Jyu-Oh-Sei, Vol. 1, 2, and 3
written by Natsumi Itsuki
The 11-year-old Thor has lived his entire life as one of the pampered elite on the Vulcan space colony Juno and aspires only to become a pilot. Then his parents are brutally murdered, and he and his timid twin brother, Rai, are abandoned on the secret prison planet of Kimaera, where carnivorous plants rule the land and human beings must become “beasts” just to survive. Determined to avenge the destruction of his family, Thor decides that he too must survive, even if he becomes the King of the Beasts in order to do it.
Although not quite as decorated as such luminaries as Keiko Takemiya (Kaze to Ki no Uta, To Terra) or Moto Hagio (They Were 11!, Poe no Ichizoku), Natsumi Itsuki is one of the most important science fiction shoujo manga creators in Japan. Her not inconsiderable oeuvre includes epics such as OZ and Yakumo Tatsu, which, while little known in North America, are veritable touchstones in Japan and other Asian countries that consume large quantities of Japanese manga. With the recent animated television adaptations of Hanasakeru Seishounen and Jyu-Oh-Sei, her work is starting to attract more attention here in the West. Unfortunately, even with Tokyopop’s release of the oversized three-volume kanzenban edition of the original Jyu-Oh-Sei manga, American readers, ignorant of the cultural and historical context, are unlikely to know what treasures of the manga world Itsuki and Jyu-Oh-Sei are.
The story, developed over the course of a decade from start to finish, is an operatic example of social science fiction, set in a far future where humanity has taken to the stars and colonized other solar systems. As befits a three-volume series, the story is arranged in a three-act structure that roughly (but not exactly) corresponds to each 400-odd page volume. The first follows Thor and Rai as children as they attempt to cope with their new lives on Kimaera. The second act details Thor, now a young man, and his rise to power as the Beast King of Kimaera. The third act takes Thor back to the stars—and confronts him with a shocking revelation very much in line with the apocalyptic scenarios popular in Japan in the 1990s.
Jyu-Oh-Sei is social science fiction in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin, not hard science fiction, and that is where, even when she does not convince, Itsuki shines. For example, the colonists, such as Thor and Rai, have a very enlightened view of race, so when they arrive on Kimaera, they are shocked to learn that society there is arranged according to skin color. But lest you think that the Kimaerans are just retrograde barbarians, it must be noted that, although they are about 70/30 male/female, they treat women with the highest level of respect. Women choose their mates—and no one is allowed to question their choice…or refuse it—and a man doing physical harm to a woman is simply unheard of. It seems so improbable in the real world, but there is something undeniably optimistic about the formulation. Feminist manga are a rarity and all the more precious for it.
Those looking solely for beautiful, dynamic eye candy should look elsewhere. Itsuki, who made her professional debut back in 1979, draws in a style that looks stuck in the 1980s. Although Jyu-Oh-Sei took about a decade to complete, you really don’t see much evolution in her illustrations. Some will surely find her art appealing, and her male characters are exceptionally handsome, but others will want more cuteness, more fanservice, more something in line with 21st century tastes. Luckily, she had an assistant to render all of the far-future technology, so that does not grate on the visual nerves. But even if it did grate on the visual nerves, you would not stay irritated for long—Jyu-Oh-Sei is such a great story that you will be too eager to see what happens next to worry about how charismatically Itsuki renders it. Highly recommended.-- Casey Brienza