I don’t read enough manga. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s that I find it hard to relax with a book, or more specifically with the physical shape of a book, a codex. To ‘come home after a hard day’s reading and relax with a book’ carries a certain contradiction, as I’m sure you can see.
But I try. After all, manga has a number of practical advantages over anime as a form of entertainment: it’s much cheaper, and it’s available in the UK pretty much as soon as it’s available in the US because (glory be!) books don’t have those pesky Region Code thingies. [Wouldn't life be awful if they did?]
Credit is therefore due to Kaoishin-sama for putting me onto Ecole du Ciel. Ecole has what it takes to interest me: obscurity value, curiosity value and hawt Mobile Suit-on-Mobile Suit action value. Plus the manga-ka is Mikimoto Haruhiko, who has an impressive set of character design credits including a number of Macrosses (and the animation direction for Do You Remember Love?) and War in the Pocket. And the first volume arrived in my letterbox recently, so here I am talking about it.
Well, then. After a period of visual confusion over the cover (‘Am I meant to be looking at the bosom or the Zaku? Mmm . . . Zakus . . .’) I dive in and it’s surprisingly un-bad. Plot-wise this initially feels like ‘Gundam Academy’, a mixture of Mobile Suits and more traditional school elements (rival, best friend, crush et cetera), but in science fiction schools have an alarming tendency to turn out to be more than they seem.
I’m tempted to link this to the audience: growing up in the Nervous Nineties or the Paranoid Noughties, I imagine it’s pretty common to have the occasional fantasy that one’s school is part of something more shady. Added to this, too, is the tendency to read the world as entirely centred around oneself – Real Life as a story with oneself as the hero. Adolescence is a time of tension between increasing independence and the meddling of authority figures in one’s life; reading stories about the manipulation of the Third Child and others of his ilk probably acts as a useful, safely fictional pressure valve.
But – and I for one think that this is a good thing – rather than having the odd menacing hint that something isn’t right, Ecole makes it very clear that the school is a facade only a few pages in. The Titans, who appear to be bankrolling the operation, want Newtypes and they want them now; confrontation between Earth and the Colonies is imminent and this feels a little like the hurried British effort to build more fighter planes in the summer of 1939. Except, of course, that Newtypes aren’t weapons, they’re people.
[Worrying, no? And not so very different from the desire of governments the world over that 'their' universities and schools should churn out skilled workers with valuable qualifications, as opposed to (just hypothetically speaking) well-rounded, cultured young people. But I will restrain myself from a History Boys-esque rant, merely noting that I am not a mere worker, and do not wish to be seen as one. I am not a number.¹]
Beyond the school-paranoia element, we’re dealing here with teenaged characters, which means anxiety about family, identity and of course the struggle with failure. [Broken glass / shattered visage? Check. Blood? Check. Water? Check. Thank goodness this isn't the main character I'm describing.] All this is rather pedestrian, but thankfully it doesn’t overpower the story – it’s a facet rather than the focus – and much of the time Ecole is surprisingly light-hearted.
For me, the focus is on the aforementioned hawt Mobile Suit-on-Mobile Suit action. And it is hawt. For those of you well-versed in the patois (which I’m still working my way into), we’re dealing with GMs, Guntanks and a simulated-but-still-awesome Zaku here, so currently we’re in the 08th MS Team territory of pretty convincing MS combat: lots of emphasis on early detection, the use of sensors and swift reaction, plus lots of actual damage.
[Remind me: did the Strike Freedom Gundam ever even have its paintjob scratched?]
There’s an especially fine Zaku vs. GM rumble which combines the visual brutality of a brawl with the rapid, ‘physical’ flow of thought I recall with pleasure from my épée years, in a lush, firebombed urban landscape rich in rubble and shattered concrete. This, too, is rather reminiscent of World War II, although it may be that this is simply the most recent British experience of urban devastation and so is my natural comparison. [It's probably best not to mention 'urban devastation', 'World War II' and 'Japan' together; besides, earthquakes have provided the Japanese with more recent experience of the ruined cityscape.]
I can see Ecole du Ciel going to some quite interesting places – there’re some nooks and crannies in the history of the Universal Century to be explored, I can see a potential love triangle (Mikimoto has a long Macross history, remember) and I can’t believe these students are going to be messing about in GMs forever.
But the actual main content of the first volume is surpassed by the interview in the back with Sayama Yoshinori, the mechanical designer. As someone who’s going through a fascination with mechanical design, this really is a goldmine. Among other things, Sayama discusses the implications of removing the GM’s head to create the GM trainer seen in Ecole (‘Without the head, the first thing the viewer notices is the silhouette of the body’);² the use of computer modelling during design; the emotional investment³ that viewers make in Mobile Suits, and how this affects the way that he draws an MS with a brief appearance as opposed to a recurring MS; how training in anime design work has affected the way he designs for manga; and just what would happen if he was asked to redesign the Zaku (apparently, it would become more tank-like).
Taken together, the first volume of Ecole du Ciel was well worth the surprisingly low price I paid for it: I doubt it’ll be a classic manga, but it’s entertaining in an adolescent way and the mechanical design stuff really is quite interesting (although not, on its own, justification for buying it).
Oh yes, did I mention that the main character is in fact a girl? No?
Not to worry. It’s probably unimportant.
1. Since we’re on the subject of The Prisoner, I was thinking the other day about how said show took refuge in intentionally indecipherable symbolism, and decided that Evangelion is essentially The Prisoner with added mecha, angst and fanservice. Also, the educational analogy is shaky: piloting a Mobile Suit, however it is taught, does not enrich you culturally.
3. Icky Freudian mechanical designers (if there are any) might refer to this as ‘cathexis‘.