From his raw beginnings with the cyberpunk classic Blame! we can see how much Tsutomu Nihei’s work has changed and grown in his more recent title – Knights of Sidonia.
Manga Title: Knights of Sidonia (Sidonia no Kishi)
Mangaka: Tsutomu Nihei
Genres: Science-fiction, space opera, mecha, romance
Taking place in the distant future, the space colony called Sidonia sails through space. Centuries prior to the start of the manga, humanity encountered an alien race known as the Gauna. Sometime after, a war between the huge aliens and humanity broke out, forcing people to flee earth aboard ‘seed ships’. Sidonia is one such ship, a wondrous, self-sustaining community that has made many advances not only in technology but also in genetic engineering.
Here we meet Nagate Tanikaze, a young man who dwells in the vast underground of Sidonia with his grandfather. Shortly after his grandfather passes away, Nagate embarks on a journey to the upper levels in search of food, finding himself in an unfamiliar world in the process.
Above the surface
The dwellers on the surface of Sidonia have discovered how to ‘photosynthesize’ thus reducing their need to digest real food to about once a week. Nagate is immediately seen as strange for not being able to photosynthesize and having a ravenous appetite. After being apprehended for stealing rice, he’s taken to the authorities who then inexplicably escort him to meet Sidonia’s captain – the mysterious Kobayashi.
Nagate and Captain Kobayashi
Kobayashi asks him to become a trainee guardian pilot – pilots who fly mechs (or frames) known as guardians to defend Sidonia against the Gauna. Nagate accepts and begins his training, meeting many other members of Sidonia’s guardian force.
The Gauna are a bizarre race, being able to traverse space and having grotesque, squid-like forms. Their bodies are constructed of something called ‘placenta’ – a substance the Gauna secrete to cover their true body, known as the ‘core’. The core is impervious to all weaponry, except for specially crafted lances called ‘Kabizashi’. Only by directly piercing the core of a Gauna with a Kabizashi is one able to destroy it.
Nagate faces a Gauna
Nagate is given the privilege of piloting the legendary guardian named Tsugumori, a frame which was used previously by a hero in mankind’s wars against the Gauna. This gains Nagate the disdain of one of his fellow pilots, Norio Kunato, who comes from an influential family and hopes for fame and glory. After his first sortie in which Nagate encounters a Gauna and helps repel it in the Tsugumori, he gains some status for being able to actually fight back against the powerful enemies.
Our hero, once called ‘the mole man’ for living underground, becomes an object of fascination for many. Nagate is befriended by the amiable Izana, one of a new sex who are capable of procreating with males or females thereby making them asexual. Izana Shinatose takes a liking to the clumsy and rather incapable Nagate, becoming somewhat of a partner for him. Another pilot he befriends is Shizuka Hoshijiro, a young woman who attempts to rescue Nagate when they encounter the Gauna on a mining mission. To the jealousy of Izana, Nagate becomes fond of Hoshijiro and the two quickly form a close bond.
Hoshijiro and Izana
Before the end of volume one it’s announced that the Gauna repelled earlier has returned, and a task force consisting of four well-known warriors will be going out to engage it. Whether or not they will be able to defeat the seemingly invincible Gauna or not remains to be seen…
Aside from overall story structure, pacing and plot differences, another major distinction between Sidonia no Kishi and Blame! is the amount of character development. All of the main characters have a significant amount of interaction and details about their backgrounds are introduced.
Making an unlikely protagonist with his clumsy and naïve mannerisms, Nagate is nonetheless a literal powerhouse once he gets into the cockpit. Being unaware of the history as well as the politics on Sidonia, Nagate innocently follows the commands of Captain Kobayashi to battle the Gauna. While Izana and Hoshijiro are protecting him mostly when on Sidonia, in space he’s capable of protecting them and becomes a clearheaded, resourceful pilot. At times his obliviousness can get a bit much, but it’s made up for with his earnest attitude and caring towards the inhabitants of Sidonia and his friends.
Being an asexual, Izana has boyish features that might be described as ‘bishounen’, his/her mannerisms though, from way of walking to caring for Nagate are quite feminine. Izana is a composed person, and this togetherness acts as a good foil for Nagate. There are some comic and awkward moments between the two of them that make me wonder where their relationship might be headed in future.
Hoshijiro is a similarly sturdy and mature person. She’s equally considerate towards Nagate, whether on Sidonia or the battlefield. While neither of them have expressed any feelings for each other in volume one, there’s an obvious chemistry between them right from the start.
Another character worthy of mentioning is Kunato. His first appearance in the manga is when he knocks Nagate unconscious for stealing rice. Kunato is galled at Nagate’s being chosen to pilot Tsugumori as well as at his popularity thereafter. Coming from the wealthy family behind Kunato industries, who develop the guardians for Sidonia, he’s arrogant and two-faced.
Knights of Sidonia combines what are elements I already enjoyed in Nihei’s previous work, with additional depth in storytelling and fleshed-out characterization. Despite being a lot more up-beat, it still retains a brooding atmosphere, with the threat of the Gauna being ever present and the persisting secrets about their origins nagging.
Its hard science-fiction themes are well thought out and explained, while at the same time using a more show and less tell approach that leaves out just enough details to keep you guessing. In this regard it has everything the sci-fi lover could ask for: mecha, aliens, space opera and big spaceships.
Nihei’s art is as usual – stunning. The backgrounds, architecture and mecha in Knights of Sidonia are detailed and eye-catching, mixing elements of modern Japan with a dystopian, futuristic feel. Despite the comparatively simple character designs, they have a style and charm that could only be delivered by Nihei.
This is the first series for me in a long time that’s felt like a more serious sci-fi manga. My first impressions of it left me with a ‘Ghost in the Shell’ kind of feel, not because of the topics dealt with but simply the lesser amount of usual manga tropes and its more serious nature. That’s not to say the series is completely without tropes, it’s more the way they’re dealt with.
What little fanservice there is, is placed seriously too, and almost achieves the opposite effect of what it normally would. The characters are likeable and at the same time no-nonsense. That’s also not to say they don’t do silly things, there’s plenty of that, but it’s done earnestly and the meanings behind everyone’s actions all play their part in broadening the story.
KOS style humor
Once again, I started reading this series directly after the anime finished airing. As of the date I’m writing this article, Knights of Sidonia has a second season which is green-lit for November. I’m confident in saying that this show can be enjoyed just as much after reading the manga or vice-versa. The fact that Nihei’s work has been given an anime adaption completely in CG seems fitting for this modern master of cyberpunk and sci-fi.