House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
The most disappointing title change from manga to English translation happened last year, when the American movie version of All You Need Is Kill was released as Edge of Tomorrow. (Okay, okay, All You Need Is Kill was a light novel before it was a manga, but bear with me, I'm riffing.) The new title was so bland and unappealing, not to mention ineffective at filling theater seats, that by the time of the DVD release some marketing campaigns were pushing the movie's tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat,” as the title. Live Die Repeat is a much better title, but still nothing compared to All You Need Is Kill, one of the greatest titles since Kazuo Umezu boiled all horror fiction down to its core by calling a story “Scared of Mama.”
Similarly, Apocalypse Meow is a pretty good title for a manga about the Vietnam War in which all the characters are drawn as cute animals. But the original Japanese title? Cat Shit One. There's no beating that. Once again, America only punishes itself with its prudish reluctance to put swears on book covers.
Apocalypse Meow, by Motofumi Kobayashi, belongs to one of those niche manga subgenres seldom seen in English translation—in this case, military otaku manga. Weapons collecting and military roleplay are part of Western geek culture but tend to be more of a fringe thing, though everyone can enjoy a game of paintball now and then. But military geekdom is fairly big in Japan, even though Japan technically doesn't have an army and weapons—even swords—are severely restricted. If anything, the lack of military culture in real-life Japan only seems to encourage it to flourish in fantasy Japan. Very few military otaku can own firearms, so they craft and buy replicas so perfect it's impossible to tell them from the real things. (Well, almost impossible; as my co-host Jason described in his House column on Doing Time, manga-ka Kazuichi Hanawa was sentenced to three years in prison in 1994 after police discovered that his collection of fake guns contained a few unlicensed real ones.) Not many otaku can serve in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, but they can spend their weekends on airgun raids.
And they can read manga about military conflicts both fictional and historical. Apocalypse Meow, which ran in Combat Magazine, follows three American soldiers in Vietnam. Sergeant “Packy” Perkins is the level-headed commander, experienced and adept at navigating the local cultures, though he can be pushed to shocking violence. “Rats” White, sniper and interpreter, is a naïve youngster from the Bronx. And Botasky, the radio operator, is a tough guy who spews racist comments and heads straight for the red-light district when the unit is on leave—though underneath he's a bit of a coward. Also, they are bunnies.
All Americans are bunnies in Apocalypse Meow. The punning logic behind this choice may be the cleverest thing about the manga: the Japanese word for rabbit, usagi, spells out U.S.A. G.I. Get it? Although the gimmick of drawing people as animals is just about the only thing Apocalypse Meow shares with Art Spiegelman's Maus, in both comics there's doofy fun in seeing which nationality gets to be which animal. The Vietnamese are cats. The French are pigs (Spiegelman picked frogs). Agents from the major Communist nations are on hand to direct Viet Cong operations, with the Russians appearing as bears and the Chinese as pandas. Koreans get off the worst, appearing as dogs in reference to a slur that's at least as well-known in Japan as in the U.S. Then again, when a Japanese SDF unit shows up, the Japanese turn out to be monkeys, so at least Kobayashi insults his own people, too?
The first volume is rambling and scattershot, with not much of interest beyond the novelty of watching fluffy little animals firing machine guns in the jungle. By the second volume, however, the characters become more rounded and the action starts to pick up. Sequences where the rabbits score some R&R always turn out interesting, as they deal with the locals, rub shoulders with riff-raff from around the world in G.I.-friendly bars, frequently get rolled, and wade into international intrigue. They narrowly dodge a terrorist attack during the Tet Offensive. Back in the combat zones, the missions become more concrete and interesting, and the stakes get higher. The final story arc sends the trio on a covert mission intended as a last-ditch effort to win the war, and along the way Perkins, Rats, and Botasky question their orders.
Kobayashi sprinkles in gags about the characters’ species (riding into town, the G.I.s are mobbed by locals hawking carrots, and at one point they go to a strip show and wonder why the cat strippers have panties to remove when no one else in the manga wears pants), but for the most part he treats them seriously. Eventually they stop being animals per se and serve the function Scott McCloud calls “masking,” providing friendly, abstracted faces for readers to project themselves onto. The inclusion of Kobayashi's original draft of the manga, “Dog Shit One,” in which the characters are realistically-drawn humans, hammers home how much better the animal version is; the kitties and bunnies provide a visceral connection that isn't possible with human protagonists.
And for a military otaku manga, allowing readers to project themselves into the action is the point. The Japanese SDF unit gives Kobayashi a chance to include a few Japanese characters in the action, but he also uses the lazy, bumbling Sergeant Nakamura, a bespectacled chimp, to poke fun at himself and his fellow otaku who dream about the glories of war but wouldn't know the first thing to do in real combat.
The U.S. used its military base in Japan as a launch point for Vietnam operations, which understandably outraged many Japanese at the time. There were antiwar protests and student riots in Japan, just as there were in the U.S. But Apocalypse Meow takes a pro-America stance, portraying the American soldiers as (mostly) brave, sympathetic, and trying to do the right thing in a messy situation. If there's a villainous side in the war, it's those French pigs who got rich off the occupation of Vietnam and fled—or stayed as profiteers—when the revolution came. In his endnotes, Kobayashi says he got the idea for Apocalypse Meow after watching the late-80s TV series Tour of Duty, and his manga includes most of the familiar tropes from American movies and TV shows about Vietnam. There's even a delicately written chapter in which Rats goes home on leave, encounters the antiwar movement for the first time, and struggles to adjust to civilian life, ultimately finding no choice but to re-enlist—a common character arc in both fiction and reality. (Then again, maybe the U.S. would treat its veterans better if they were adorable bunnies.)
Everything is impeccably researched, as you'd expect from a military otaku. Kobayashi frequently stops the action for cramped notes on historical events, strategy, geography, military slang, uniforms, and, above all, the specs of weapons and vehicles. He devotes considerable space in his afterwords to the question of whether Japanese SDF troops really did fight in Vietnam, collecting rumors from actual officers and fellow otaku. The combination of cartoon characters with ultra-plausible military details recalls Larry Hama's famous run on the G.I. Joe comic book in the 1980s—except that Hama was able to insert accurate details into his comics because he was a real-life Vietnam vet, whereas Kobayashi is just a giant war nerd.
Apocalypse Meow is a breezy read at three volumes, and the long-out-of-print English edition from ADV Manga does a nice job with the translation. It was popular enough in Japan to warrant a sequel, the untranslated Cat Shit One '80, which catches up with the characters after the war. Perkins goes to the Falklands, Rats joins the CIA, Botasky leaves the service and makes a fortune with a fast-food chain, but the important thing is, they're still bunnies.
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