11 February 2018

Some Thoughts About Wombs

Chapter 42 and the epilogue are now out, meaning that Wombs is fully scanlated into English after about 1.5 years! *pats Happyscans and myself on the back* Really though, I should thank that one anon on /a/ who told me I seriously needed to check Wombs out back in early 2016, because without him, I would have overlooked this last gem serialized in Monthly Ikki before its unfortunate passing in 2014 (RIP).
Shirai Yumiko pictured upon receiving the Nihon SF Taishou Award
And that's just not my hot opinions talking, because Shirai Yumiko received the 37th Nihon SF Taishou Award for Wombs in 2017. That award means a fair bit, because it's the general category that is competing with not just sci-fi manga, but sci-fi fiction in general. So in honour of that, here's my little commentary on Wombs.

Download:
Wombs c42+Epilogue:   Mega
Wombs v5:   Mega
All previous volumes:   Mega
Yes, I know the Bechdel test has its flaws, but it was always meant to simply point
the ridiculousness of female representation in movies than to be a rigorous test.
I'm not a feminist but I'll be the first to admit that when around half of movies today still can't pass something as inanely simple as the Bechdel test, there is something off about how women are popularly depicted in popular media. For me, personally, the "action heroine" is the subset of fictional female characters that I find most "problematic" (Oh god, I'm turning into one of them! Send help- ). Why? Because all the memorable action heroines I've seen in my short life have all seemed to largely fall into two categories. One category is the type of action heroine whose essence isn't all that feminine. By this, I mean that the story would work just as fine if she were a he. An example would Ellen Ripley from Alien, or more recently, Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. I know there are people who would highly disagree with me, saying these are quintessentially "female" heroines, but for me, their heroic attributes and relevant backstories would still work quite well even if they were male. Meanwhile, the second category is some variant of a femme fatale-esque heroine who can not only kick ass but knows that she looks good doing so. Basically, if hyper-sexualization is necessary to an action heroine, then she falls under this category. The majority of anime, manga, and video games are full of such figures. Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy both categories and am personally quite looking forward to Bayonetta 3. But it does seem rather sad that nearly all the action heroines we love either depend heavily on their sexualization to define their female identity, or are the kinds of heroines whose female identities aren't essential. Is being an "action hero" an essentially gender-less quality? Or is it possible to construct a female character who can be an action hero for a quintessentially feminine reason aside from her sexualization?
To me, this is one major reason why Wombs is such a memorable manga. It gives a resounding "yes" to the question I just posed. The entirety of Wombs is based on a premise that simply would not work if Mana Oga and the other transfer soldiers were male. They are all asked to offer the most feminine part of their body to the state in order to defend their friends, families, and homes. And the brilliance of the plot is in the "feminine struggle" that is carefully crafted on multiple levels: the individual, the corps, the army, and the society.
Feminine Struggle within the Individual:
By this, I mean the internal conflict for many of the characters concerning some element of their female identity. For instance, Shadyine Orlant (aka Shedd) is the tomboyish character who wants her abilities to define her identity, rather than her gender. That's why she initially finds it so frustrating to be conscripted into the Transfer Corps even though she's been pushing herself for most of her life until then to become a full-fledged pilot. As she confesses in the above image, "Wasn't that [Transfer Corps service] something anybody with a womb could do? Then, why pick me?" Another example is Catherine May (aka Cass) who feels inadequate as a woman and overly sensitive to any disparaging remark towards her marriage and the love for her husband because she's unable to conceive. These two are hardly the only examples but it should suffice to demonstrate my point.
Feminine Struggle within the Transfer Corps:
By this, I mean the internal feminine conflict that all members of the Transfer Corps must undergo as a consequence of their "operation." Simply put, are they "soldiers" or are they "mothers?" Lt. Colonel Saura, Sgt. Armea, and Dr. Nichols side firmly on the former category. They staunchly believe that the transfer organ (well, the earlier models, at least) cannot in any way be equated to a Niebass fetus so not only are the transfer soldiers biologically not mothers, but they also condition new recruits to psychologically believe they are not mothers. Armea is particularly adamant about this, and this is tied with her own individual internal conflict on her struggle to come to grips with her identity as a former mother. Meanwhile, the ideologically-opposed Dr. Lin sides in the latter category by believing transfer soldiers should be thought of as mothers first and foremost. Hence, Lin's special unit shies away from intense combat roles and is more focused on creating a nurturing environment to bring out maternal instincts. Although Armea and Saura can easily be thought of as the "good guys girls" by readers, it's important to remember that mangaka Shirai Yumiko did not intend for them to be right. That doesn't mean Lin was right either. Over the course of the manga, Mana experiences the pros and cons of each ideological camp, and in the end, she and her comrades reach a compromise. And it's this acceptance of their identities as both mothers and soldiers that lead to the success of the final operation and a victorious end to the war.
