From pawn to player; history doesn’t have to repeat (4/5)
Looking at my collection of fiction shelved in the living room (over 560), science fiction obviously takes up the majority of the shelf space (about 85%). My science fiction collection is general yet diverse: I have a mix of the old and the new, works from male and female authors, slim paperbacks and thick hard covers, the popular and obscure. But one facet of my collection which I’m most proud of is the growing amount of translated work:
- French: Monkey Planet (1963) by Pierre Boulle and Travelling Towards Epsilon (1976) edited by Maxim Jukubowski
- German: Metamorphosis &Other Stories (1971) by Franz Kafka
- Polish: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), The Cyberiad (1965), and The Star Diaries (1971)
- Russian: Moscow 2042 (1987) by Vladimir Voinovich and Metro 2033 (2007) by Dmitry Glukhovsky
- Japanese: The Best JapaneseScience Fiction Stories (1997) edited by John L. Apostolou & Martin H. Greenberg and Battle Royale (1999) by Koushun Takami
- Swedish: The End of Man (var. The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer) (1966) by Olof Johannesson
- Chinese: Frederik Pohl’s collection Pohlstars (1984) includes a novelette called “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle” which was re-translated from his original “The Wizards of Pung’s Corner” (1958)
On occasion, I scour the internet looking for translations of good novels or stories. When researching for Japanese authors, I always come across the same few:
- Kobo Abe’s The Ark Sakura (1988)
- Shinichi Hoshi’s The Spiteful Planet and Other Stories (1978)
- Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks (1973)
- Taku Mayumura’s Administrator (1974)
- Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The African Bomb and Other Stories (1986)
- Masaki Yamada’s Aphrodite (2004)
In March, I came across another modern Japanese author named Hiroshi Sakurazaka and his novel All You Need is Kill (2004). I downloaded a copy (and bought the paperback just yesterday) and eagerly awaited the opportunity to read it… little did I know that it would become a stupid Hollywood movie with a tool for an actor. That didn’t dampen my spirits, however.
Book’s own synopsis:
“When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his 158th iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally—the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?”
On the island of Kotoiushi, Keiji Kiriya is a foot soldier stuffed into a Jacket, and sent to fight a perplexing enemy—the Mimics—who he can barely fathom let alone defeat. In the opening seconds of the battle, his friend Yonabaru catches an enemy javelin through the torso, killing him; Keiji survives through most the horror of mangled corpses and the terror of the fighting, only to be fatally wounded. On the brink of death, a figment of military lore manifests itself in front of his eyes: the red battledress of the Full Metal Bitch, complete with two-meter axe and thirty for the death of all Mimics. The pain of his scorched impalement reminds him he’s not yet dead, and the surreal coming of the Full Metal Bitch makes his head swim. Reality, as if testing him, becomes even more surreal when the red-donned heroine says to him, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to know … Is it true the green tea they serve in Japan at the end of your meal comes free?” (11). The American’s name is Rita Vrataski. She, and the Mimic who comes to kill him, are his last memories before dying… and waking up.
Déjà vu strikes Keiji hard: the novel he awakes to, the conversation he has with Yonabaru, the ensuing events which lead up to a difficult morning of Physical Training, where he sees Rita and the other American soldiers. His memory of meeting her on the battlefield reinforces his courage—he stares down the legendary slaughterer of Mimics. The gull of the prone solider intrigues Rita, so she sets herself down next to him to engage in the same form of punishment: the iso push-up. This being Keiji’s first iteration, his fate is sealed as he enters the battlefield and dies yet again. And again. And again.
The timeloops initially have a negative effect on Keiji: he suicides, he AWOL’s, he kills. He keeps the experience a secret, but those around him only see a drastic change in his behavior from what they consider only to be one day ago; Yonabura tries to apply logic to Keiji’s attitude: “The day after yesterday’s today. The day after today is tomorrow. If it didn’t work like that, we’d never get to Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Then we be fucked. Or not” (36). Regardless, Keiji maintains a sour disposition and adopts the “fuck it” attitude: “It’s a fucked-up world, with fucked-up rules. So fuck it” (54).
So why do they both training us at all?
All that shit they drum into you in training in the bare minimum … Most unlucky bastards forget all that when the shit starts flying and they go down pretty quick. But if you’re lucky, you might live through it and maybe even learn something. Take your first taste of battle and make a lesson out of it, you might just have something you call a soldier. (62)
Eventually, Keiji realizes that, with the memory of each iteration, lessons can learned, information can be garnered and the cycle might possibly be broken without him dying at the end each time: “Just because I had all the time in the world didn’t mean I had time to waste” (79), so “If I could train to jump every hurdle this little track-meet of death threw at me, maybe someday I’d wake up in a world with a tomorrow” (58). Keiji begins to utilize his time to become an unkillable figure like the Full Metal Bitch, acquiring skill and information which he applies on the battlefield, where he inevitably dies each time, only he lives minutes and hours longer than before. With each extra minute of life, he learns more about his enemy; Keiji reflects, “You can’t learn from your mistakes when they kill you” (91).
