“The work is challenging, the public is hostile, and the monsters are hungry, but the MMD crew has science, teamwork … and a secret weapon on their side. Together, they can save Japan, and the universe!” – from the back cover
Hiroshi Yamamoto’s novel, about an alternate history where all of those rubber suit monster movies are actually based on real events, was published in Japanese in 2007, but the English translation (by Nathan Collins) just hit the shelves last month. MM9: Monster Magnitude is about a low-budget government agency trying to handle the problem of keeping each monster incursion from becoming a natural disaster.
The Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department (MMD for short) is made up of a mix of field agents, scientists, and bureaucrats. Their job is to track and eliminate (if necessary) kaiju*, which range in size and are rated on the level of damage they could produce. There’s an adorable nod to the Fujita scale**, and some theories about why there are mythological creatures wandering around in the first place. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to following the MMD as they do their job. They’re not 100% successful in keeping the monsters from reaching the shores of Japan, though they frequently are. This leads to another kind of problem: when you fail, the government and your people blame you, and when you succeed most people don’t even know they were in danger.
In addition to the monsters, the lack of funding, and the public unhappiness, the MMD also has to deal with working with the various military agencies and, oh yes, the media. There are also the yokai, the things which shouldn’t be but we all know exist. They’re mostly harmless, and cover things like talking animals and friendly spirits. Some of the yokai can even masquerade as human, but there are so few of them that it doesn’t make much of an impact on the general population. At least, until they decide that they have a personal stake in whether the kaiju get wiped out.
There are a lot of pop culture references and in-jokes in this book. There are so many bits that I want to share but can’t without spoiling the book for you. I loved all of the little “Oh, yes! I know that!” moments in the novel. Yamamoto clearly knows his monster movies, both the Japanese and US classics, and treats them as historical occurrences. He mixes in physics, philosophy, and old legends, to come up with a framework in which all of these crazy monsters could actually make sense. His characters take their jobs very seriously, and the reality of a kaiju world is never as campy as the movies make it out to be. It’s dangerous, scary, and aggressively enthusiastic!
The interaction between the male and female characters was refreshingly modern. There are many references in the dialogue to the Japanese cultural ideas of what women should be and what they’re capable of (which is sadly still skewed toward an old-fashioned, male-dominated society) but Yamamoto doesn’t let his women simply bow and wait to be rescued by a man. The female characters are smart, capable, and frequently it’s their ideas or actions which save the day. Japanese culture is pushing its way into a more equal future, and he’s letting his fiction both reflect and influence that.
I had so much fun reading this novel. There were a few lines that felt clunky but overall both the writing was light and enjoyable to read, which to me suggests that the translation was very good. The English trade paperback, published by Haikasoru, is 251 pages long, with open-space page setting, so I finished it off in a few hours on a slow afternoon. I strongly recommend it to anyone who loved Godzilla, Ultraman, or THEM! You won’t be disappointed.
*which translates loosely as “strange beast”
** The Fujita scale was created by a Japanese scientist, working with the NSSFC (National Severe Storm Forecast Center) in the United states, to calculate the intensity of tornadoes and the amount of damage caused by one. The MM scale in Yamamoto’s novel is created by an American scientist working in Japan to calculate the potential damage of a monster attack.
Note: The book was adapted into a live-action television show in Japan. Check out the website here. It’s available on DVD and in iTunes.