Art and Story by Naoya Matsumoto
All chapters available on the Shonen Jump app
For nearly 70 years, kaiju have been one of Japan’s most significant cultural exports. The precise cultural importance of creations like Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidora has been lost in translation, but the world at large has no qualms about enjoying a movie where a monster goes on a rampage in a big city, or fights another monster in one of those cities.
Considering Godzilla’s nature as a warning against the dangers of nuclear war, it’s a little uncomfortable for studios to produce its story as simple action flicks to the country that carried out those attacks, but I digress. While the kaiju may feel a little bland in their recent western outings, their power to create stories is undeniable.
The most easily accessible aspect of kaiju films has always been the cool monsters and wanton destruction, but they’ve been a vehicle for complex stories since their inception. As such, I held high hopes for Kaiju No. 8, the popular Shonen Jump manga delivering a new kaiju story with that dominant shonen battle formula.
It’s had no shortage of success, even winning the Next Manga Award’s web category this year, but does it live up to the hype? Well, somewhat, but considering the Godzilla-sized shoes it has to fill, there are going to be some growing pains.
Kafka Hibino is not your average shonen protagonist. To be precise, he’s twice the age of your average shonen protagonist. He once made a childhood promise to his best friend Mina that they would join the Defense Force and drive out the kaiju terrorizing the country, but some twenty years down the line, he’s a cleanup specialist mopping up the guts of the monsters Mina slices up on the frontlines.
He’s failed to join the Defense Force once already, but after some prodding by his eager young coworker Ichikawa, he’s determined to give it another try. He’d certainly fail again if not for accidentally ingesting a small, sentient kaiju and acquiring the ability to turn into one of those monsters he cleans up for a living.
Forced to conceal his true nature from the Defense Force while relying on his abilities to survive, Kafka also has to contend with prodigies like Kikoru Shinomiya, an actual shonen protagonist with unprecedented synchronization levels for a rookie. He’s joined by Ichikawa, who often plays the straight man to Kafka, but resolves to do his best after watching Kafka refuse to give up on his dreams.
They’re set up for some standard monster-of-the-week battles and business as usual until they meet more intelligent kaiju, who are less than pleased that a human managed to swipe their powers and uses it for their own destruction.
This type of manga, driven by its fights and character comedy, manages to succeed on both fronts while rarely going above and beyond. Its comedy might be its strongest trait, thanks to the brilliant chemistry between characters across the board.
Kafka and Ichikawa enjoy a sort-of Saitma-Genos relationship, though it usually isn’t played for laughs the same way as in One Punch Man. Ichikawa is just an earnest rookie who respects Kafka’s drive to succeed, as well as the skills he gained by accidentally gulping down a kaiju. Kikoru is hard-headed and obstinate, liable to be irritating with her cocksure attitude and complete competence, but she’s got surprisingly strong motivations and the background to contextualize them.
Character design is all around serviceable, if somewhat plain, but it has its own charm. That’s a running theme here; Kaiju No. 8 isn’t deficient in any particular category, but it misses out on capturing that X-factor that would propel it to greatness. The monster designs actually outshine the characters themselves, especially Kafka and the other intelligent kaiju we’ve seen so far.
The fights between the kaiju are just as good as the kaiju fights themselves. There’s some immaculate clarity to their movements, the powers, and fight choreography, which is something of a precious commodity in Jump. I like Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen, but their complex power concepts and dense systems have a difficult time being clearly communicated.
No such problem here; kaiju rarely demonstrate a power you wouldn’t be able to pick up on from their appearance, but when they do, it’s clear-cut and easy to track. The complexity in the fights usually comes from how the Defense Force will navigate defeating a monster that can regenerate, produce more kaiju, and occasionally revive after being killed.
The whole system reminds me a lot of Tokyo Ghoul, particularly in the way that the Defense Force incorporates kaiju parts into their weapons. Those are only reserved for the strongest soldiers, though, so we haven’t gotten to see much of them outside of brief skirmishes. I’m particularly fond of the higher-ups in the Defense Force, especially Gen, the First Division Captain, who is not only Japan’s strongest soldier, but is a complete gremlin who has to be dragged by the ear to attend meetings.
Kaiju No. 8 is talented at tapping into that biological uncanny valley that Attack on Titan and Tokyo Ghoul were built upon. Each fight is visceral and well-choreographed, but the Defense Force’s capabilities are a little lackluster. Hoshina uses swords, Kikoru uses an axe, while most others rely on firearms, but it lacks a distinct style to call its own. Considering these weapons were derived from kaiju, I would hope they could afford to be a bit weirder.
Kaiju No. 8 is a promising story in the early stages with a lot of room to grow, though whether or not it will manage to transform into one of Jump’s kaiju-sized series remains to be seen. 40-odd chapters in, I’m sure Naoya Matsumoto has more tricks up his sleeve, but so far, it lacks that ineffable quality that made me fall in love with so many Shonen Jump titles.
I’ve praised Jump series for refining the battle manga formula rather than reinventing it, but I fear that Kaiju No. 8 doesn’t have enough of its own identity. The kaiju are an interesting alternative to generic demons or monsters, but its success will depend on being able to differentiate itself from its peers.
So Kaiju No. 8 claims the adequate title of Fine but Entertaining, and I’ll keep checking in to see what Kafka has accomplished. It was a pretty easy binge, so I hope it won’t be too long before I come back and talk about it in the same breath as all those other excellent shonen stories I mentioned here. If you’d like to see that, the best way to let me know is to like the review, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I talk about this stuff before it makes its way here. Until next time, thanks for reading.