By Jordan Rocke
A fundamental part of this blog is, and always has been, reviews. Shaping our own experiences in such a way that others can get something out of them is a powerful way to communicate with audiences, and when that experience is something someone else can also take part in, a review is the most direct way to express that. Nowadays, the pop culture idea of what a review is still has this idea of being connected to a star rating or a number out of 100, but the reviews I’ve seen published in the last year are nothing like that. Take Joshua Hill’s review of his experience at Matsuyama castle, or Niall McGee’s experiences with VR in Tokyo. Both are very different ways of approaching very different materials, but both are essentially reviews.
One of the things this blog used to do more often than now is have people writing articles reviewing media, and it’s something I’d like to return to. I think there’s a sentiment that media is unrelated to our time on the JET programme in regards to writing on the blog, and I really disagree. For me personally, Mary Cagle’s webcomic Let’s Speak English is how I learned about the JET programme to begin with, and Australian books, music and podcasts are still a big part of my life in Japan. My knowledge of Japan is also partially built upon what I had learned from anime and manga before arriving. So, if anyone wants to write about media they’ve consumed while in Japan, or that influenced their decision to come to Japan, this is a wonderful outlet to talk about it, and I guarantee other folks would be interested in what you have to say!
To put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to try my hand at reviewing a really interesting manga I finished earlier this month: I am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa. It ran for 22 volumes between 2009 and 2017.
I actually learned about Kengo Hanazawa through one of his newer manga, Takaga Tasogare, about a world in which men don’t exist, potentially set in a post-apocalyptic Japan? The manga is very new, and as someone who can speak very little Japanese, I had to work out a lot through pictures and guesswork. Overall, the stunning artwork and beautiful, grittily detailed aesthetic pulled me in, and I ended up buying it as a gift for a friend. Sadly, Hanazawa’s other new manga, Under Ninja, seems to be getting a lot more attention, so I hope Takaga Tasogare survives. A few weeks later, I walked past a display of the I am a Hero series at my local manga rental place. I recognised the art, and went and started reading it. I read all 22 volumes in 3 days, if that’s any reference for how much I enjoyed the series. I’m not under the illusion this series is perfect in any way, but it’s a helluva ride.
This is where I put a content warning that this series contains explicit sexual content, extremely graphic violence, literally every bad thing you can imagine happening to a minor, sexual assault, and depictions of mental illness. This is not a happy times kinda manga.
So, what is it about? Well, I am a Hero is at it’s heart a manga about a man with a gun trying to survive against an outbreak of something that turns people into zombies. The remarkable part of this manga is the real, deliberate lack of relief. Every beat that you’d expect to provide catharsis or a feeling of release is robbed of it by the situation and the characters. Be it sex, violence or a close call, at every turn the series finds a way to make even a safe moment feel hard earned and short lived. It’s a difficult mindset to be in for an extended period of time, but it really keeps the series interesting and tense.
Although, like most zombie media, the setting itself is perhaps the most important character, the main character is the heart of this series. Hideo is an unsuccessful manga artist, in a relationship with a woman who is constantly comparing him to her ex who is a more successful manga artist. After the outbreak begins, he flees out into a forest where he meets a schoolgirl, Hiromi, and the two attempt to generally survive. This is really as much of the series that’s necessary to understand the broad idea.
The strongest part of the series to me is the first volume, before the zombies actually really show up. Following the life of a single, miserable man is genuinely fascinating. By night, he hides from the endless night terrors who invade his life. At work, he has to deal with his boss’s obsession with attractive TV presenters while being seen by his co-workers as a weirdo and a bit of a burden. In the evening, he spends time with his girlfriend, listening to her talk about how impressive her ex is, having awkward and unsatisfying sexual encounters, and then being verbally abused by her when she gets drunk. The life this first volume builds up really does a wonderful job at conveying a tone in which the end of the world could be appealing to some people, and setting up the broader themes of isolation and meaninglessness that continue for the rest of the series.
For context, I was obsessed with zombie stories when I was a teenager. I found World War Z by Max Brooks, and fell in love with the premise. Although as an adult, his extremely rubbish depiction of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Cuban political situation stands out, but as someone who already loved oral histories, I was immersed in a world where a zombie story wasn’t just about an American with a ute full of guns and a token love interest. The scale of the story drew me in, and I started seeking out zombie fiction like I was starving for it, but never really found anything else to satisfy me like World War Z. I’m so happy I didn’t find this manga when I was that age. The thing that idiot teenage me liked was the order and logic of the zombies themselves. I had tried to get into zombie-related games which were going nuts at that time, but there was just no strict rule to how the zombies operated. There needed to be stronger and weaker zombies, in order to ensure there was a challenge, but it just didn’t appeal to the young me who loved the concrete rules of the World War Z universe. However, as an adult, I was wrong about what I loved. I didn’t love the order and rules and scientism of the World War Z universe, but I loved the use of zombies as a metaphor instead of a pop-gun gallery target or a vague threat to justify a narrative about the villainy of humans. This is what I am a Hero delivers so well, while doing away with the idea zombies need to make strict sense.
