All You Need is Kill is an awful name for a novel. Written in 2004 by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, this is the book that was later turned into the 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. Now, here are two facts: First, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best science fiction movies I have ever seen. It’s a top-fiver, and interestingly, the film had some title problems itself. And apparently it was a near-flop, but if you haven’t watched it, do so—it’s well worth your time. And second, using one of the romanization systems for Japanese, the novel’s original title would be Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru (try sounding it out). And yes, that means this novel was originally written in Japanese. Which is mainly what I want to write about here.
The synopsis of the story you probably know—like the film, this novel is Groundhog Day with aliens. The protagonist, whose name doesn’t even really matter, kills an alien in an invading extraterrestrial ground assault. Most of the aliens taking over Earth are identical toad-like creatures with no technology. They have a hive mind-like mentality and they just burrow and claw people. The alien that the protagonist kills, however, is a rarity—it’s one that can reset the day. And by killing it the protagonist both figures out why the “primitive” alien invasion has been so successful (they repeat each day until they fight a successful battle) and he gets the same ability. And thus the days repeat, over and over again, until a way of saving Earth is found.
So it’s a small book and a relatively simple story. What interested me about the work, however, besides the fact that I love the film, is that I wanted to read a modern Japanese text. In college I had to read a few Japanese classics, like The Tale of Genji, and like most “national literatures” those novels read differently (for lack of a better term) than most written natively in English. So, is Kill different? Actually, it is. There’re detailed descriptions that focus on things you wouldn’t see in an American novel—machines, bodies, furniture, food. Also, for a book that seems like it belongs to the “action” genre, nearly all scenes of fighting and battles are glossed over. So in a very un-American or English way, this book about war is quite understated.
Additionally, this is a story with many non-Japanese characters. The Americans and British people in the book have natural-enough dialogue, but how they are seen through the eyes of Japanese characters… sets them apart. Or in short, this is a book that I read in English where all English-speaking characters are foreign. It’s neither bad nor good, but again, completely different. There’s a big emphasis on how characters react to stress, and the climax of the novel is again mostly skipped, in lieu of writing about the emotional impact of some final acts of (barely mentioned) violence. So all-in-all, this is a narrative about war that’s not too violent itself, which is both a bit befuddling but also is a nice change of pace.
The closest English novel I can think of that’s similar is 1984’s Armor, by John Steakley, though that’s a stretch (but it’s another “odd duck” worth checking out). So should you read All You Need is Kill? It’s a quick read, but know that though the novel was a bestseller in Japan, it was also made for a juvenile market. So do you like The Hunger Games, because that might be what you want to ask yourself. Now as for being able to tell if this book is different than most Western literature, the answer is an easy “Yes.” I’ve read a lot of translated works, but Sakurazaka’s English translation is still so much apart from the English versions of Don Quixote (Spanish) or Blindness (Portuguese). Thus if you really want to read something unique, consider picking this up. Though my STRONGEST recommendation would truly be to watch the movie (yes, it’s better).
–Jeff and Leah