Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 24th 2011
7 Billion Needles
Life was so much easier for Hikaru Takabe when her body was only possessed by the alien entity Horizon and caught up in an intergalactic war against the destructive Maelstrom. After defeating Maelstrom in battle, Hikaru has now absorbed both creatures into her, and everyday life at home and school keeps being interrupted by her bizarre feats of superhuman skill. These disruptions snowball into outright chaos, however, when Hikaru and her alien co-habitants realize that their presence has caused all life on Earth to go haywire. Birds are fusing with fish, dinosaurs are roaming the streets, and Hikaru's own friends are being consumed by alien mutations. The evolutionary chain has gone out of sync, and an even more powerful being known as "The Moderator" has descended from the skies to set things right. Yet all Hikaru wants is for life to return to the way it was.
Evolution, as a theory, is solid enough to stand on its own. Intelligent Design is just a lot of metaphysical hand-waving wrapped up in scientific words. And there's no need for a concept as ridiculous and primitive as God.
But if you won't believe in God, will you believe in aliens?
That is the deep, controversial thought at the heart of 7 Billion Needles' third volume, which transcends the cat-and-mouse showdown of the first two installments and now embarks upon an entirely different track—one that tests the very foundations of science. The monsters, the mutants, and the battles on these pages set the framework for that one challenging idea: that the evolutionary process on Earth is not a spontaneous, glorious outpouring of life, but something engineered by amorphous beings beyond our understanding. They may not be gods, but could they be ... Creators?
Of course, one does not have to read that deep into the story to enjoy it. The plot developments of Volume 3, especially in the first half, can be seen as simply the escalation of battle: where it was once just Horizon and Maelstrom going at it (with Hikaru at the center), it now becomes those two plus their human host facing an entire planet's worth of bizarre, monstrous threats. Nobuaki Tadano is subtle, almost sneaky, in raising the stakes in this volume: at first it's just Hikaru inadvertently manifesting her alien abilities (and telling Maelstrom to cut it out), then battling a single rogue creature, and then—seemingly in a matter of pages—Hikaru's hometown is transformed into a battleground and everyone she's ever cared about has fallen victim to the threat. The story is indeed fast-paced, yet moves in smooth, carefully calculated ways: a sci-fi action thriller without the painfully obvious bombast that usually comes with the genre.
When the bombast finally arrives, though, this series can hold its own against any of the genre's more traditional offerings: herds of animals go berserk, entire city districts are enveloped in chaos, and Hikaru stretches her powers to their limits as she tries to save a classmate and later her aunt. At the same time, the presence of the Moderator brings a cerebral element to the situation—let's stop and talk about the future of life on Earth and the meaning of "macro-evolution" while the world is exploding around us, shall we? It's during those breaks in the action, when Hikaru is trying to make sense of the madness, that the series provides its most nourishing food for thought: that these aliens are not just invaders, but forces that control the very order of the universe. Not that they would want to be labeled gods, per se ... but the point is there, for those who dare approach it.
But enough of digging into the core meaning of this story. At the very surface, the experience is just as rewarding, with Tadano's artwork effortlessly bridging the gap between mundane happenings and fantastical, near-impossible scenarios. The early scenes depicting Hikaru's day-to-day life—at school, at home, and in the city—are distinctively slice-of-life, with lots of straight-on views and carefully drawn (even photo-referenced) backgrounds. But keep on reading, and Tadano's flair for the dramatic starts to manifest itself: grotesque hybrid creatures are drawn in as much detail as the idyllic scenes that preceded them, and when Hikaru enters battle mode, acrobatic angles and cascades of superpowered effects come into play. While the creature designs are far more interesting the human characters, the Moderator's classical Grecian beauty is a particular stroke of cleverness: the alien being casts itself as "the ideal human," something made in the (traditional Western) image of God. More than just a design choice, it also reflects the provocative message that underlies the story.
While the underlying ideas are deep, however, expressing them verbally does not always come easy in this series. The dialogue starts out simple enough, with some mildly humorous bickering between Hikaru, Horizon and Maelstrom, but once the Moderator steps in and trans-species warfare ensues, the discussion points become decidedly more challenging. The English translation does its best to keep up and make things as clear as possible—let's face it, the idea of alien beings forcing mass evolution across the planet is not exactly simple middle-school science—but there are moments where vague, technical gobbledygook ("we need to isolate the subspecies in your aunt's cells") is the only thing coming out of the characters' mouths. It's either that, or confused outbursts where Hikaru isn't sure what emotions to express, because nothing like this has ever happened in the history of humankind. Sound effects also account for much of the text on each page, and this edition leaves them in the original Japanese while placing small, no-nonsense translations next to each one.
What makes this volume of 7 Billion Needles so great—and the rest of the series, for that matter—is that it can be enjoyed on different levels. With its detailed and dynamic art, plus fantastical creature designs, it succeeds outwardly as a tale of epic alien warfare, complete with inconceivable powers and massive explosions. But there is also a thought-provoking layer underneath, where the aliens occupying Hikaru Takabe's body (and the newly arrived intruder from beyond) force us to re-imagine the role of human life, and indeed all life on this planet, as mere playing pieces in a grand cosmological game. We think we're so big, being able to devise complex scientific theories, achieving great technological advances, and successfully populating every corner of the Earth. And then something comes along that's bigger than we could ever imagine.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B+
+ Entertains on multiple levels with rich, multi-faceted art and a story that is loaded with exciting action and challenging ideas.
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