Rather than make time his enemy, the intrepid foot soldier takes the world on his shoulders by accepting his daily inevitable death at the hands of the Mimics. The multitude of Mimics rise from the ocean where they had bred, each a dense barrel-sized sack of sand whose “single swipe of one of its limbs can send a man flying in a thousand little pieces. Their javelins, projectiles fired from vents in their bodies, have the power of 40mm shells” (8). The mere sight of them doesn’t inspire natural fear nor do they roar with a bellow to fear their prey; “they simply hunt with the relentlessness of machines” (9).
When they first appeared on land, the alien xenoformers were not weapons of war. They were sluggish … But like cockroaches that develop resistance to pesticides, the alien creatures evolved. The crèche machines that created them concluded that in order to fulfill their objective of xenoforming the planet, they would have to remove the obstacles in their way …. Mankind had a name for the enemy that had brought the world to the brink of ruin. (116)
They ate earth and shat out poison, leaving behind a lifeless wasteland. The alien intelligence that had created them had mastered space travel and learned to send information through time. Now they were taking our world and turning it into a facsimile of their own, every last tree, flower, insect, animal, and human be damned. (178-179)
Acquiring a two-meter axe like Rita, Keiji heads to each recurring battle with more insight, more skill, and more of a will to murder the mass of Mimics; “I bore the burden of endless battle like the killing machine I’d become—a machine with blood and nerves in place of oil and wires” (93). The outcome of each battle is as uniform as the nature of war: “there were three kinds of battle to begin with: fucked up, seriously fucked up, and fucked up beyond all recognition” (92). Keiji found his looped life to be in the last category… until he realizes that Rita, too, has experienced a time loop; she has secrets on how to break the cycle.
Training together, feeding off of each other’s honed knack for defeating the Mimics with slashes of the battleaxe, Keiji and Rita come closer to breaking his cycle of life and death. Yet on the eve of the 160th loop’s daybreak, the cycle is broken and rather than heading to death on the island of Kotoiushi, the Mimics have brought the reign of death to the military base itself.
I just want to say that I really hate the title of the novel—both the Japanese and English editions have the same title. The Hollywood version’s title is no better, the title and actor of which I won’t even allow on my review.
Many readers of All You Need is Kill have found the book to be difficult to follow, which is exactly why it comes with a handy plot sequence diagram (see left) to assist the reader in understanding the flow of events. The diagram will become your best friend when reading the novel, much like a soldier’s rifle is their best friend—without the rifle, the solider is useless; without the diagram, the reader is helpless. The length of the novel—around 57,00 words—makes the looping and time shuffling more comprehensible.
As the diagram illustrates, the sequence of the story is non-chronological: the novel starts with Chapter 1 Part 1 (toward the end of the plot sequence), which is the battlefield loop, then jumps back in time to the barracks loop in Chapter 1 Part 2 (toward the beginning the sequence). Prior to reading each part to every chapter, it’s reassuring to consult the diagram. It’s quite easy to become accustomed to, actually.
Contrary to popular errant opinion, the novel is not only action, action, action and kill, kill, kill; humor is hidden is dialogue and insight is offered in Keiji’s reflections. I took highlighted a number of quotes in my e-book (and I later bought the paperback) and found myself laughing aloud during a few passages.
The time loop Keiji experiences is, of course, the draw of the novel… a moderate challenge to the reader that enhances the sense of enjoyment. Perhaps is a gimmick, but the greatest satisfaction drawn from the novel is Keiji’s diligence in garnering as much experience as he can rather than letting the loop get the best of him. Initially, he succumbs to the pang of expectation and suicides. Slowly, he realizes the advantage of the loop; with each loop comes an experience to learn, an education which he can take with him onto the next loop: he starts to train with the best, he finds breaches in security which allows him access to the American base, he learns personal details to get himself access.
Aside from Keiji’s inspiring vigilance, Rita Vrataski infuses the story with heavier notes of characterization: from Pittsfield, Illinois and the daughter of a hog farmer, her father is a coffee connoisseur in a world where the supplies are quickly dwindling due to the Mimics’ attacks. The local grocer always has a cache of exotic whole beans and Rita learns of the pleasure from the coffee’s taste, fragrance, the total experience. When her town is infiltrated by the scout Mimics, most of the town is destroyed and her family is killed; thus, her motivation to enlist and seek revenge. During her duty in recapturing the peninsula of Florida, she finds herself in a loop and ultimately finds the solution to break the cycle.
It’s not a deeply characterized novel nor does it plunge the depths of emotion (though the last few parts of Chapter 4 hit a good few notes of attachment, betrayal, and perseverance). The reader either comes for the action—and there’s plenty of that—or they come for the gimmick of the time loop; either way, the novel is an alluring snare of a soldier’s rise from cannon fodder to devil incarnate, from using training wheels to becoming Evel Knievel, and—most importantly—from pawn of fate to player of self-determination.
Sakurazaka’s only other novel is Slum Online (2005) about some quest in some video game. The premise doesn’t entice me at all. So, while Sakurazaka’s bibliography may be abbreviated in terms of English novels, there is still a shallow sea of Japanese literature available in English; notably, from the publishers Haikasoru and Kurodahan. Seems like, with the limited selection, I’ll be picking up the pieces one by one for a long while… unless All You Need is Kill inspires a generation of writers to produce more Japanese science fiction. If not, I’ll continue with reading American and British SF and dabbling in the translated scene.