One of my favorite video games is a dark fantasy role playing game called Dark Souls. Developed by From Software, the game is notorious for its extreme difficulty. While most games take the time to teach users the rules and controls, Dark Souls gives the player a broken sword and a set of rusty armor before throwing them into a perilous world filled with dangerous monsters. Death comes swiftly, and with each resurrection, all the enemies you’ve defeated are brought back to life along with you. This loop of death and rebirth is deliberate. When players die, it is mostly their fault; they charged when they should have evaded or flanked right instead of left. The game makes the player responsible for their successes and failures. Death isn’t “game over,” it’s a chance to learn from mistakes, to better understand the enemy, and to employ different tactics to win.
All You Need Is Kill is built on the same principle. Video games inspired author Hiroshi Sakurazaka to write a futuristic military novel about two kindred spirits forced to relive the same day over and over. Nick Mamatas’ adaptation of Sakurazaka’s novel details the unique life of Keiji Kiriya, a Japanese soldier tasked with defending Earth from an alien invasion. Keiji is killed during an engagement with a Mimic, but instead of transitioning into the life hereafter, he experiences a strange time loop that puts him at the start of his final day. Much like Groundhog Day, each death takes him back to the same bed, the same training regimen, mission briefing, weapon failure, and death. Keiji retains the memory of his previous loops and uses that to train himself to become a Mimic-killing machine, employing new combat skills that might allow him to defeat the aliens and break the loop.
Keiji’s plight is analogous to someone playing a game of Dark Souls. When he wakes at the start of a new loop, he must find new ways to prolong his existence. He is aided by Rita Vratsaki, an American soldier who is also stuck in a time loop. Rita is a mysterious woman, who is extremely proficient in combat, eschewing traditional sidearms in favor of a giant battle axe. Rita is a fascinating woman, but we don’t know how long she’s been looping, as opposed to Keiji, who keeps the number written on his hand. In light of how long it takes Keiji to adapt to Rita’s preferred style of combat, we can only assume it has been a great deal of time.
I have not read Sakurazaka’s novel, so I’m not sure if the following critique has much merit, but I will offer it nonetheless. Mamatas’ adaptation favors a lot of action sequences, and from a story perspective, that makes sense. But the constant action detracts from the emotional investment in two people trapped in a time loop that is not acknowledged by anyone else. For a story like this, I would have liked to see a greater focus on the relationship between Rita and Keiji outside of combat. What must it be like to be two people caught in a loop that no one but themselves can acknowledge? A stronger focus would have given the climax of the story a greater impact. There’s no tangible build-up to the moment when the characters discover what will break the loop, and even though the finale is a sad turn of events, there’s a certain hollowness to the scene.
The artwork in All You Need Is Kill doesn’t take advantage of the story’s Japanese lineage or the Tom Cruise film, which was released four weeks after the graphic novel hit store shelves. With a distinctly Western flavor, Lee Ferguson’s battle artwork conveys action well enough, but there’s nothing particularly special about it. Ferguson’s visualization of Keiji and Rita’s plight serves its purpose, but my mind wanders to other artists I’d like to see on this material, such as Shirow Masamune or Tony Moore.
The concept of All You Need Is Kill is amazing. Its conceit—two people trapped in a fixed moment in time that can be affected by learning from previous mistakes—is familiar to me because it is the backbone of every video game I’ve ever played. The graphic novel isn’t bad, but it just feels lacking in the same way abridged books feel incomplete: it’s full of action, but a little empty on the interpersonal drama. Without reading the novel, I can’t tell whether this is an issue inherent to adapting the novel into a comic, and I wonder if the film is any different. Criticism aside, this graphic novel would interest teens that play video games and those familiar with its big screen adaptation, Edge of Tomorrow.
All You Need Is Kill
by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Nick Mamatas
Art by Lee Ferguson
Haika Soru, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)