Alien Nine vols. 1-3

Alien Nine vols. 1-3
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author: Hitoshi Tomizawa
Format: Paperback
Price: $15.99

As if mankind needed any more proof, Alien Nine is yet another reason why it’s never a good idea to judge something on appearance alone. On the outside, Alien Nine seems fairly innocuous; the covers of all three manga volumes are benign, if not quite peaceful, pictures of the three heroines. They’d never lead you to believe that the comic behind them is a veritable squirm-o-rama of bloody violence, depressing themes, and disturbing questions that are never satisfactorily answered. Alien Nine is one of the most problematic mangas I believe I’ve ever read. It has as many problems in its execution as it does in its thematic material.

Alien Nine is a story about three middle school girls, Yuri, Kumi, and Kasumi, who are chosen to defend their school against dangerous alien invaders. They’re given a few little gizmos, rollerblades, an amphibious-looking symbiotic aliens, and very little else to aid them in their fight. This may sound like the setup for yet another magical girl story, but nothing could be further from the case. Alien Nine is a science fiction story that’s much closer in tone to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Saikano than Sailor Moon. It’s a difficult, depressing, disturbing story that would have been brilliant if it didn’t have such dodgy storytelling sensibilities.

Alien Nine‘s skeletal plot is built around three elementary-school girls: the bubbly and gifted Kasumi, the rational, born-leader Kumi, and the perpetual waif Yuri. Like many girls their age, they’re friends, but primarily in the sense that they’re friends by proximity and association rather than by choice. The rather small core cast is completed by the Alien Party sponsor Megumi. All the characters have serviceable (if not exactly memorable) personalities, but the characters’ personalities didn’t strike me nearly as much as how they relate to responsibility. Kasumi willingly takes on the responsibility of the Alien Party because of a pathological need to be the best at everything. Kumi paradoxically accepts the responsibilities of the Alien Party in order to shirk the responsibilities of being the representative of her class. Yuri was forced to join the Alien Party against her will and is powerless to change, improve, or even fully understand her situation, which both absolves her of responsibility and lends her a sort of invincibility against judgement. But the most disturbing of the bunch is Megumi, who abuses the responsibility she’s been entrusted with. She’s clearly more concerned about her job and success than she is about the welfare of the girls. At one point, she knowingly and willingly puts Yuri in danger, but after all hell breaks loose, she’s more concerned about being replaced than the fact that she just caused severe psychological trauma to one of her students. And, of course, when terrible things happen to the three girls, no one is there to be held accountable or answer for them. They evidently don’t even need to be answered for, if the convenient absence of the girls’ parents is any indication.

There are a lot of reasons to appreciate Alien Nine. The comic has an instantly recognizable art style, the alien designs are original both visually and functionally, and Tomizawa is willing to explore darker, more challenging themes in what could have easily turned into a dopey monster-of-the-chapter snoozefest. But in spite of all this, Alien Nine comes off as a good story being hindered by a screwball storytelling style. The writing comes off as indecisive and evasive, if not outright lazy. For one, it seems like the comic can’t decide on an approach and stick with it. It tries to combine elements of an action comic, a sci-fi story, and a coming-of-age saga, but the three genres seem to work against each other rather than in concert. The story arcs don’t transition smoothly into one another, which makes it hard to really follow what’s going on at times. With the exception of one story arc being devoted to her, Kasumi comes more of a plot device than a character. The story develops one aspect of her, and then abandons her. Later on, the comic seems unsure if the main character is supposed to be Kumi or Yuri.

Alien Nine
But the worst thing about Alien Nine is the fact that it’s simply underdeveloped – and deliberately so. Rather than a fully-grown story, it feels like a plot summary with action sequences. The comic never told me the things I wanted to know. For example, it only tells us the bare minimum of what we need to know concerning the Alien Nine universe or the scientific principles that drive the story – it gives us an inkling of what’s going on, but the explanations are too brief, vague, or nebulous to give me the feeling that I genuinely understood what was going on. Later on in the comic, several characters start acting strangely or out of character, and no rationale for their actions are given. At one point, the perpetually frightened and weak Yuri undertakes a dangerous journey into an alien-infested forest alone, yet we’re only given the thinnest of explanations why. We’re never given any solid reasons as to what would drive her to act against her own nature, or even exactly what she hoped to accomplish by doing something so reckless and illogical. This problem pervades throughout the comic, but it gets much worse in the second half. The closer to the end I got, the less sure of what was happening I felt, and the less I cared. My interest in the plot or characters wasn’t getting the information it needed, and it died of starvation.

