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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Monkey Man

Ichikawa Takuji

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To purchase Monkey Man

Title: Monkey Man
Author: Ichikawa Takuji
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 2021)
Length: 76 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Monkey Man - US
Monkey Man - UK
Monkey Man - Canada
  • Japanese title: モンキーマン
  • Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : good entertainment -- but falls short of its much larger ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Monkey Man is narrated by teenager Yuri, who begins the school year at a new high school. One of the students there immediately captures her attention, though she isn't quite sure why. Tengo does both stand out -- as she sees in her first encounter with him, when he is fleeing some bullies -- and is also a complete outsider, "at the very bottom of the school hierarchy".
       Tengo does have two friends, Hideto and Ran; they all transferred to the school the previous year, and they also live together -- "in some type of institution", Yuri's friend Emi tells her. As it turns out, Yuri and they are more kindred spirits than Yuri initially realized -- though she really should have figured that out earlier: while she maintains: "I'm just an ordinary 17-year-old girl", it turns out she has a more complicated backstory, explaining also why she moved from home and transferred to this school.
       When she goes to visit them, Yuri does learn that Tengo, Hideto, and Ran each have quite remarkable talents -- which they have also put to use, not least in setting up some businesses and earning enough money to live independently as they do, their 'institution' one of their own creation, set up in such a way as to keep prying eyes -- those of the authorities and others -- away.
       Monkey Man is a novella, a short work that is mostly devoted to world-building -- and would-be world-fixing --, in the form of Yuri learning more about Tengo and his friends, and revealing more about herself. Ichikawa describes a world in many ways similar to our own, but it boils down -- and, at novella length, Monkey Man is very boiled down -- to a pitch-black versus pure-white picture, good versus evil.
       Society here -- and it is basically our own -- is controlled by the powerful 'The Complex', and they have a great interest in the abilities of youths such as Tengo -- 'the awakened' -- recognizing them also as a great threat that could undermine the entrenched system which they benefit so much from. Tengo and his friends have slipped from their grasp, but The Complex keeps on grasping; meanwhile, Tengo and his friends are working to counter them, guided by the principle that: "We, the human race, have been able to get this far and prosper all thanks to altruism". The capitalist principle of short-term thinking has been and continues to be enormously destructive, but if you look long-term, things can be set right again, and Tengo and his friends are working on spreading the word and that attitude, not least through a popular and addictive video game called Babel.
       Ichikawa weaves this world-building into the story quite well, in Yuri's descriptions of high school life and her encounters with Tengo and his friends. There's a dramatic turn, as The Complex rears its very ugly head and gets its claws into Yuri, with Tengo then trying to come to the rescue, but even most of this, including the hairy escape, largely serves to paint black and white in more detail -- and suggest the path to a better world.
       In his short Afterword, Ichikawa explains that he believes: "each and every writer should pen a 'story to improve the world'", and that Monkey Man is one of his efforts to do so, a novel(la) where:

individuals don't use fists to punch people. They try to reach out to others, their neighbours, in a magnanimous manner that reflects the spirit and essence of maternal love: with tolerance, cooperation, and non-violent acts.
       Monkey Man is certainly well-meaning, and the fundamental philosophy to it -- and Tengo and his group -- certainly admirable. But the set-up is also one in which only those with, essentially, super-natural abilities prove capable of challenging the status quo -- especially without the use of force. Even aside from their remarkable talents, Tengo and his group's essentially passive resistance is hard to emulate (and even despite it Tengo does manage to get himself shot and critically injured ...). There's also something very creepy about efforts to enlighten others via, for example, the video game, as Babel has been tweaked to encourage: "the game's players to evolve". The positive awakening Tengo and his friends strive for is indeed worthy -- but some of the methods to reach it are troubling (as, as history suggests, are any that try to foist 'enlightenment' of some sort on others).
       Tengo is convinced that human nature is fundamentally good, but, while most of us might like to believe that, Ichikawa doesn't make a very convincing case for that here. Lots of hope is placed on the younger generation -- with Tengo arguing:
This was a trend that began with the Millennial generation. Unlike earlier generations, they didn't accept mass-market consumption. From that period, they were already more cooperative and less prejudiced.
       (This supposed generational divide also seems far-fetched: for as long as mass-market consumption has existed there have been slices of society opposed to it; meanwhile, speaking more generally, as far as generations go, the so-called Millennials seem to be just as sold on mass-consumption as the generations before and after them (so at least one surely has to conclude from their rates of consumption ...).)
       Monkey Man is meant to be a hopeful, feel-good fiction, and in many ways it works as that. Ichikawa spins the little story well, and even all this world-building and -critique is woven deftly into the story; thankfully, Monkey Man doesn't come across as too preachy. But it also doesn't withstand much scrutiny: everything about it is all too easy, a cartoon-simplicity such as that found in contemporary superhero action movies.
       The short format presumably necessitates a sort of quick getting-to-the-point, but it winds up leading to a story that kind of misses that strived-for point. Ichikawa shows -- a world in which 'good' fights 'evil', and does so in an admirably non-violent, non-confrontational way -- but it seems too far removed from the world as we know it to be in any way helpful. Ichikawa says he wants to write fiction to 'improve the world' but merely pointing out that an attitude of greater coöperation would be a better way to go about things doesn't really get us anywhere. Hopes for an 'awakening', of youth, and mankind in general, are all well and good -- and it might even seem like an obvious step, an eye-opening that everyone would embrace, if only they thought about it -- but the world is a bit more complex than that, and there are reasons why things are as screwed up as they are, which Ichikawa barely begins to explore.
       As modern fairy tale, Monkey Man is a solid work of fiction, with Ichikawa presenting a good little story, and spinning it out fairly well. As fiction with a message, however, it doesn't so much fall short -- hey, it's a nice message -- but rather undermines itself, presenting a world and a situation painted so black and white, and so reliant on the extraordinary and super-human, that we can only imagine it as fiction, rather than reflecting the real world, much less find in it anything constructively suggesting how to address the issues we face. Monkey Man may be a well-meaning attempt to try to improve the world but is, in fact, merely an escape from it. (That's fine, too -- there's a lot to be said for idealistic, escapist fiction --, but not Ichikawa's intent.)
       Ichikawa is capable enough -- he can tell a pretty good story -- but the combination of his premise(s) and the limited amount of space he gives himself to work with makes for a work that falls short of its (perhaps too great) ambitions. (In his Afterword, Ichikawa does note: "I plan to develop a full-length version of this work that includes episodes I left unwritten"; it certainly can't hurt.) It's a fine and entertaining read, but fatally wants to be so much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 September 2021

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Monkey Man: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ichikawa Takuji (市川拓司) was born in 1962.

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© 2021 the complete review

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