Tsutomu Nihei's Surreal Dystopia

Check out Biomega, a cyberpunk zombie manga from the creator of Netflix's BLAME!

By Mike Montesa May 19, 2017

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NOTE: Biomega is rated M for Mature.

I’m having a hell of a time trying to describe Tsutomu Nihei’s Biomega. It’s a high-concept science fiction story set in a very surreal (to say the least) universe where the earth is overrun with hordes of DNA-altered zombies and the ruins are being fought over by monolithic corporate entities in a war where the combatants are not even human. Okay, that still may not be giving you a clear picture of what Biomega is about so lemme boil it down to this—the hero is a badass android on a badass motorcycle (with a built-in artificial intelligence) fighting zombies in a nightmare vision of the future.

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And his sidekick is a talking grizzly bear with a sniper rifle.

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Let’s talk about that “nightmare vision of the future” I mentioned. Nihei’s artwork is very distinctive. Heavy blacks, strong contrasts and crosshatching do the work where a lot of other manga artists would use screentone. Although sharp, Nihei’s style gives the artwork a sense of not having a hard outline, which enhances the dreamlike nature of the story.

The world of Biomega (ostensibly one thousand years from now) is a vast dark and extremely surreal landscape of endless towering cities that are hauntingly empty for their size. Connected by highways that cross entire oceans, the city of 9JO looms out of the dark horizon like a mountain-sized gothic cathedral.

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We meet our hero, Zoichi Kanoe, racing toward the city along one of the causeways at 666 kph (of course). By this point in the book, just a few pages in, you’re already trying to orient yourself in Nihei’s world, but it’s so bizarre, the culture shock is only starting to settle in. You just aren’t ready for how crazy it’s all going to get.

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When I learned that Tsutomu Nihei had a background in architecture, things did fall into place somewhat, especially with regard to the wildly imaginative cityscapes he draws. It’s like a mashup between H.R. Giger and Salvador Dali. The buildings are huge dark edifices, but packed close together, leaning impossibly on each other. Roadways hang like cables or cut deep canyons between them.

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The surfaces of the buildings are laced with pipes and protrusions, or oddly smooth like dead skin stretched over a carcass. Yet for all the architectural density, these cities are deserted. There seem to be people in the buildings, but only when or where you specifically look for them. Massive apartment blocks seem to have only a handful of tenants. The contrast between the feeling that the city is densely populated yet apparently empty is disorienting, and Nihei probably intended this.

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The emptiness of these urban hellscapes can be attributed to the central plot point of Biomega—an extraterrestrial virus that has turned the population into “drones” (zombies). The DRF (Data Recovery Foundation) and it’s totally weird transhuman masters are advancing a plan to transform humanity (and literally, the entire planet) with the virus.

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In opposition to them is Toa Heavy Industries, who have dispatched Zoichi Kanoe to stop them. Zoichi doesn’t look like much—in fact, he looks sort of like your garden variety pretty boy idol—but he’s a lot more capable than he appears. Basically an android grown in a lab, Zoichi possesses super strength and inhumanly fast reflexes, extreme combat and driving skills, and a preternatural calm for dealing with all the insanity going on around him.

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He’s looking for Ion Green, a young girl who is apparently immune to the alien virus and who could potentially reverse what’s going on. The DRF wants to splatter Zoichi all over the pavement and grab Ion Green for themselves of course, and sends out the innocuously named Public Health Service to do the dirty work. The PHS are more like stormtroopers with chainsaws and armored personnel carriers than mild-mannered civil servants and Zoichi’s encounters with them are explosive to say the least.

All of that may sound like pretty standard sci-fi fare, and it is. What sets Biomega apart is the utterly insane backdrop the story is set against, and the awesome stuff the characters get up to. One of my favorite sequences in the very first volume is when Zoichi is trying to locate Ion Green. He confronts a “Public Health Inspector” who is basically this guy in a freaky skin mask with black body armor, a rocket pack and a butcher’s apron (with missile launchers and a flamethrower built into his arms). Their battle turns into a chase that has Zoichi riding his motorcycle across the impossibly high rooftops of the city, with Kozlov, the talking grizzly bear sniper on the back seat.

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Yeah, I’m not going to explain anything about Kozlov because that would be giving things away. Finding out exactly what he is, where he came from and why he’s there is a big reason that you will want to keep reading! Trust me, there is an explanation for there being a talking grizzly bear with a giant sniper rifle in the story, and it’s pretty crazy…

The first four (out of six total) volumes of Biomega move at breakneck pace, and you as the reader just need to hang on for the ride. The set pieces get amped higher and higher—Zoichi takes on any number of PHS goons in Matrix-style shootouts, some very strange DRF bad guys, an aircraft carrier, fighter jets, gets into high-speed, long-range railgun duel, has to deal with a swarm of incoming nuclear missiles, an all-consuming grey goo, and rides his motorcycle into space. I am not kidding.

And then the story gets really weird…

If Biomega has any faults it’s that it moves so fast and hits you with so much conceptual madness that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. There is very little exposition (which is often overused in science fiction), and there are some leaps in the editing that can be a little confusing, but I think if you approach Biomega from the standpoint that it’s sort of a dream/nightmare where not everything is linear or needs to be explicitly clarified or connected it’s all fine.

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In the end, Biomega is a fantastic exercise of the imagination by a manga artist who is not at all afraid to go out on a limb (or a towering rooftop) to tell a story. If you are looking for something really distinctive, exciting, badass, and just plain entertaining, you’ll definitely want to check out Biomega!

- Editor Mike