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Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture (or Moyasimon as Del Ray chooses to spell it for the North American release) is a slice-of-life manga written and drawn by Masayaki Ishikawa. It follows Sawaki Tadayasu, son of a mold-starter producer (not as bad as it sounds), and his best friend, Yuki Kei as they go to Tokyo Agricultural University. However, this is not your average slice-of-life school manga: Tadayasu has a secret... he can see microbes with the naked eye.
Ok, this might not be the same level of amazing as the ability to walk through walls or turn invisible - but for Tadayasu, it still comes with its own problems and solutions.
Moyasimon is rather unique within the genre of Japanese comics. In a niche saturated with battling high schoolers, busty girls, saccharine love stories and 4-panel comedy strips, Moyasimon is a refreshing change of pace, not only in the telling of Tadayasu's story but in its handling of more mature themes such as gender, family legacy, social anxiety and science.
Despite the "super power" nature of Tadayasu's ability to see and interact with microbes, the manga doesn't dwell on that point - there is no involved sci-fi explanation for it nor much angst on the part of our protagonist - in a bizarrely realistic way, Tadayasu just gets on with it. We follow his life with his friends and colleagues at agricultural university, and while his gift influences situations - such as saving the class from food poisoning - it is not really the focus of the plot.
As always with slice-of-life stories, the characters carry the piece, and Moyasimon is no different. Tadayasu, the protagonist, is initially reluctant to mix with others for fear that his gift was found out and he was used as a human electron-microscope - but that soon melts away as he opens up to others, and the cast of Moyasimon is as colourful as they are wild.
Yuki Kei, Tadayasu's childhood friend, is the son of a brewery owner and mysteriously disappears after they enter college, only to return... different...
Professor Itsuki is the teacher of Tadayasu and extremely eccentric, his enthusiasm for his job knowing no bounds as he samples various interesting and disgusting delicacies involving fermentation from around the world. A notable one is kiviak - which the manga tells us is "A food product made from sea birds stuffed inside a seal and buried in the ground to ferment".
Haruka Hasegawa is the scary, leather-clad lab tech post-graduate student who has the ability to make Tadayasu's life hell - but instead they strike up an unlikely friendship.
Kaoru Misato is another student of Itsuki's, a compulsive neat-freak... one wonders how she manages to cope with her microbiology course, especially with her habit of spritzing everything with antibacterial cleanser.
Two room-mates of Tadayasu's, Muto and Misato, are the two most disgusting, money-grabbing characters in the manga - but they have good hearts and better brains, at least for microbiology.
It wouldn't be right not to include A.oryzae as a character - this is the mascot character of Moyasimon, a yeast bacterium from Tadayasu's home that follows him everywhere, with an infectiously bright grin.
Enjoyably, the rest of the microbes are not devoid of personality, whether it be all that the Japanese L. yoghurti have a chonmage (samurai haircut) or that L. fructivorans (the microbe that turns sake bad) look super drunk. It's interesting to note that the microbes are drawn in a superflat art style.
Moyasimon can be seen as an academic manga, as the author goes in-depth with scientific explanations in both the plot and the margins of the book. This may sound dull, but the information is delivered in an easy-to-digest way, and some of it is fascinating. It's easy to overlook the idea of microbiology as something gross or boring, but it is vital to every aspect of our lives - from eating to the manufacture of drugs, as well as how fermentation creates useful substances like alcohol. Of course, the characters just love to sample the latter.
The set-up of every chapter makes it easy for anyone to jump right in, with notes in the margin informing the reader of key facts about the situation or characters in question, though, notably, the author uses these to surreptiously add tidbits of humour to otherwise dull summaries and introductions of the microbes in question. Each volume also has extra material, which is mostly just of the microbes being cute, which is fine by me (why isn't there a microbe-only K-On, is what the world should be asking).
The art is consistently pretty, with big almond shaped eyes and expressive faces for most of the cast (except Takuma, who looks like a bobblehead), that don't go the easy way out with super deformed effects. Most of the cuteness is saved for the microbes, especially A. oryzae's huge grin. I also like Tadayasu's wild mane of hair that can't be tamed.
The setting of university is pretty familiar but a surprisingly nice change from high-school fare, and the backgrounds are adequate but not really notable.
Though set in a relatively specialist area, the manga never made me feel stupid or threw information at my face, and instead I learnt along with Tadayasu and the other first-year students. The goings-on at an agricultural university are surprisingly compelling, whether focused on bizarre fermented foods from around the world or being forced to shove your arm up a cow's butt.
To conclude, Moyashimon is one of the rare manga that simultaneously made me laugh and feel a little smarter than I did before I picked it up. The cast and antics are hard not to like and harder not to recommend. If you're interested - pick it up, you might just learn something.
This manga is available in paperback from Del Ray.
On Amazon it is currently available at £14.99 used.
Moyasimon also has 2 anime series and 1 live-action TV series based on material from the manga.
Parts of this review were taken from a previous review of mine on MyAnimeList under the username marusamarento.