"Don't judge a book by its cover": a metaphorical phrase that I'm sure many of us are familiar with, being one that has long transcended both generational and ethnic background to be used across the globe. A phrase that has taken on several reiterations depending on the period and linguistics of the land, but still maintains the same direct message. It's simple, to the point and always relevant when entering the world of any storytelling medium. As much as many of us would like to think, that we could quickly discern the contents of a show solely off of the art cover and synopsis, there are times when we are all proven wrong.
Take the outward appearances of Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica and Gakkougurashi! for example. Both titles display an outer shell that could be described as innocent or even a bit too cloying upon first encounter. Had any veteran anime viewer taken a glance at them with no prior knowledge, it could be easy to understand if they had fallen for the façade. When any viewer becomes accustomed to familiarized signs in certain anime they've experienced before, it isn't out of character for complacency to kick in.
Whether we want to or not, past experiences tend to lead to some subconscious rewiring of expectations for individual content we perceive later on. It's how we refine our viewing habits and why we tend to avoid certain things that set off red flags in our heads due to unsavory experiences. It's a primal reaction our ancestors had to avoid danger and one we adopted for more trivial things, like avoiding shows that aren't in our favor. It's a habit with polarizing results, but still, an understandable one we all share in one way or another.
And if one were to glance at the outward appearance of Ajin, I'm sure the prenotion to judge it would take hold quickly. With promotional art and a premise that seem to enforce the trappings of a typical bishounen action romp, it isn't hard to see why that knee-jerk reaction to label it would occur. But what we see on the outside, and what we actually get, is a whole other story. While Ajin may pattern itself to other shows of that caliber, it quickly deviates from the tropes associated with it to become something far more promising. This anime is a book that screams one thing while the pages on the inside reveal another.
The story takes place in a fictional universe where humanity stumbled upon the discovery of a new sub-species of beings dubbed the Ajin. Having the appearance of regular humans, the Ajins are thought to be immortal, while also possessing several supernatural abilities. Due to their documented cases' being extremely rare, they quickly become subjects of superstition. But all that changes when a resurgence of the species occurs in modern day Japan, bringing with it a new public frenzy that leads us into the narrative that unfolds before us today.
What we have here is a fundamental case of man vs. "allegorical" man, something many of us is familiar with, whether we're aware of it or not. Every time there's a story that pits opposing ideals of beings capable of human-level thought, (whether that be man or beast), it follows the man vs. man conflict. This isn't always limited to one conflict either, as multiple topics tend to branch out from its inception, as demonstrated with movies like Dances With Wolves, or Cameron's Avatar, for the modern viewing audience. It's the tale of societal discrimination and xenophobic rejection of anything that doesn't align with someone's own principals. These are the stories that advocate awareness by providing social commentary with the human condition being used as its platform.
These familiar tales are no stranger to the world of anime. You don't have to look far, with titles such as Parasyte and Shinsekai Yori adhering to this traditional narrative, both of which serve as ambassadors in anime's ability to craft this tale just as efficiently as anything found on the silver screen. But despite the commonality of these stories, it's still one that's easily botched when handled with little finesse, with titles such as Tokyo Ghoul and Terra Formars being testaments to that fact. Thankfully, Ajin isn't a case of the latter, although, I do hesitate to place it on the caliber of the prior entries mentioned that did this narrative right. If I had to give a comparative evaluation, I'd say it finds itself somewhere comfortably in the middle.
While not as fleshed out as Shinsekai Yori or as multifaceted as Parasyte, Ajin still manages to hold its own. Instead of letting the subject matter marinate in the subconscious of the viewer, Ajin makes swift actions to drive home the messages quickly it wishes to convey. This gives room for a narrative that's always in motion, which is ideal for those seeking immediate results. And while this to-the-point approach may leave many of its concepts explored only on a surface level, it still allows for a more consumable binge-watching experience as a result. It prioritizes thrills over thematic pondering, which makes it more accessible to a broader market. This also makes Ajin an excellent gateway for those who want just to get their toes wet with heftier concepts, but aren't quite ready to dive in just yet. It sprinkles in commentary about our current populace's desensitized state, as well as touching upon ethical treatment taken by governing bodies. It does just enough to whet the appetite of the viewer and add flavor to its narrative. And for those who want just a little bit extra with their action, this might just be all that's needed. But despite that fact, there's still a barrier of entry for those willing to crack the spine of this anime, and that, of course, is the usage of 3DCG animation.
Deciding to use 3DCG, similar to that of Knights of Sidonia, was probably the most significant deterrent for those who saw past the generic premise and appearance. And in all honesty, just hearing this news alone was perhaps the reason many overlooked this title altogether. Yes, the presentation can take some getting use to for viewers who don't find it aesthetically appealing, but for those not bothered by the occasional uncanny valley effect, the show remedied this problem better than most. Unlike Knights of Sidonia, the individual movements here show far more mobility. The soundtrack, composed of Gothic organs, booming Hans Zimmer-esque fog horn sections, heavy guitar riffs and more, also helped in compensating in places where the animation found itself lacking. It might not be by much for viewers who are bothered by even the thought of CGI, but it certainly made it a far more palatable experience for those that could see beyond that.
