Alien Nine, story and art by Hitoshi Tomizawa. CPM Manga, 1999. 3 volumes. Rated Age 16+.
Alien Nine is that deceptive kind of manga I like, the kind that starts out looking cute and then grows darker and grimmer. Although its premise suggests a target audience of children and it has a simple and cutesy style, this actually appeared in a seinen magazine, that is, one for adult men. Originally running from 1998 to 1999 and filling three volumes, it in 2003 saw a one-volume sequel, Alien Nine: Emulators. There is also a four-episode OVA adaptation. The OVA only managed to cover half the story before it ran out of money, but is nonetheless a cult classic.
The story revolves around three twelve-year-old girls obliged to protect their elementary school from hordes of goofy little aliens by trapping those aliens and then maintaining them in a vast zoo (or prison) on the school grounds. After introducing this absurd premise, Alien Nine grows steadily more gruesome and violent as the aliens grow more dangerous, until it descends into angst and body horror. By depicting creature-catching as less than it’s cracked up to be, it may be considered a subversion or deconstruction—or whatever the kids are calling it these days—of Pokémon and similar brands.
This may or may not be a magical girl title depending on who you ask and where you draw the genre’s boundaries. Most classify it as science fiction horror. Regardless of where you stick it, it shares with the magical girl genre the quality of being an allegory about coming of age. But whereas a typical magical girl story waxes maudlin about the limitless potential of youth, Alien Nine is about the emotional unease that accompanies adolescence. Specifically, it treats of sex and the physical changes of puberty as objects of horror.
And because it’s impossible to dig into the allegory without giving away much of the story, I’m simply going to give a spoiler warning up front.
The story takes place in the near future, fourteen years after the first aliens arrived on Earth. Alien invasion is now a commonplace and unremarkable occurrence. And because aliens always target elementary schools, every school has set up an “Alien Party,” a sort of obligatory after-school club tasked with trapping and imprisoning the invaders. At Elementary School Nine, the new Alien Party consists of sixth-graders Kumi, Kasumi, and Yuri. Kumi, a natural-born leader tired of always helping others, sees this as a good opportunity to get out being class president for the sixth year in a row. Kasumi, a ballerina and all-around clever girl, likes aliens and enjoys the challenge of capturing them. Yuri, a weepy and timid girl with no particular talents, hates aliens and finds them unbearably disgusting.
To do their alien-catching, the girls wear rollerblades, and each of them is also obliged to wear on her head a “Borg,” a symbiotic alien that looks like a cross between a winged frog and a bike helmet.
The Borg is there to protect its host from other aliens by fighting for her or defending her with the drill-shaped tentacles it can extrude from its wings.
In exchange, the Borg feeds off her perspiration … by licking her all over. So repulsed is Yuri by her Borg that, upon first wearing it, she immediately faints.
And Yuri is not unjustified in her disgust. Tomizawa-sensei’s chimerical alien designs, based largely on amphibians, insects, and fungus, are sufficiently gross on the page and would probably be stomach-churning if lifted off of it. Throughout the comic, there are copious amounts of mucus as well as blood and guts.
Yuri is terribly bad at creature-catching, but with Kumi’s assistance, she gradually gets used to the job and even begins to think that aliens aren’t all that terrible. Then everything goes to heck right before summer vacation when three boys decide to wear aliens on their heads and attack her with more of those drill-shaped tentacles, which her Borg is barely able to fend off.
This is the first clear indication of what Alien Nine is really doing. These boys are all in Yuri’s class and take obvious interest in her after she gets her Borg. Although the explanation is that they are “boys obsessed with aliens,” their attacks on Yuri represent, metaphorically, a newfound interest in girls. Yuri’s response to this interest is abject terror so intense that her Borg grows too quickly, goes berserk, and kills all the aliens in the school’s holding pen.
In the second volume, a gigantic creature called a Yellow Knife lands on top of the school. It does not appear threatening, but the Alien Party has the job of monitoring it until they can figure out how to dispose of it. Just once, the Yellow Knife moves: it turns to look at Yuri when she falls asleep nearby. Though her Borg prevents the Yellow Knife from molesting her, this further emphasizes what had already been hinted, that Yuri is, for some reason, particularly attractive to aliens.
