Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Apocalypse Zero
by Jason Thompson, Jul 28th 2011
Episode LXI: Apocalypse Zero
Sometime about ten years ago I was in San Francisco, in an art gallery with a huge crowd of drunk hipsters watching tentacle porn. Urian Brown (now one of the editors of Shonen Jump) and Annalee Newitz had put together a presentation on that infamous sub-subgenre of anime (not, as all the anime haters I know insist, 99% of all Japanese animation), hamming it up elegantly as they showed clips from Legend of the Overfiend, La Blue Girl and other shows. We saw creatures with giant tentacle-penises, creatures with multiple tentacle-penises, and creatures with giant, multiple tentacle-penises. Nestled among the clips was a scene where a bunch of schoolboys try to have group sex with a nurse. One of them fingers her, only to get his hand stuck. He finally withdraws his hand only to find that the flesh has been melted off horribly by her vaginal fluid! Then the nurse transforms into a hideous monster and a guy in black steel power-armor shows up and kills her. That was my first introduction to Takayuki Yamaguchi's Apocalypse Zero.
In the postapocalyptic future, after the earthquake, Tokyo is a devastated ruin. The only remnant of civilization is Gyakujuji High School, where students still wear uniforms and attend classes, despite having to walk to school each day through a wasteland of ruined skyscrapers inhabited by giant cockroaches. (I think the author couldn't decide whether to do a school setting or a postapocalyptic setting, so…) Horie, a shy, chubby cute girl, endures this harsh existence with undying optimism. Then one day, a transfer student comes to school, and she falls in love.
The boy's name is Kakugo Hagakure, a serious-looking guy with glasses, a crew cut, and a school uniform with epaulets, one even more military-looking than a typical gakuran. He's unfailingly polite, and he avoids fights with his classmates by just jumping—politely, of course—to the top of the school building from the ground floor. Then one day, Horie and her classmates are attacked on the way to school by a grotesque monster that looks like an obese blonde woman in dominatrix gear, who likes to rip young women to pieces and have her way with the men before eating them. ("I'm hungry for love! What is the ultimate love? It's two people becoming one. Meaning that your flesh becomes mine!") Just before the monster can smash Horie with her high-heeled boots, Kakugo jumps out of nowhere and saves her, wearing awesome black armor with a helmet and scarf like a WWII Zero pilot crossed with Gantz and Ultraman! He punches the monstrosity in the stomach, causing her to cough up a flood of human corpses, some of them still twitching. "Love always wins!" shrieks the cannibal she-monster. "You shall pay for your corrupt beliefs!" says Kakugo, then kicks her brain out the back of her head.
Polite as always, Kakugo then says a short prayer as he uses his internal flamethrower to cremate the regurgitated corpses. His classmates, who previously had no one to protect them from the mutant perverts, are duly impressed. But his teachers soon discover Hagakure's secret: he is the son of Shiro Hagakure, a war criminal! "He was a soldier who slaughtered more than two thousand prisoners in human experiments during WWII! That kid has the blood of the most brutal man of Asia in his veins!" As you might expect from someone whose personal name means "resolution" and whose family name is the same as a famous book on bushido, Kakugo is devoted to the way of the warrior. The Zero armored suit which enhances his powers is his father's invention: a deadly suit stocked with chemical weapons, invented "for use against the U.S. and British in the battle for the home islands." Not only that: the Zero suit is powered, not just by science, but by the souls of all the countless people who died in its creation. To wear the Zero armor, one must fuse with these souls and feel their agonizing death pains.
