I read Hiroshi Yamamoto’s MM9 in a couple of days. Maybe three at the outside. It flew by, however long it took me. It’s divided into a handful of chapters, episodes really, each a story unto itself. They each have their own TV show-style titles, too. I think my favorite title is “Danger! Girl at Large!” but “Arrival! The Colossal Kaiju of the Apocalypse!” is pretty great, too.
Here’s a summary of MM9 from Amazon:
Japan is beset by natural disasters all the time: typhoons, earthquakes, and…giant monster attacks. A special anti-monster unit called the Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department (MMD) has been formed to deal with natural disasters of high “monster magnitude.” The work is challenging, the public is hostile, and the monsters are hungry, but the MMD crew has science, teamwork… and a legendary secret weapon on their side. Together, they can save Japan, and the universe!
You can read an excerpt here or read the first chapter on Amazon.
This book was good. I was expecting just a regular monster book, something where kaiju come in and wreck shop and then the government puts things back together. I was surprised on a couple of different levels. The most obvious surprise was that the book is more of a short story collection than a straight-up novel, in a way. The episodes take place in chronological order, and they do build on each other, but they feel more like short stories in the same universe than the regular progression you’d see in a novel. The characters are loosely defined archetypes. Sakura’s an eager and earnest young lady who dosen’t always make the best decisions. We get a brief look at Yuri’s home life. Yojiro is the experienced man in the field. Chief Kurihama has heart problems. Everyone’s a sketch, but the type of sketch that you can easily fill in for yourself.
Yamamoto’s cast is movie-ready, that’s obvious, but that isn’t really a bad thing. It’s actually a boon to the short story format, because Yamamoto can get right into the kaiju drama after doing a little bit of character-building work to open the chapter and show us how far we’ve progressed in time. Sometimes he weaves it throughout the story, as when Ryo goes on a date with his girl just prior to a kaiju attack, but for the most part, the characters are defined by what they do, not who they talk to. I don’t mean that as a negative, though it can surely be seen as one. Yamamoto amps up the spectacle instead of the drama, but not necessarily at the expense of it, is what I’m doing a poor job of saying.
A nice twist is that the MMD aren’t a bunch of totally awesome gun-toting superheroes. They’re scientists and researchers. They don’t handle any of the violence or kaiju extermination. They’re there to advise and consult. They examine the kaiju while it’s on approach, figure out the rules for battling it, and help decide where to stage the showdowns. The military handles the actual combat. That configuration helps make the book pretty fresh, since we’re just a step removed from the action, but still in the middle of it. It doesn’t really get into military otaku fetishism, either. Yamamoto is very plain about what type of ammo works on each kaiju and why, but he doesn’t dwell on those specifics.
The other surprise was that this isn’t just a kaiju book. I was expecting oblique references to the greats, like Godzilla, Mothra, and maybe–if Yamamoto was willing to stretch–Ultraman or some tokusatsu. I was reading it for lines like this:
Kurihama quickly understood. He grabbed the microphone and yelled, “Run, Ryo! That’s a parabola. It’s going to focus its sound into a beam!”
A huge part of the appeal of kaiju is not destruction, but how that destruction happens. Any idiot can stomp around a power plant in a rubber suit. Real idiots have beams. Sometimes it’s just a burst of nuclear flame, like Godzilla. Others shoot lasers. Some robots shoot missiles from hatches on their chest that are cleverly disguised as breasts, which isn’t a beam, but a close cousin. Still others rock the old Itano Circus style of beam, a wildly gyrating group of flying death beams. Beams rule, basically. A few comics characters have them, too, most notably Cyclops, Superman, and Iron Man. (They’re boring, in comparison, but I just thought I’d mention them so you know exactly what I mean.)
MM9 has a few good beams, but it’s also very upfront about what kaiju are: living cultural myths. One of the chapters involves a mandrake. Another is all about guiafairo, a bat monster from Senegal. Yamamoto takes cultures from around the world and just slightly re-contextualizes them for his purposes. Japanese yokai make appearances, too, and Yamamoto does a deft job of delineating the differences between kaiju and yokai.
It’s an interesting take, and one that hadn’t even crossed my mind before picking up the book. Yamamoto spends some time talking about American kaiju, how radioactivity affected kaiju after World War II, and how kaiju work despite the fact that they’re violating several laws of physics. It never feels like a thick infodump, even when he’s delving into the anthropic principle and the history of the universe.
Here’s another bit I liked, which is part of a longer (sorta evil) monologue:
“It is. Humans need to be afraid. When they think of kaiju, they need to feel dread and awe. With this great disaster, we will instill within them a terror they will never be able to forget and they will never be able to deny—not for thousands of years, not for tens of thousands of years, until the day the very last human dies.
MM9 is pop fiction. If you’re at all curious about Godzilla or movie monsters, this is probably the book for you. I caught references to Godzilla and Mothra, of course, and maybe a few others besides. It can’t be understated how easy a read this is, either. It burns like a good airport novel, something you dive into for a little while and leave entertained, if not necessarily enriched. I came into it almost entirely cold, not having read anything by Yamamoto before and having only read the excerpt before picking it up. It’s a little funny, in a broad sort of way, and a kick to read.
(googling around after finishing this tells me that the book is actually a short story compilation, so go me for being able to recognize obvious structural elements of books?)