Terra Formars (Vol.1)

In the not-too-distant future, humanity wishes to expand its reach beyond planet Earth. They set their sights on Mars with plans to terraform it through a clever scheme involving genetically modified moss and ordinary cockroaches. Hundreds of years pass before humanity sends a team to check on the progress, only to discover that things have gone all wrong. The cockroaches have turned into giant, hulking humanoid beings with incredible strength and ferocity. The team is slaughtered, but the political and scientific forces behind the project have a back-up plan. They have assembled another international team, each member having submitted themselves to painful gene modification for the promises of a big payday and a chance to right the wrongs of their poor, traumatized lives. Now they possess the powers of various insect species, and they intend to take Mars back for the humans.

Terra Formars has certainly been one of the more controversial manga releases of the year. Even before it hit the shelves, people were accusing it of being massively racist, and a lot of argument has been spent debating that point. Based on my own experiences, though, that's selling the series short. If anything, Terra Formars has a lot of noxious ideas and prejudices that go beyond mere racism and each are disturbing and questionable in their own right.


Note:  This review will be discussing the details of the first volume in depth, and as such will contain numerous spoilers.
Before we go much further, let's talk about the racism. The accusation is that the character designs for the bug-men took a lot of cues from old, racist portrayals of black men, and I can see how people can get such an idea. The bug-men are tall and dark-skinned, with tightly curled short hair, with a large gap between their nose and their large-lipped mouths. They're shown at first to be simple savages wielding clubs and tearing people apart for the sheer joy of it, although later chapters imply that they are capable of simple speech and terrible deception. You don't have to do a lot of research to find parallels in those sentences to the 'Sambo' caricatures of yore, and if so that revelation either re-frames the story as a sort of colonial battle between the native 'savages' and the technologically-advanced, land-seizing representatives of 'civilization' or it's making some terrible implications about black people being somehow 'alien'. One important point to consider is whether these choices in design were intentional or unintentional on the part of either writer Yu Sasuga or artist Ken-Ichi Tachibana. In other words, were they accidental or purposeful racists? We can't look to their previous work for any hints because this is the first manga both have produced. No one has interviewed them about the controversy, so we haven't been able to get their own thoughts on the matter. Thus, all we are left with are some suspect choices in character design and a lot of implications. So, what do I think? I think there's more than enough evidence to side with those calling the bug-men racist, and based on the next few points, I'm not 100% convinced that it was unintentional on their part.

Terra Formars is very misogynistic. I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say that of all the women introduced in this volume, all but one of them are dead by the last page. Even the sole survivor is something of an ass-pull on the part of the creators, considering that she was last shown having her neck twisted like taffy. From that point she serves solely as motivation and back-story for our lead character, Shokichi, and I swear he drags around her body the way a toddler drags around a security blanket. Of course, she, like most of the female crew members, have a backstory that features some form of sexual abuse. They all have pasts involving molestation, child prostitution, and even female genital mutilation (which is treated with an almost flippant off-handedness). Even the men of the crew are driven by the threat or disappearance of women in their own past or were exploited by women in the past. One point is made very clear. In the world of Terra Formars, men get to kick butt, and women are only there to be thrown in the metaphorical fridge.

The women even get screwed over when it comes to their insect powers. Most of the men get powerful attacks from impressive sounding insects like the bullet ant and the Asian giant hornet. The women, on the other hand, get defensive powers from things like the rainbow beetle or weevils, persuasive powers from a parasitic wasp, or completely useless ones like the ability to spit silk from their hand even after death. Those few men who do die on-screen often get heartfelt speeches or flashbacks before they go; their deaths are treated like tragedy. Those women who die on-screen are dead in an instant, torn apart like bread-sticks for the sake of shock value, save for the one who turns out to be the self-centered traitor of the group. The only saving grace to this story's approach to women is that fanservice is all but nonexistent. The closest thing we get to such is having the women crew members' cup sizes included in their character profiles, something that I'm sure was essential to understanding their characters better. I'm told that in later volumes more women crew members are introduced who don't die with a few chapters of their introduction. While that's a heartening thing to hear, I fear that the new ones will be treated no different than those who came before them. I fear that they will still be treated as lesser beings with weaker powers and exploitative pasts, there to motivate others but not to make any significant impact in the story.

Terra Formars is also kind of xenophobic. The survival rate of the non-Japanese members of the crew is just as bad as that for the women amongst them. Of the 15 individuals at the start, only the two Japanese men survive, and the closer a crew member's country is to Japan, the longer they are likely to live. The Americans and Europeans are picked off fairly quickly, treated as little more than cannon fodder. The sole African amongst the group also happens to be the sole traitor, something which can be viewed as another piece of evidence towards the racist argument. In the end, not even the other East Asians are safe, as the Thai fighter is transformed into a giant grasshopper. 

It doesn't end there, though. Both the traitor and one of the Japanese crew members recognize the political power of the bug-men, as potential weapons to be used by their nations to become strong military powers and thus force the world to respect them, a point echoed by the scientific and military forces that control this project. In that sense, it's a rather politically conservative work, one that treats an alien war like a nuclear arms race. I understand that ultimately this is a work meant for a Japanese audience, one who would get a kick out of Japanese guys getting to be the big damn heroes for once. It's just distasteful to do so by portraying those from other nations as weak or deceitful.

