We’re entering a golden age of Big Boys. Godzilla’s about to beat up an equally large gorilla for Godzilla vs. Kong, and star in his brand new anime for Netflix alongside Jet Jaguar. Ultraman’s doing the same at Marvel Comics and on the big screen. Super Sentai’s turning Power Rangers’ first Megazord into a sweet large lad, too. It’s a good time to be a big boy, but one interesting sizeable chap might be flying under your radar: Kafka Hibino.
Kafka is the star of Naoya Matsumoto’s Kaiju No. 8, an ongoing manga series that began last summer and is currently being serialised for free on Shueisha’s Shōnen Jump website and its (excellent) app. He’s not necessarily as big as his fellow pals in Big Boy season — although he is a bit of a beefcake by your typical shōnen manga protagonist standards — but he shares a commonality that makes Kaiju No. 8 a fascinating, fun read. Kafka can turn himself into the titular kaiju, trying to use his powers for good in a world where dangerous, ginormous monsters are hunted down and exterminated by his colleagues.
He doesn’t actually start out like that though. In fact, Kaiju No.8 starts with a premise that’s fascinating enough to be its own manga. Set in a near-future Japan beset by regular giant monster attacks, the series opens with Kafka, a down-on-his-luck bum working a dead-end job at a company specializing in kaiju corpse removal. After a big fight between the heroes of the Japanese Defence Force that he once aspired to join, Kafka helps clean-up with the crews who specialise in breaking down, quarantining, and parceling up the exploded bits of kaiju left after battle. It’s gross, but necessary work, and Kafka (who longs for the life he could’ve had as a Defence Force operative like his childhood friend Mina) is the kind of earnestly sweet guy that appreciates the idea of doing what he can to help, even if what he can do is clean up stinky bits of dead monsters.
Those circumstances don’t last for very long. After being injured by another kaiju during clean-up, a small flying kaiju works its way into Kafka’s body at the hospital. He’s transformed into a monster capable of retaining his sentience and granted vastly heightened abilities as well as the ability to change between human and kaiju forms. Leveraging his heightened powers to finally pass the entrance exams to join the Defence Force’s elite kaiju-killer unit, Kafka finds his alter-ego soon marked as one of the rare monsters to have escaped execution. And so he tries to maintain his place as a Defence Force cadet and prevent his kaiju side from being exposed.
The manga treats Kafka’s powers as a secret identity, almost like a powered super suit even if it’s biologically derived. Although it’s very much a typical kind of shōnen series, aside from the over-the-top giant monster action, what makes Kaiju No.8 such a blast to read is Kafka himself. He’s not cut from the typical cloth these kinds of superpowered series craft their heroes from, not some spindly tween but a deadbeat guy in his early 30s. He’s not so much eager for a better life but almost at peace that the chance to be the hero his childhood self dreamed of is passing him by. Even when he finds power thrust upon him in the unlikely way it is, Kafka retains that sort of goofily earnest mix of imperfection and kind-heartedness that makes him relatable and easy to root for, whether he’s smacking down monsters thrice the size he is or just trying to get by playing catchup with his fellow Defence Force cadets.
So like all good heroes of Big Boy Season, he’s basically a superpowered Himbo (yes, I’d argue that Godzilla is essentially Earth’s Himbo, no, I will not be taking questions at this time). But the earnest simplicity of Kafka as a character — he just wants to protect people, even if his power makes him an evil monster in the eyes of his superiors — roots Kaiju No. 8‘s wild action into something beyond its epically-scaled spectacle. You’re not just hyped because you’re seeing this superhero smash his fist into the face of a giant monster, but because you know the human behind that mask is just a kinda dumb, kinda sweet guy working his arse off and trying his best.
And in an age of big boys, that makes him one of the biggest, best boys of them all.