Reincarnation, it seems, is the fate of most every successful entertainment property — doubly so in Japan. A successful piece of Japanese media sees any number of new lives: novel, anime, manga, audio drama, live-action adaptation, online RPG, collectible card game … you name it. Hiroshi Sakurazaka's novel All You Need Is Kill has gone through four such cycles of death and rebirth in different media, each incarnation playing out a little differently — or, in the case of the live-action film adaptation Edge of Tomorrow, a great deal differently. But one of the surprises of tracing this franchise's lineage is in how much there is to be gained by departing from the original as there is in being faithful to it.
1. The first time through the loop
This whole cycle of death and rebirth begins, of course, with the original novel, first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2009 as part of VIZ's Haikasoru sublabel for science fiction and fantasy from Japan. Five years after its debut on these shores, Kill remains one of the best and most enduring titles released by that company, one likely to enjoy continued respect long after the novelty of its venue or its noteworthiness as a source for other productions have faded away.
Much of that strength, I think, stems from how Kill uses its SF premise and its war-story setting as a starting point, a substrate on top of which to build a surprisingly endearing character- and emotion-centric story. It takes an exceptional piece of work to bypass my own distaste for, and lack of interest in, future-war stories; the few examples that have really worked for me have been deconstructions or commentaries on the genre, like Joe Haldeman's The Forever War or Harry Harrison's "No War, or Battle's Sound" (found in his anthology One Step from Earth). Kill sits alongside them comfortably because it has something original of its own to bring to the table: a metaphor for how the total accumulation of man's knowledge as a species doesn't always translate into wisdom, either for the individual or the whole.
Kill's premise is, on the face of it, straight out of any number of other future-war stories. An alien race dubbed the Mimics are invading Earth, spreading with terrifying speed and shrugging off most every assault. Mankind has managed to turn the tide somewhat by way of a special mechanized warsuit, the "Jacket" — an idea that hearkens back to everything from Forever War to John Steakley's Armor, another easily cited influence on this story. One of the soldiers, a young Japanese private named Keiji Kiriya, falls in battle, and in his dying moments is visited by a legendary American soldier — Rita Vrataski, the "Full Metal Bitch", as she's been dubbed. Right before Keiji dies, this Valkyrie asks him a question that seems totally unrelated to the death and carnage unfolding all around them: "Is it true that they give you green tea for free at the end of a meal in Japan?" Next thing Keiji knows, he's awake in his bunk on the morning before his death.
Somehow, Keiji has gotten stuck in a time loop. He is condemned to live out the events of the battle again and again, dying and coming back to life sometime the day before, but retaining his memories each time. The fact he can remember confers an advantage: he can learn from his mistakes, and so in time he learns how to extend his lifespan incrementally. But there's only so much he can do on his own. At some point, he always runs out of ammo; at some point, he and the rest of his unit run out of options and get massacred. He has to turn to others for help, and soon he realizes the only one who can really help is Vrataski herself.
Vrataski got stuck in a time loop as well, which is how she built up her own fearsome combat skills. She also pieced together crucial information about how the Mimics operate — that the time loop was how they were able to get the upper hand in battle, but was also something that could be stolen away from them and used against them. (Her green-tea question is used to tease out other possible loopers.) Together, over the course of any number of loops, they formulate a battle plan to put an end to the war once and for all — but then face the possibility that they may simply have ended a war with the Mimics for the sake of having their own private little war, one which only one of them can survive.
Comparisons to the subversively brilliant comedy Groundhog Day are very apt, but not in the sense that Kill is a clone of that story. That film featured Phil (Bill Murray), a Pennsylvania weatherman inexplicably reliving the same dreary February 2nd over and over again, much to his mounting horror. Director Harold Ramis was an avowed Buddhist, and so it isn't difficult to draw parallels between the cycle of samsara and weatherman Phil's plight, but you don't need to do more than squint at little to see how his problem is everyone's. Doesn't there come a time in most everyone's life when they feel like they're just doing the same things again and again, going nowhere slow?
Roger Ebert wrote an appraisal of Groundhog Day for his Great Movies series of reviews, in which he demonstrated how Phil's problem was not that he was trapped in a bad day that he needs to escape from, or even that he's a bad person, but that he's unwilling to take advantage of the situation for his own betterment. The film's greatness comes from the way it shows him growing, but also doesn't let its spiritual leanings give the movie a soggy underbelly. "Phil undergoes his transformation but never loses his edge," Ebert wrote. "He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil."
Kill's take on the concept includes that, but goes beyond it. For Keiji to learn through trial and error to improve his odds of survival, to become a better soldier, is only the first leg of his journey. Beyond that he discovers another issue: that if he does defeat the Mimics, it will come at the cost of the one deep human connection he's made — one possibly deeper than anything else in his life. He and Rita can save the human race together, but it will come at the cost of one of their lives. The only way completely out of the loop, it seems, may come at the cost of becoming a better person.
