One of the most common elements in fantasy or superhero fiction is someone being given power out of nowhere, often in the midst of tragedy. Sometimes the power is a magical sword, sometimes it's spider powers, and sometimes it's being able to change into the World's Mightiest Mortal. In Nobuaki Tadano's "7 Billion Needles
," high schooler Hikaru Takabe finds herself possessed by an alien intelligence. This intelligence wants to track down and eliminate a malicious entity that recently arrived on Earth. Hikaru just wants to be left alone.
In the first chapter of "7 Billion Needles," and in a scene replicated on the cover, Hikaru dies.
She's on a school trip and stargazing when a shooting star streaks across the sky. She watches as the shooting star changes direction, zig-zags across the sky, and then zips right into her face. In a visually stunning sequence over the course of two pages, we see flames engulf and consume Hikaru. A few pages later, she wakes up, having dozed off in class.
It soon becomes clear that there is now an alien entity in her body that rebuilt her from the ground up and fundamentally altered her biology. Now she can't live without it, but all Hikaru wants is to be left alone. Her family passed away fairly recently, and she clearly hasn't gotten over it. She's distant, friendless at school, and doesn't particularly care about much to do with life.
Of course, this is an action/mystery tale, so Hikaru is along for the ride, whether she wants to be or not. The alien intelligence inside her is benevolent, but insists upon finding the evil intelligence that has taken hold of one of her classmates. The evil alien is stealthy and cannot be detected, so Hikaru must personally investigate and try to solve the problem.
This is usually the point where we get a montage of Hikaru getting over her issues and learning to make friends in order to find out the identity of the possessed classmate -- except she doesn't. Hikaru is honestly pretty crap at infiltrating and communicating with people she doesn't know. She's too shy and too aloof to make it work. When she does a good deed, she does it in such a weird way that the people she did the deed for are just confused. She does eventually make friends, kind of, but she never really opens up, either.
This kind of small twist on tried and true formulas is what makes "7 Billion Needles" different from your generic sci-fi/action manga. It would be easy for Hikaru to dive into using her powers, relishing the glory it would bring, but she doesn't even like having the alien intelligence's voice in her head. It would be easy for the "find the alien" plot to result in Hikaru opening up, but nope -- she's still distant and weird. The alien has proven that it can take over her body at will, too, but believes in waiting for her consent before unlocking her full potential.
The lack of easy outs keeps "7 Billion Needles" fresh. It's based on "Needle," a Golden Age sci-fi novel by Hal Clement, and manages to bring the sixty-year-old story into the present day and an all new setting with aplomb. Hikaru is detached, but not to the point where it puts off the reader. She just comes across as a normal girl who is a little out of her depth in life, and a lot out of her depth when it comes to alien invasions. The alien inside isn't flashy, and actually bores her to tears with its incessant repetition of its past.
"7 Billion Needles," then, is a slower-paced take on a high octane tale we've seen plenty of times. The slow pace lets Tadano use mood and and characterization to ramp up the tension before the big explosive fights. This is good stuff, and assuming the next three books maintain this level of quality, yet another entry in Vertical, Inc's stock of great manga.