7 Billion Needles may be the most mainstream manga Vertical, Inc. has licensed for their lineup thus far. Mainstream and Vertical do not quite belong in the same sentence: these are the folks who gave us some of the best of Osamu Tezuka in English, and who couldn’t be the next VIZ even if they wanted to. The pragmatic part of me says this is nothing to fear. Criterion licensed Armageddon and The Rock at one point, presumably as a way to get some fast cash through their licensing deals with Universal, and years later their taste is not only intact but even more finely-honed. So for Vertical to pick up this (in my opinion) fairly formulaic if totally readable title is not a sign of disaster. It’s a sign they need to eat, too, and honestly there are far worse things they could be licensing as part of that process.
Needles opens with Hikaru Takabe, a teenager who keeps her fairly unextraordinary life at bay from behind her headphones and her music player. She lives with her uncle and his wife (her biological parents are gone), wanders between school and home with nothing in particular to do at either end, and has all the self-actualization of a dandelion seed on the wind. One night she’s at a school outing near the ocean when something comes screaming out of the sky, lands in front of her, and incinerates her in less time than it takes to tell about it.
Or maybe not. The next thing she realizes, she’s back at her desk in school waiting for another boring class to end. In time, though, she hears a voice — one that speaks to her from inside her own head, and tells her that what happened wasn’t a dream. She encountered an alien presence, a creature that exists as a high-energy plasma, and which accidentally destroyed her but made up for it by reconstituting the two of them together in the same form. Hikaru’s response to this wavers between studied teenage indifference and petulant annoyance. So what if some other alien crash-landed on earth as well and is threatening to destroy the world? (I was reminded of Ferris Bueller’s through-the-fourth-wall speech about world politics: “It doesn't change the fact that I don’t own a car.”)
Over time, Hikaru becomes convinced that she does in fact need to listen to this thing and cooperate with it. For one, when the other creature it keeps talking about makes an appearance, it does so in the guise of one of her classmates. Hikaru also discovers her new companion can temporarily provide her with superhuman power (at a cost to both of them, which is why it has to be used sparingly). And then comes a catastrophic showdown in a school gym, where teen moodiness is forced to take a backseat to the business of brute survival.
All of this reminded me of something — actually, a bunch of somethings, a whole slew of anime and manga which feature this story’s core trope in various forms. An ordinary high-school kid and some otherworldly being have a chance encounter, which ends with them being forced to coexist in the same body or in such a way that their lives depend intimately on each other. Birdy the Mighty comes most readily to mind, but Needles (the title and storyline are loosely copied from Hal Clement’s work) is different enough in a number of key ways. The biggest is tone: while Birdy shaded over into comedy and action-slapstick tropes, Needles sticks for the most part with quiet everyday realism instead of wacky exaggeration. At least until the monsters come out, of course.
Not long ago — and even during the time I was writing this review — I got into a discussion about how critics often overestimate the importance of influences and originality. Fans don’t care who got there first with something; they care about having a good time first. This is why a lot of the scholarly work and fan-archaeology that many critics do is entirely unimportant to them. It’s not unimportant, period; it’s just questionable how much of it belongs in a more general review of a given work. The people that care about such things can take my note about Birdy/Needles to heart. Those that don’t care need only know that based on the first book this looks like it’s going to be a fun little ride.