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Let’s talk about germs! Whether you think about them or not, they’re everywhere! But what if you could see them with your naked eye? Tadayasu Sawaki has had the ability ever since he was little to see microorganisms as small playful creatures that talk and interact with him. The son of a family of koji mold growers, an art that provides starters for fermented foods such as sake and miso, Sawaki is now a freshman entering university in Tokyo. Accompanied by his friend Kei Yuki, son of a sake brewer, Sawaki finds that although they might have left the countryside behind, life at an agricultural university is not the big city college experience he was hoping for. Students share the walkways with horses and pigs, followed by scoopers collecting their manure and giving each other encouragement like, “Scoop for the stars!” Most of the campus is made up of wild forest and testing fields, peppered by strange landmarks like the “Animal Test Subject Memorial,” and the entrance ceremony is held in the middle of a muddy swamp.
On their first day Sawaki and Yuki seek out Professor Itsuki, a friend of Sawaki’s grandfather who knows about his strange ability, and come across the apparent grave of a missing grad student, Haruka Hasegawa. After the police come to dig up the bacteria-emitting area, Professor Itsuki makes his appearance by revealing the “corpse” to be merely an experiment in fermentation in which he and Hasegawa placed dead birds in the stomach of a dead seal and buried it in order to produce an Inuit delicacy known as kiviak. Professor Itsuki launches into lecture mode as he calmly grabs a bird, rips off the tail feathers, and sucks the mineral-rich soup out of its anus. Some readers might be grossed out, but his dead-pan manner and blood-covered face is hysterical. Such is the humor of Moyasimon: a little gross, a little bizarre, and always inventive.
Hasegawa turns out to be Professor Itsuki’s lab assistant, and she starts out highly skeptical of Sawaki’s ability, unable to believe that instead of what we see on germ culture slides, microbes manifest to him as smiley face suns with limbs. But Sawaki’s talent quickly comes in handy to find some bootleggers who’ve been brewing sake in a huge vat in one of the unused classrooms, and we’re introduced to Kaoru Misato and Takuma Kawahama, or the “beardo-fatso duo,” respectively. Poor sophomores willing to try any desperate scheme to make a quick buck, they latch on to Sawaki as a moneymaker once they learn of his not-so-secret skill. Rounding out the cast is Hazuki Oikawa, a germaphobic freshman who doesn’t go anywhere without her sterilizing wet wipes and sprays, and whose mad disinfecting sprees frequently upset the filthy plans of Misato and Kawahama.
But of course the real stars of the show are the germs, who serve as mascot characters and comic relief. The main germ is Aspergillus oryzae, the fermenting bacteria koji, or the house germ of the Sawaki family. A. oryzae is a friendly microbe who always has a happy face and whose motto is “Let’s brew!” Most of the germs are always happy, except for the villainous hiochi, a sake-destroying bacteria and Yuki’s sworn enemy, and even E. coli smiles happily as it shouts, “Let’s kill ‘em all!” If you like the microbes the opening theme song to the anime is delightful, as it shows real models of tiny germs gallivanting through the live-action world, and the extra “Microbe Theatre” presents science lessons from their own tiny points of view. It’s not only educational, it’s actually somewhat therapeutic for a germaphobe to watch, since how can you hate such cute things? The art in general is simple and serviceable rather than noteworthy, but Ishikawa has a real talent for designing the germ characters. If he ever wanted to stop making manga he could easily make a living designing plushies or anthropomorphizing things like computer operating systems.
Moyasimon ran in a seinen or men’s manga magazine in Japan, and its older sensibility is reflected in the age of the protagonists and quirky storytelling. Rather than cover all aspects of Sawaki’s college life, Ishikawa draws each chapter as a microscopic look into the science of germs. The pacing pulls a volume’s worth of gags out of simple stories of college orientation, sake production, indigestion, a spring vegetable raid, and a meeting of the hornussen club. (What is hornussen? Sawaki would like to know, too.) It’s sort of a slice-of-life story, if your life involves magical germ powers. The manga is still ongoing in Japan at 11+ volumes, but in the U.S. Del Rey only published two before their manga division folded. There are two seasons of the anime and a live-action drama, though, and the first two volumes still make for a worthwhile experience. And it’s never too late to hope for a license-rescue, right? So if you’re ready to set your science caps to wacky, pick up Moyasimon and meet the cute (and not-so-cute) denizens of the microscopic world!