After the fascinating “shojo space opera” of To Terra… (also adapted into a TV series now licensed by Bandai Entertainment for us lucky folks in the West), Vertical Publishing picked up another of Keiko Takemiya’s works for English publication. Andromeda Stories features Takemiya’s art but a story by one Ryu Mitsuse, nominally known as an author of historical fiction and SF in Japan, and he was apparently a major influence on Takemiya to begin with. Their collaboration’s yielded up a story that’s markedly unlike Terra but at the same time clearly informed by the same kind of imagination. Terra gave us a rogue, telepathically-enabled offshoot of humanity reaching out across the stars to its brothers on Earth; Andromeda gives us a machine civilization that’s crossed the universe to colonize an unsuspecting and peaceful world by literally and figuratively tunneling under and invading from within.
Takemiya and Mitsuse make an ambitious creative team, and they kick things off with a bang — as in, the Big Bang. The creation of the universe itself occupies the first several pages, a nice way to signal to the readers that the fate of the cosmos itself hangs in the balance (although exactly how that’s the case won’t be clear for a good long while). Then Takemiya’s camera eye zooms in a little closer — down to Planet Astrias of the Cosmoralian Empire, where a royal wedding is about to be staged. Pricess Lilia of the Kingdom of Ayodoya and Price Ithaca of Cosmoralia (that’s King Ithaca to you, now) are brought together with much rejoicing by the common folk. But all is definitely not well under the surface: through the celebratory crowds strides a serious-faced young woman who wields a sword as well as any man, and with a deep sense of foreboding hanging over her. Her name is Il, and only by degrees do we learn the real nature of her presence — along with many others who have concealed themselves in secret for generations.
What no one knows — no one, that is, except for Il and her few cohorts — is that Astrias is slowly being subverted by a machine intelligence. The machines arrive under the guise of a meteorite impact, burrow underground, set up giant subterranean factories and begin churning out cybernetic mind-control devices and robot surrogates for the royal family. Only after many key people have already been assimilated does Il realize the scope of the problem — but not before Lilia gives birth to heirs (plural), one of whom is smuggled away and placed in the safekeeping of an oafish gladiator with more loyalty and spirit than brains. With the odds badly stacked against them, Il and a few refugees from the collapse of the royal castle begin hatching plans to take back the planet and drive away the machines.
The way we’re given all of this information is also important. We know nothing of the machines until we’re well into the story; we know nothing of Il or her heritage (or her abilities) up-front. Everything’s demonstrated by example and rarely explained pre-emptively, so we’re asked to connect the dots ourselves. In retrospect, this isn’t a bad storytelling decision: it makes the decay of the kingdom into as much of a disturbing surprise for us as it probably is for the heroes. It does mean that you need to stick around through most of the first volume to get a complete understanding of what’s going on — but if Takemiya’s lush designs and Mitsuse’s textured storytelling haven’t hooked you by then, I doubt there’s much this book could offer that would.
Vertical’s slogan is “Read Different,” and I’ve always been consistently pleased with the way they’ve dug up and presented manga that might otherwise have gone completely unheralded in English-speaking territories. Judging from its debut volume, Andromeda Stories is another one that’s worthy of their imprint — and also worthy of your attention if you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten paths.