Friday, 7 March 2014

All You Need Is Kill Review

As Ron Perlman would gleefully inform you: "war, war never changes." Such is the case in Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 light novel All You Need Is Kill, a sci-fi story about a young solider who continually finds himself fighting the same battle. The solider, Keiji Kiriya, is caught in a perpetual loop trying to stay alive against an enemy he can not beat, and losing; I call this 'putting children to bed' syndrome.

It is an interesting concept, one that was apparently inspired by save scumming - that is the video game technique of continually saving to beat the game by attrition, and not some liberal plan to preserve the rights of hoodlums. Keiji is trapped, doomed to relive his painful experience over and over, but at the same time he is rather blessed as he begins to take a Hugh Grant approach to proceedings; that is bumbling through the situation blindly until success is met, and not getting caught in a tryst with a prostitute.

Despite devoting more time to reading than the frigging Count of Monte Cristo, I hadn't heard of the book until I saw the trailer for the Tom Cruise led adaptation, Edge of Tomorrow. I usually try to read the book first - partly because I'm an insufferably pretentious burk - but also, because it is hard to fully realise the world of the novel in the format of film. It's always best to get better acquainted with the source. For example, if one wanted to understand what a willy waggle felt like, then one would probably find it more appropriate to go out there and actually play a game of 'hide Curly's gold' with a girl.

"Oh good lawd, these city folk."

The plot of All You Need Is Kill is fairly simplistic and, frankly, hackneyed. Aliens have invaded planet Earth, and in a disproportionate response to those terrible invasion movies of the 50's, they decide to turn us into a fine mushy paste. Naturally, humanity responds by pulling out more fancy toys than the rich kid on the last day of term, and attempt to blow the aggressors back to the dark side of the moon. This does not work out as planned, and humanity finds itself on the receiving end of a right royal spanking. It is an eclectic mix of a various science fiction tropes: power armoured suits bring to mind Starship Troopers and Halo; humanity being beaten into near annihilation is reminiscent of pretty much every sci-fi work ever made (Half-Life 2, Mars Attacks! War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, and so on and so forth).

Although the plot may draw from its luminaries, Sakurazak makes up for this by making the tale compelling. All You Need Is Kill is Keiji's personal journey from a useless whelp into a fully fledged murder machine. I found myself drawn into his story, fearing that a happy ending was out of the question, and practically palpitating during the action sections. Though the story concerns the fate at humanity at large, Sakurazak makes it personal to Keiji and the various other characters he encounters on his journey - including the strong independent female protagonist who don't need no man, The Full Metal Bitch. How the characters interact and handle the challenges thrown their way is what makes All You Need Is Kill stand above its uninspired origins, like a dirty commoner rising up to slay the pope in a guitar duel. 

No one out duels The Fearsome Pope, Julius II

It is far better written than you would imagine for a war novel about Mole Man aliens. Keiji is a well-rounded character with insightful opinions about the world around him. He is a disenfranchised young man with no place in the world, and left with little choice but to fight for his country. Being a (mostly) first person narrative, we are shown the world from Keiji's biased perspective and see how he perceives society: in this instance a hypocritical, hollow shell. Given Sakurazaka's target audience, I think he has created a suitable avatar in which his readers can fully immerse themselves. The supporting cast are all written superbly; particularly the grizzled, world-weary Sergeant Ferrell, who could just be an insight to the future of a battle hardened Keiji. Even Rita Vrataski (Full Metal Bitch) is eventually developed from being essentially a Vag-Jesus to an actual human being.

The writing style is snappy and concise, with short to the point sentences. Through the rapid fluidity of his prose, Sakurazaka is able to portray the chaos of the battlefield. He uses few flowery extended metaphors, or romanticised sentiments, but the writing is perfectly serviceable. On the other side of the coin, so to speak, I was thankful that despite ostensibly being a war story, it isn't written for the people who like to dust their knobs with gunpowder and shoot one off. You know the type of novel to which I refer, I'm talking about the ones written by the likes of James Patterson and read like a Petrarchan poet expressing his love for a 9mm.

"You're as beautiful as a thousand burning cosmoses..."

At times, it feels as though Sakurazaka had been marathoning 24 prior to writing. Though a Japanese novel written by a Japanese author, and actually set in Japan, it is once again up to the United States to save the day. Frankly I was a little disappointed. Japanese film and literature tend to be rather critical towards U.S. foreign policy (read Genocidal Organ for example), so I was hoping for little moral ambiguity, or even social criticism. But no, the U.S. Special Forces practically come in riding on the back of Falcor, who is also host to a decadent party of hot American co-eds. I'm not saying that I have a problem with Americans being depicted as anything other than a cross between Rambo and Joseph Paul Franklin, but it would have been preferable for Sakurazaka to delve deeper into the mindset of his country instead of resorting to the same old story.

This is the crux of the problem with All You Need Is Kill, Sakurazaka is to the details what Tom├ís de Torquemadv was to religious tolerance. I'm not talking about incidental aesthetics - the writing is competent to that end - but rather, in fleshing out of his plot. We are presented with two mysteries: the identity of the aliens, and why Keiji is forced to repeat the past. Unfortunately, neither of these two dangling threads ever amount to anything significant. Sakurazaka is a bit like an impatient father: he gives you an enigma to decipher and then, when he decides you aren't doing it quickly enough, he simply charades you and gives you the answer. As with any great mystery, the set up is far more compelling than the actual pay-off. Picture a whodunnit were the meddling detective has to solve the perfect murder, only for it to transpire that the victim died after accidentally ingesting sprout farts.

"Mrs Brown. In the pantry. With a bowl of green vegetables."

All You Need Is Kill is an enjoyable novel, though one that is forgettable. Sakurazaka makes up for a generic setting with well rounded characters and a compelling gimmick. It is well balanced, alternating between extended action sequences, to moments in which Sakurazak attempts to build his world. The novel treads a middle ground between sci-fi romp and adrenaline pumping action, lending it a wide appeal factor. It's not a long novel either, being a light novel it is close to novella length; at just under 200 pages it can be finished in anywhere from two to seven days. Just don't go in expecting to be wooed by Sakurazaka; you are not Braddock, and he is certainly no Mrs. Robinson.