If you want to see the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica done properly, you could do worse than pick up Tsutomu Nihei’s mecha manga Knights of Sidonia. Here mankind’s enemy are not AI machines, but shape-shifting beings called Gauna, who have destroyed Earth and are now pursuing the remnants of humanity across space. The pilots of the ship Sidonia crew giant battle-suits equipped with laser cannons that blast off the Gauna’s protective ‘placenta’, and a specially-tipped spear that can pierce the Gauna’s ‘core’ and kill the creature. The battle sequences are generally far more nail-biting than what Battlestar Galactica could manage, evoking a genuine sense that the human race might be extinguished at any moment. And while there are unexplained plot holes, this is nothing compared to the tangled mess Battlestar Galactica became.
Although I started with the Battlestar comparison, a closer analogue would be manga superhit Attack on Titan. The Gauna are creepy for similar reasons that the Titans are – the hint that they are really just drastically reconfigured humans, the result of some terrifying bioengineering experiment or zombie apocalypse. Both series are premised on the idea of humanity on the edge of extinction, surrounded by an enemy that is wholly other. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn here with Japan’s long period of isolation during the Sakoku period. Attack on Titan in particular dwells on the claustrophobic society this creates – the main character yearns to explore the wider world beyond the walls keeping the Titans out.
Both series are set within vaguely autocratic societies completely dominated by the demands of total war. I suspect this vision comes easily to Japanese creators, who live in a country where a single party has been in government almost continuously since 1955, and where changes in regime are mostly the result of inter-party competition rather than elections. Japan famously has a pacifist constitution, but both Attack on Titan and Knights of Sidonia have the uncomfortable tone of a cornered country threatened by alien invasion. Parallels with contemporary geopolitical tensions are easy to draw.
The two books are similar on a technical level as well. Both Tsutomu Nihei and Attack on Titan creator Hajime Isayama have spent a great deal of time designing how the battles will be fought. The Survey Corps that fight Titans use grappling equipment and quivers of swords, while Sidonia’s “Guards” get frequent updates by the engineers of Toha Heavy Industries (an organisation that appears in other Nihei books). The aliens have weak spots (behind the neck for the Titans, the Gauna’s core) which need to be targeted. The detail is reminiscent of the mechanics of videogames, and the battle sequences sometimes have the feel of watching a strategy game unfold.
Another, more peculiar similarity is that both creators are unconventional manga artists. Hajime Isayama is quite open about the fact that he is not as proficient as most of his peers in the art department – although I think his sketchy style adds a sense of roughness that somehow suits the grinding experience of war. Nihei is a more impressive artist, particularly when it comes to the incredible gothic cityscapes in his Biomega. The art in Knights of Sidona is more stripped back, and his figure work in particular is pedestrian by manga standards (to the point where occasionally it’s difficult to tell characters apart). Neither book is conventionally beautiful, but they are at least interesting in their unconventionality – the products of a specific vision rather than something derivative of established styles.
While Attack on Titan is the more well know property, I grew tired of it after about the 10th volume. Isayama is more interested in the historical and political dimensions of the premise, but he has also decided to drag the plot out with a gradually unfolding conspiracy. Having been burned once with Battlestar Galactica, I’m a little wary of stories that go down this road, particularly if there’s no end in sight.
Knights of Sidonia ends at the 15th volume, and is much more slapdash when it comes to its own conspiracy plotline, which gets abandoned almost in a fit of absent mindedness, and then returned to and wrapped up rather briskly. The series really shines not during the gruelling battle sequences, but when the characters are goofing around on Sidonia. It’s a well established trope in shonen manga to have the male protagonist unsuspectingly surrounded by potential love interests (a ‘harem’), but Nihei goes one step further in adding an alien hybrid, a best friend of indeterminate sex, and a robot among the potential matches. It pushes out what would otherwise be the standard normal adolescent wish-fulfilment into unchartered territory.
In fact, Nihei seems to have an interest in associating the gloopy and rather gross Gauna with this kind of unconventional sexuality. The main character in Knights of Sidonia has a weird attraction to the Gauna. The Gauna also use human sexuality as a weapon to distract or confuse him. Sex is linked to something putrid and dangerous – not an unusual trope in horror. But there is also something celebratory in the book’s deviancy. In the backmatter, Nihei draws himself as a bug (he is the sort of person that has a favourite type of bug). I’m just guessing here, but it seems to me that he is both horrified by his body and sexuality, and also in the process of accepting that horror, and reclaiming it as a positive force in his life.