Feminine Struggle of the Transfer Corps within the Army:
By this, I refer to both the interservice rivalry/conflict that the Transfer Corps experiences as well as its general treatment by the Hast Armed Forces. We see examples of the former in how some of the male soldiers circulate Niebass bestiality porn, or see Transfer soldiers as violated women. But this issue is relatively trivial compared to how the Transfer Corps is seen by many of the higher-ups in the Armed Forces.  That is to say, the women are seen as disposable containers for the valuable cargo that is the transfer organ. Because of this, the Transfer Corps struggles within the Hast Army to not only secure guarantees to their free will, but also to secure respect for the lives of female transfer soldiers whether they're "carrying" or not. It was under such guarantees that the reformed Transfer Corps, under Saura's leadership, rejoined the Hast Army after a short period of having gone rogue as an irregular armed force. And over the course of the manga, the Transfer Corps revert to becoming an irregular armed force when it's revealed that such guarantees were ultimately hollow gestures. 
Feminine Struggle between the State and Society:
I refer here to the classic conflict between the rights of a totalitarian state and the rights of a society. In this broader perspective, there isn't anything inherently gendered about this struggle, considering such totalitarian states assert control over both its male and female citizens. However, within the context of Wombs, it's not just that men and women are coerced into supporting Hast's war-effort. Women are specifically robbed of the defining-trait of their womanhood: the right to give birth. This is initially done solely through legal measures, but as the story reveals in vol. 5, it's also extended to biological measures that essentially sterilize the entire female populace. Thus, whereas the male citizens of Hast only have to deal with the infringement of their rights as individuals, the female citizens have to specifically deal with what can only be described as an assault on their very womanhoods.
What I hope I've made clear here is not my ability to sound like some BS-spewing English lit major, but the fact that mangaka Shirai Yumiko really has done something quite rare not only in manga but likely in other mediums as well. We have here not one, but an entire army corps full of action heroines who neither abandon their female identities nor define it solely through sexualization. Through assaults to their womanhood and female identities on multiple levels (individual, corps, army, wider society), they remain action heroines who are unquestionably female and deal with feminine issues. Their situation compels them to fight because they are female, and they have the ability to fight because they are female as well. This is an important distinction to keep in mind because even though I've thus far devoted ~1000 words to talk about how Wombs is a fantastic feminist story, it is not about absolute gender-equality. Not. At. All. This might be slightly confusing if you've been conditioned by a specific brand of feminism popular in the current-day political discourse that preaches equality of outcomes and the deconstruction of separate spheres of gender. But the feminist themes in Wombs is a little more old-school in that it's ultimately about preserving and being proud of a distinct female sphere, rather than showing that the female soldiers are "just like" the male soldiers. Even for the tomboyish Shedd or the gruff, manly Sgt. Armea, from whom we might expect the cliched story of "women proving themselves to be the equal of men," Shirai gives them a character arc about coming to terms with their uniquely female identity. And while the essence of womanhood is seemingly taken away by the state, Mana and her comrades are only able to succeed in the end by re-asserting their maternal values that prove key to unlocking the full potential of the transfer organ.
While I could end the post here, there's a few other things I want to mention because they really enhanced my enjoyment of this series. One is, obviously, world-building. When it comes to world-building, I like to think of it as authors giving their plot some "room to breathe." So even though we as readers will obviously be more curious about the plot-heavy stuff about the Niebass or the war, I really appreciated even the brief descriptions or casual references to things like flora, fauna, climate, culture, state, society, economy, history, technology, etc. As such, I'm left with a fond memory of the "little scenes" that complement the "big scenes" of war. Scenes like the unique way that transfer soldiers greet each other; the strip-tease show; the Day of the Dogs; the propaganda efforts taking place both between Hast and the Seconds and within Hast (especially after the war).
