A summer 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted thirty years of worsening climate impacts—and that nothing can be done to stop it. Heat waves. Droughts. Wildfires. Flooding. Given bleak environmental news, staggering global inequality (the world’s richest 1% hold more than 40% of the world’s wealth), a resurgent refugee crisis, and the growth of authoritarianism worldwide, young people could be forgiven for thinking they don’t have much to look forward to. “In this era,” author Takuji Ichikawa asks, “What should a novel look like?”
Monkey Man, translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley, is his answer; in the afterword, he expresses his belief that “each and every writer should pen ‘a story to improve the world’ in their own respective specialist genre.”
True to Ichikawa’s own “specialist genre”, Monkey Man is a decidedly young adult offering with all of that genre’s cliches. (It is, though, much shorter than many YA novels, weighing in at only ninety-two pages.) Its plot is predictable. The narrator, Yuri, is an every-girl who attracts an implausibly perfect young man, Tengo, and discovers she has hidden powers of her own. But Monkey Man has something classic YA dystopian novels like Feed or The Hunger Games don’t: hope.
The Complex is a sinister organization that also appears in Monkey Man’s sister novel The Refugees’ Daughter, also by Ichikawa. It stands in not only for today’s military-industrial complex, but also hyper-capitalist consumerism. Its roots reach deep, “similar to to a sticky, slimy, fungus-like mould, creating a vast network.” And it profits from climate change and natural disasters. Monkey Man is being published first in English in 2021, so Ichikawa even sneaks in a reference to a virus that “is part of this strategic operation to search and destroy humanity.”
The Complex’s most problematic challenger is Arlecchino, a group of hackers who expose the interconnections between different organizations that profit from The Complex. (One imagines Arlecchino acting in the place of the anonymous whistleblower who leaked the Panama Papers in 2016.) Arlecchino shows the world that The Complex’s “zombification” of consumers must end.
Meanwhile, the world’s teens are playing Arlecchino’s new video game, which they have designed to teach collective action. Unironically named for the Biblical Tower of Babel, it is a game where “there’re always millions of players… beavering away building a tower reaching up to the heavens.”
Arlecchino’s ultimate goal is to bring about an “awakening” of Earth’s youth. Some awakened people, like Yuri and Tengo, develop extraordinary powers. But what Arlecchino really wants is
A troop of boys and girls to reform the world. I think that’s what awakening really means. We’ve been entrusted, called-on, by someone to save this planet.
The novel isn’t subtle. Yet the ideas Ichikawa expresses are powerful. Here’s a member of Arlecchino explaining the problems he and people like him have to solve:
We, the human race, have been able to get this far and prosper all thanks to altruism. Kindness is the very reason why we didn’t end up extinct and managed to keep surviving until today. If you look to the long-term future instead of chasing the short-term profits in front of your nose, you can see that cooperation is the only path forward. But brains that have lost their natural function don’t understand this. Our minds have more or less been poisoned in the name of “civilization”. Humankind has lost its essential moral character.
Baby Boomers and Gen Xers might find the generational warfare in the novel a little overbearing. It is clear here that Generation Alpha is continuing a cultural movement built from the efforts of Millenials and Gen Z. (For what it’s worth, Ichikawa is in his mid-fifties.) In the book, older people, like a centenarian CEO, are blameworthy for wanting to “reverse the natural order” and live forever.
There are also some grounds for reading Monkey Man and its sister novel as anti-feminist. When Yuri “awakens”, her special ability is to heal, as compared to Tengo’s strength and agility or his male friend’s intelligence. The motif is even more explicit in The Refugee’s Daughter, translated by Emily Balistrieri, where the protagonist, Aimi, has “a special power motherhood requires” and even mystically breastfeeds her younger brother.
Ultimately, though, the philosophy of Monkey Man and The Refugee’s Daughter could come straight out of the Daoist classic, Tao Te Ching. Yang—male, active, solid—has led this world for far too long. It’s time to also embrace the yin—female, accepting, yielding—as well. People resort to violence because, Aimi’s father tells her, “they underestimate the power of women”. Aimi concludes
If the destructive power of The Hero was the dream of patriarchal men, then our abilities are a magnified version of motherly love.
Ichikawa’s world isn’t the future: the dystopia is now. Monkey Man is a story about fighting for what’s worth protecting: “we can’t just wait for the world to disintegrate, can we?”