Interestingly, Tomizawa does give us a rationale for this. In one of the interviews included with the manga, he states that he avoided going into too much detail while writing Alien Nine because he wanted readers to use their imaginations. Fair enough, but I think Tomizawa confused “avoiding too much detail” with being needlessly vague. He makes it a point to give the reader only the bare minimum of information required to follow the story, and even that is begrudged. He leaves things such as backstory, character motivations, and the basic scientific principles behind the story up to the reader. He introduces a lot of intriguing issues, but he doesn’t seem interested in actually dealing with them; he leaves the most interesting and challenging bits of his comic entirely up to audience conjecture while going on to draw another 10 pages of aliens and little girls getting slashed to ribbons in various and sundry ways. Don’t get me wrong, I like stories that require thought, but I repeatedly got the impression that Tomizawa was expecting me to do a good part of his job for him. It felt as though he didn’t want to develop his world and story properly, so he saddled the audience with that responsibility. I don’t consider that good storytelling. It’s not like withholding information from the audience is the only way to encourage imaginative thought. You could argue that Tomizawa’s approach allows the reader to make the story as good as he or she wants it to be, but that’s a bit like saying my old junker car will take you wherever you want to go. Oh, it’ll go anywhere a car can go… as long as you get behind it and push.

Why am I babbling on about this? It has a lot to do with the way I reacted to the story. If there’s one thing Alien Nine does extremely well, it’s make the reader uncomfortable. As maddening as the vague-to-the-point-of-incomprehensibility storytelling is, sometimes the ambiguity works. It raises questions that it never answers, which naturally leaves open the possibility that the answers are much more sinister than we want them to be. This discomfort-through-ambiguity also extends to how I perceived the characters. It’s easy to feel sorry for Yuri, because she really is in a bad situation that she cannot get out of, for reasons that are never sufficiently explained. Yet, at times we’re forced to feel a sort of contempt for her, since she’s portrayed as a perpetual victim who either can’t or won’t do much other than feel sorry for herself, even when her inaction endangers her friends. I don’t really know what to make of Megumi; despite her selfish, negligent actions and general lack of concern for her students, the comic doesn’t bother to take a position on her. Is she a Machiavellian monster that shouldn’t be overseeing these girls, or does she really care about her charges and simply lacks good judgement? By all indications, Alien Nine either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or can’t be bothered to distinguish a difference. It creates quite a mess, and it leaves us with the task of sorting through the wreckage.

Alien Nine
But perhaps the most disturbing thing about this comic is its ending, or lack thereof. Alien Nine doesn’t end so much as it simply stops. After the final story arc wraps up, there’s a few pages of dialogue, a fitting final scene, and then it’s over. I’ve seen a lot of comics and anime that ended horribly, but I seldom see endings that feel this inconclusive. The part that bothers me is, if this is how Alien Nine ends, then what exactly was it about? Was it a clumsy allegory of coming of age? Was it a simple action story that I looked into too deeply? I really can’t tell. As people, we more readily accept our own suffering (or that of others) if we believe that it achieves some end or serves some greater purpose, but Alien Nine offers neither its characters nor readers any such consolation. I’d like to think Alien Nine exists for some reason other than to present us with three volumes of little girls and aliens tearing each other to bits, but based solely on the evidence I have, I don’t know what other conclusions I can come to without inserting my own conjecture. After all, the vagaries of the plot and characterization have pretty much rendered the possibility of finding any other point to this manga difficult, if not impossible.

Alien Nine is a difficult, disturbing comic. It’s a story that has far more problems than it should, but there are certain aspects about it that stand out so prominently that you can’t dismiss it out of hand. I can admit that Alien Nine has its share of both good qualities and massive problems, but I honestly can’t tell you if I enjoyed the comic or not. Oddly enough, I didn’t have the same problems with the Alien Nine anime that I did with the manga. Maybe it’s the simple fact that the anime was much more suggestive and less ambiguous than the manga, but in the anime the characters felt more fully realized, there was much more actual tension, and the horrifying bits, though less violent, were much, much more traumatic. The anime left quite an impression on me, if only for its extremely emotionally brutal interpretation of the comic and its attempts to turn the story into a coming-of-age allegory. It felt like a very consequential work. By contrast, the manga piqued my interest only to lose it, and be largely forgotten afterward. That’s not to say the manga’s a complete bust; it’s worth looking into if you’ve seen the anime and insist on seeing the story through to its end, but the story really does become increasingly disjointed in the latter half, where the anime left off.. Perhaps Alien Nine would have been better if it had abandoned its experimental narrative style and told a straightforward story, but as it is, it keeps too many secrets and leaves too much unsaid.

Added:  Monday, February 07, 2005

Related Link:  CPM Manga
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