Its villains are shallow, cackling, megalomaniacal madmen. While the bug-men are the main antagonistic force, they are shown later on to be working with both Dr. Honda and Alexander Newton, the scientific and military heads of the space as part of a conspiracy. While both want to harness the power of the bug-men for Japan or America, Newton's role takes a far more fantastical, insane turn. He believes in a the gods of Rahab, some sort of alien insect god-beings who were the founders of ancient, advanced civilizations on both Earth and Mars, and that the bug-men are their evolutionary superior vessels. If it hasn't been made clear, Newton is nuttier than a squirrel's breakfast. He makes the fine gentlemen of SEELE look sane and reasonable in comparison, and they want to bring about the literal end of the world. 

Even aside from the crazy, both Honda and Newton are content to leer and cackle at the crew's misery. They knew that the bug-men had evolved. They knew about the previous slaughter. They knew that the new crew was greatly outnumbered. They actively work with the bug-men so that they can observe their gene modification program in action without consequence. To them, the Bugs-2 project is little more than an experiment, and the crew nothing more than lab specimens. Regardless of whether they live or die, they still get useful information, all as they mock them for being poor, desperate, and stupid. The only thing these men lack is a handlebar mustache to twirl as they laugh at the crew's misery as lightning flashes behind them ominously, that's how cartoon-like these men are. The idea that the crew not only has to fight the bug-men but also those that made them this way is not a bad idea onto itself. To make it work, though, requires a subtle touch with characterization and the ability to build suspense and mystery. Terra Formars forgoes that approach and instead makes its villains mad scientists or raving cult members.

Terra Formar's understanding of science is laughable. I understand that this is science fiction, not science fact, and that some license must be given in the name of the story. Hell, I was more than wiling to roll with the gene modification idea, because that at least exists to some degree in the real world. What I was not willing to roll with was this series' concept of evolution. To put it simply, evolution does not work this way.

This series never tries to explain exactly how the bug men evolved from simple cockroaches to sentient humanoid beings in the span of only 500 years. I suspect it doesn't try because it knows any attempts would be too ridiculous to bear. Evolution is not a ladder that a species climbs until it looks just like a human. A creature only evolves as far as it needs to evolve, just enough to allow it to take the best advantage of its environment. I can understand them growing bigger in an environment like Mars, where there's plenty of space, plenty of moss to eat, less gravity and no predators to avoid. What I don't understand is how turning into walking, talking bug-men helped them out as a species before the humans started showing up. They barely retain any bug-like qualities, aside from seemingly useless attennae, a few horns here and there, and wings which somehow magically tuck into their muscular backs and can support the weight of such massive beings, even in Mars' thinner, lighter atmosphere. Let's not even think about how these weirdly sexless beings are able to produce eggs that are half their size, which in turn produce fully grown bug-men, despite having seen child-sized ones earlier. I know this all may sound like scientific nitpicking, but even sci-fi needs to operate with some understanding of real world science. Good sci-fi builds on existing science to create fanciful beings, and often the closer it hews to real science, the easier it is for the audience to accept those fanciful elements. Terra Formars doesn't do that, though. It throws about a few scientific ideas to justify its creations, and in turn only leaves the reader asking more questions.

So, is there anything good to say for this series? Yes, actually, although most of it can be attributed to Mr. Tachibana. Aside from the aforementioned questionable choices in design in the bug-men, the characters are all well-detailed and distinct. The fights between them and the bug-men possess a real sense of power and movement behind them, and he adds just enough gore to give those fights impact without making them ludicrously gross. The bug-men may be racist, but I will say that their wide-eyed, unblinking stares are genuinely unnerving and the story makes good use of that. The backgrounds look good, be it the future tech of the spaceships and laboratories or the savannah-like plains of the partially terraformed Mars. For an artist whose only previous credit was doing motion capture for a Starship Troopers movie, it's genuinely impressive. I only wish that skill had been used in service of a better story.

Some will say that I'm reading too much into this series, that you can't expect a Japanese work to conform to American ideals of political correctness, or that to point such things out is creating controversy out of nothing for the sake of attention or censorship. I would respectfully disagree, though. Critique is not censorship, no matter what other people on the internet may say. To point out troubling elements in a work is not an attempt to suppress them, but to highlight them for the sake of meaningful discussion. Manga is no different than any other art form. It does not exist in a cultural or political void, and the views and beliefs of those who create it can present themselves in both conscious and unconscious forms, and it can paint a less than flattering portrait of the minds of said creators. Just because it was created for a foreign market doesn't absolve it of those issues either. Just because one culture is not as sensitive towards ideas like xenophobia or misogyny doesn't mean that those ideas aren't troublesome or that they aren't a problem within said culture. With all that being said, I cannot in good faith recommend this series to others. Any potential for fun or excitement it might have had as a sci-fi action series is undercut by the distasteful and objectionable ideas that lurk just under its surface.

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