Right now, you are surrounded by micro-organisms. Millions of the little shits. Everywhere, every surface is teeming with life. Invisible, self-replicating life. So what would it be like if you had the ability to see such bacteria, fungi and viruses with the naked eye? And to communicate with them?
Such is the premise of Moyasimon. Tadayasu Sawaki was born with this ability, and having kept it hidden from all but his closest friends, he’s escaping life in his small rural village to go to university in Tokyo. Except, it’s not a traditional university – it’s an agricultural university that also operates as a working farm. Already you can tell that this isn’t exactly a by-the-numbers series.
Elements of Moyasimon mirror my previous favourite manga, Genshiken, which focussed on a group of university students. There are similar coming-of-age elements to the plot, which centers around a small social circle at the university – largely under the instruction of Professor Itsuki, a research scientist who takes interest in Sawaki due to his unique ability. In line with most manga, the characters which populate the world are strongly defined and larger than life, aside from the protagonist who, special ability aside, is something of a blank slate by comparison.
In line with the setting, there’s a strong educational air to the story, which casually peppers its dialogue with scientifically-accurate facts about micro-organisms. It’s rare I’ve read a comic which switches effortlessly from jokes about student cohabitation to discussion about the historical role of fermentation-as-preservation, or one that considers a deconstruction about the state of the Japanese sake industry suitable material for a chapter, but in spite of how that sounds, it really works. The information is delivered by characters who are genuinely passionate about what they’re discussing, so it never feels forced or unusual. On occasion, the humour in the series does tip into gross-out territory, although rather than aiming to shock, such reactions are deliberately evoked to expose cultural bias, as Professor Itsuki occasionally samples various traditional food products – for example, by sucking the fermented guts out of a seagull which has been buried in a seal carcass for a month (or, as the Canadian Inuits call it, Kiviak.)
Artistically, Moyasimon lacks a particularly distinctive style. The artwork is clean, attractive and realistic, but possibly a little generic – at least, on the surface, because the art is more than complemented by the character of the creator, Masayuki Ishikawa, whose side-notes and character thumbnails have you scouring even the margins of every page so that you don’t miss something. The designs for the micro-organisms themselves are brilliantly expressive and cute, and their distinct designs are also well thought out – it isn’t long before you learn to identify what specific fungus or bacterium you’re looking at purely from the visuals, which is good because that’s occasionally a plot device.
Any readers who have picked up the manga following the anime series will be largely familiar with the material in this volume, almost all of which were adapted into the first few episodes of the TV series – although the final chapter, in which the group take time out to play a round of Hornussen, a Swiss sport that’s a cross between Golf and Baseball, is entirely new and especially hilarious.
Quirky, well-constructed and utterly unlike anything else being released at the moment, Moyasimon is a fantastic reminder that manga isn’t purely about harems, fighting and androids. Intensely personal while conveying experiences that are immediately familiar, it entertains and educates both scientifically and culturally. Comics rarely get this good.