The fights that occurred throughout the series weren't reduced to two people smashing fists with no rational thought but are rather tactical bouts where Ajins and humans alike use their strengths and weaknesses against each other. Even with the apparent advantage given to the Ajins, the human opposition still found many clever ways of exploiting their powers by using it against them. This was also the case for when Ajins clashed among themselves. The show went into a decent amount of detail in explaining the body mechanics of the Ajins as well as the extent of their abilities. And the more an Ajin was aware of its strengths, the better it was at utilizing it in and outside the battlefield.
But perhaps the clearest demonstration of the show's deviation from its inherent trappings can be found with the main characters themselves. In order to avoid turning this into a long-winded analysis, I'll go over only the two prominent figures highlighted throughout the show. They were far from being the most fully-realized characters of the 2016 Winter season (that honor resides with Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu); however, they were still far removed from the cookie-cutter lineup that would come standard-fare with these stories. And what they may have lacked in development, they more than made up for with their distinct personality traits and interactions. They're simple, but at the same time, subjects which would make for interesting, if only brief, character studies.
Take, for example, our main character, Kei Nagai. The first defining trait he exhibits immediately separates him from the atypical wide-eyed idealist or the hot-blooded teen that come almost default with his role. Instead of a rehashed archetype with only a different coat of paint to define him, what we get is a selfish misanthrope who places his own self-preservation and needs above others. Whether he had to be deceptive or fake empathy to weasel his way out of trouble territory isn't of concern to him. There are no delusions of grandeur festering in his mind; he is very much aware of the extent of his capabilities, as well as his amoral standing with the world around him. And while not entirely being pegged as a nihilist, he doesn't place trust in anything that isn't an irrefutable truth. Kei Nagai is a teen whom we've either seen or were at one point in our lives, which makes him one of the most honest depictions of this age group in some time. Unless he's given a feasible or self-beneficial option to assist someone, he will not go out of his way to aid them if it means placing his own life in harm's way. Anything outside of that is merely done out of forced guilt or social obligation. This underrepresented type of character makes him far from your garden variety, and as a result, an intriguing one to follow.
And as much as some of us would like to take the moral high road in response to other people's suffering, the truth is most of us don't acknowledge it with any substantial sympathy. And it's for this reason that our protagonist becomes not only well-depicted but also easily identifiable for our modern society. Now, this isn't to say some won't find his actions deplorable; there are certainly lots of people out there with a healthy moral fiber, but his personality and actions are properly documented for the audience to understand his psyche, regardless of one's own personal ethics. He isn't going to fulfill the role of any white-knight advocate anytime soon, but in the context of the story he's placed in, his personality is tailor-made for the current social climate.
And while Kei Nagai retains the central character role, the true star of the series was none other than Satou. Satou, also nicknamed "The Hat" by officials, is quite the enigmatic figure. With a hospitable, soft-spoken demeanor upon initial contact, he brings with himself an aura of accumulated wisdom, but lurking just below the surface of his thinly veiled smile lies a man with a very twisted moral compass. Like the hybrid of a cunning old fox and someone akin to that of Magneto from the X-men franchise, there's nothing he won't do to reach his intended goal. While wanting for the betterment of his Ajin brethren, the path he takes to get there is paved with the blood of opposition and bystanders alike, all while sadistically reveling in the madness he brews up. He's a charismatic demon in sheep's clothing, a man who nonchalantly goes about his business with no sign of remorse, which is made all the more menacing given his weathered age. Any youth can demonstrate raw ferocity towards someone, but it's the carefully calculated approach of a much older man that strikes fear into the officials in this series. Satou, for all intents and purposes, is the show's undisputed badass, a title he more than lives up to.
Another character worth briefly addressing was Yuu Tosaki, an official who balances out the opposing ideals of Satou and Kei. He's your "all business no pleasure" kind of detective who is given the task to apprehend the Ajins by any means necessary. While he came across as one note, in the beginning, that is later alleviated with the reveal of his motivation. Outside of Yuu Tosaki, the rest of the secondary characters aren't fleshed out to any extent, but they are given distinct enough personality traits to make their inclusion warranted. All in all, the characters, whether essential or minor, helped in bringing the world and conflict to life.
This title proves that even action shows can have some level of thought and planning placed into them. It never tried to be something far more than what it was and performed well with the material it had to work with. For those thinking that this would be just another bishounen-cock-fight title, I implore you to discard that premature notion and give this show a try.
There was never a dull moment while watching this anime. With a plot that continued to push forward and main characters that always kept me on the edge of my seat, I found a great deal of enjoyment here. Satou's actions alone were more than enough for me to power through it. While the art was a bit off-putting at times, it never got in the way of me enjoying any part of the series. In terms of quality, it's somewhere between Tokyo Ghoul and Parasyte. If TG were McDonalds and Parasyte were a 5-star restaurant, then Ajin would be your local diner.
Ajin was a show that could have easily dissipated under the weight of its own premise but managed to hold up incredibly well. With narrative choices and thoughtful insight that demonstrated a level of competency lacking in similar titles, Ajin has proven to be a show worth the initial investment. And with everything being taken into consideration, Ajin has become one of the few documented cases of an "edgy shounen" being done right.