The Dystopian Society of ‘Monkey Man’ Delivers a Surreal Sci-Fi Parable

“Monkey Man,” Takuji Ichikawa’s second outing of Red Circle Minis, opens with a familiar yet shocking scene as a new student at a Japanese high school witnesses an act of bullying.

It’s a surreal introduction to the world of Ichikawa: On the front page, the 17-year-old narrator, Yuri, watches potential victim Tengo flee the school gates, rolling unscathed over the windshield of his car. a passing car and wave apologetically as he escapes his tormentors.

The Ape Man by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley

Although Yuri’s new school is like countless others, it’s quickly revealed that the society she lives in is plagued by destruction brought on by climate change and a disease dubbed the “misery virus”, with symptoms of “apathy, amnesia, cognitive impairment and depression.” There is also a mysterious web of interconnected governments, corporations and organizations known as The Complex, which manipulates events and information Ichikawa successfully creates a world that is both relatable and fantastical, and the parallel issues of their world and ours lend an allegorical layer to the novella.

Although Ichikawa quickly (and at times awkwardly) covers much of the story, the action-packed book unfolds with a simplicity that more than makes up for its stumbles. At school, Yuri discovers three beacons of hope and rebellion against the dark forces of society: a resistance group called Arlecchino; a trending video game called Babel; and, most importantly, a group of teenagers who developed various special powers after experiencing an “awakening.” Surprised to realize that these abilities have manifested in Tengo and others, Yuri admits that she has her own healing abilities. The novella, however, never focuses on the supernatural powers of the young people, but rather their compassion and down-to-earth attitudes towards the struggles they face. The growing relationship between Yuri and Tengo thus becomes the focus of this thoughtful sci-fi parable.

“Monkey Man” can be read in one sitting, but the complications of Yuri’s world are fully realized in the short 92-page span. The connections and contrasts with our world are alternately bold and subtle. For example, Babel is an intriguing construct: a violent video game that rewards players for peaceful tactics and working together to resolve conflict.

Ichikawa writes in the afterword that he considers “Monkey Man” a companion to “The Refugee’s Daughter”, the first short story he published with Red Circle Minis. Both stories deal with uncertain dystopian worlds where hope can only be found in the younger generation. Our present time, he writes, has compelled him to explore “the stories of the voiceless, the weak and the downtrodden and those who have been removed from public platforms by the power of dispute”.

Despite the moments of unevenness in the short story, the universe of “Monkey Man”, so close to ours, resonates and lingers.

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