Tsutomu Nihei is another artist from my own personal art god pantheon. He’s also another one who doesn’t get talked about much for what he’s done. Which I mean, is kind of an achievement unto itself–who else do you know that is going to drop HR Giger, Enki Bilal, and Beksinski influences through a manga prism and not get talked about en masse? Nihei is pretty much the one place you can go to for what he does. Nihei is someone whose related artist section would just be a ghost town of pretenders. Which is weird. Because what he does SHOULD be influential, and SHOULD be changing how people tell stories in comics.
The work for which he is most known is Blame! In Blame! Nihei mastered this oppressive dirge of claustrophobic dungeon crawl cyberpunk for which he is now synonymous. Blame! is this incredible industrial medieval future thing which has that images from on high magic that you find in HR Giger’s work. He creates the future primordial.
What makes Nihei so special as an artist, and where his gifts are most oriented–are in his handling of space/scale. He is the only artist I know who can create both a sense of agoraphobia and claustrophobia almost simultaneously. He can take your breath away by scaling out dramatically and suddenly so that the badass protagonist of his work is just a dot in this oppressive architectural landscape. And then conversive to that he can create cramped and inescable coffin like settings for his characters. And beyond this visual space management, he has a storytelling scale that dusts into all of his stories. His stories involve all of these radical future technologies–but they exist always within their own past. Everything is 10,000 years removed from their frame of reference. And that distance creates a depression in the work. It is the narrative scale of better times that will never come again. The future with no future beyond the value of one step anchored slowly in front of the other.
Blame! expressed these strengths brilliantly–so brilliantly that it presented a problem in the work he followed it up with. Abara, Biomega, and Noise are all very good works–but they are works of genius refined–they are modulations of the same mastered notes of Blame! And that was fine too. An artist like Nihei–you almost just want to see him push that style as far as he can. But then a funny thing happened at the end of biomega. The second half of Biomega completely devolves. Nihei starts flipping his style, and starts changing the tone of the story he is interested in telling. It damages Biomega as a cohesive work–but as a transitory work leading into Knights of Sidonia it’s fascinating. In these last two works, we see an artist finally ready to break out of his shell and enter what I’d called Nihei Phase II.
Knights of Sidonia is the first full work to come out of this new Nihei. And because of that I think that it is the most important work by Nihei since Blame! And worth paying attention to in it’s own right. It is an utterly fascinating work to read, particularly if you are at all familiar with what Nihei was doing before–because you can almost see in the construction of Sidonia that Nihei has placed restraints and obstacles in his way–challenges designed to force him into an evolve or die situation as an artist. It is kind of like watching that film The Five Obstructions where Lars Von Trier torments Jørgen Leth by placing cruelly designed torments in the way of Leth’s filmmaking as almost a kind of film therapy in order to get him out of his rut. We are seeing that in Knights of Sidonia–but this time it is the artist himself who is setting up the torments.
The first obstruction is one of genre. Knights of Sidonia is organized narratively in the standard shonen blueprint that drives books like Naruto, One Piece, Dragonball Z and so on. The summary of the plot for Sidonia is that the solar system and earth were destroyed by these globular alien creatures sending humanity into exile into the cosmos BSG style. Mankind lives for tens of thousands of years in this space imprisoned exileaboard the massive ship Sidonia. A ship so large it has it’s own ocean. Knights of Sidonia is the story of a mysterious boy Tanikaze Nagate who coming from mysterious origins acts as a savior against the alien monsters threatening the Sidonia. It is the basic shonen set up of “loner boy with mysterious powers he doesn’t understand, becoming the savior of a community which initially rejects him”. What makes this so crazy for a Nihei book is that this setup is pretty much the antithesis of every book he’s done to this point. To this point, Nihei’s books basically all revolve around a “fully formed loner badass, who shoots his way through monsters and buildings with no change in characterization from beginning to end”. So Nihei’s major narrative proclivity is a lot of images of the isolated killing machine climbing around rubble not talking to much of anyone unless it is for information. Sidonia is the opposite of that. Now Nihei has to deal with a character who is a part of a static community, who has to develop relationships, grow as a character, and who has to kind of be the opposite of the badass loner character. Additionally because it is a mecha manga, the agency by which the central protaganist affects change through action is now even further removed than it was in previous Nihei stories–where the machine used was usually a single gun, or as in Abara the mecha like being was inside of the character already. By moving to mechs, the protagonist is now reliant on whole communities of staff for his potency in the field. If the engineer doesn’t invent the new version of the mech for Tanikaze then he is just a dude walking around a spaceship. So in this way, even in his usage of power, Nihei has forced a level of community that was not previously required from his heroes.
This is a huge risk for Nihei, but the way it ends up coming off is really entertaining and interesting. Rather than falling into predictable patterns dictated by the Shonen genre–we get this almost Lynchian take on this genre. There are parts, especially early on in Knights of Sidonia that are very much sort of creepy archetypal melodrama parody. It is really compelling in its awkwardness. It is like the Blue Velvet version of Space Battleship Yamamoto(and who doesn’t want to read THAT comic?)
