Written by Jonathan Wojcik
The Monsters of Apocalypse Zero
(Are NOT WORK SAFE)
...Where do I even begin with this one? Earlier, we talked a bit about manga series that go over the top into excessive levels of grimdark, but while Berserk takes itself just seriously enough to be morally uncomfortable at several points, the shorter series we're going to look at here positively wallows in its own juvenile tastelessness, so absurdly grotesque that it's difficult to find it anything but silly, and I'm pretty sure creator Takayuki Yamaguchi is well aware of that. At least, I hope someone who fills a manga with what we're about to see was aiming mainly for some kind of comedy.
I discovered Apocalypse Zero through its dubbed, direct-to-DVD miniseries, which I found in a bargain bin for about a dollar. It adapts only around a fifth of the Manga over a handful of episodes, sadly cutting short before things get even a little more ludicrous, but at least covering most of its early "weekly monster" storylines panel-by-panel, with a fun soundtrack and lovingly animated gore.
Set in a crumbling, post-apocalyptic city where only one filthy high school remains standing, half of Apocalypse Zero is the story of a young man, Kakugo, and his one true love, a destructive exo-suit named Zero. Given to him by a father who forced him to endure brutal combat training from an early age and is for some reason never condemned for it at any point in the series, Zero is an experimental weapon of the pre-apocalypse world, lined with slimy flesh and haunted by a vortex of screaming skulls representing the ghosts of dead warriors. Yes, I said vortex of screaming skulls.
Meet your other heroes. We frequently cut to the skulls advising Kakugo on battle tactics, warning him of danger and begging him not to overexert himself between their howls for vengeance, serving as both the classic warrior-mentor character and the cheerleading friend squad. Zero kind of seems like it might have a sentience distinct from the screaming skulls, but it's difficult to determine where we're meant to draw this possibly arbitrary line.
So, who are these clowns up against? That's why we're here! The big villain of Apocalypse Zero is Kakugo's brother, Harara, who had a bad reaction with his own, imperfect exo-suit and learned to despise humankind for its history of senseless violence, prejudice and environmental destruction. For no clearly explained reason, the rejection also "gave him a woman's body," in their own words, but he continues to identify as a man, and that's handled surprisingly well for such an otherwise lewd series. His gender is never made a point of confusion or revulsion by any other character; it's just casually accepted that this is a man who has breasts and a vagina. No biggie. While not perfect, it's a far better treatment than the same character might get in a lot of other anime and manga, and while he is the main villain, there are plenty worse characters you can be than Harara, not to mention worse you could work for.
Besides his somewhat sympathetic motivations, this guy's minions positively worship the ground he walks on, and it's an endearingly mutual sentiment. Harara waxes quite a bit about his overwhelming love for his underlings, showing concern and respect for them regardless of their shortcomings. This isn't an evil overlord who has ever uttered the phrase "you've failed me for the last time," but an evil overlord who will thank you for trying your best and ask that you please take care of your wounds so he doesn't have to worry anymore. These are murderous megalomaniacs who get along like one big, happy family...it's just that they also kind of perform sadistic experiments on humans with the intention of exterminating their species.
And to accomplish this goal, they employ....
THE TACTICAL FIENDS!
The nightmarish cartooniness of these things is so me it's almost scary, if leaning a little more towards human-like anatomical features than I usually go. Naturally, the most fascinating fiends are the nameless hordes in these crowd shots, raising all sorts of questions about what kind of people they once were. What emotional issue turns you into a one-eyed snail with heads for antennae? The sheer goofiness of the fiends is what makes them truly terrifying. They may seem like corny jokes on paper, but you're not going to laugh when a boardwalk caricature the size of a house pokes its gawking, dopey face around a corner and tries to decapitate you with its bladed genitalia.
There are several Tactical Fiends who get a little focus early on in the series, and almost all of them are incredibly obscene. We're going to tackle them in order, and it's so not my fault if you get fired for reading this at the office.
Tactical Fiend Hamuko
This is the least raunchy image I could show you of Hamuko, a gigantic, mutant dominatrix who goes around violently breaking up young, human couples. She seems to believe every man is in a relationship with her, and jealously murders anyone else she catches them with. Unfortunately, the kidnapped men don't generally survive a night in her company, but she's at least sentimental enough to keep parts of them, if you didn't notice. We also get to see her vomit up a man who is mostly digested and still briefly conscious. That's the anime screenshot we saw earlier. He was not, in fact, "okay."
