All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Science fiction doesn’t have to be big or even outwardly clever to be effective. A lot of what I enjoy involves original or elegantly neat ideas that give the “I never thought of that…” reaction but sometimes a simple concept does the job in its own way, although this simplicity turns out to be deceptive. Even when I gave Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill a modest three out of five stars rating on Goodreads I wasn’t suggesting that it was a mediore effort, nor was I implying that I didn’t enjoy it.

As a matter of fact it’s a fast-paced, immersive and highly readable account of a futuristic battle waged by humanity against an alien invader, and on that alone I recommend it. The nature of the narrative – that of a soldier trapped in a time loop of his last day on the front line, and his attempts to understand and hopefully escape from that situation – makes it a challenge for the writer to keep the repetitive proceedings engaging, but Sakurazaka succeeds admirably. In that sense it feels a lot like some unholy combination of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers.

Even so, any humour of AYNiK stems from the profanity-riddled soldier banter (the translation of which into English is very smooth and natural). The main business of the novel is that of portraying the reality of its warfare environment down to the tiniest gritty, dirty details of the combat itself and what goes through the combatants’ minds. It’s unflinching, occasionally gruesome but, for a reader casually sitting in the safe and peaceful Real World, it’s wholly convincing.

The thing is, I’d initially decided I was satisfied with it being just that: a down-and-dirty and entertaining military thriller first, and a thought-provoking SF piece second. I wasn’t writing it off exactly, but I was trying not to criticise it for failing to be something it wasn’t trying to be in the first place. As an action-fest it’s great and in terms of character development it offers some pleasant surprises, but it wasn’t until I’d let my final impressions settle that I gave it more credit.

My only criticism of Haikasoru’s English language edition is that it needed moar ABe, as in the original Japanese version, but you can’t have everything

The hard-boiled language and lack of sentimentality – of the clearly-spoken nature, anyway – make the character-driven moments all the more poignant for me. Rather than a shallow one night stand or sappy outpouring of emotion, the bond between Kiriya and Rita is made of mutual respect and understanding. I wish more of his background were explained, but the exposition surrounding Rita’s early life offers a neat foreshadowing: the queen of the battlefield found her way there almost by accident, starting life as an ordinary farmer’s daughter, and Kiriya’s humble beginnings begin to take the same course.

I guess I’m expected to be fascinated by the mechanics behind the aliens, the Mimics, and their greater purpose. It IS explained, and in sufficient detail too, but I was never really interested; part of me probably assumed that the reader’s attention isn’t supposed to directed towards them. Perhaps a re-read would make me appreciate this more, but again, I viewed it as a military thriller rather than a SF piece.

The afterword by the author likens the creative process of writing the novel to that of his experiences with video games, in that the supposed success of the player/protagonist is due to the repeated ‘replays’ of the mission rather than any noteworthy ‘heroic’ qualities. At the beginning of the novel Kiriya is just another piece of cannon-fodder for the war machine to chew up and spit out; by the end his prowess on the battlefield is seen as superhuman…but as in a videogame in which the player is congratulated upon completing it after numerous abortive failed attempts, only he is aware of the less-than-glamorous slog that gave him the ability to do so.

This setup offers some interesting parallels with real-world situations. What about those people in the emergency and military services who make the headlines for their courage and skill, yet in interviews reply with no hint of false modesty “the training kicked in…” or “I was just doing my job…”? To us, they are heroes and heroines; to them, the feats are less remarkable because it is part of their, not our, life experience. In the end, I suppose both views are right: to them it’s part and parcel of what they do, but it would be foolish to trivialise the effort they put into it.

Furthermore, the nature of the warfare in AYNiK is on one hand futuristic with the mechanised armour suits and weapons, but on the other it’s a portrayal of warfare that is just as slow, messy and hard on the people on the front line as, say, the war of attrition in the trenches of WWI’s Western Front. For all the high tech gear and SF trappings, Kiriya’s war would be recognisable to any hapless grunt of our past and present.

From their point of view, the meaning and the Bigger Picture of the conflict is of considerably less significance next to the welfare of their comrades and the very act of personal survival. A lot of Kiriya’s narration is dealt with a large helping of cynical wit, with the underlying insinuation that a non-combatant would never fully understand what his job entails (harking back to that infamous Vietnam war quote “you weren’t there, man!”). To quote another old observation of the nature of warfare, it’s hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

As warfare-orientated video games become more and more realistic, it’s easy to blur our perceptions of the two and play down the unpleasantness of the real thing. I doubt Sakurazaka was trying to make any particular statement about violence in entertainment, but I certainly got a distinct feeling that he wanted the reader to think about what wartime heroism really means (speaking of video games, Nasu had a thing or two to say about heroism too).

In a similar vein, I felt that the 1997 film of Starship Troopers was a tongue-in-cheek satire of war movies and the motives behind military campaigns, and in between the comedic moments Groundhog Day was fundamentally instrospective and focused on the plight of the individual (SPOILER ALERT so much so, the reasoning behind the repetition is never actually explained END SPOILER). Because it’s so damned good at being a straightforward story I’m reluctant to pin too much meaning onto it, but after putting the book down and letting my feelings of “that kicked so much ass!” subside, All You Need is Kill left me with a lot to think about.

3 responses to “All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

  1. Thanks for reviewing this! I just found out recently that my local bookstore had Haikasoru titles, so your reviews are a good source of information. (If you have some backlogs, what’s still on your to-read pile?)

    AYNiK is on my wish list (for next year). :)

  2. I thought AYNIK was fun as a light read. I’d probably compare it more to Steakly’s Armor rather than Starship Troopers. Honestly though, I felt the warfare stuff sounded hollow, especially after reading things by guys like Drake or Haldeman, who are actual veterens (though to be fair, any current Japanese author is going to have this problem). But I did like that he bothered to give an explanation as to what was going on. Thanks for sharing those illustrations, I didn’t realize they existed, and not including them is an utter failure on Viz’s part.

  3. @JELEINEN: Good point about comparing AYNIK to ARMOR, and to be fair, Sakurazaka isn’t Joe Haldeman (who is a veteran) but he stilled penned a very good SF war story. And let’s not forget that Stephen Crane, who wrote THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, never fought in a war, but his book is praised for its frank, brutal depictions of combat.

    As for Viz not including Abe’s illustrations…well, let’s not be too harsh on them. Remember, in the US interior illustrations–at least to some–would classify the book as “for kids”, and AYNIK certainly isn’t for children! They probably had valid reasons for not including them.

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