Underneath all that is yet another implication I couldn't help but read into the story: the way every shred of human progress only comes at the cost of countless other lives that came before, the staggering majority of which we will never know of. Keiji is a one-man passion play version of that struggle, even if at first the only life he's trying to save is his own.
2-3. Two more iterations
The success of Kill in Japan all but guaranteed an adaptation of some kind, and so along came a manga version courtesy of Takeshi Obata of Death Note, Bakuman, and Hikaru no Go fame. Manga adaptations are designed more to visualize what's in a story than to riff on the contents, and Obata's Kill does a competent job of rendering the story faithfully. The manga follows the book almost line-for-line in some places, and even follows the same narrative structure — e.g., flashing back at one point in the middle of the action to show us Rita Vrataski's backstory.
What's tougher to judge is how well the "manga look" complements a story this hard-boiled, and there are times when those visualization choices become distracting or don't serve the material. Obata's sensibilities as a visualizer have never really seemed to be attuned to action; he's more interested in playing up drama, using bold lines to give weight to the look in a character's eyes or the set of their face. There are times when this works in his favor — and in the story's favor — because of how the long arc of the story bends that much more towards drama and emotion rather than action. (I particularly liked the way Obata visualized a scene where Keiji and Rita dare each other to eat pickled plums, another moment taken intact from the book.) But there are other points when his design sensibility softens the material or undermines it outright. The Mimics, for instance, look silly instead of horrific; it's the kind of thing that's meant to inspire unease because of its incongruousness, but it doesn't work. On the plus side, the Jackets look spot-on, rendered with all the loving detail Obata is capable of, and there's a high enough page count (over four hundred) to do full justice to the story's nuances.
Less impressive, unfortunately, is a Western comic adaptation of the novel, scripted by Nick Mamatas and illustrated by Lee Ferguson. For one, the lower pagecount — ninety-six pages — means the story has a harder time breathing and coming completely to life in that space. Mamatas's adaptation tries to touch on all the major plot and story points, but it's still paced in a far more hasty, compressed way than Obata's, and it comes off as unsatisfying. Worse, Ferguson's art is nowhere nearly as accomplished or impressive: it's in color, but that ends up adding far less to the experience than Obata's eye for detail and pacing did. Some of that may be my own prejudice — I find good black-and-white art more satisfying then mediocre color work — but too many other aspects of the design work are also weak. Why, for instance, does Vrataski's axe have such a ridiculously spindly handle? Why do the Jackets sport a midriff with no plating? And so on.
4. Branching off
The most deviant iteration of the four, and in some ways the most successful for that very reason, is Edge of Tomorrow. Where it leaves the original behind, it fills the resulting void with ambition and creativity of a kind that Hollywood too often actively suppresses.
Little was made about the movie's origins in its press junkets; far more was made of it starring Tom Cruise (still-bankable, if now fiftyish) and being directed by Doug (The Bourne Identity) Liman. Hollywood knows better, wisely, than to hype something too hard based on its origins. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold well because it was a crackling good yarn, not because it was from Sweden, and likewise only the few fans in the know about Tomorrow's source material would care about its Japanese pop-culture connection.
That distance might well have worked in the film's favor. Without the pressure of a large, vocal fanbase to appease, it was all the easier for the screenwriters to dismantle the story and reassemble it along salable lines. And so while it deviates from the novel in many ways, it does so only to build on its bones and to assemble a new incarnation of the story that has no less power and poignancy of its own.
Converting Japanese greenie grunt Keiji Kiriya into Tom Cruise's Bill Cage (Keiji = Cage, get it?) was only the beginning of the changes. For one, he's no buck private; rather, he's a major, a slick-talking officer in the Army's media relations division who spends most of his time on TV as a talking head. When the war against the Mimics breaks out, he's the pitchman for the body armor used by the multinational fighting force to turn every G.I. into a walking war machine. Keiji was a kid about to get some callus on his palms (and his soul); Cage is a smug chair-warmer who squirms when asked to leave his seat and risk something. When he's ordered to join a camera crew and cover a major surge live and in person, he tries to blackmail his commanding officer into rethinking his strategy. Bad move.
Cage is arrested, branded a deserter, busted back down to buck private, shipped out to the front in handcuffs, and wakes up lying on his bags at Heathrow, the departure point for the invasion of France. The parallels with WWII are not exactly subtle, from the aliens touching down in Germany to the two-front war being fought from both the Atlantic and the Russian sides. By sheer luck and with heart-in-mouth terror riding him all the way, Cage manages to survive on the front just long enough to encounter the Mimics (which look as vicious and deadly in this version as they ought to) and get rather gruesomely killed — only to find himself jerking awake atop his baggage at the Heathrow tarmac once again.
Cage may be a prat, but he's a fast learner — the movie drops nice little hints to this effect early on — and it isn't long before he realizes he's in a time loop and can make use of experience accrued there. Convincing others, though, is a dead end — no point in trying to explain any of this to his drill sergeant, Farell (Bill Paxton, channeling William Faulkner and R. Lee Ermey in equal measure), or the grunts in his company, who would just as soon frag him as let him join the battle.
