Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Alien Nineby Jason Thompson, Oct 20th 2011
Episode LXXII: Alien Nine
The underside of the alien is slick and slimy, like a freshly opened wound. It sticks to your head with a glorping sound, and when you take a bath, it comes off and licks the sweat off your back with a long, umbilicus-like tongue. When you get in fight with other aliens, thousands of screw-shaped tentacles shoot out of your alien's body and pierce its enemies, and their sticky bodily fluids burst out and splatter your face. You hate having an alien symbiote attached to you, but that's 6th grade.
Hitoshi Tomizawa's Alien Nine is a mixture of an elementary-school girls moe and science fiction monster bio-horror. It's a disturbing manga, all the more so because based on the cover art it looks sweet and gentle, like Hitohira or Sunshine Sketch. I say it's horror, but it's not horror in the sense of an alien threat invading a familiar world. Slowly, gently even, it draws us into a world where the impossible (and the disgusting) is the new reality and everyone accepts it. The aliens have already invaded the world; the only thing left for them to invade is your body. This is where the horror comes in.
The year is 2014, fourteen years since the first alien spaceship landed, and sixteen years since the manga first came out in Japan. The world looks pretty much the same as it does today, except for the aliens, who periodically land on earth in mushroom-shaped rocketships. There are many types of aliens, mostly lizard- or bug-like things, little scuttling things without faces or voices, alien plants (or are they fungus? Or some kind of animal creature like a coral?) that grow in the classroom and infest the desks. When they get to earth, the aliens run around causing trouble and try to find humans to symbiotically attach themselves to. To fend off the aliens who attack their school, the students must rely on the Alien Party, a group of three schoolgirls who protect their school from hostile aliens. You have to fight aliens with aliens, so each member of the Alien Party must also merge with a 'Borg, an alien life-form which looks like a frog's head with little wings growing out of the side.
The thought of merging with a 'Borg disgusts Yuri, a shy, nervous 12-year-old. "Being in the Alien Party is the crummiest job a kid could ever have," she thinks. "The number one thing that girls hate the most now are aliens. They're worse than bugs, worse than reptiles. We hate looking at them, touching them, and talking to them!" But she's assigned to be in the Alien Party, so she has to swallow her pride and endure it. In contrast, her two fellow Party members are much more enthusiastic about their special job. Kasumi is a perky girl with long pigtails, who took the job because she likes it. She's one of those seemingly perfect people who has everything: a wealthy family, loving parents, a positive attitude. Kumi, on the other hand, is a little friendlier: she's a bossy but good-natured girl who likes to take care of people. Kumi volunteered to join the Alien Party so she wouldn't have to be class president again. Their advisor, Ms. Megumi Hisakawa, supervises the girls and tries to make sure that they're getting along with their symbiotic alien pals.
Getting along with them isn't easy; the 'Borg are REALLY alien. They don't joke, they don't smile, they don't speak unless spoken to. "You'll get used to us soon. We're not all that bad," Yuri's 'Borg tells her. (Because of the assimilation theme, I wonder if their name is a reference to Star Trek, but the katakana for 'Borg and Borg are spelled differently…BO-U-GU vs. BOH-GU.) When bad aliens attack (or, more often, just run around campus like runaway pets), the girls go into action wearing inline skates and swinging lacrosse sticks, but the 'Borg do most of the work, spewing tentacles and appendages all over the place. Like the symbiotic alien arm in Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte, they can do almost anything, forming weapons, shields and walls from their countless drill-tendrils. It's hard to understand how the fighting 'works' with such an alien bodytype (What do you do if an enemy parries your tentacles? Grow more tentacles? How many can you grow? Can you grow them fast enough? Do you have to grow them out of your body or can you grow tentacles branching off of tentacles? etc.), so in most of the fights, the girls, like the readers, pretty much stand there bewildered and just watch things happening. The fight scenes (if you can call them that) are totally beyond the bounds of human anatomy, big sloppy encounters between slimy aliens changing and oozing all over one another with a little human body dangling helplessly at one end of it. Then the girls wash off and go back to class, and the next encounter gets grosser. And gradually, the characters become more and more 'merged' with their aliens, until they can't unmerge anymore, and their own flesh starts to mutate and transform.
