7 BILLION NEEDLES (70 Oku no Hari), by Nobuaki Tadano. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2010.
PLOT: Hikaru Takabe is a very standoffish high school girl, who prefers to leave her headphones on at all times instead of interacting with others or paying attention to anything other than her own ennui. All of this changes after a chance encounter with a giant fireball on the class trip. Next thing she knows, she can hear a voice in her headphones claiming to be an alien force called Horizon. Horizons says he is using her body to seek out another alien, one dubbed Maelstrom. Unlike Horizon, Maelstrom lives only to consume and destroy, and he appears to be occupying one of Hikaru's classmates. Now they must find a way to work together to find Maelstrom before he can wreak havoc and destroy the world.
STORY: For a debut story, this is not only impressive, but refreshingly original. It's a bit strange to call it original, considering the back copy states that this story is based on a Western sci-fi short story called "Needle" by Hal Clement. Not being familiar with that story, I couldn't tell you the similarities, but what I can say is that the manga market has been rather short on sci-fi as of late, and it's rarer still to find one not affliated with any pre-existing property, so this is truly one of a kind....well, sort of.
The "ordinary person possessed by alien" angle has been done in such properties as Birdy the Mighty, but unlike that story Horizon has chosen possibly the worst host possible. Hikaru is about the worst excuse for a heroine you could find: she's a slacker, not terribly bright, awkward around others to the point of having no friends, and she is extremely skeptical about the whole situation, despite the two week gap in her memory and the voice which only she can hear. She remains unconvinced until her first encounter with Maelstrom results in her arm being chopped off, which is quickly reattached by Horizon. A bad writer might have taken any or all of these traits and pushed them to the extreme for low-brow comedy at the expense of the character's likeability. It's a great credit to Tadano that while Hikaru is pretty hopeless as a hero and her failings are played for humor, he never stretches it too far and Hikaru remains strangely likeable in spite of her faults. In fact, one of the funniest parts of the story is when Hikaru has to perform reconnasaince for Horizon, which means she has to - *GASP* - INTERACT WITH OTHER PEOPLE! She's very believably awkward; you half expect her to say something like "So...do you like...um...stuff?"
Tadano also does a good job capturing the mendacity of Hikaru's life before Maelstrom comes along. You feel the tedium of her routine, and Hikaru's disaffectedness is palpable. I do have to question some of the science he incorporates in the story. You see, at one point Horizom claims Maelstrom being the cause of the K-T extinction by noting the impossible size of dinosaurs. Being a bit of a paleontology geek, I know there are many plausible biological explanations for the size of dinosaurs which are supported by the fossil record, but that's really just nitpicking a minor plot detail on my part. It's also pretty much the only explanation given for Maelstrom's true form, that of a GIANT, MASS-ABSORBING, VELOCIRAPTOR CLAWED REPTILE! It's at once effectively menacing, incredibly gory, and irrationally awesome.
7 Billion Needles is a neat take on the old trope of alien possession and invasion. It manages the tricky task of creating a realistically flawed heroine without making her so flawed as to be ridiculous, unsympathetic, or just plain annoying. It sets up the premise without getting lost in technobabble, lets its revelations come smooth and easy, and gives us a villain who is not necessarily complex, but is certainly strange and frightening. If this is Tadano's first try, then I can't wait to see what he'll come up with in the future.
ART: The artstyle, as well as the character designs, are very realistic, to provide all the better contrast to the fantastical goings-on. Most of the backgrounds are nicely detailed interiors alternated with rotoscoped exteriors. The page composition is fairly static. The panels are a little more varied, as Tadano does tend to break out the larger panels during the fights. The action itself is generally brief - Maelstrom is not one to linger over his kills - and Hikaru's confrontation with him near the end is more of an exercise in building tension through the use of close-up and shadow than delivering tons of knock-'em-out action. He does fine with the body horror, though, be it the sight of Hikaru popping her severed arm back on like a doll or Maelstrom transforming from a vaguely humanoid blob to a massive, spiny reptile. Overall, I like Tadano's realistic style. There's not a lot of obvious visual flair in his artwork, but there is a lot of skill and subtle visual storytelling which will serve him far better in the long run.
PRESENTATION: Sadly, there are no extras to speak of. The cover art is nice, as is to be expected from a Vertical work. It reminds me of the kind of cover art you see on academic essays, for some reason.
Once again, Vertical found a hidden gem of a manga and brought it to masses. 7 Billion Needles is a solid horror-tinged sci-fi story which deserves a place on the shelf of sci-fi fans as well as discerning manga readers.
This was published in the USA by Vertical. All four volumes are currently in print.
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