The next obstruction that Nihei places in front of himself is in the setting itself. The story takes place in this absolutely massive spaceship. Which on the one hand, yeah it’s massive enough that Nihei can still stretch his wings for crazy architecture–but unlike any other setting in Nihei’s previous work–it IS contained. There is no voyage within the spaceship itself. There is no racing around to get to a particular place. No climbing through the rubble. Which is again, about as tough a situation Nihei could put himself in. But I love watching him deal with this new kind of problem. His answer to the problem is of course to turn the spaceship itself into the traveler. The Sidonia’s endless voyage through the blackness of space is a macro-metaphorical incarnation of the journey of all protagonists previous in Nihei’s work.
Which leads into another element of obstruction that Nihei has introduced. And that is the lack of gravity. Gravity and the sense of it is a key component of all of Nihei’s previous work. You feel the strain of the motorcycle in Biomega as it fights gravity in it’s grab for speed. You feel gravity every time you see one of Nihei’s massive buildings stretching up impossibly against it. Or when you look down into endless abyss after endless abyss. I mean, one can summarize Blame! as Killy’s struggle upward. Or alternatively, his struggle against the downward pull of the abyss behidn him. By setting the action and the voyage of Sidonia in a zero gravity space, he removes direction as a component. Initially in Sidonia he tries to use the ship itself to denote a direction in relation to the mechs during the battle scenes–but as he gets more comfortable–a darker more interesting tactic begins to take hold. The blackness of space takes over as it’s own direction. There is no longer up and down. But light and darkness. Being and nothingness. The scaling is no longer accomplished in relation to the earth and the pull of gravity–but the relation of light to darkness. Which when you consider the cleaner haloed line style that Nihei employs in Sidonia–is really quite moving. At times the white halos encasing his characters seem to be the only thing between them and the fear of the endless void all around them.
This obstruction in line is probably the most controversial of the series. For Knights of Sidonia Nihei has opted to employ a cleaner more sterile art style–which for an artist who has basically built his career on being grimey–is a really brave move. The challenge Nihei seems to be playing with is the extent to which he is tied to the style of Blame! What he seems to be exploring in Knights of Sidonia is whether he can still tell the type of story he wants to tell–if he can still be Nihei if he restrains everything that to this point has established what we know of Nihei as an artist. And I’ll admit. At first it is very hard to tell whether he is going to pull it off. The chapters which make up the first volume of Sidonia are very awkward in their implementation–as Nihei struggles to find his footing amidst all of this new territory. But as the series develops he finds the beat and settles into a groove. As a reader and a Nihei fan, I think the beginning of Knights of Sidonia hits you with a lot of anxiety. You worry if you’ve lost the things which made you love Nihei under the weight of this dramatic change. Which is a bit of a panic situation, because as I stated–there’s really nowhere else to go for the kind of fix that Nihei serves. But as you stick with it–you find not just the things you always loved about Nihei–but a new kind of Nihei. And that is a completely exciting development to watch unfold.
I would compare it to reading Frank Miller’s Ronin in that part of the appeal is that you are seeing an artist grow and evolve before your eyes where they would have been perfectly justified to stay static and just stick to what’s safe. Knights of Sidonia is highwire comics and some parts do succeed more than others. But the successes are of a kind that are singular to Tsutomu Nihei and can’t be found elsewhere. This is the first work of Nihei’s that is outside the shadow of Blame! And I am completely excited to see where it goes, and where Nihei ends up.
Beyond all of that, there are lots of fun future tech ideas flying around in this book. The most interesting of which for me, was the way that the citizens of Sidonia have evolved past binary gender relations. It makes sense given that they are a community mostly of clones and plant people who don’t need male/female binaries to procreate. One of Tanikaze’s best friends, and romantic interests is this character Izana Shinatose who identifies as neither male or female. And while androgyny is definitely part and parcel of a lot of japanese manga–it’s always interesting to see that as a western reader given how slim the pickings on our side of the ocean are on that front. The only mainstream book in American comics that does anything similar is the Brandon Graham/Giannis Milogiannis issues of Prophet which also included androgynous prophet clones. It is something I would not mind seeing more of in western comics–it would at the very least spring open some new kinds of stories and characters who haven’t really had their moment in the sun yet.
All of that taken into account, I think Knights of Sidonia is amazing and a worthy addition to the canon of one of comic’s most original minds. Is is currently ongoing in the japanese magazine Afternoon. And then It is actually coming out in North America in February via Vertical, and I hope they stick with it. As I mentioned earlier, the first volume is a little rocky, and most of the negative comments about the series are from people who read the beginning and then stopped. But if Vertical is patient and the readers are patient–Sidonia absolutely goes into very interesting places, and offers something very fresh and unique. This IS an important work, by an important artist. There is no one in comics really coming from where Nihei is coming from. And there are things he tries in his comics, that no one else really even dares to try, let alone pulls off. So it is of value to pay attention to what he is doing. And I hope that people do.