“Monkey Man,” Takuji Ichikawa’s second release from Red Circle Minis, opens with a scene at once familiar and jarring as a new student at a Japanese high school witnesses an act of bullying.

It’s a surreal introduction to Ichikawa’s world: On page one, the 17-year-old narrator, Yuri, watches the would-be victim, Tengo, bolt out of the school gates, roll uninjured across the windshield of a passing car, and wave in apology as he escapes his tormentors.

Monkey Man, by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley
92 pages

Although Yuri’s new school seems like countless others, it is soon revealed that the society she lives in is plagued with destruction brought on by climate change and an illness dubbed the “misery virus,” with symptoms of “apathy, amnesia, cognitive impairment and severe depression.” There’s also a mysterious network of interconnected governments, corporations and organizations known as The Complex, which manipulates events and information. Ichikawa successfully crafts a world both relatable and fantastical, and the parallel problems of their world and ours lend an allegorical layer to the novella.

Although Ichikawa quickly (and at times clumsily) covers a lot of backstory, the action-packed book unfolds with a simplicity that more than makes up for its stumbles. While at school, Yuri discovers three beacons of hope and rebellion against the dark forces of society: a resistance group called Arlecchino; a trending video game called Babel; and, most significantly, a group of teens who have developed various special powers after experiencing an “awakening.” Surprised to realize these abilities have manifested in Tengo and others, Yuri admits she has healing capabilities of her own. The novella, however, never focuses on the supernatural powers of the youths, but rather on their compassion and realistic attitudes toward the struggles they face. The growing relationship between Yuri and Tengo thus becomes the focus of this thoughtful sci-fi parable.

“Monkey Man” can be read in one sitting, but the complications of Yuri’s world are fully realized within the short span of 92 pages. The connections and contrasts to our world are at turns bold and subtle. For example, Babel is an intriguing construct: a violent video game that rewards players for peaceful tactics and collaboration to resolve conflicts.

Ichikawa writes in the afterword that he considers “Monkey Man” a companion piece to “The Refugee’s Daughter,” the first novella he published with Red Circle Minis. Both stories deal with uncertain dystopian worlds where hope can only be found in the younger generation. Our current times, he writes, compelled him to explore “tales of the voiceless, the weak and the oppressed and those who have been distanced from public platforms by the power of dispute.”

Despite moments of unevenness in the novella, the world of “Monkey Man,” so near to our own, resonates and lingers.

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