As the very first Tactical Fiend we're shown, Hamuko sets the tone for much of the series; despite sharing so many elements with hentai manga, Apocalypse Zero uses sexual imagery almost exclusively to invoke disgust and horror. The only thing really resembling a sex scene in its whole run is Hamuko sitting on top of a guy while she devours his face, and our hero is basically interested in nothing other than fighting monsters and protecting people. This, too, is never presented as an abnormality to be mocked or changed by other characters.
Tactical Fiend Dokumaguro
Dokumaguro's ultimate weapon is his lack of any actual musical talent, strumming the guitar strings on his chest while he sings into exactly what this looks like, which functions like a microphone. His crooning songs about how school stinks and rules are for dorks is so terrible, it threatens to kill people who listen to it. I guess appreciating music "sarcastically" stopped being cool between now and the end of the world.
Tactical Fiend Eikichi
Eikichi's deal seems to be a mix of both arrogance and insecurity over being an "old man." Even while lusting over "youngsters," he seems perpetually convinced that they're disrespecting him and need to be "taught a lesson," which usually involves either strangling them to death with his dragon-headed schlong or dicing them to pieces with his spit, which hardens into razor-sharp crystals on contact with air. Oh yeah, and the testicles can deliver an electrical shock. Of course they do.
Mercifully for us readers, Eikichi only expresses that lustfulness I mentioned by trying to eat younger humans with his eel-like inner jaws.
Tactical Fiend Megumi
Probably the raunchiest of the bunch, Megumi usually disguises herself as a sexy, human nurse; a nurse which, for some reason, spends her time roaming half-naked around the toxic wasteland and throwing herself at hormonal men. She seems to believe she's "helping" by showing lonely, desperate guys what she thinks is a good time, but even in human form, all of her bodily secretions (all of them) dissolve flesh clear to the bone. She becomes particularly fixated on "helping" Kakugo, convinced that his zero suit is actually some kind of pathetic love doll. In full-blown monster mode, she sprouts a giant, hairy man-face, mollusk-like tentacles and nightmarishly exaggerated gazongas that can punch through several feet of concrete.
Megumi proves especially tricky to fight, since she not only regenerates from almost every type of injury in seconds, but interprets them as acts of affection. She'd be kind of adorable if not for all that damn flesh-melting. A lot of people want flesh, Megumi. You ASK about that first.
Tactical Fiend Utsuru
Further into the series, fiends start coming and going with less and less fanfare, sometimes lasting only a page or two between their introduction and defeat. It's just as well, because I can't say I'd want to spend much more time with Utsuru, the giant predatory photographer. Gross. It's rather cathartic how quickly this guy is slaughtered, and you have to wonder if the author based any of these monsters on real people he may have had horrible experiences with.
Tactical Fiend Tsumiko
Despite his devotion to his haunted robot costume, Kakugo captures the affection of a teenage girl from the very start of the series, Horie, and she's actually a fairly likeable character with a surprisingly average build for the lead girl of a manga/anime and more relatable insecurities than most other characters, so it's pretty harsh when she's fiendified by a sub-villain who also turns people into patchwork slaves. As Tsumiko, Horie looks like a giant hentapillar, repeats the word "sticky" a lot and fires beams from her forehead.
Perhaps disappointingly, it turns out that Horie's giant moth-grub body can actually pop right off, and is even referred to as a "costume," allowing her to zip around in a wasp-like mode with a huge, Freudian stinger. This is the only panel of that I can really show you. All these insectoid modifications turn out to be removable as well, part of a parasite clinging to her back and technically not a "true" Tactical Fiend. Cop-out! Those knob-tipped tentacles, incidentally, are by far the most unpleasant attack method in the entire series; they're super-adhesive to skin, so when wielded like whips, they tear off long strips of an opponent's flesh. Eugh.
Tactical Weapon Dokumaryu
The same guy who turned Horie into a silkworm unleashes a monster they strangely refer to as a tactical weapon instead of a fiend. What's the difference? Was it not originally a human? Dokumaryu doesn't do much but barf acid. Its master is by far the most disgusting villain in the series, though completely human, and it's great when he finally gets what he deserves as well.
