Stories about people who turn into potentially grotesque or terrifying creatures tend to, well, not turn out very well for their protagonists. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 are good examples. Ordinary person finds their life changed when they change. There’s no way to go back, they lose opportunities to connect with people, and things go wrong. Naoya Matsumoto’s Kaiju No 8 is a manga that seems like it could head that same sort of direction in theory, but in reality its first volume is more hopeful than I expected.
The world in which Kafka Hibino lives faces a major problem: kaiju. These giant monsters wreak havoc on cities. There is an official defense force that deals with them. There is also an official Monster Sweeper company designed to clean up after them. While Kafka once dreamed of being a member of the former, instead he works for the latter. The first volume begins with him and his coworkers dealing with the most recent (deceased) kaiju, attempting to clean it up within a week. He’s essentially in limbo. He’s getting by. There’s a solid job. He isn’t making good on a promise to a childhood friend—Third Division star kaiju hunter Mina Ashiro—but he seems “fine.”
That changes when Reno Ichikawa, a new recruit, joins Monster Sweeper. He wants to be a part of the defense force and has a bit of an edge. He calls Kafka out on “surviving,” rather than “living.” But Kafka helps him out. The two genuinely connect. It’s then that we see the first potential shot. While it seemed Kafka missed his chance to join the Defense Force, Reno tells him the new maximum age to join is 33. Kafka is 32. There’s still time.
Of course, Kaiju No 8 doesn’t forget the nature of the genre. This is a brutal world, and a manga that doesn’t play around. Right when he gets his shot, a kaiju threatens it. But even then, it is more of a showcase of the potential of both Kafka and Reno.
Shortly after, it happens. A major meeting results in Kafka transforming. Not full time. But an incident means he gains the ability to shape shift into a kaiju. But rather than inhibit him, it isn’t getting in the way of him finally getting his shot in the way someone might think. Yes, it paints a target on his back when he is in his kaiju form. The Defense Force is going target monsters. But he still has Reno as an ally and friend. He’s still going to attempt to join the Defense Force, the group out to get him.
The result is a situation in which the reader starts thinking, “Maybe this could actually work out for him.” Yes, there is the potential for things to go very wrong in the Kaiju No 8 manga. This is also only the very first book, so there’s still tension and plot building up. But rather than things seeming dark for Kafka, it’s like there’s only potential ahead of him. And given everything he’s dealing with, the situation makes a person want to root for him.