Red Circle Minis are short works originally written in Japanese, but commissioned and first published in English translation. I’ve already covered a number of these attractive little books, and today sees me looking at the seventh in the collection, by a writer already featured in the series. Surprisingly, though, the overarching story is also rather familiar, meaning our latest choice has us heading back to the future for some dystopian adventures, and a spot of monkey business 😉
Takuji Ichikawa’s The Refugees’ Daughter (translated by Emily Balistrieri) is a futuristic tale of tragedy and hope in a bleak near-future environment, and the writer is back with another take on this world in Monkey Man (translated by Lisa Lilley and Daniel Lilley, review copy courtesy of the publisher). The story is told by Yuri, a teenager who’s just moved to a new high school, and on her first day, she has a chance encounter with a classmate, a gangly, cheerful boy acting as the butt of the other students’ jokes:
He certainly was strange. Both his appearance and behaviour were so completely different from anyone else. That strangeness was what I first assumed might be the reason he had caught my attention. Those two traits alone – his looks and the way he moved – had a profound impact.
p.1 (Red Circle Authors, 2021)
The newcomer is intrigued by something she can’t explain and gradually becomes closer to Tengo, the unusual youth, eventually being drawn into the small group he belongs to.
This is no ordinary group, though, and it turns out that Tengo and his friends have certain abilities raising them above the average teen. The trio have sworn to stand up to those intent on ruining society and use their talents to fight from the shadows. While the truth initially comes as a surprise to Yuri, it’s actually not as shocking as you might expect. You see, she has abilities of her own, and they’re growing stronger by the day…
Monkey Man, then, features a welcome return to the world of The Refugees’ Daughter, albeit in a different place, or at a different time. The two pieces are tied together by the idea of a new generation emerging with hidden powers. With the world falling to pieces thanks to the wilful mismanagement of those in charge, it’s the job of the young, Generation Alpha, to reveal the truth and wake everyone up before it’s too late.
The other tie connecting this book to the earlier story is a far more sinister one, namely the presence of the shadowy Complex, a capitalist organisation controlling governments, and the force behind all the decisions harming the planet:
Despite operating in different countries and under different names, the roots of The Complex were all interconnected. Spreading out underground, similar to a sticky, slimy, fungus-like mould, creating a vast network. Only a small part was ever visible at one time. (pp.11/12)
Tengo and his friends have formed their own group to fight back, undertaking daring escapades and leaking sensitive information. I have to say that there are major mutant X-Men vibes here, right down to the ‘institution’ they live in, one they say is for ‘gifted children’ (although that may just be a sly wink from the translators!).
It’s all great fun, and it provides a more active take on the world’s history than was the case in The Refugees’ Daughter, where the protagonists were fleeing a sinking ship. Here there’s a stronger message of hope, with the writer showing ways of fighting back. One of these is a popular computer game surreptitiously teaching the world’s youth how to cooperate to survive. Then there’s the mysterious Arlecchino group striking back at The Complex, new heroes for a changing world.
The one major drawback to Monkey Man is that a lot of information needs to be provided in a small number of pages, and that means Tengo and Yuri’s conversations can be slightly unnatural and weighed down by exposition. The messages are always clear, but expressed in a rather clumsy and obvious manner, an issue addressed by Ichikawa himself in his short afterword. He admits the difficulties of getting his message across in a short format, promising an extended look at this world in a future work.
Still, it all makes for an enjoyable story, and I haven’t even mentioned the titular Monkey Man yet. It doesn’t take super-powers to guess what that’s all about, but I will say that he’s the face of the resistance movement, a simian hero providing hope for the downtrodden. And if he does encourage enough people to wake up to the state of the world, then there’s still a chance of making a difference:
According to Hideto there seems to be something like a threshold, a tipping-point. It’s actually a surprisingly small figure. If only a few percentiles of all of humankind are truly awakened, then the world will start changing. (p.55)
In a world close to a rather gloomier tipping point, the message is that there’s still time for a change, if we work together – which all sounds oddly, chillingly familiar…