Tactical Fiend Himiko
Like I said, fiends start coming and going near the end, and Himiko here, one of the least filthy of the fiends, lasts maybe a page and a half, tops. From what little she gets to say, she seems like someone who was once fixated on fortune-telling and superstition, but why that turned her into a two-faced bug and why she collects people's heads is anyone's guess.
Tactical Fiend Sazae
This one, meanwhile, is killed off in only one page, and it's the very last fiend in the series to get its own name and introductory panel. It certainly hints at an interesting background story, possessing the heads of an entire family inside its giant, clam-like mouth. Did they all transform into a fiend together, or was it only one person, who recalled their family - or even invented one - as they transformed? We'll never know. Kakugo rips it apart before it even gets to say hardly anything.
Fortunately, the named fiends are far from the only fiends we actually get to see, as you already know. The spider-like one is fairly cool here, likewise the multi-eyed caterpillar in the background, which is either the spider's tail or another humanoid's, uh, member. I guess we should be used to that at this point. The guy in the leather jacket is kind of interesting just for how normal he otherwise is.
The Fiend Horde
Sometime after encountering Megumi, our hero also ends up facing an entire massive army of fiends at once. Unfortunately, they all get destroyed by a single absurd deus ex machina, the first of many piloting us through the remainder of the series, but at least we get some lovely glimpses of how bizarre the fiends can get. The four-eyed thing is one of the most alien-looking we've seen, and the guy in the baby bonnet is somewhat frightening, but of course the true terror on this page is that ominous, giant breast - or is it a condom? - on the left. The others are peering over the rooftops head first, so is that something's face?
What did I say about how terrifyingly silly the fiends are? I know we've just met a bunch up close, but I think this particular shot especially shows off how creepy they get. The cone-head is perhaps the most uncanny for me, but your mileage may vary. The little round head-boy is somewhat unsettling even if (or because?) it's the smallest of the bunch, and I can't say I like the look on condom-finger-hitler's face. My favorite one, though, is the one that looks like a naked, boneless goose in the back. How I wish more of these got some speaking parts.
I'd be rather interested to know what that fanged trunk is attached to, here, and the ape-face with the boxing gloves is kind of interesting, but so help me, that thing on the far right is really attractive somehow. Maybe it's the eyelashes.
That giant lady head looks so normal, it's probably attached to a giant butt maggot or something. I think the little octopus-guy in the hat is a self-caricature of the artist, judging by some other doodles. "Frankenstein's monster with his fly open and huge feet" is possibly the most underwhelming of the fiends, but maybe he's friends with the multi-tongued, big-handed mummy. We also appear to have someone who liked cats way too much, a spiny serpent with eyes in its mouth - always one of my favorite features - and a cute little reptilian critter with vertical jaws.
This is one of the panels where the fiends start to get sloppier and scribblier, and only turn out better. Look at the silly little head on that round lady, and the one that's just a big blob of skulls! The umbrella girl is fairly cute too, and what's the deal with that angsty, half-tentacle-faced dude? The lower rightmost fiend is also another I find incredibly eerie.
I love most of the fiends in this scene, even if a lot of them are partially obscured. The simple, doughy creature on the right looks almost like a pikmin, but if that word balloon is covering up any more of it, there's probably something a lot worse than a flower coming out of its head. The googly-eyed beard bug next to it is also kind of intriguing, and the happy doll-like monster is another creepy one. We also get another ridiculous bird-like monster!
Another panel full of "hasty" looking designs, and the deeper they scrape the bottom of the barrel, the more lovable they get. See if you can find:
-A guy with a fish head for an ear.
-A spiny lump with another goose head.
-....What is that? A big metal letter "S" with a head hanging off it? I don't even know.
-A coily creature with an entire little person on the end.
.....So yeah, here's that Deus Ex Machina I mentioned. It was just getting good, and then poof. Somebody didn't feel like drawing page after page of cool fight scenes with weiner demons, I guess. What a waste. What a senseless slaughter. Every one of these was such a unique and precious flower. How can you not weep at this wanton carnage, throwing so many fascinatingly horrid lives in the trash. All they wanted was to kill one little person. And maybe do weird stuff with the corpse. I don't know. Tactical Fiends are messed up.
