Hikaru Takabe is having trouble fitting in with the rest of the teenage girls at her high school. It could be because she’s just moved into town to live with her aunt after her father’s mysterious death, instantly making her “the new kid.” It probably doesn’t help that she’s far too shy to talk to any of them, instead choosing to drown them all out with her ever-present headphones. Or—of course—it could have something to do with the fact her body has been hijacked by an alien hunter known as Horizon who has the ability to mutate her into a grotesque shape-shifting bio-weapon.
And you thought puberty was tough.
While “possessed schoolgirl with disturbing powers” might seem like a fairly generic set up for a Japanese comic to most, intriguingly Nobuaki Tadono’s manga is in fact based on a golden-age classic of U.S. science fiction. Originally published in 1950, Hal Clement’s Needle tells the story of an alien hunter that comes to Earth and finds shelter in the body of a 15-year-old schoolboy as together they try and track down a deadly extraterrestrial foe. While Clement’s novel is famed for its hard sci-fi approach to the biology of the alien creatures and the detective-like approach its symbiotic protagonists take to tracking down their prey, 7 Billion Needles by Nobuaki Tadano chooses instead to focus on the combination of body-horror action sequences and angst-ridden Hikaru’s emotional journey.
The former is undoubtedly the manga’s strongest point visually, bombarding the reader with some fairly extreme imagery throughout its four volumes as Horizon and the reluctant Hikaru team up to fight a series of truly grotesque and twisted adversaries. As flesh fuses with flesh and body parts warp out of proportion it’s very easy to draw comparisons with Tetsuo’s final, horrifying transformation in Akira—especially as Otomo’s disturbed designs have clearly been a great influence on Tadano’s work here. However, especially by the last two volumes, the work that I found myself reminded of the most was John Carpenter’s body-horror classic The Thing (itself a remake, and clearly influenced by Needle). And it’s not just the mutated animals, exploding heads and bodies-being-ripped-apart-by-emerging-monsters visuals either; 7 Billion Needles plays with similar themes of paranoia, contamination and the “enemy within” as Carpenter’s classic, with chilling and thought provoking results.
But it is perhaps the other side of the story, Hikaru’s emotional development, that is the most refreshing aspect of 7 Billion Needles. At first glance these days it seems impossible to find anime or manga where schoolgirls are not either the protagonist or victim, to the extent that their roles usually overshadow other aspects of the story. It’s far too frequent that you pick up what appears to be a science fiction or fantasy title and realise that the setting is literally no more than that; merely a backdrop for yet another generic teenage drama. Not only is that far from true for 7 Billion Needles—the story takes its sci-fi trappings very seriously, concluding with a plot line that questions the very nature of evolution—but the teenage drama that is here is far from hysterical or clichéd, and for once feels integral to the plot. In order to find his prey Horizon must convince the shy Hikaru to overcome her greatest fears and actually start talking to her classmates, with the inevitable outcome that she begins to make friends. It’s not the most original of character arcs, but at least here it is done both believably and with subtlety, and comes at a time when many western anime and manga fans seem to want to celebrate the tortured loneliness of the hikikomori (or shut in) lifestyle. Most importantly it never overshadows the action sequences or the world twisting science fiction ideas at play, instead giving them an important human grounding.
As mentioned previously the body-horror mutation sequences are probably the strongest aspect of 7 Billion Needles’ visuals, at times being both disturbing and beautifully surreal in a single frame. To focus just on them though is to do Tadano’s artwork an injustice—his depictions of mundane, real world locations deserves some equal praise. Perhaps where it lacks the most is in his rather unoriginal character designs, with at times it being hard to tell the female characters apart due to how similar they appear facially. But in the end it is a minor criticism, as there is a little here to stop me recommending 7 Billion Needles to anyone with an interest in action driven science fiction or horror. And at just four compact volumes—as opposed to the often-sprawling double-digit runs of manga series—it makes a perfect, mature and rewarding entry point for those new to the medium.
Review copies were provided by the publisher.
Tim Maughan lives in Bristol in the UK and has been writing about anime and manga for nearly four years, and consuming both for close to twenty. He also writes science fiction, and his debut book Paintwork is out this June. He also tweets way too much.