Katherine looks back at The Magnificent 49ers and To Terra

Published On July 16, 2008 | By Katherine | Comics, Katherine's corner, Reviews

In the 1970s, a new group of manga creators caused a stir in Japan. They were known as “the Magnificent 49ers” or “the Year 24 Group”, after the year most of them were born: 1949, or the 24th year of the Showa era. They created manga with a complexity of storytelling, depth of emotion, and sheer beauty of draughtsmanship that was unprecedented then, and has seldom been matched since. They vastly expanded the scope of shoujo manga (manga for girls), turning it into an artform in its own right. Their influence over the shoujo manga creators who followed them is almost impossible to overstate. And they were all women.

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(an impressive splash page of science fiction manga by Keiko Takemiya)

Sadly, very little of their work is available in English. For some reason, English-language manga translators have tended to be reluctant to license older works, although there are signs that that’s beginning to change: Viz has had great critical success with Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom from the early 1970s, and CMX has been steadily releasing volumes of Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko and From Eroica With Love by Yasuko Aoike – both Year 24 Group alumnae. But generally the group remains sadly neglected. How is it that Ryoko Ikeda’s groundbreaking historical epic The Rose of Versailles has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, and Spanish – but not English? Unofficial fan translations of the Year 24 Group’s works have been circulating for years – a sure sign that there’s an audience for them.

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(page from Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, published by Vertical Inc)

Still, we take what we can get. Vertical’s 3-volume edition of Keiko Takemiya’s science fiction epic To Terra… is a drop in the ocean of what’s out there in Japanese… but what a drop! Takemiya was one of the most astonishing talents of the astonishing group, and it’s wonderful to see any of her work officially released in English.

To Terra… is set in the far future. Earth’s ecology has been choked by human actions, and even the most advanced technology can’t save it: it is the nature of humanity itself that is at fault. So the tyrannical system/ruler Universal Control determines that humanity itself must be reformed, through the regime of Superior Domination, which controls every aspect of human society. Or – almost every aspect. When the Universal Control “maturity check” is made on children in their teens, sometimes the check creates one of the Mu, a mutant race of long-lived but physically weak telepaths that Universal Control seeks to crush mercilessly. The Mu have been hunted for all of their existence. They want to return to Earth, to Terra, and they are determined not to let Universal Control get in their way. Their future is placed in the hands of reluctant youngster Jomy Marcus Shin, who has both the psychic strength of a Mu and the physical strength of a human.

So far I’ve only read the first volume of To Terra…, but I can already tell that it’s going to be a masterly work when I’ve read the whole thing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second and third volumes. I’m not sure what aspect of the story I find most enthralling. Is it Takemiya’s gorgeous art? The emotional intensity of the turmoil she puts her characters through? The epic scale of the conflict? Maybe it’s all of these things at once. To Terra… is rapid in pace and grand in ambitions, and still does not neglect the human element of the events it chronicles – even when its characters are not, strictly speaking, human. It was drawn in the 70s, but it could have been written yesterday; there’s not a trace of camp or silliness to be found. A truly timeless classic.

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(a dramatic sci-fi moment from Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra)

Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.

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2 Responses to Katherine looks back at The Magnificent 49ers and To Terra

  1. George says:

    I don’t have the books to hand right now, but there were two volumes of The Rose of Versailles published back in the early 80s, way before the current Manga boom. There’s a note to that effect on Wikipedia. It deserves being revisited though.


  2. jun says:

    I agree. We need more by these folks, and certainly “Rose of Versailles.” I’d also like “Oniisama E,” “Heart of Thomas,” and “The Song of Wind and Trees.” I say as much on every manga survey I fill out, but so far it’s been to no avail.