Let there be no two ways about it – whatever you might think of the other aspects of its production, Ajin is a superbly written series as far as I’m concerned. The first three eps were excellent, but this week’s double-episode (which, as I understand it, takes the series through almost all of the material covered in the first movie) was a standout – some of the best anime this season, and some of the best action-thriller anime I’ve seen in a long time.
A thriller (be it horror, sci-fi or otherwise) has multiple goals it needs to accomplish, but at the very least it has to be a little thrilling. Ajin has that covered and then some – like last week these episodes flew by. There’s always something happening on-screen but not just that (which isn’t really all that hard), it’s always something interesting. You always feel like you should be paying attention because something important is happening, and in an entertaining way. Pacing is important in an genre but never more than this one, and Ajin is nailing it.
There’s a lot more than that to appreciate, though. The plot here is really well put-together, and it manages to guard its secrets without seeming to cheat. We’re finding out stuff more or less at the same rate Kei is, and by no means do we have anything like a complete picture yet. Who is this Ajin Nakamura Shinya who was responsible for the “incident” everyone (especially Tosaki) keeps referring to? Who is this mad scientist Ogura Ikuya (Kinoshita Hiroyuki) who seems to have defected to the American side? And where did Ajin come from in the first place?
Most importantly, though, Ajin keeps us guessing about the people involved even as we grow to know them. Shmomura is obviously an Ajin (the preview spoiled that) and Tosaki seems effectively to be blackmailing her into helping him. Satou, though, is the most opaque and probably important unknown element. Obviously he’s a badass of the first order, as his rescue raid late in the episode showed (cutting off his own arm after he was hit by a dart was pretty cool) – and he pulled it off without even revealing his special ability (it seems some Ajin have them, others don’t). But is he a bad man?
At this point it seems so, though the series does expertly yank us back and forth on that question. After kidnapping Eriko he seems to be genuinely concerned for Kei’s welfare – he introduces himself as head of the “Ajin Protection Committee“. But then it seems as if he might have killed Eriko once she was no longer useful, but this turns out to be a feint – and again, after his meeting with Kei in the woods he once again seems like a decent soul. The issue here – which Ajin plays on so expertly – is that we desperately want Satou to be a good guy, because there are so few of them in this cast, the world is so cruel, and Kei so obviously needs someone like Satou to help him.
In the end, though, the game Satou is playing seems quite clear – he wants to win Kei over to his side by any means necessary, but that means Kei has to come to hate all humans and want to seek revenge against them. The rest of it is all an act, and when that doesn’t take he allows Kei to be captured and tortured assuming that will turn Kei into the vicious monster Tanaka seems to have become. I don’t like torture porn much – not here, not in Tokyo Ghoul (which this series broadly resembles in some ways), nor elsewhere. I can see why it’s being used, at least, because Kei’s humanity is really the central question of this entire seres, and it has to be tested firmly – and at least (for now) the torture arc was relatively short.
We learned an awful lot about a lot of people and events in these episodes. Eriko resents Kei because she feels he betrayed Kai (and I think he does, too) by agreeing to stop seeing him because Kai’s father was a criminal. Yet Eriko still loves Kei enough to want to help him (and I suspect Kai even more). The nature of the black ghosts (“Invisible Black Matter” as Ogura calls them) is that of a “second life” – an extension of one’s self that can be controlled with enough practice. It seems the amount of pain an Ajin feels is inversely proportional to the number of times they’ve died – which while rather grisly, does offer a bleak kind of comfort for Kei. And we learned that Kei is strong enough to withstand 10 days worth of torture without becoming the killer Satou wants him to be – a “failure”, as the latter calls him.
The crucial question now is what Satou will do about Kei now that he’s failed to turn him. Will he rescue him anyway, rather than leave any Ajin in the hands of humans? Just what Kei’s options are if he doesn’t isn’t exactly clear – he’s certainly decided he doesn’t want to put Kai in any further danger, even assuming Kai were in any position to help him. There’s something especially tragic about a gentle soul who wants nothing more than to live a quiet life without hurting anybody, and has that taken away from him by fate – and while Kei isn’t especially heroic in the conventional sense, there’s something heroic about simple decency. Especially when the world is as indecent as the one he’s been forced to adapt to.