For the first time in a long time, I’m starting to worry about Ajin.
Looking back at my history with this series, the only real hangup has been the usual Polygon CGI assault on human decency when it comes to character animation. It took a couple episodes to work through that, and while you never totally forget that’s there, it’s been pretty smooth sailing ever since. But there were a couple of canaries in the coal mine that were starting to cough last week, and with this episode they seem to be on life support. Fonzie isn’t warming up the bike or anything, but it does concern me when I see potential problems become actual problems in a predictable way.
There are two separate issues bothering me about Ajin, though they’re very closely related. The first is that we’re getting to the point where there’s really nobody in the cast that deserves our empathy, and the occasional act of decency is always met with catastrophe. That’s the author’s choice, of course – he’s under no obligation to make Kei or anyone else sympathetic – but for me at least there’s a limit to how much viewing enjoyment I get when I don’t really care what happens to anyone. Despair and depravity are fascinating dramatic subjects, but I find they wear a little better when cut with a bit of contrast and texture.
The other problem is the potentially even more troubling, I think. That’s what I see as the inconsistency in Kei’s character. Now, I know that the original writer of Ajin was Miura Tsuina, but he mysteriously dropped off the project after the first volume, leaving Gamon Sakurai as the sole author as well as artist. I don’t know if that’s the reason Kei’s current personality seems so different from the first few episodes as to stretch credulity, but if not it would be a whopper of a coincidence. I get that the kid has been through hell, the kind of stuff that can change someone – but I’m just not buying it. This isn’t the same character, plain and simple – his actions now are simply inconsistent with the boy we were introduced to. And for me, that’s a problem on multiple levels.
I’ll give Sakurai and director Seshita Hiroyuki credit, because there was an unsettling feeling in the air as soon as Kei met Nakano Kou. Even if it was hard to say exactly why, I knew Kei was going to screw Kou (keh!) even as he seemed to be making nice with him. I get that Kei was happy to have found a place where he thinks he can be safe (though that’s a mirage if you ask me), but really – first poison Kou with Ibotenbutake mushrooms, then drown him, then imprison him inside the carcass of an old truck? And let’s be clear, the plan has to be to keep him in there forever otherwise there’s no point. I’m sorry, Kei’s tortured reasoning and talk of “value” sounds like a writer trying too hard to explain away a rank inconsistency of character. It just plain doesn’t work – and while pretty much every series has stuff that doesn’t work, considering what’s involved here this is the sort of thing that could take down the whole ship.
So, as Kei starts off his campaign to be the most unlikable member of the cast, his chief competition – Satou and Tosaki – are hard at work trying to secure the title. Satou’s plans for “war” are in full-swing with the help of the Yakuza. And Tosaki (who for me is still in first place) is in a whole heap of trouble, with his handlers running out of patience and his old subordinate Sokabe now being assigned to shadow him and wait for the first slip-up to destroy him. Tosaki takes out his rage on Ogura, who doesn’t seem to care about starring in this week’s torture porn segment but is bummed about not having his favorite brand of cigarettes (is there something special about those, I wonder?).
In short, it’s all a bit of a nihilistic clusterfuck at the moment. Ajin is still beautifully paced and engaging as hell, but it does feel as if we’re reaching a bit of a crisis point. If indeed the problem is the incompatibility between Gamon and what came before, well – there’s really no fix for that. And if Gamon’s vision is to tell a story where decency has no role or reward and no one in the cast is worth rooting for, the shelf life of Ajin isn’t going to be extended anytime soon. But there’s so much good stuff here that I’m going to remain hopeful until given incontrovertible proof that hope is wasted.