ai tension is a part of the fascination of To Terra… It suggests fluidity and evolution in the medium, and it suggests that the work was both ahead of its time while being very much of its time.