All You Need Is Kill
All You Need is Kill, one of the earlier titles released by my favorite publisher Haikasoru, is rather like what might happen if Hammer’s Slammers crashed the set of Groundhog Day. Other reviewers have disagreed on which iconic military SF comes in the first slot, but everyone agrees on the Groundhog Day part. (To be pedantic, Steakley’s Armor is probably the best fit. The Slammers drive tanks rather than one-man suits, but Starship Troopers isn’t nearly bleak or bloody enough.) Further, while Groundhog Day is a no-brainer as a comparison, All You Need is worlds away from the positive, uplifting message that Bill Murray stumbles upon. Instead, the book is heavily informed by video game conventions, as the author explains in an interesting afterword.
The first part of this review will address the usual: plot, execution, characterization, etc. The second will look more at Japan and its place in the book, since that is what interests me at least as much as the story. Anyway, onward and upward. Keiji is a new recruit and we join him in his first ever battle. He and his battle suit are quickly obliterated by the Mimics, a bizarre alien invader. I’m not spoiling anything here, as Keiji lies dying on the ground within a few paragraphs of the opening. Then, suddenly, he is alive again, preparing for his first battle. Then dying yet again. And again, and again. It is clear by about page 15 that something strange is going on; Keiji is trapped in a loop, doomed to fight this battle over and over.
Things proceed from there, as Keiji slowly learns how to survive longer in battle, meets allies and enemies, and finally learns “The Secret” that explains, more or less, what on earth is going on. We see the changes developing in Keiji as the story goes on, watching as he changes from a grumpy noob to a hard-bitten veteran who crushes all comers. Some of these are obvious, as he keeps careful track of survival time and kills through each run, and others are less so. For example, early on he comments liberally on female characters’ breast size. I took this as typical Japanese fan service and wondered why the author would waste sentences on something misogynist and pointless. Later in the book though, he pushes admiring women away, saying he needs every moment to train, even though he will in all likelihood repeat the day anyway and could probably afford to dally one time through. By the end, the women are all but invisible to Keiji, intent as he is on becoming a killing machine that will survive the battle.
As long as everything is kept mysterious, the book rolls merrily along. It falls down a bit when Sakurazawa has to explain why everything works the way it does. Clearly this is a video game, with Keiji the player struggling to learn the rules, the cheats, and the secret combinations that defeat the level boss, but it is also science fiction, so there needs to be a reason why this would happen. (One reason that Groundhog Day works so well is that nobody has to explain why Bill Murray is trapped. He just is, and when he finally gets Andi MacDowell to fall for him, he isn’t.) This explanation, and the way it justified or forced the twist at the end, didn’t work so well for me. It was alright, but didn’t illuminate and enhance what had come before, just kind of explained it.
On to part two. I would really like to read this in Japanese, not just in translation. The reason, besides the original language fetish some of us have, is that All You Need has very little Japan in it. The main character is Japanese and the book takes place somewhere on the Japanese coast, but if one changed a couple of proper nouns, it could be anywhere. This is not to say that I expect everything written in Japan to somehow involve ninja or Mt. Fuji or something, but most things I read/watch from Japan maintain a distinct cultural outlook. The relationships between the characters and the unspoken worldview underlying the stories are just different from US-UK fare. Not so here.
I wonder if the translator somehow whitewashed this when he brought it into English, or if the original is similarly free of Japanese-ness. Certainly the swear words are new, as there just aren’t that many ways to curse in Japanese. Sakurazawa reads like a disgruntled Vietnam vet, airing his frustrations through the voice of an unfortunate grunt. There are deeper questions though. The book is utterly lacking in the anti-war sentiment that underpins so much of Japanese culture. Keiji has no use for war, but it is because he hates Army life, doesn’t want to get killed, thinks his commanders are morons, and other typical reasons. Likewise the senior-junior human relations that define so much of Japanese life are utterly lacking. This may just be a function of the plot, but is interesting nonetheless. For comparison, many of the anime I have watched (Gundam, Macross, etc.) are war stories, but reflect Japan much more than All You Need.
This isn’t a long read, so I have no qualms recommending it to all and sundry. Sakurazawa’s goals are modest, exploring military sci-fi through a video game prism, and he succeeds. He’s not looking to make a grand statement or change the face of literature, so no reader should expect much beyond entertainment. If it was a bit more of an investment, time-wise or emotionally, I might scale back my rating a bit, but for a couple of hours All You Need is Kill is worthy and plenty of fun.
Rating: The Kashima Antlers. Japan’s most decorated professional team, the Antlers (besides having a strange name) are utterly clinical. Not extravagant, artistic, or dramatic, they just win in the most efficient way possible.