All of this is a lot for a 12-year-old to bear, although it's clear from the story that this is normal life from the girls' perspective. Since almost all the scenes are from the children's perspective, and they don't bother to explain things to us that they already know about, Tomizawa leaves lots of unanswered questions. We never find out much about where the aliens came from or what first contact was like, although apparently a lot of people died. We do find out that the aliens like to merge with humans because human bodies produce a lot of energy; have human beings become a mere natural resource for aliens to exploit? Are the 'Borg just like cowboys defending their cows? Is there an Alien Party in every school?
Tomizawa doesn't answer these questions; he just focuses on telling a story about the characters. Yuri has a bad home life—a distant dad and an unsupportive mom—and she's got lots of anxieties, on top of her fear of giving herself to the 'Borg. Her partner, Kumi, likes Yuri a lot, and tries to get close to Yuri and be supportive to her. (Hey, her name is "yuri." Like a typical yuri manga, there's hardly any boys in the story, but on the other hand, there's no explicitly queer content either. But there's enough suggestive moments to write dojinshi about. I wonder how it would have read if it was a gender-reversed Alien Nine starring only bishonen.) And Kasumi seems to be perfectly content. But starting in volume 2, the formerly easy fights start to get harder, and bad things start to happen to the Alien Party. Kumi and Kasumi are injured in battle and, to be healed, they must merge more and more with the aliens. Soon Yuri is the last fully human member of the team, and she's feeling left behind, although she's terrified of taking that final step herself. But Kumi and Kasumi value Yuri's "innocence" and try to shield her from battle, to keep her human as long as possible. But eventually you have to grow up and enter the adult (alien?) world.
Considering that it's only three volumes long (four counting the sequel Alien Nine: Emulators, which doesn't really add much to the story), doesn't have the greatest ending, and has been out of print for years since the American publisher CPM went out of business, Alien Nine has a devoted fanbase. Tomizawa's weird imagery is hard to forget. All this mixing of tentacles and cute girls leaves an impression too, and although there's no nudity other than a few bath scenes, some people online have suggested that the whole series is actually about sexual abuse. (Perhaps it hits the same watching-horrible-things-happen-to-cute-girls vibe?) Tomizawa wouldn't be the only person to compare alien assimilation with sex, but it might be simpler to say that the series is just about puberty. Consider the similarities: weird things happen to your body, things start to grow where they shouldn't. Or it could be a metaphor for losing your virginity: suddenly there's a gap separating you from your friends who haven't done it yet. Being fused with a slime-dripping alien might not be as pretty a change as losing your cat ears (like in Loveless), but depending on your experiences, it might be equally accurate.
Or maybe Tomizawa just likes drawing aliens and frog-monsters. (Hey, the guy's website is named "Frog Starship.") The interesting thing about Tomizawa is that he started out as an assistant to Keisuke Itagaki, author of the manly and demented fighting manga Grappler Baki. You can see Itagaki's influence in Tomizawa's first solo manga, Treasure Hunter (now available on alibris.com for 99 cents), the tale of a scrappy thief. After Treasure Hunter, it was three years before Tomizawa drew Alien Nine, and during that time he completely changed his art style and switched from drawing brawny shonen to cute girls with identical faces. (Let's face it, Tomizawa's monsters are much more interesting-looking than his human characters.) Alien Nine has all the slimy transformations and weird creatures that Treasure Hunter did, but with the added moe boost, it became a much more popular series. Today, Tomizawa has continued with his new moe style in series like Milk Closet and Battle Royale II: Blitz Royale, drawing a dark and twisted world where the only thing you can count on is the characters' cute faces. And sometimes even those will split open revealing a writhing cluster of tentacle-drills.
But like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Alien Nine seems too complex to just dismiss by saying it's all about sex. (Although I do love saying that about anime and manga, particularly Miyazaki films. Great way to start arguments at cons.) In his interviews in the back of the CPM edition of Alien Nine, Tomizawa talks about how he's a big fan of science fiction, including oldschool Western science fiction writers like Larry Niven. At the idea level, beneath all the cuteness and slime, Alien Nine is a classic posthuman science fiction story about the metamorphosis of humans into another form of life, and what this might mean for the human psyche. We may never know exactly what is going on (unless Tomizawa does another sequel), but we do get to see the girls' psyches: Yuri's fear and crying, Kumi's love and friendship, Kasumi's growth. Is the transformation from human to alien horrible or beautiful? Maybe it depends on your perspective, but that's one of the many mysteries of Alien Nine.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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