Kakugo's father was also a martial artist, and taught Kakugo another technique, the "Zero Form Iron Balls," which involves bloodily embedding steel balls the size of golf balls into your body, producing wounds much more impressive than some puny scar in the shape of the Big Dipper. Kakugo's father shoots Kakugo full of balls, which sink into his flesh like massive whiteheads ("An average man would've died eight times from the agonizing pain!"), and teaches him how to let them dissolve in your bloodstream, turning parts of your body into indestructible metal. But Kakugo is not the only person who knows the Zero Form: his older brother, Harara, also knows the art but has turned evil. From his giant castle on a cliff above Tokyo, Harara plots to rule the world, using his super martial arts which allow him to pull someone's intestines out of their body just by touching them. Harara has only one obstacle: Kakugo. To defeat his brother, he summons forth an army of Tactical Fiends, hideous tentacled monsters created by transforming humans, the embodiment of every disgusting sin and lust!
With steely resilience, Kakugo fights the slimy, blobby, flabby Tactical Fiends to save his school. Hamuko, the Godzilla-like cannibal woman with the leather thong which didn't conceal very much, was just the beginning. Megumi, the nurse Tactical Fiend, attacks her prey with her giant vagina which monsters out into a creature of its own ("Seems to be some kind of mollusc…" Kakugo mutters). Eikichi, a naked old man in bondage gear, attacks with his penis, which bursts out of its wrapper looking like a Blue-Eyes White Dragon from Yu-Gi-Oh!. "Bullets of Frozen Man Juice!" he screams as his dragon breathes its breath weapon, and to make matters worse, his balls elongate into giant tentacles tipped with gold balls whose brilliance dazzles our hero. (I like that apparently none of this was interesting enough to go into the description on the Apocalypse Zero wikipedia page, which simply describes Eikichi as "elderly.") There's a few non-genital-based opponents, like a frog-like, enormous mutant rock star, but for every tame monster there's something like the freakish Chidokuro, who has woman's breasts stitched onto his body, or another opponent who's female but has a parasitic wasp-like thing attached to her body, with its "stinger" coming out of her crotch right where…well…you get it. The manga is a bit "front-loaded" with some of its sickest enemies near the beginning, but it mostly manages to keep escalating the grossness. Kakugo and his faithful friends must endure every unspeakable horror, overcome every torture, and smash through mountains of gooey flesh to save the world!
If you are the kind of person (like me) who seeks out sick manga just because, Apocalypse Zero should be on your list. In Japan, it was popular enough to get adapted into the famous OAVs, an obscure PlayStation fighting game and some drama CDs. Yamaguchi is currently working on an Apocalypse Zero sequel, Exoskel Zero, which started in 2010 in Champion RED, the magazine where Shōnen Champion manga go after they die if they've been bad. Six of the 11 volumes of the original were translated by Media Blasters' short-lived but fondly remembered manga division, whose unofficial motto seems to have been "Bringing you the most fucked-up shonen manga…with a smile!"
Weirdly, Apocalypse Zero was technically a boys' manga which ran in Akita Shoten's Weekly Shōnen Champion. Reading it I feel like Tom Spurgeon did in his review of Enmusu: "I have no idea who is supposed to be reading this." Here is a manga that has all the cheery outlook and blood-sweat-and-tears machismo of boys' manga, but it's got such major gore and thinly disguised sexual organs that I can't imagine it really being marketed at 14-year-olds (the prime shonen demographic). Like Baron Gong Battle, I sort of suspect it was actually intended for grownups. This is how Shōnen Champion magazine is described in Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga by Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma:
"One of the keys to success for a shonen magazine lies in the depiction of manhood so extreme that it intimidates yakuza…Boys might be getting more and more feeble these days, but it's men who really get off on these guys who wear oversized school uniforms, kicking major ass."
On the other hand, lots of actual tween boys would probably love Apocalypse Zero just fine, because it's the sickest thing ever. (Although don't let me speak for you. 14-year-old readers, what do you think?) Creepy sexual stuff is not so uncommon in shonen manga, such as the '80s-ish H.R. Giger-influenced phallic designs for scary monsters and alien architecture found in manga like Yoshihiro Togashi's. (Viz even censored some background architecture in the SJ magazine edition of Yū Yū Hakusho because it looked too penis-like.) If you wanted to, you could even find Freudian themes in all the shonen stories of pubescent boys whose hands turn into superpowered pointy things, be it a sword, a gun, a dog (Toto: The Wondeful Adventure), or even a little girl growing out of their wrist (Midori Days). Is a gunblade ever really just a gunblade?