From browsing through comments posted on various parts of the internet, I've come across a lot of confusion about various aspects of the world-building in Wombs. Honestly though, my advice would be to give it a second read because you'll catch a lot more on your second read as I did. Of course, I may partly be to blame for some confusion as I wasn't always so consistent in my translation of specific terms (ex. both "reclaiming" and "colonizing" refer to the same act of creating new transfer points), Still, I think 90% of what readers need to know is all revealed throughout the course of the manga as long as they pay attention. The rest is kept either deliberately vague for a sense of mystery, or are details that don't really matter to the plot, characters, or themes. I mean, realistically speaking, no "scientific" explanation is ever given for how the teleportation process physically works because, duh, teleportation beyond the quantum level is not real (yet?) and no explanation could ever really be scientifically satisfactory. I know fans of hard sci-fi love delving into the intricacies of fictional technology, but there's a point when I think such intricacies can serve to bog down or limit the narrative. While not science-fiction, Moby Dick is an instructive example here, being a "classic" that normal people dread to read because much of the book reads like a hardcore manual on 19th century whaling industry practices rather than being like, you know, an enjoyable novel. 
Another thing I liked about Wombs is that whenever Shirai gave us some expository information, she didn't merely deliver information about how her fictional world works, but also often hinted at or reinforced characterization, plot development, or themes. So let me give three examples of this. For the first example, the above image can very easily seem like a scene that doesn't do anything but explain one aspect of the relative coordinate space. But on a second read, you'll catch that it's significant that it's Cass who's wondering out loud because it's tied to her backstory as a wife and her easygoing personality that thought joining the transfer corps wouldn't be so bad as long as she could sneak out to visit her husband every now and then. 
For the second example, this scene seems like a standard explanation of how long "carrying"-duty lasts and why Armea is seen as an exceptional transfer soldier. But on a second read, you'll notice that Maria asking the question here is deliberate, because Shirai is hinting at Maria's struggle as a woman willing to sacrifice her womb to the state so she can recover her lost status as a mother. So Maria's implicit concern with wanting to serve only one term is not just a throwaway-line, but hints at the motive driving her character.
A third example would be this expository scene from volume 2, where Herman and the Director are discussing the purpose of jamming signals and the future of Transfer Corps-related R&D. The scene clarifies a lot of much-needed questions to the reader about what the jamming signals exactly do and how the transfer organ, if it simply is an "organ", can nevertheless create illusions in the coordinate space. But it also serves to hint at the future plot development about the secret of the transfer organ, as well as hint at how the guarantees initially offered to the Transfer Corps in return for their service as a formal branch in the Hast Army was really a sham all along since the higher-ups continue to see the women as disposable assets, which is needed to develop the whole theme of "feminine struggle" I already discussed.
In a way, a lot of these examples showcase examples of how to properly deliver dialogue, which is deceptively tricky. Good dialogue is not a monologue, nor is it forced to simply deliver expository information to the audience at the cost of ignoring whether the situation actually calls for it. A writer has to carefully consider each piece of dialogue so that it works on at least two different levels. The surface level that delivers the basic information about what's going on, as well as the inner level that delivers the subtext developing the themes or the characters' emotions, motives, personalities, and worldviews. I'm not trying to lay it on too thick by suggesting Shirai Yumiko is a 10/10 writer, because I don't think that. There's a couple issues I had with her writing but I don't want to delve on those relatively minor flaws in an otherwise strong story. What I am saying is that Wombs really does feel like what a seinen manga should be, because while shonen manga can have plenty of mature themes and characters, their execution is often deliberately crafted to leave as little up to the exercise of reading between the lines (ex. consider how Yabuki Joe and Shiraki Youko are developed compared to the average shonen manga that runs in Weekly Shonen Jump today).
Just gonna post one of my favourite pages in Wombs because I can.
That about wraps up some of my thoughts on Wombs. If you had any lingering questions about the series, go ahead and ask. Also, feel free to tell me whether I was over-reaching in my analysis or made a reasonable point. And please, please, PLEASE tell more people about this manga if you can! It really does deserve a wider audience.