Cage's only way out is by way of Rita Vrataski, the "Full Metal Bitch" whose stupendous, tide-turning success story at the front drove recruitment in record numbers, and who appears on any number of victory posters posing with her cricket-bat-like war ax. She wades into battle along with the rest of Cage's men, and dies along with the rest of them, too — until the day when Cage second-guesses her death in front of her, and she tells him: "Come find me when you wake up!" He does, and learns that she too had gotten stuck in a loop but later lost the ability to do so , and so whenever he resets the loop she remembers nothing of his previous appearances. That, by itself, forces him to waste less time in each loop convincing her, and it also makes each subsequent encounter between them all the more poignant.
This is where Edge of Tomorrow begins to depart drastically from its source material, while at the same time building on it in directions the original did not. On a mechanical level, the film alters a great deal about the original plot: the locale, the behavior of the Mimics, the way the final conflict plays out between human and Mimic, the way several supporting characters' roles have either been eliminated or condensed. A gimmick involving a mystery novel Keiji was reading, and the line about green tea, have both been dropped entirely; I confess I did miss them, but it would have been tough to shoehorn them into this incarnation of the story as-is. Also missing, and somewhat lamented, is the in-story explanation for why Vrataski carries a war ax. In the original, it was part of her logistics for escaping from the loop (a melee weapon never runs out of ammo); here, it's little more than an eccentricity of the character. (That said, I did appreciate how the war ax here is more like a lethal cricket bat, in keeping with the character's new British origins.)
But Tomorrow keeps the things that matter most, chief among them being the psychological cost of being trapped in the loop. Knowing that death won't stop him doesn't seem as liberating as it did to Groundhog Day's Phil. Replaying the same sequence just for the sake of extending his survival in it grows dispiriting, especially as he learns how each of the leaps he takes all the closer to ending the war only seems to create an all-new dead end. At one point his gloom grows so oppressive that he takes a loop to go AWOL from the base, sneak into London, and hoist a pint at a pub. If you're going to break the cycle of death and rebirth, there's hardly a better way to do it than with a good stiff drink. What's more, every time he faces Vrataski — or, for that matter, anyone else in the loop — it's with a growing sense of despair. Knowing the future has become a curse that distances him from the rest of humanity, an echo of the alienation felt by the time-traveling troubleshooter from Robert A. Heinlein's story "'All You Zombies—'" (one far more reminiscent of Philip K. Dick than Heinlein for its sheer existential unease).
Here, again, is where the genius in how this story has been adapted to film asserts itself. Editing shapes a film on a level few of us perceive or appreciate directly, and the way Tomorrow's editing serves as one of its most crucial storytelling devices is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. For the first third or so of the film, Liman and his editor James Herbert use cutting judiciously: when a loop ends, it's unambiguously so, with Cage jerking awake on his bags. But as the logic of the film announces itself, the cutaways go from the end of one loop to not just the beginning but the middle, and sometimes the end, of another. There are even moments when we don't know if, between one cut and another, whether there has been a reset or not, but this is a conscious strategy and not sloppy filmmaking. We learn to trust the film's storytelling, and it in turn trusts us to keep up. It serves the movie's larger ends instead of undermining them.
This strategy works in other ways, too. Through it, we learn to read the action for clues about how far along they've come (look for the line "I forgot to unhitch the trailer" as an example of this). The editing also helps generate some of the movie's biggest laughs, and as incongruous as it might sound this is a remarkably funny film, in big part because the humor isn't imposed on anything, but instead stems directly from the absurdity of the goings-on. Even better, though, are the ways the editing is used to creatively withhold information from the audience to generate suspense. At one crucial point Cage and Vrataski reach a dead end, where only one of them can go any further. Cage has been at this juncture before, and she always dies there, because her fighting instincts end up getting her killed. This leads to one of the most poignant exchanges in a movie filled with them, when Vrataski says "Why does it matter what happens to me?" and Cage replies, "I wish I didn't know you, but I do." (That leads to an even more heartbreaking sequence where he tries to go it alone, with consequences even more tragic than they might seem at first.)
What I like best in a story is when it transcends its own limitations effortlessly, when it becomes something greater without ever seeming to try. All You Need Is Kill had that by itself, and the two comic adaptations of the story exposed that to greater or lesser degrees. But Edge of Tomorrow finds a whole new way to do that with the same material, by moving it into a different medium. What we have isn't just a "war film" or a "science fiction movie", but a raucous meditation on time and timelessness, on how the only way life finds meaning and movement is through the challenges provided by the finality of death, and how an unwritten future is everyone's burden to take up. At one point in their travels, Vrataski asks Cage "What do we do now?" and Cage replies "I don't know, I never made it this far." I think he was speaking for all of us.