House of 1000 Manga
7 Billion Needles
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
Sometimes I feel guilty for not knowing more about Japanese science fiction literature, because manga writers seem to be pretty well-versed in the American stuff. Osamu Tezuka borrowed liberally from Isaac Asimov's robot stories for Astro Boy. When Moto Hagio attended the San Diego Comic-Con in 2010, she made a point of meeting Ray Bradbury, one of the writers she loved as a child (her other favorites included Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Theodore Sturgeon), and giving him a copy of her book A Drunken Dream. The influence of old-school American sci-fi continues in contemporary manga like 7 Billion Needles by Nobuaki Tadano, a modernized, manga-fied jazz riff on Hal Clement's 1950 novel Needle, a book few American sci-fi fans these days have read.
Hikaru is a withdrawn, friendless teenager, hiding inside a pair of oversized headphones and masking her anxieties with antisocial crabbiness. She comes back from a school trip haunted by a strange, dreamlike memory of being killed by a meteor. Then a voice in her head informs her that it was no dream: she really was killed, and the voice, a symbiotic alien entity calling itself Horizon, brought her back to life. With a catch, of course. Horizon now lives inside Hikaru and wants to enlist her help on his mission, tracking down a similar but malevolent alien called Maelstrom. Maelstrom has possessed someone at Hikaru's school, just as Horizon has possessed Hikaru. But whom?
So far, this all follows the general plot of Clement's novel, with a Japanese teenage girl replacing the American teenage boy of the original. The title, in both cases, comes from the phrase “needle in a haystack,” referring to the difficulty of finding the evil body-snatcher among potentially billions of people. The classy Vertical edition of 7 Billion Needles references the manga's American-pulp origins with cover designs that recall old Signet paperbacks. But 7 Billion Needles runs through the equivalent of the full setup, conflict, and resolution of Needle in its first volume: Maelstrom is outed and the two aliens face off. With three more volumes to go, what else could possibly happen?
Plenty, it turns out. From the beginning, Tadano is less interested in the action/intrigue of the search for Maelstrom than in the central character of Hikaru. Investigating her classmates for signs of alien possession forces her to interact with them and eventually, reluctantly, make friends. Later, she returns to the island where she grew up (another nod to the Clement novel, which takes place mainly on a small island) to confront past scars. Sometimes Tadano lays the pop psychology on a little thick—and is there any manga, no matter what its ambitions, where the power of friendship doesn't conquer all?—but over the course of the series a delicately drawn human drama develops out of the alien conflict.
The relationship between Hikaru and Horizon is key to that drama, and here Tadano is almost certainly influenced by another classic work of science fiction: Parasyte, Hitoshi Iwaaki's much-loved 1990s manga about a boy and his parasitic, intelligent alien hand. As in Parasyte, the alien grants its host superhuman abilities, including the power to warp his/her body into bizarre shapes. Horizon starts by reattaching Hikaru's severed arm (these alien battles can be pretty rough on the host body) and later takes over her body for periods of time to lend her superhuman strength and speed. Maelstrom, meanwhile, uses his host to devour and absorb other life forms, gradually growing into a shambling blob of flesh. There are references to the older manga sprinkled throughout 7 Billion Needles; the human protagonist of Parasyte likes to wear headphones too.
Tadano is pretty good at drawing body horror. He doesn't have the stiff, pulpy gloss that made Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasytes so creepy, but he creates uncanny images of his own: bloated zombie-like humanoids lurching through darkened hallways, animals fused together in nauseating ways, a false apartment and its inhabitants all made from pulsating plasma. But he also spends a lot of time drawing ordinary people in mundane environments, to make the shift into the alien that much more unsettling. And as the manga continues, he shifts into scenes of fantastic beauty and weirdness. His art style is attractive and lively, but generic enough that it can illustrate virtually any type of story.
That's the thing about this manga. Every time you think you've got 7 Billion Needles figured out, it careens down a different path. It's not so much a remake of Clement's Needle as it is a meditation on it, using the original story as a launching pad for increasingly audacious ideas. What if the heroes take the time to talk to the evil alien and find out he's as tired of fighting as they are? What if the alien symbiosis causes life on Earth to start merging into a gloopy End of Evangelion-style biomass? What if God (well, sort of) shows up to sort out the mess everyone is making of the planet? What if dinosaurs attack? What if Hikaru turns into a giant goose accompanied by a talking cat sidekick? No, really, that happens.
Tadano packs a lot of action, a lot of ideas, and a lot of wild visuals into four volumes, but to his credit it never feels rushed. If anything, it's a surprisingly quiet, thoughtful, periodically tense story. The final volume includes a short comic that Tadano drew before 7 Billion Needles, “Hikikomori: Headphone Girl,” which features a Hikaru-like protagonist in a completely different plot. It feels like, for Tadano, 7 Billion Needles is always and primarily about this character. No matter how outlandish or horrific or ambitiously science-fictional the visuals swirling through the story, the central image is forever the girl in the headphones, reluctantly facing down the universe.
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