Thankfully, there's still even more we can enjoy from this fucked-up series, one of whom are known as meat bugs. These pathetic, individually harmless globs of flesh are apparently what you get when a human either fails or successfully resists complete transformation into a Tactical Fiend, living out their indefinite lifespan as seemingly mindless, amoeba-like scavengers in the ruins around Harara's lair, but when Kakugo shows up and gets his ass finally handed to him by the villains, the meat bugs initiate a heroic revolt.
Merging together into a single huge blob around Kakugo, the bugs give collective birth to a giant, gelatinous woman whom, in turn, carries Kakugo in her weird meat-bug womb.
Kakugo is reborn as a Super Seijin tentacle man, entirely different from his Zero armor because instead of a shrieking skeleton void, this one is powered by the hope of a million meat bug ghosts, and just look at how freaking ridiculous those are. That one with the pigtail is giving me the heebie jeebies. Also, that one at the bottom left looks like Steven Universe, right? It's not just me?
We are, sadly, nearly at the end of Apocalypse Zero's outlandish hellclowns, but I've saved the very best character for last....
Yes, BLOB. Harara's personal doctor looks quite a bit like a meatbug in a lab coat, or like that one pretty lady fiend we saw earlier, but he doesn't seem to be related to either category of monster. He's a very polite, generally nonviolent little guy and possibly Harara's very biggest fan of all, which makes Blob's story all the sweeter. Usually, a character this weird plays only a tiny background role, but Blob boasts one of the manga's most heartfelt battle sequences, and even one of the last leading up to the final chapters.
Earlier in the series, Harara falls into a sort of coma following an intense battle, and though blob tries his best to speed his master's recovery, Harara awakens for completely unrelated reasons. Ashamed of having failed as a doctor, Blob swears to fight Kakugo so Harara won't have to in his still-weakened state...even as his master and fellow minions beg him to reconsider. The drama and emotion this series is willing to give an octopus-tumor is why you're now reading about it on Bogleech.
Even Kakugo reacts to Blob with sympathy, imploring him to back down so he won't have to harm him, but Blob only runs himself through with his own sword, initiating transformation into his ultimate form....FIRE BLOB!
While not quite as adorable as Regular Blob, Fire Blob is still fairly charming as far as draconic serpents go, its alien design reminiscent of a Metroid or Legend of Zelda boss battle. In this form, Blob has only a few minutes before he'll be fully consumed by his own flames, which he informs us are symbolic of his passionate love for his master. Touched by the weirdo's bravery and willpower, Kakugo refuses to let Blob burn away in vain and honors his dying wish for a battle. It's one of the most melodramatic fights in the series, all because a giant pustule with eyes was sad about his medical career. Best manga character, or bestest manga character?
Blob, of course, does not kill Kakugo, but Harara appreciates the effort nonetheless, and how sweet is it to see any villain thank their dying monster goon with a thumbs up? As one final gesture of love, Blob's remaining energy upgrades Harara to "Fire Harara," who burns with the loving memory of Blob and all others who sacrificed themselves to his cause.
...And what was that cause, again?
As it turns out, all Harara ultimately wants is to restore the planet Earth to the lush, verdant state it was in before humans ruined everything by hating each other and tossing nuclear warheads around. He invisions a paradise where fiends, monsters and mutants are safe to evolve, diversify and repopulate the planet free from the cruelty, hate and greed of humans. Really? That's it? These are supposed to be the villains? Okay, I'll give you that their means are questionable at times, some of them are perverts and sadists and some of them have massive flesh-eating wangers, but humans were the ones who spent all those thousands of years abusing each other and ravaging the natural world. They had a decent run, and then they blew everything up. Let it go already, Homo sapiens.
Apocalypse Zero is as vulgar as a manga can get without actually falling into the hentai category, you would be amazed at how many intestines a single character can regurgitate when punched by a cursed cyborg, there's some disquietingly incestuous symbolism between our hero and villain and there's a scene in which a bunch of naked maids are hacked into pieces by their boss, but it also comes with a remarkably cute side, and even a few outstanding moral stances hidden under its over-the-top hideousness.
We both know, though, that I'm only reviewing this series because of its damn freaky creatures. Everything that makes the Tactical Fiends so dumb is also exactly what makes them so, so gloriously effective as monstrous antagonists. I'm sure I saw a lot of these guys during my childhood fever-dreams, and I'll probably keep meeting them in my future sickly delusions, whether I like it or not. (I probably will)
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