My second-favorite chapter in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War ends on a samurai sword.
Horror stories tell us who we are, and zombie tales are perhaps the best mirror of all. “Dawn of the Dead” took place in a mall because Americans of the late 1970s were becoming mindless consumers. “The Walking Dead” and other zombie apocalypse tales are popular today because they depict a world where our most highly educated and successful people—lawyers, bankers, politicians, etc.—are worthless liabilities; everyone has to get back to the basics of survival.
Or something. I just know Facebook is insulating people from the world outside, and redefining who they are as individuals. I have friends who are wonderful, warm, and engaging in person, but on Facebook they’re angry, obnoxious, hyper-partisan, and judgmental as f*ck. Which version is the more accurate representation? My friend, or my “friend”? That question gets harder to answer.
World War Z is a book written like a series of first-person short stories. A researcher is traveling the globe after the war has ended, collecting survivors’ stories to piece together what happened. The book is amazing, and if you like zombie stuff you can’t do any better.
In Kyoto, Japan, we meet Kondo Tatsumi. He is a skinny, acne-faced teenager in old photos. But that was before the war, and his escape from an apartment building swarmed by undead.
Because he felt like a loser, Tatsumi says, his teenage self “chose exile in a better world.” He went online and became part of a network of people obsessed with information. “I didn’t have to worry about my appearance, or my social etiquette, my grades, or my prospects for the future. No one could judge me, no one could hurt me. In this world I was powerful, and more importantly, I was safe.”
Tatsumi did not come out of his bedroom, even after the war came to Japan. He and his online community devoted themselves entirely to the zombies. “We studied their psychology, behavior, weaknesses, and the global response to their attack upon humanity.” When the order to evacuate Japan came down, he wasn’t scared: “Japan was doomed, but I didn’t live in Japan. I lived in a world of free-floating information. . . . Japan might be evacuated, Japan might be destroyed, and I would watch it all happen from the safety of my digital mountaintop.”
His parents disappeared.
As days passed, fewer and fewer online friends were logging in. Did this scare Tatsumi?
“It annoyed me. Not only was I losing a source of information, I was losing potential praise of my own. To post some new factoid about Japanese evacuation ports and to have fifty, instead of sixty, responses was upsetting, then to have those fifty drop to forty-five, to thirty. . . .”
Ding! Ding! Ding! Look in the mirror, Facebookers. I know so many of you who constantly post news hits and personal updates, and I am certain it’s for the responses—comments and “likes.” Feedback is a drug, and social networkers can be addicts.
But even constant Facebook kudos can’t keep the apocalypse at bay forever. When the internet finally, inevitably shut down, Tatsumi was forced to see if anyone else was around. Freaking out, he went out into the hallway to maybe find a neighbor. “It stank. The whole hallway stank. I suddenly became aware of a low, steady scraping noise, like something was dragging itself across the hallway toward me.
“I called out, ‘Hello?’ I heard a soft, gurgling groan. My eyes were just beginning to adjust to the darkness. I began to make out a shape, large, humanoid, crawling on its belly. I sat there paralyzed, wanting to run but at the same time wanting to. . . to know for sure. My doorway was casting a narrow rectangle of dim gray light against the far wall. As the thing moved into the light, I finally saw its face, perfectly intact, perfectly human, except for the right eye that hung by the stem.”
Tatsumi fled back into his apartment and threw open the window curtains.
“Kokura was engulfed in hell. The fires, the wreckage. . . the siafu (zombies) were everywhere. I watched them crash through doors, invade apartments, devour people cowering in corners or on balconies. I watched people leap to their deaths or break their legs and spines. They lay on the pavement, unable to move, wailing in agony as the dead closed in around them. One man in the apartment directly across from me tried to fight them off with a golf club. It bent harmlessly around the zombie’s head before five others pulled him to the floor.”
And that’s when the knocking started on his own door, and he heard a neighbor beg loved ones to stop until “the voice was swallowed in a chorus of moans.”
He tied sheets into a rope and willed his feeble muscles to work as he started slowly lowering himself from one apartment balcony to another. “I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.”
He continued climbing down the building, occasionally entering apartments and discovering tenants dead inside by suicide.
Three days he moved down the building, searching apartments frantically for a weapon as zombies banged against the front doors. There weren’t even hammers or crowbars, because “What salaryman does his own maintenance?”
“I landed on the fourth-floor balconey, reached for the sliding door, and looked up right into the face of a siafu. it was a young man, midtwenties, wearing a torn suit. His nose had been bitten off, and he dragged his bloody face across the glass. I jumped back, grabbed on to my rope, and tried to climb back up. My arms wouldn’t respond, no pain, no burning—I mean they had just reached their limit. The siafu began howling and beating his fists against the glass. In desperation, I tried to swing myself from side to side, hoping to maybe rappel against the side of the building and land on the balconey next to me. The glass shattered and the siafu charged for my legs. I pushed off from the building, letting go of the rope and launching myself with all my might. . . and I missed.”
He hit a balcony below his target. No zombies in that apartment, just pictures of the occupant. It didn’t stink, so he’d probably thrown himself out the window. Tatsumi looked at the pictures, depicting vast travels and a rich, full life. “I’d never even imagined leaving my bedroom, let alone even leading that kind of life. I promised myself that if I ever made it out of this nightmare, I wouldn’t just survive, I would live!”
Then his eye caught a reflection in a mirror, “of something shambling out of the bedroom. The adrenaline kicked in just as I wheeled around. The old man was still there, the bandage on his face telling me that he must have reanimated not too long ago. He came at me; I ducked. My legs were still shaky and he managed to catch me by the hair. I twisted, trying to free myself. He pulled my face toward his. He was surprisingly fit for his age, muscle equal to, if not superior to, mine. His bones were brittle though, and I heard them crack as I grabbed the arm that caught me. I kicked him in the chest, he flew back, his broken arm was still clutching a tuft of my hair. He knocked against the wall, photographs falling and showering him with glass. He snarled and came at me again. I backed up, tensed, then grabbed him by his one good arm. I jammed it into his back, clamped my other hand around the back of his neck, and with a roaring sound I didn’t even know I could make, I shoved him, ran him, right onto the balcony and over the side. He landed face up on the pavement, his head still hissing up at me from his otherwise broken body.”
There was a commotion at the door, zombies banging to enter. He ran to the bedroom to grab more sheets. There was a single photograph on the bedroom wall, of the apartment’s now-zombified ex-occupant. “Something was in his hand, something that almost stopped my heart. I bowed to the man in the photograph and said an almost tearful ‘Arigato.'”
He found it in a chest in the bedroom, under papers and the ragged remains of a uniform. “The scabbard was green, chipped, army-issue aluminum and an improvised, leather grip had replaced the original sharkskin, but the steel. . . bright like silver, and folded, not machine stamped. . . a shallow, tori curvature with a long, straight point. Flat, wide ridge lines decorated with the kiku-sui, the Imperial chrysanthemum, and an authentic, not acid-stained, river bordering the tempered edge. Exquisite workmanship, and clearly forged for battle.”
Tatsumi survived. Logged off. Lived!