But Apocalypse Zero is on another level. While it's free of the obvious, merely mortal sexism of, say, Kazuo Koike, it's a crazy exaggeration of shonen manga's tendency to glorify manly self-sacrifice and to look down on fleshy "weakness." Kakugo is so pure and noble he's almost a religious figure, and he gets his powers from suffering such excruciating pain that it hurts to look at the pages. Harara isn't just an effeminate bishonen, as is often the case with villains in boys' battle manga; he's actually a woman (or at least "beyond gender"), having apparently transformed from male to female during his training. Even the villains that aren't obviously sexual seem to embody some kind of "decadence": Dogumakuro the rock star, or one of the minor minions, Himiko the fortune teller who seems to be based on some Japanese celebrity, who babbles about blood types until Kakugo splits her face open revealing her body to be filled with half-digested human skulls. In another scene Kakugo regenerates inside the womb of a monster, until an evil two-headed mad scientist shoves a metal claw into its vagina and drags him out.
I'm inclined to think it's all a parody. The art is weird but very individualistic, a bit like Go Nagai, with a sort of intentionally ugly look. It's beautiful in its own grotesque way. It's difficult to tell who's a human and who's a Tactical Fiend because the character designs are so extreme even the "normal" humans look like monsters. "The artwork takes the standard manga superhero style and gives it a lewd "underground" edge," says the (surprisingly positive) Apocalypse Zero review from Publishers Weekly on amazon.com. The sex, violence and WWII-era militarism of Apocalypse Zero is so in-your-face that it makes me less impressed by more self-consciously 'underground' explorations of the same themes, like Makoto Aida's trashy WWII fantasy porn Mutant Hanako (translated years ago in Viz's Secret Comics Japan). There's plenty of artists like Aida doing gallery shows of work that's calculated to be "transgressive" and shocking, but grossing out a few people in an art gallery or with some expensive collection of prints seems almost pointless in a world where something like Apocalypse Zero is available in bookstores. Maybe the monsters and exploding brains obscure the kinkiness of the manga. Realistic manga seem to be held to a harsher standard than genre manga; earlier this year when the Tokyo government announced the first five manga which would be censored under the new law Bill 156, all the manga were chosen for realistic sex rather than violence or giant vagina monsters. Toshio Maeda, who invented tentacle porn to circumvent censorship laws by drawing tentacles instead of penises, is obviously a genius.
So is Apocalypse Zero all a joke, a parody of shonen manga with extra man-juice? Or is it serious? In answer, I leave you with this quote from the author's notes of volume one:
" The students of the Gyakujuji High School are like the grass that grows among the concrete…They are strong children who survived the apocalypse. Many of them lost their homes and parents…the students have to risk their lives just to go to school. They rarely get to satisfy their hungry stomachs. But they find happiness even in such a world. They smile, believing that tomorrow will be a better day. Kakugo Hagakure was born to protect these kids. Deep in his heart is the humanity to envelope all. Kakugo Hagakure fights for those who have courageous hearts. The power to grope for a star in darkness, and the absolute confidence to find it…That's the courageous heart. And that is also the subject matter of this book. In the next book, or the book after that, it will never change."
You can interpret this in two ways: (1) Takayuki Yamaguchi really thinks of Apocalypse Zero as a heartwarming shonen manga. (2) Takayuki Yamaguchi is like a spy so deep undercover he'd never reveal it even if you tortured him. Or maybe someone needs to invent a new word to describe that mangaka style of producing something totally insane with dead seriousness and not a blink of irony. Maybe the most honest description of Apocalypse Zero was written not by Yamaguchi himself, but by one of his assistants, Kurenai X, in the "assistant's notes" in the back of volume 6 (the last volume translated by Media Blasters). Those words are:
License rescue? Viz? Yen? Anyone?
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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