anime review and further recommendations
The premise of ‘Ajin: Demi-human’ is that 17 years before the story is set, approximately 60 immortal beings were discovered who looked just like normal humans but when they died they came right back to life again. These ajin spend their lives in government facilities – the official line is that they are cared for there but the internet contains leaked but potentially hoaxed footage of their sedation and torture in the name of scientific experimentation. There are rumours that the government would give out a massive reward for the capture of any new ajin discovered.
Our protagonist, Kei, a devout student who dreams of becoming a doctor, is learning about the ajin phenomenon in a history lesson at school and is horrified at the assumptions of his teacher and classmates that ajin are not really human so if the rumours of their inhumane treatment are true then it wouldn't matter as they're not truly human anyway.
Soon after, Kei is run over by a truck on his way home from school and discovers he is an ajin. This happens in public in broad daylight so there is an instant manhunt launched to find him. He has no one to turn to but Kaito, an old friend from childhood who risks his own life to help Kei escape the authorities and bounty hunting individuals.
We are then plunged into a maze of mysteries and ethical dilemmas. Is it okay to kill an immortal being if they'll only come back anyway? They still feel pain but the shock diminishes upon each death. If death is no longer your greatest fear, what becomes of your morals and priorities? What exactly are the strange black ghosts that ajin seem to be able to summon?
While from the outset, ‘Ajin’ felt like it was going to be a sort of supernatural or religious mystery with the first ajin we encounter being presented as an angelic immortal it actually becomes a combination of paranormal horror and science fiction about identity, prejudice and morality. Thankfully for those of you who are squeamish, the worst of the gore happens off screen or is cunningly hidden from the audience but the fact you can't see it actually helps build the tension.
The antagonist Sato, also known as ‘the hat man,’ is an ajin who says he wants rights for ajin-kind but captures the ajin who oppose his plan and sells their organs for money to fund his terrorism. He has a self-proclaimed love of gaming on hard mode and is an ex-military man who gets off on more and more extreme violence, luring out top level security forces for fun. Sato steals the show with a corridor siege scene reminiscent of those in ‘The Matrix’ or ‘V for Vendetta,’ particularly with the creepy vacant smile while he tactically cuts off his own arm after being hit by a tranquilliser to gain himself a few more seconds advantage. He also purposely allows Kei to fall into the hands of the human government so that Kei can be experimented on in order to learn to hate humans and so come around to Sato’s cause. Think of Sato as a bit of a Magneto figure.
The other major antagonist, Tosaki, is a human working for the secret government agency for monitoring ajin but keeps the secret that his assistant, Izumi, is an ajin too and functions as his own personal spy and bodyguard.
There are 13 episodes in the first series. It leaves off on a cliff hanger moment with the protagonist Kei teaming up with another young ajin, Kō, whom previously he had not only refused to help but had in fact deviously poisoned and kept prisoner just in case his presence spoilt the peaceful new life he had found himself. As an audience, we are left to ponder whether Kei has always had this capacity to be so selfish or whether he has simply adapted to a world where he has found both humans and other ajin are quite happy to take advantage of him. Then again, Kei was able to form a very sweet bond with an old lady he knocked over and only belligerently helped up out of guilt but turns out to be more than happy to harbour the young ajin.
The soundtrack contains contrast, echoing the juxtaposition between the quiet life Kei craves, often associated with living close to nature, and the fast paced techno metal beats that accompany the superb action sequences. The opening song, ‘Can You Sleep at Night?’ (Yoru wa Nemureru kai?) by Flumpool, is particularly fast paced and catchy.
It is an excellent anime in terms of action, plot and character but for those of you who really enjoy a deeper reading, there is much left open to speculation and analysis in ‘Ajin.’ It lends itself to etymological and post-semiotic reading with heavy hints at the theories of Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacrum and Simulation,’ particularly from the mouth of the biophysicist character Oguru. Interestingly, Oguru wears a Tshirt with the phrase “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance” echoing Socrates’ ‘wisest is he who knows he does not know’ while Kei borrows a Tshirt featuring the phrase “All men by nature desire knowledge.”
The relationship between the media, rumours and reality is explored. In fact, there is a theme of doubles and fakes throughout: rewards that turn out not to exist, references to redrawing the map and of course doppelgängers in the form of the black ghosts. The anime is filled with paranoia and a thirst for knowledge that the series never fully satisfies as each new piece of knowledge actually just leads to more questions.
The series on is available on Netflix but there is an extra episode (sometimes known as an OED or OVA) which is essentially a straight to DVD release. This complete side story and prequel is definitely worth checking out as it departs from the core characters and adds a new interesting twist to the concept of what the black ghosts are. The OVA comes with a limited edition bundle of the 8th volume of the manage and another has been promised with the 9th volume – more info here: www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/…
The second series will be released in the autumn of 2016. My hope is to find out a little more about the fate of the humans Kei left behind especially his ailing sister and childhood friend, Kaito, who was so pivotal in the early episodes.
Already enjoyed ‘Ajin’ and looking for something similar in the mean while?
· ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ – Another anime linked in terms of the theme of dehumanisation.
· ‘ Haibane Renmei’ – another anime from Yoshitoshi Abe of ‘Serial Experiments: Lain’ fame. It features a group of angelic looking beings who hatch from cocoons into a walled city with no memories of their previous lives. Reki is a potentially amoral character who worries she has no empathy and is not really good as she is only ever kind for her own benefit. This also has a haunting soundtrack and is full of mystery.
· ‘Ghost in the Shell’ – there are many iterations of this franchise but the original film and ‘Stand Alone Complex’ anime series are famous for being cyberpunk science fiction with a focus on philosophy and morals in a world where the development of cyborgs and AI have meant the definition of ‘human’ is rapidly changing.
· ‘The Strain’ - if you liked the combination of horror, science fiction and religious imagery, I’d suggest checking out either the book trilogy or television series by Gullimo Del Toro, best known for his films ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Hellboy.’