It was the cover to the first volume of Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles (Vertical, Inc.) that first caught my attention: several panels showing a young headphone wearing girl as she is zapped into a skeletonized form, her headphones falling away from her bony body. “What’s going on here?” I wondered – and how did it relate to the four-volume series’ title? My interest was definitely piqued.
Our young cover girl is an introverted high school student named Hikaru Takabe – and her cover moment occurs right at the book’s opening. On an overnight school field trip, Hikaru has an alien encounter on the beach: burning up “without a trace” when a meteor-shaped craft swoops down in front of her. The next thing she knows, she’s sitting in science class with no memory of how she got there.
Hikaru, we quickly learn, has been rebuilt and resurrected by the extraterrestrial visitor responsible for her demise. Merging with her body, the alien – which calls itself Horizon – has come to planet Earth in search of a murderous creature named Maelstrom. Like Horizon, Maelstrom is a plasma entity capable of taking over Earthlings’ bodies. But where Hikaru’s visitor appears to have good intent – despite that seemingly inadvertent decimation of the young girl’s body – and is reluctant to take full control of his host body, his quarry is much more bloody-minded. Horizon is forced to prod his unwilling host into seeking out the second alien, which the asocial young girl is reluctant to do, especially since it means, you know, going up to other people and talking to them.
Inspired by s-f master Hal Clement’s Needle. 7 Billion Needles takes a plot that that has inspired a multitude of sci-fi horror yarns since the 1950’s and spruces it up with sharp characterization. Hikaru proves an inspired creation: an unlikely savior of her planet whose alien contact could be her own emotional salvation provided she is able to survive once her visitor leaves her body.
Though the manga’s title refers to the old saw about looking for a needle in a haystack, it doesn’t take long before we learn that the murderous Maelstrom has indeed taken refuge in another student’s body, a formerly timid young teen named Shunsuke. Hikaru’s half-hearted efforts at playing detective lead to a shadowy confrontation between the two, which results in a (temporarily) severed arm and the villainous alien going after any schoolgirl whose silhouette vaguely matches Hikaru’s. Tadano doesn’t shy away from the grislier aspects of the slaughter, though he takes more than one attack to reveal the specifics of Shunsuke’s transformations. This is fully in keeping with old-fashioned horror traditions – tease and don’t show the full-blown creature until the big showdown – and it works here. Volume one ends with a big-scene confrontation in a school gym that definitely has me wondering where Tadano is going to take things next.
Though it has its horrific aspects, 7 Billion Needles also contains some engagingly light-hearted exchanges – first between Hikaru and her pedantic passenger, but also between our girl and a pair of fellow students she unintentionally befriends along the way. Tadano’s art is up to the task of both its action and character demands, and if a few of the schoolgirls at first look too much alike, this ends up becoming a plot point. I liked the occasional panels where we’re shown a cacophonous crowd of students or city dwellers, each with their own thoughts or dialog; the device reminded me of the interstitial moments on TV’s Person of Interest where we’re given a regular reminder of the noisy flow of humanity.
Vertical’s English-language version of this manga mini-series was released in 2010-11, which means that some of the print volumes these days are currently harder to come by (though not the Kindle edition). With only three more volumes to go, though, I know I’m sufficiently hooked to want to seek the rest of this series. Smart sci-fi and believable characterization: that’s rare enough in any style of graphic novel. . .