This week's manga gets a thumbs-up from my good buddy and fellow manga addict Jason Thompson, even though he was never a preteen girl, so you know it's gotta be good.
Old-lady otaku like me are probably familiar with Please Save My Earth through the six-episode anime, which was in heavy rotation on the con circuit back when very little anime had been released in English. (I know, I know, it's hard to believe, but there really was a time when this stuff wasn't running 24/7 on the Cartoon Network.) I recall the anime being decent, if totally angsty, but it's extremely truncated and pales beside the epic 21-volume manga.
Okay, the plot, for those of you who aren't old-lady otaku. A teenager named Alice learns that two of her classmates have been having strange dreams about the moon. Soon afterwards, she dreams that she's a woman named Mokuren, living on the moon with a man named Shion. Eventually, Alice and her trippy new friends find a whole group of teenagers who have had the "moon dreams," and they work out the truth: they're the reincarnations of alien scientists who all died while stationed on Earth's moon. Shut up, it makes total sense.
At first, exploring their past lives is almost like a game (or like an RPG -- that's why Jason likes it! Ha ha!). But complications arise, mostly through Rin, the most troublesome member of the group. All the other moon dreamers are teenagers, but Rin is only eight years old. There's a reason for this, and it drives much of the story, as the group gets caught up in old cycles of jealousy and revenge, and the messes left behind in their previous lives catch up to them. It's so karmic.
In fact, PSME is so great that I love it even though it features both of my least favorite things in shojo manga: the useless, passive heroine and the asshole "bad boy" love interest. Actually, in PSME the romantic lead is SO bad that he doubles as the psychotic, world-threatening villain of the piece. It's pretty dysfunctional. And Alice is a totally limp little Mary Sue, crying at the drop of a damn hat. Okay, if people tried to get me engaged to an eight-year-old, I'd be upset, but I wouldn't CRY about it. Sheesh.
And yet the story is totally compelling, and I'll be damned if Saki Hiwatari doesn't make me care desperately about these characters and the problems that are mostly their own damn fault. On a story level, a couple of things really impress me. One is the overall care shown to the plotting. The plot is fairly complex and subtle by manga standards (which, admittedly, ain't saying much), and Hiwatari keeps it together over the course of the story (or at least up to Volume 16, which is as far as I've read; maybe it all falls apart in the final volumes, like so many manga do). The other is the characterization. Hiwatari manages to get across the idea that the moon researchers and the Japanese kids really are the same people, even though they're in different bodies, are at drastically different levels of maturity, and, in some cases, are the opposite gender. (Yeah, like a shojo manga isn't going to go there.) It's amazingly well-done, and as the changes the characters have undergone from one life to the next become clearer, it becomes really poignant. She does an eerily good job of making Rin look like an adult inhabiting the body of a child (oh, and did I mention that everyone has PSYCHIC POWERS?):
As a matter of fact, the manga is so weirdly plausible that Hiwatari started getting letters from crazed fans convinced that they, too, were reincarnations of the moon people. Eventually the publisher had to put a disclaimer on every volume of PSME stating that it was strictly a work of fiction. Seriously, the manga needed a disclaimer to stop readers from FORMING A CULT BASED ON IT BEING REAL. Not even Spider-Man has that level of fandom.
Also, I just want to say that Hiwatari may be the nerdiest manga artist I've come across. She's obviously a giant manga fangirl, and in the early volumes of PSME she works in tons of references to her favorite obsessions, especially Saint Seiya--known in America as Knights of the Zodiac, and also as one of the manga I, Shaenon K. Garrity, edit for Viz. You can pretty much always get on my good side with hilarious Saint Seiya jokes. Here, for example, in a moment that overwhelmed me with radness, Alice and Rin appear as Phoenix Saint Ikki and Andromeda Saint Shun, for no good reason:
And I know it's a hotly contested race, but Hiwatari might also take the prize for most deranged-looking manga self-portrait:
Anyway, the good thing about this manga nerdiness is that Hiwatari steals from some excellent sources. It's pretty obvious that she's a fan of the great shojo creator Moto Hagio, everybody's favorite manga artist what don't get no respect here in the land of wind and ghosts, and PSME seems to borrow a lot of its sci-fi elements and alien culture from Hagio's work. The art is a little Hagioriffic, too. This two-page spread, for instance, is totally kickin' it Year 24 style:
So that's Please Save My Earth. It's pretty solid. Plus you learn a lot about flowers. Flowers and death pacts.