19 comments:

  1. The scene that hit me hardest was when they went over obstetricians sterilizing First infants. You just don't expect mil-SF to delve into natalism. Birthrates in general are bafflingly unexplored in Western SF. Then it gets compounded in v5, which is what makes it so feminine; it actually carries across the horror of being barren, which like you said just isn't the same for male characters. It's so unusual, it lends the story a mythic, almost Biblical flavor, especially with the angel on the Transfer Corps flag.

    I didn't catch that the Seconds weren't unfrozen until way too late somehow. I just figured they used androids for a lot of things. Everything popped into place when I finally did catch it.

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  2. Hi, I'm from Spain and I really appreciate the effort and dedication to work this manga. I do not usually follow English scanlation except in exceptional cases like this manga.
    Also thanks for writing some of your thoughts, I liked them a lot. Why manga like these, which deal with issues such as feminism, for me are increasingly important and there are very few like that in an industry as misogynist as manga or anime in Japan.

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  3. Thank you so much.

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  4. Great review. And thanks for working on this series.

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  5. Nice write-up. You echoed a lot of my sentiments so I'll just say thanks a lot for making this accessible to the English-speaking audience. I've been following your releases ever since Punpun and you always find interesting stuff.

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  6. Thank you very much for all your hard work to complete, I'm really happy to read!!

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  7. >>13708583015 February 2018 at 08:28

    Thanks, Hox.

    For those readers looking for more by Shirai Yumiko, there's only a couple other things by her in English: Her first work, Tenken, published by One Peace Books, and her chapter from the 4th volume of Comic Hoshi Shinichi.

    Unless I missed something, in which case please let me know what I missed

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  8. Having read this post I feel like this manga is definitely worth a read, thank you.
    Also, being a huge fan of Katou Shinkichi I was wondering if there is any update on Sutakola's status. Cheers

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    1. Trying to get it started soon in spring. I'll make an update on it in April.

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  9. Thank you very much for translating this wonderful manga! Such a unique approach to male/female roles, really nothing to compare with. It's a bit sad to part with the heroines :(

    Best luck with your future projects and life outside translating :)

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  10. Thanks, Hox.

    By the way, where did you learn Japanese? At first I thought your Japanese, but your analysis in English is very eloquent.

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    1. Took some courses in high school and uni, but I honestly felt like I learned a lot more through self-study. There's a lot of whining among Westerners about how hard it is to learn Japanese but it has some of the best freely available study material on the internet due to the appeal of Japanese culture among teens and twenty-somethings.

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  11. Only the first two volumes of Wombs were published where I live so thank you very much Hox & Happyscans for scanlating this masterful work!

    ps: Screw the seconds.

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  12. Thank you so much for finishing this! You seem to always translate the really interesting, unknown works.

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  13. Just to add to the anonymous comments above, it's more like screw the seconds rogue AI. With the seconds being cryogenically frozen in a spaceship, they may or may not have been aware that the AI controlling their colony ship was waging a war on their behalf. Which means, it's possible that Mana committed a space genocide attack against potential innocents. It may well have been in the Firsts best interests to allow the colony ship to land, end the transfer soldier program, and salvage their lives as best as possible.

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  14. What are really seconds? They are humans or another life form? The robots were only building the cities for later populate them with the seconds "real coming"?

    What was exactly the pan-human thing? Were there different countries that fought seconds too and lost/won?

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    1. Seconds are humans, though for the most of this manga, the actual humans were cryogenically frozen since their ships were travelling the galaxy in search of a habitable planet. So yes, the robots and AI were doing all the fighting and building cities to justify their right to live on Hekiou. Understandably, the Hast gov criticized such cities as mere "ghost cities" and the whole thing was a farce exploiting the arcane loopholes of the Pan-HUman alliance.

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    2. The Pan-Human alliance is never fully explained, but from its name alone, it's safe to infer that they're some sort of UN-like organization that mediate the affairs of all human nations so as to ensure space colonization isn't a bloody landgrab process that would devolve into nuclear warfare. From the brief info given, it would seem that the Pan-Human alliance has quite a bit much more power than that rather useless UN we have in our world, however.

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    3. As for your last question, yes, the Seconds fought against all the countries on Hekiou. These countries were presumably the ones built by the first wave of colonists, hence they would be the "Firsts" as opposed to the "Seconds." It's stated in the manga that the Seconds conquered all the Firsts' countries with the sole exception of Hast.

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