Kasumi is enamored of the Yellow Knife and comments that it reminds her of her brother. Heart pounding, she returns to school at night, and the creature promptly swallows her. After several bizarre events and a lot of gross imagery involving disembodied heads and bodily fluids, Kumi successfully cuts Kasumi out of the Yellow Knife’s body—and Kasumi responds by attempting to strangle her to death. From this point forward, Kasumi’s personality and even her physical appearance change considerably. She walks around, open-mouthed, with a manic grin on her face, and she now takes pleasure in brutally killing the aliens that she previously tried to capture alive. Her Borg, with whom she formerly had a close relationship, grows suspicious, and she has to force his appendages open to get him to sit on her head.
Shortly thereafter, Kumi has a more terrifying experience: after a swarm of flying, toothed eyeballs devours most of her stomach and several other organs, the Alien Party’s faculty advisor, Megumi Hisikawa, repairs her body with a gloppy, bubbling fluid called “cell gel.” But when Yuri and Kasumi come under attack by the same eyeball swarm, Kumi’s Borg intervenes to speed up her healing process so she can go to their rescue.
During a later scene, another alien rips Kumi’s arm off. In a moment of body horror probably inspired by Akira, a cluster of drill-shaped tentacles grows from the stump.
It was clear from early on that Miss Hisikawa, the faculty advisor, was actually arranging the supposedly random alien attacks on the school, and by this point in the story we have learned why: behind the scenes is a sort of extraterrestrial gang war between different “clans” of symbiotic aliens who want to use humans as a host species. Symbiosis here, of course, is science-fictional, Star Trek-style symbiosis, which apparently involves some kind of psychic connection.
At present, the Drill Clan, made up of the Borgs, is operating a shadow government on Earth and running the public school system. The true purpose of the Alien Party is to accustom adolescent children to working closely with Borgs and thereby groom them for symbiosis. Hisikawa herself is a former Alien Party member and has a symbiote living on her head, which can twist her hair into those same drill tentacles.
Although there are hints that their initial arrival on Earth may have been violent, the Drill Clan is relatively benevolent, seeking to avoid killing other aliens or harming humans when possible. Even though their methods are grossly inefficient (most Alien Parties do not produce useable hosts), they continue with them because symbiosis can potentially harm the host, something the Drill Clan takes pains to avoid. Nonetheless, the schools force children to join the Alien Party, and the children are not free to leave it. Alien Nine repeatedly emphasizes this lack of choice.
As it turns out, Kasumi’s personality has changed because she entered a symbiotic relationship with the Yellow Knife, which is now living inside of her. As a result of the symbiosis, she can produce drill-tentacles from her head even without her Borg and can also twist her hair into giant antennae with which she can manipulate people’s brainwaves.
What happens to Kumi is more bizarre. Because her Borg interfered in her healing, she became a Borg herself and now has clusters of drill tentacles where her limbs should be. Because Borgs are symbiotes, Kumi shares their desire to live in a fused state with another organism. Like most of the aliens in the story, she thus develops a quasi-erotic attraction to Yuri.
Throughout the story, symbiosis is variously a metaphor for adolescence, marriage, or sexual experience. This is hinted early on when the boys’ interest in Yuri takes the form of attacking her with alien parasites. What happens to Kasumi is more explicitly allegorical and resembles an elopement: she falls in love with the Yellow Knife, she goes to visit it at night, and it carries her away. Although Kumi kills the Yellow Knife’s large body, it had by that point already entered Kasumi by dribbling fluid into her mouth during one of the comic’s ickier scenes. From that point forward, she and the Yellow Knife are in a mutual relationship that alters her behavior. At times, the Yellow Knife can take her over completely.
What happens to Kumi is apparently representative of homosexuality. She can no longer fuse with a Borg, and Hisikawa also writes in her report that Kumi has lost her reproductive capacity (keeping in mind that most of the story’s details are not to be taken entirely literally). Kumi describes herself as unable to form normal relationships.
