mō ichido, shōjo. (70s, 80s & 90s shōjo manga retrospective)

Shimizu Reiko - 22XX

  • Original publication: Zōkan Lala, Sept-Oct 1993 (Hakusensha)

This is my absolute favorite work by Shimizu Reiko.

Shimizu is well-known for her sweeping epics like Moon Child and Kaguyahime, but personally I've never really been able to get into them. Instead, I think she's a master short-story teller, and I think it's a perfect fit that her latest (and arguably most popular) work, Himitsu -- Top Secret, is a series of shorter stand-alone episodes.

22XX, too, is a science fiction short story. Its protagonist is Jack, a humanoid robot who is so well-made that for a significant part of his life, Jack didn't know he himself wasn't human. Jack appears in a series of short stories Shimizu has been writing since 1986, but it's not necessary to know that body of work to enjoy this story about him, which is really more of a prequel and an exploration of Jack's past, and stands alone perfectly well.

Like the title indicates, 22XX is set in the 23rd century. The human race has expanded beyond Earth, and bounty hunter Jack Nigel travels to the planet Menuet in the Cygnus constellation to rescue the planet's princess from a group of terrorists. Half of Menuet is covered in a deep rain forest, where Jack meets a girl, Ruby, from the local species of humanoid aliens.

Ruby's species are hunters, feared by everyone else on the planet because they hunt and eat every other species -- including humans. But Ruby tells Jack that her species never kills other than to eat, and that all consummation of of food (including cannibalism) is considered a sacred act intended to carry on the lives of those who came before, and through which they will live forever.

Jack, on the other hand, is a robot made to resemble humans to such a degree that he feels hunger. Everything he eats gets vacuum-compressed and excreted, never entering his system or becoming part of his body. When he gives a bird he killed to Ruby to eat, Jack unwittingly ends up proposing to her, and while they search for the princess' whereabouts together, Ruby's beliefs about food stirs awake a deep trauma from Jack's past.

What I love about Shimizu's science fiction short stories is that quite often, she doesn't use future science as merely a cool backdrop for her action; but rather, they are an exploration of the human condition through speculative science, in this case sentient robots. This manga explores one of the core concepts of being human: eating, and what it means that we must consume other life in order to live.

22XX is an absolutely perfect, self-contained piece of philosophical science fiction. The theme is explored through beautifully fleshed out characters, and let me tell you, when I was re-reading this on my commute to refresh my memory, I started crying buckets. In public.

I'd recommend it to anyone who has any interest in speculative fiction at all. In fact, shojo manga has so many classic science fiction stories to rival any of the big English-language novels that I think any serious SF fan ought to do themselves the favor of getting into the genre.

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