The demise of IKKI was sad for a whole bunch of reasons. Over its run, the magazine created its own little niche in the manga market, publishing things of all genres, despite ostensibly being a seinen magazine. It seemed like the only real commonality between the wide variety of manga serialized in those pages was that they were different from everything else, not just in the magazine, but in the world of manga itself. And yet it was still somehow mainstream, or at least mainstream-adjacent, carried in most bookstores and attracting readers from all demographics. Over its 11-year run under editor-in-chief Hideki Egami, works as diverse as Chin Nakamura’s Gunjo, Natsume Ono’s Sairaya Goyo, and Daisuke Igarashi’s Kaiju no Kodomo made their homes in its pages. When IKKI ceased publication in the fall of 2014, many of its series migrated to Gekkan Spirits (Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto, for example) while others were the anchors in the launch of IKKI’s successor, Hibana (Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida). But it was decided that Brain favourites Golondrina by est em and Wombs by Yumiko Shirai would finish out their runs in tankobon form.
That was two years ago. Two years of waiting and wondering when I would finally get to see how these very different stories turn out. I’m still waiting for the final volume(s?) of Golondrina, but Shirai managed to bring her epic, space war, alien pregnancy sci-fi series to an end earlier this year. Of course, given the level of intricate detail in this series and how long it had been since I read the first four books, I had to go back and re-read them all so that I could finally get to the last book and learn just what happened to Mana Oga. And of course, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Japan this year, while the Wombs books were in my apartment in Canada, so I haven’t quite been able to manage to be proximate to the books when I was ready to take on the challenge of re-reading them. Until now. Yes, it’s time to take a look at Wombs as a completed work. Finally.
So there will be spoilers. I can’t discuss the entire series without getting a little into some plot stuff, although I’ll avoid the big reveals so I won’t ruin any of the real surprises. But if you want to read spoiler-free thoughts, go back and read my first take on this series. Seriously. If you don’t want to know how all this turns out, click on that link now. Okay? I warned you.
First of all, goddammit! Why has no one licensed this in English?? I know I ask this question all the time, and I know that I know the answer to it, but this series is just so, so impressive and deserving and would totally find an audience, albeit a small, weird one. Shirai has such an amazing gift for world building; I find myself just wanting to read other stories set in the same world. There’s such detail revealed in such a natural way, like Mana stuffing herself on food and still feeling unsated before jumping to a place with a weird plant that has a particular mineral her “transport device” aka alien baby needs. This little detail–which takes up a few pages–doesn’t change a single thing about the course of the story, it only serves to make the world feel real, richer and deeper. And the entire series is full of these careful observations. Nothing feels forced, in the way of an info dump. We learn the ins and outs of this faraway world and its ongoing war as the characters are exposed to them. I would happily read endless side stories in this universe. I mean, Shirai created a whole army of characters—any one of them is bound to have a rich story of her own.
And given that the last volume of the series is almost twice as thick as any of the books, Shirai seems to feel the same way. We get glimpses of Kath’s old life as a cook with her husband, Maria’s attachment to her young daughter and her pain at being away from her, and even, finally, the story behind Almea, their tough-as-nails sergeant. There are just so many layers of story. You have Mana’s personal narrative, moving from innocent farm girl to a war-weary soldier capable of facing down an alien boss in an alternate dimension—a transformation that seems almost ludicrous when I put it like that, but is so natural and gradual in the book that it’s totally believable. Surrounding Mana are her “sisters”, the women in her squad who were all given transport devices at the same time. They are embedded in the larger story of the original transport squad led by Commander Saura, the woman who tapped into the coordinate space of the Neebas, back when the army was using women implanted with transport devices as nothing more than human explosives. The background to Saura’s story is, of course, the war between the First and the Second, and no story of war is complete without sudden betrayals and espionage. Shirai expertly weaves these tales in and out of each other, always anchoring her reader with Mana’s personal journey.
She asks some big questions too, the way good sci-fi usually does. What does it mean to be a woman, to be a mother, to be an “other”? Mana and the other new recruits are afraid at first, having heard the strange rumours about the Neebas, seen the bigoted propaganda. But their superior officers reassure them they are not carrying Neebas fetuses, but merely neutralized transport devices. But of course, that is not entirely the truth, and as she learns what is really going on the labs of the transport corps research division, Mana is forced to ask herself some difficult questions. By bearing the Neebas fetuses, the women of the transport corps are robbed of their ability to have their own children. By being vehicles of war, they are no longer vehicles for life.
The women in the transport corps are simultaneously hated and loved, the whore and the madonna writ alien. They have the power to rescue every other soldier in the military, but they are also a terrifying unknown. No man, of course, can ever see this mysterious coordinate space the women move through. They’re forced to yield to the women, which doesn’t sit well with many of them, including the higher-ups. Including supposed allies. Although Shirai never makes this an us vs them thing. Not between men and women, not between human and alien. She makes us empathize with the “other” at every turn, offering hints of what’s possible when we turn away from hate.
There’s so much beauty and tragedy and joy and all the other emotions in these pages. The first half of volume five has the same steady pacing as the first four volumes, with an escalating sense of urgency as she takes us deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole. But the last half of the book feels a bit rushed; there are more panels of exposition in the last couple of chapters than there are in the rest of the series. It definitely feels like Shirai could have easily kept the story going through to volume seven. But given that she no longer had a magazine to serialize the chapters in, I’m sure it would have been hard to convince an editor to let her do not one, but two volumes of previously unpublished chapters. (Although it was apparently serialized online at IKKI, I doubt it was getting the readership there that it was in the actual magazine.)
Each of the five volumes of Wombs is gorgeous, full of intricate images of an utterly unfathomable alien race and planet, all springing from the head of an incredible artist. Some of the images in these pages are honestly breathtaking, and all of them are working in perfect sync with the story, lifting it up to even loftier places. All of this makes me sad as hell that there are no more books coming, but also glad that we got the five we did. It feels impossible that this story even exists at all, as weird and utterly beautiful as it is. So I will accept the five books we did get and satisfy myself with re-reading them until Shirai does something new I can dive deep into.