Strange Vistas


Shiva and hear teacher

There's a girl living in the woods with her dapper teacher. They spend their days studying, cleaning the house, and looking for food on the houses in the nearby abandoned villages. Her name is Shiva. She bides her days waiting for her auntie to come back for her. Shiva lives with her teacher, who is a dapper dresser but not a very good cook – he sometimes gets distracted and puts his hands right into the fire. Luckily for him, he's a cursed, horned creature made out of soot and shadows, who feels no pain. He tells her stories before she goes to bed.

That's The Girl from the Other Side.

For a good third of the first volume, that's their entire world – just Shiva, her teacher, and their routine. There isn't anyone in the villages or the woods, no nearby cities. How come this little girl came to live with a towering, tailed humanoid creature with a bird-deer head? Why does he seem afraid of touching her? Is her auntie real or just another story he tells her?

Most other details are just as fuzzy. The teacher's clothes make it look late 18th century, but other elements would make you think it's a couple of centuries earlier. It's got a vaporous, dream-like narrative that makes it feel all the more like a folk tale that managed to survive passed down by oral tradition.

How long has passed in the story, four volumes in? It feels like every book covers only a couple of days, like these six hundred or so pages have been just an eventful week in Shiva's life.

I'm not sure where the story is going, though, nor am I sure that writer Nagabe knows either.

It doesn't matter. The Girl from the Other Side's cinematic charcoal drawings of delicate shadows and a polite, tender monster caring for a moppet draw you in, at their own languid pace.

It could stop at any moment, abruptly, like dreams do. Meanwhile, you enjoy the time you spend in its haze, even if it recedes when you wake up.

It's the rare manga where the feeling it leaves behind is as important as the plot. As hard as it is to recommend a story that hasn't wrapped (that might not properly close), it's a tale that might be best enjoyed as you would a bottle of absinthe. You don't open it and gulp it down in one sitting. You pour a bit from it, ever so rarely, enjoy the associations that it makes, the things it makes you think of, and then you put it back for a couple of months, until the next time comes.

#manga #nagabe

Planetes book cover

It's easy to imagine space having a meditative quality. You, inside a metal tube, floating in the void, weightless, with no extraneous sounds for a few dozen thousand kilometers. The tin can keeping you alive doubles as an isolation chamber. With nothing to see, anywhere else, you look inward.

Nothing helps you focus like having nothing all around you.

Planetes is a manga set in a future where space travel – at least between the Earth and the Moon – has become commonplace. So commonplace there are blue-collar jobs. The main characters are a crew of garbage collectors, working in space picking up the debris that could threaten other ships.

There's Yuri, the stoic, inwards Russian dealing his wife's death. Fee, a brash American pilot chainsmoker who takes no crap from anyone (almost). And Hachimaki, a Japanese full of dreams who says he'll get his own ship one day, as soon as he jettisons the dead-end gig he's using to pick up some cash.

There are shenanigans involved, as author Yukimura Makoto feels his way through the format. Mostly, it's a book of low-key emotions. The crew deals with vast emptiness and cramped quarters, their world reduced to the 2 or 3 people they share a ship with.

It creates a tension in the narrative dynamic. The story can have fun but doesn't goof around too much. There is adventure and some action interludes, but they never become the point. It's alternatively about people doing their job, world-affecting conspiracies, and quiet introspection.

As a story, it keeps you wondering what's going to come next.

For the characters, though, it's about loss, and acceptance, and change. With all that empty space, the nothingness threatening to suck you away, you're going to have to find your own footholds. Lacking external stand-ins for meaning anywhere around you, you have to provide them yourself.

Boy, is that hard, and Yukimura can make it all feel painfully human.

He concocts the conspiracies the crew get dragged into with the same ease as he presents the strife of a kid trying to live up to his elders. He can put a multi-page chase sequence or make you feel loss in three panels.

You can get what you want as long as you are a crazy, selfish prick of a dreamer, but it might consume you. Reaching for the stars, you may need to leave your loved ones behind.

Expressions. Body language. Walking away. Sorrow. It all comes through.

And then it sort of ... just ends. The story wraps without being able to top itself. But by then it’s done enough.

Having achieved what you aimed for, you realize that there’s peace in just getting on with the job.

#manga #planetes #yukimuramakoto #sliceoflife