From this point forward, Kumi is characterized by conflicting desires: she wants to fuse with Yuri, but also wants to protect her from symbiosis, something Yuri herself dreads. After the two discuss the changes that have come over them, Kumi says to Kasumi, “I have to protect Yuri. I don’t want her to feel the way we do.”
The Drill Clan regards Kumi and Kasumi as having “failed” because they are unable to fuse with Borgs. Kumi is certainly in turmoil, but though the reader is free to question whether her new, more callous behaviors (and huge eyebrows) are good things, Kasumi is apparently happy with the Yellow Knife and does not see herself as a failure. Nonetheless, she agrees to help Kumi protect Yuri.
Yuri, with her intense fear and loathing of aliens, does not understand the changes that have overcome the other girls, so she ventures into an especially dangerous area called the Forest of Spaceships in the hopes of finding the means to return Kumi and Kasumi to normal. She survives an attack by giant fish-shaped monsters that try to devour her, but in the process loses both her Borg and her memories. Consequently, she makes baby noises and needs the other characters to dress and feed her, though during this period of infantilism, she also loses her fear of aliens, as she plays with Kumi’s Borg while Kumi helps her into her clothes. The changes in the other girls are metaphors for adolescence, which Yuri does not understand, so her fear of it drives her to an extreme regression into infancy. The other girls can only rescue her by recovering her Borg and restoring her memories.
After this, Yuri’s Borg becomes lethargic. Yuri thinks it must be sick, but as we learn, it is actually entering the final stages of its development and preparing to fuse with her. During one of the comic’s most disturbing sequences, it hovers over her in her bedroom and dribbles drool onto her cheek before menacing her with a gigantic drill-tentacle while saying, “Let’s fuse into one. We will be together always.”
Yuri responds to this by completely freaking out, and it’s hard to blame her. I always hit on girls in this exact same way, and it never works.
Anyway, soon after this, the school comes under attack from a new race of symbiotes, the Sunflower Clan, which is at war with the Borgs. The Sunflowers attempt to fuse with humans with no concern for the physical safety of their hosts, and thus they seriously injure several of the school’s students. The leader of the Sunflowers successfully combines with Yuri. Although Kumi kills the Sunflower, Yuri’s mind is nonetheless corrupted. Her Borg, the same one that had earlier threatened her with a huge drill-member, has to enter her mind to remove the Sunflowers’ influence. Before uniting with her, the Borg tells Kumi and Kasumi, “I’ll do my best to make her happy.” Although this appears to imply that he’s fusing with her in spite of her earlier objection, he ultimately sacrifices himself to save her and apparently dies.
When it’s all over, the comic’s final page leaves open the question of whether Yuri is still fully human, or whether she has in some fashion come under alien influence and lost her humanity in the same way Kumi and Kasumi have. Although her friends believe they’ve succeeded in sheltering her, she retains a wistful attachment to the Sunflowers in spite of their aggressions, and certain hints in the final panel indicate that she, too, is now either an alien or a host for one.
Yuri is the story’s central protagonist, and because she loathes aliens, which represent adulthood and sexuality, the comic approaches the subject of adolescence as an object of horror. She is in the position of a child who has learned things of adult life for which she is not yet ready, and by which she is revolted. As a child, she does not understand the changes in her companions who have entered adolescence. The sequence during which she loses her memory represents an attempt to cling permanently to childhood, an attempt that is of course doomed to failure. In the end, she progresses toward adulthood anyway in spite of her efforts to escape and her friends’ attempts to shield her.
In spite of the air of doom and inevitability that pervades the comic, in one of the closing scenes, Hisikawa says to a fellow schoolteacher that it might be best to allow humans to choose which aliens they want to fuse with instead of trying to force them to fuse exclusively with the Drill Clan. Thus, at the end, the Borgs are apparently planning to loosen their grip on humans. This can perhaps be interpreted as a criticism of arranged marriage, though I doubt such a message is particularly relevant to the comic’s audience, either in Japan or the West.
Personally, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that the final takeaway message is that fusing with an extraterrestrial symbiote will give a person luxurious talking hair with superpowers.
That’s a win.