Imagine if the king of scavengers was 6 and a half feet tall, bipedal, and had a bone to pick with humanity.
It's said you can't judge a book by its cover, but I freely admit I picked up テラフォーマーズ (Terra Formars ("Terra for Mars" get it?)) based solely on the cover art – and I didn't regret it. Terra Formars is an ongoing science fiction manga about the never-ending struggle for supremacy between humans and cockroaches, and it's pretty awesome.
Nearly 600 years in the future, humanity has looked to its neighbor, Mars, to serve as a second home for the ever-increasing population. In order to make the red planet hospitable for humans, 2 specimens are sent for a long-term terraforming project – a special moss and cockroaches.
In the year 2557, a team of 6 astronauts are sent to Mars to survey and capture a cockroach sample to see how they have evolved over the years, and find out why every probe they have sent has ceased transmitting. There they find that the cockroaches – called "terraformers" – have undergone a dramatic evolution over the generations, becoming 6 and a half feet tall, while retaining most of the qualities that make cockroaches so damn hard to kill – and they instinctively hate humans.
In the year 2599, after the massacre of the first Mars survey team, a second ship, the BUGS 2, is sent to Mars with a crew of 15 on a mission to eradicate the evolved cockroaches. Unlike the previous failed mission, the members of the BUGS 2 have undergone a special operation to give them the ability to fight the terraformers: The abilities of other bugs.
Straight up, Terra Formars is high-octane entertainment – lots of cool action and captivating plot twists out of nowhere. Right from the start, once the first cockroach is encountered, the manga picks up and doesn't stop, and it's a Hell of an entertaining ride.
That said, it's also fairly formulaic. The events of a battle could probably be mapped with a flow chart. What makes Terra Formars interesting is the bug ability plot mechanic.
Terra Formars asks the reader to suspend their disbelief and imagine what the abilities of a bug would be like if they were blown up to human size – an ant can lift 100 times its weight, so a human with ant powers can lift 100 times his weight. Physics be damned, it's actually a lot of fun. This scaling up of bug abilities is also what makes the adversary terraformers a genuinely threatening and scary foe.
Rarely will I critique a manga based on its artwork, because that's a highly subjective aspect. However, as previously mentioned, in the case of Terra Formars, the artwork is what made me pick it up in the first place so I feel it bears further mention.
For me, the character design and style of artist Kenichi Tachibana hit the mark right from the start. It felt the perfect balance of not too simplistic, yet not overly detailed, clean, yet real enough to be convincing. The character designs are excellent, too. All of the characters, even the minor ones, manage to look unique and yet attractive. But don't get too attached. There's a lot of death to spread around, even for the main characters – and some of it's pretty gruesome.
In my Akumetsu review, I mentioned something I call "Tenjou Tenge syndrome." Terra Formars suffers from what I call "Baki syndrome" – where the author goes on long expositions talking about the many fascinating and freakish aspects of the bugs of the world. Most, if not all, of the in-battle plot twists come from these expository moments – where the tide will turn because of some previously unrevealed characteristic or ability that a character will pull out at the last moment, and the story comes to a screeching halt as the author takes a moment to explain. Basically, the outcome of battle generally is due to, well, facts.
The Baki method of combat resolution is very effective, but it can get tired and overused. At the moment, Terra Formars hasn't overstayed its welcome with its use, but it can only hold for so long.
Terra Formars is very plot-driven. I often talk about plot-driven versus character-driven stories and I admit that I have a bias in believing that character driven stories are more engaging. Even so, plot-driven as it is, Terra Formars manages to be entertaining and generally a whole lot of fun.
Terra Formars' biggest flaw is most likely in its formulaic layout of battle events, but don't let that deter you. If you like suspenseful science fiction action where no one – not even the main characters – is safe, and you enjoy a sprinkling of trivial knowledge throughout, this is well worth a read.
Terra Formars is currently licensed by Viz Media and volume 1 of the official English translation is available.
A friend of mine pointed out to me that they thought the depiction of the humanoid cockroaches in Terra Formars was racist against black people. While this does not lessen my overall impressions of the manga as I don't feel it's intentional, it may be worth mentioning for those who feel sensitive.
Manga Title: Terra Formars
Author: Story: Yu Sasuga Art: Kenichi Tachibana
Note: The prequel chapter that depicts the events of the first survey mission, the BUGS 1, can be read for free online here (Japanese only).
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.
To contact the author of this post, write to cogitoergonihilATgmail.com or find him on Twitter @tnakamura8.