No. 5: Spectacularly Weird

If you’re an anime nerd, you’ve probably heard of Taiyo Matsumoto’s classic manga Tekkonkinkreet; it was made into a critically acclaimed movie after all. Of course, me being me, I instead gained an interest in No. 5, a sci-fi manga of Matsumoto’s that I doubt any Westerner would’ve even heard of if it weren’t for Viz’s recent omnibus publication; it didn’t get adapted, so it might as well not exist over here. I don’t even know what it’s about, except that I should expect it to be weird because Matsumoto is famous for weirdness. Well, when it comes to Japanese literature, I shouldn’t expect anything less, should I?

No. 5 is set in the distant future, where the peace is protected by the Rainbow Peace Brigade, an elite squadron of genetically modified soldiers. The best of the best are designated under the numbers one through nine, and they all answer to an old man in a pair of bunny pajamas. Things aren’t so peaceful, however, when the titular No. 5 kidnaps and flees with a strange woman for no apparent reason. He travels with her as the rest of the Rainbow Brigade hunts him down.

Lemme tell you, this manga is as weird as it looks, if not weirder. Matsumoto’s art is strange and extraordinary, operating under no rules whatsoever; sometimes it’s detailed, sometimes it’s cartoony, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. What’s even better is that panel changes tend to jump from POV-to-POV several times per page, all to maximize your confusion.

To add to that confusion, No. 5 doesn’t exactly give you exposition dumps. All the characters talk as if you—the reader—already understand how the world works, and you have to adapt fast. Everything is context-sensitive, and I’m sure as hell I missed a lot of important nuances during my read-through of the manga. There was probably some allegory to the true meaning of being human in there somewhere, and it flew right over my head.

Fortunately, this is a case where you don’t really need to know what’s going on. I was pretty damn engaged with the story despite being confused the whole time. The reason is all in the aforementioned art. Matsumoto really knows how to keep an audience on their toes no matter what’s happening, and there’s always something happening. The plot is followable on the most basic level, but good luck figuring out the purpose of any of it.

Because of how confusing the manga is, I don’t exactly know what to think of the characters in No. 5. The titular character is a very hard-boiled ex-cop-type, who doesn’t seem capable of any emotion except hard-boiled-ness. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly get the full details on why he wants to protecc the woman, Matryoshka, like an anime nerd’s favorite waifu; when we get the full backstory, it actually skips(?) the time between No. 5 first meeting her and ultimately kidnapping her. 

It’s also not easy to tell why he loves Matryoshka so much, or rather, why everyone in-universe seems to loves her. You could argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, since she’s not the stereotypical ideal woman in terms of physical features. However… she’s kind of awful? She acts like the perfect picture of innocence, exclaiming everything she sees like a child, but it seems like she just follows whoever gives her food, as evidenced by a part where this one guy grabs her and she doesn’t resist at all. 

The rest of the Rainbow Brigade are even more confusing. We get into the heads of every one of the numbered people. It’s natural to assume that the ones who die earlier are less impactful, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t get No. 9, who dies first, any better than any of the others. I feel like the most impactful ones are the No. 4s, two twins who create hallucinations, and No. 1, who is… well, I probably shouldn’t spoil him. 

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

No. 5 is really something. It’s surreal and intense, and always leaves more questions than answers. If you want to experience a weird, old manga, then No. 5 will serve that purpose well.