Zombies — if you'll pardon the pun — is a genre that just won't die. But that doesn't mean there aren't still good stories to dig up if you look for them. I Am a Hero is one such gem.
In terms of outbreak stories, Japanese manga has some really amazing go-to examples I like to bring up whenever asked for suggestions. Yes, there are some fan-service-ridden stories like High School of the Dead, but then there are some amazing works like Child Planet. Then there's my latest enjoyment, I Am a Hero.
Warning! This article contains some unsettling images.
The story follows the character, Hideo Suzuki, a 35 year old nobody. A former manga artist whose series got cancelled, Hideo has been reduced to working as an assistant and goes through his daily life with the pent up frustration of being an eternal side character in the story of life.
A timid, introverted fellow, Hideo is constantly plagued by daydreams and self-made illusions and frequently talks to himself. He has a happy relationship with a supportive girlfriend, but constantly feels threatened by a former colleague and successful manga artist who serves as her mentor.
Hideo is also a gun enthusiast and owns a legal hunting shot gun — something that is extremely difficult to own in Japan — which comes in very handy when one day everything goes to shit and something that seems like a zombie breakout happens and society crumbles before it realises what is going on.
The zombies in I Am a Hero are your Dawn of The Dead remake, 28 Days Later, full throttle, running zombies and their depiction in the manga are seriously frightening. People who are bitten quickly lose their minds — although the time of deterioration varies from person to person — and are reduced to babbling maniacs that will pursue, and bite anyone they encounter. While the general rules of zombies are there, these zombies retain a very faint shadow of their former selves, making them capable of vaguely recognising things and instincts from their original lives. The zombification process also unlocks any pain inhibitors allowing them to function at peak human strength, making their berserk rampages absolutely terrifying.
One of the things that sets I Am a Hero apart from other zombie stories for me is that the protagonist, Hideo, is not your normal protagonist type. He is — by his own admission — an eternal side-character type. He has no real sense of leadership or strength and spends the better part of the beginning simply running for his life and making it through by the seat of his pants in most cases because of sheer coincidence. The irony is that his name, Hideo, written in Japanese is "英雄" the same characters for the Japanese word "hero" — hence the title.
Side note: For those unfamiliar with Japanese, there are many cases where names can be written differently but pronounced the same. Game creator Hideo Kojima's first name is written "秀夫" but it is not the only way to write that name.
Hideo's only strong trait is that he owns a shotgun and knows how to use it, but because he is such a stickler for Japanese gun laws, he actually refuses to use it for the first three volumes of the series despite the zombie apocalypse happening around him.
Another interesting point is that the story takes place in Japan, a country that is used to order and peace. The manga realistically depicts people unsure of what's going on and uncertain how to respond to a situation, even when it's happening right in front of them. As someone who has lived in Japan for years, I can really see a lot of what happens in the manga really happening in such an event.
How it is drawn works to really draw the reader in. A lot of scenes are laced with first-person perspective shots that create a sense of immersion in the story, with many scenes having warped edges as though you were looking through a camera lens. Things aren't beautified making them more realistic and the entire atmosphere just feels very real. I often need some cool down time after reading because I can tell the manga is actually having a visceral effect on my real-world perceptions.
The plot of I Am a Hero is very much your standard zombie routine: Outbreak, chaos, people find a safe haven, things go to shit and the safe haven is lost, move on to the next temporary moment of peace. Still, the story manages to introduce some very different and interesting elements into the mix that sort of set it apart.
If I were to point out a weak part of the manga, I would say that it's an extremely slow burn at the beginning. It takes nearly an entire volume for things to get into motion and a lot of it is boring and hard to read. Throughout the beginning, there are hints at something going on in the background, but what's going on the foreground is long and wordy that I wouldn't be surprised if some people checked out the book and dropped it half way through the first volume. Still, once the outbreak goes full blown, shit hits the fan real fast and holy hell is it a ride and a half.
I Am a Hero is the story of an unlikely hero's survival as the society collapses around him. The beginning is a little rocky at first, but on the whole it is an amazing story that puts it firmly in my Must Read list of manga. If you like zombie stories and are curious as to what other countries might have to offer to the genre, trust me when I say, you do not want to skip this one.
Manga Title: I Am a Hero
Author: Kengo Hanazawa
Note: There is a live-action movie adaptation scheduled for release in Japan next year. An official English translated version of the manga is scheduled for release by Dark Horse Comics in 2016.