Volumes: 12 (ongoing)
If you happen to have some teenager or geeky friends who are really into the whole zombie fad, you’ve probably heard the saying that if the zombie apocalypse were to ever happen, it would be the geeks who would rise above the rest because they’ve “studied” zombie film and literature. Never mind if they have any sort of survival or military training that would actually help them in such a situation, many of these people just fantasize about the apocalypse as if it would be some sort of survival horror game. With zombies becoming a more mainstream genre, they’ve been pulled away from their horror origins and are now more akin to a teenagers wet dream.
In a lot of ways, I Am a Hero is what would happen if geeks actually managed to take advantage of the zombie apocalypse and rise above the rest—except in this case we’re talking about NEETs and otaku instead of tumblr-obsessed teenagers.
The first volume of the story follows Hideo Suzuki, a 30-something who has a measly job as a manga assistant and who gets rejected whenever he tries to get his own series serialized. He suffers from delusions where frightening hallucinations jump out at him, and he often starts talking to himself much to the annoyance of others. And to top it off, he’s often 1-upped by his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, who happens to be a much more successful mangaka than Suzuki is. Basically, Suzuki is a total loser who doesn’t have much of a life outside of his job and girlfriend. He tells himself all the time that he’s a hero (dropping the title of the series,) but really acts more like a passive side character letting others drag him around.
So then the zombie outbreak occurs, and Suzuki just happens to be on his way to a shooting range with his rifle—a gun which happens to be his key from becoming more than just a wimpy otaku.
One notable contrast between I Am a Hero and American zombie films is how gun laws drastically affect the setting. Unlike in America which has fairly lax gun laws, Japan is very strict and tight about its gun laws. Just about every gun is outlawed aside from shotguns and rifles, and even then you have to go through a day class and rigorous background checks before you can get a hold of one. Because of this most people in Japan don’t bother to arm themselves, which alongside a bunch of other cultural differences has lead to an almost nonexistent rate of gun deaths. So whereas the cast of American zombie stories will be able to get their hands on guns quite easily and get through hoards of zombies with guns blazing, Suzuki is the only character in I Am a Hero who holds such a power.
This rifle of his is what gives Suzuki the opportunity to become the hero he’s always wanted to be. Within the first volumes of the series he mostly just runs around aimlessly through the apocalypse, and only manages to get away from countless run-ins with infected because of luck—not once shooting his rifle in fear of breaking the law and killing someone. But once Suzuki starts to meet other groups of survivors, he automatically changes the whole power dynamic of each group. It’s his ownership and knowledge of how to use a gun which forces himself to rise above his previous tendencies to stay quiet and follow others, and instead become the leader himself.
At the start of the shopping mall story arc wherein he and a couple other characters meet up with a group hiding out on the rooftop of a mall, he’s still the wimpy guy who doesn’t really know what to do with his gun, and in fact ends up getting his gun taken from him by the leaders of the shopping—who also happened to be NEETs prior to the apocalypse. But then once he and the leaders go on a recovery mission for food in the mall cafeteria, they get ambushed by zombies. Suzuki, with just him and one other person surrounded by zombies, is finally forced to actually use his gun and starts mowing down the zombies; “manning up” in the process now that he’s taken initiative and is doing something about his situation.
And his character progression only goes up from there after he and couple other people escape the mall and start fending for themselves. He now realizes he must protect his other two companions, Oda and Hiromi. Which isn’t to say that he has to protect others as the man of the group, but that he’s actually growing a spine.
A lot of the major characters in I Am a Hero were in similar situations as Suzuki prior to the apocalypse, usually having it even worse as NEETs or hikikomoris. Which leads me to the central theme of I Am a Hero: taking advantage of the dismantling of society to rise in social standing among the new society. A lot of these loser characters are fairly untroubled by the apocalypse, and instead see it as an opportunity to gain power.
If anything, the geeky leaders see the zombie apocalypse as a game. As long as they have some survival skills or weapons, they’re given an opportunity to lord over others, manage resources, and kill “people” (i.e., the zombies.) Be it the psychotic mall leaders or the more sensible gang of Kuruzu, they don’t actually want things to go back to the way they were. And as former NEETs and hikis they didn’t really have much going for them anyways, so why would they?
At the end of the day though, most of them are still just manchildren with either little social skills or no empathy for others, and rising in power doesn’t really change that. Having a crossbow or being a half-zombie superhuman may give you more power over others, but it doesn’t actually make you a good leader.
Suzuki is in a similar situation of being a loser forced to rise in power and become a leader, but he still retains a moral code from the previous society and actually uses his power to help others. Through the course of the series he gain the courage necessary to protect others from hoards of zombies, rather than using his power to gloat about how much better he is now than the “normalfags.” And that’s what it means to become a hero.