The zombies in I am a Hero run on heart, not science, and it works so well. In the in-universe explanation, zombies continue to do whatever they were thinking about most when they were alive. You have zombies angrily going around and picking up any detritus and throwing it in the bin, manning their businesses, or waiting for a bus. Zombie behaviour is, very directly, meant to be a parody or shallow depiction of what humans do. As a collective, despite essentially going through harmless routines, their endless appetite and consumption has destroyed the world. It’s easy to extend this to metaphors about climate change or capitalism, both of which zombies have been used for in other media, but here their achievement is much simpler: human behaviour, done by both humans and zombies, has made life pointless. Although these zombies perform the same day to day tasks of the people they were before, they have been rendered into meat machines with no (immediately obvious) purpose.
I’m hesitant to make the claim that this is a work that is strictly a commentary on modern Japan, although it is really tempting to do so. The idea of a metaphor being used to complain about the meaningless of day-to-day life is neither new nor strictly Japanese. My first instinct is naturally to connect it to the Marxist idea of the worker being alienated from the product of their labour, which in turn leads to a sense of purposelessness. In addition, you could tie such an idea to the problems involved with the individual identity that is so core to ideas of neo-liberalism, which has largely led to individuals feeling alienated from the communities they historically would have been a part of. My point being that none of this is unique to Japan. The manga even goes out of its way to show short snippets of how people are faring in Belgium, Taiwan, Korea and Italy. I feel that, although the sentiment that society is filled with people who are isolated and purposeless, and are destroying the world as a result is relevant to Japan, it is not a uniquely Japanese story.
That all said, the imagery in this story is so uniquely Japanese. The image of a pair of people celebrating upon finding a deserted inaka combini so they can get some water, some beer and some clean underwear is such a striking one. Combined with the extremely detailed and beautiful art of Hanazawa, really makes it feel like it could be a scene pulled from the Lawson behind my house. There’s also a few subtle seperations from the American and Americanised zombie media I’m used to. For example, there is never a clear decision that the world is over, and we can do what we want. The main characters pay for everything they take for the first part of the story, and begin leaving apology notes with their name and address whenever they take things or cause serious property damage. They also never decide that zombies are no longer human. Until the very end, they still talk about how they have committed murder by killing zombies, and expect to eventually face justice for the crimes they’ve done. It’s a really interesting approach, and although it’s occasionally played off as Hideo being naive, it’s also used as a way of differentiating Hideo’s desire to return to a world he understood but hated from the many people who take mere days to establish their own kingdoms or doomsday cults.
The last note I want to hit on is the depiction of women in this series. The misogyny espoused by so many of the male characters is really confronting, especially at the beginning of the series. This isn’t even in a situation where social norms have broken down, it’s just what these characters do and say on a regular basis. A vicious hatred for women is a driving motivation for many characters as the series goes on, and a desire to possess women is what drives many of the characters into action, occasionally including the protagonist. It’s pretty shit, and at first it made me question if I wanted to continue with the series. However, the biggest contrast is the actual depiction of women in this series. The female characters who travel with Hideo are the ones that actually keep him alive. The title of the series is a joke. Hideo constantly repeats the title of the series to motivate himself, but is actually a pathetic hero. He is not the salaryman who finds himself more at home after society falls. He is a scared man with a gun, and the early part of the outbreak is filled with situations in which he allows those around him to be killed, not out of a deliberate sense of self-interest, but a fear of action. The women he meets are the ones who actually are able to plan and organise, and assist him in overcoming his fear of breaking the law and using his gun. I’m certainly not gonna go so far as to call this a feminist manga, but I really believe the misogyny espoused by the characters doesn’t reflect the actual views of the author, or the sentiment of the series itself. I completely understand if other folks feel differently, though.
I know this has been a rambling and confused review, but I certainly hope I’ve inspired some folks to give the first part of this series a shot, and see if it grabs your attention at all. If nothing else, I can honestly say that although it uses a lot of imagery common to zombie fiction, I’ve never come across a series like this before.
Jordan Rocke is an ALT from Canberra currently in Hojo, Matsuyama (the best part). He enjoys Pokemon Go, history, politics, and pretending to be the Chuyo RA until folks realise he doesn’t actually do anything.