Ajin is a perfect illustration of both the joys and frustrations of being an anime fan.
I don’t think it can be denied that we’ve entered a brave new world in anime production, for better or worse. Streaming was a big step, and now we’ve seen it move to the next level with exclusive rights deals like the one Paragon signed with Netflix and Fuji TV signed with Amazon (for the NoitaminA block). I’m in favor of anything that prods anime to market itself to a broader audience (and the international audience is obviously broader than the 20,000 otaku studios traditionally market to), not to mention brings enough money into the industry so that animators hopefully don’t have to live like slaves. But there are downsides to all this, and Ajin is a prime example.
Would Ajin’s production schedule have been different if it had been created under the traditional system? I don’t think there’s any question about it. The contrarian argument is that it might not have been produced at all, and that’s certainly possible. Nevertheless, I find the notion of a series stopping in the middle of a story by effectively saying “Wait for the movies” no less frustrating than one that tells you to go read the manga. This is a common syndrome with seinen – very rarely do we ever see them adapted fully. And while having more movies coming is nice, it should be noted that the manga itself is still ongoing so even there, you’re not likely to see an ending.
If you can get past that – and the grotesque character animation in all of Polygon’s series – Ajin is easy to recommend. It’s a hell of a great thrill ride, in fact – in terms of writing, I think this is one of the better action thrillers in recent anime history. It’s coherent, beautifully paced and genuinely involving. I don’t recall an extended stretch in 13 episodes where what was happening on-screen seemed anything but essential to telling the story. I wouldn’t call Ajin lean or spare because there’s a ton of story here, but it’s all muscle and no fat.
While I won’t call what we got this week an ending, I would say it worked very well as a placeholder – and gave us a hell of a cliffhanger to boot. As expected Kita-san sells Kei out for the reward money (and also as expected, he gets screwed out of it – how much does a police certificate of appreciation go for on eBay?). While I think Kei’s idea that he could hide wth Obaa-san was a fantasy all along, at least he was preparing an escape plan – that shopping trip he sent her on an essential part of it. It’s tempting to chalk up Kei’s using Obaa-san as a human shield to his newfound amoral nature, but in truth it was the sensible thing to do in the moment and even she knew it.
One big question as all this plays out is what’s going to happen with Kou – will Kei abandon him to an eternity of darkness and isolation, dying of dehydration over and over and reviving? No, but Ajin does a pretty good job of convincing us that he’s going to lure the pursuers to Kou using his phone while Kei makes his own escape. So why, then, does Kei – the ultimate pragmatist – decide to rescue Kou and escape together with him? Maybe it’s purely for practical reasons, because it seems Kei has finally decided he has to take Satou on and he needs all the allies he can get. Or maybe – just maybe – there’s still a trace of the Kei we saw in the first couple of episodes alive in this version.
Another question that crosses my mind is why Shimomura-kun uses her IBM (Kuro-chan? Kawaii!) to save Tosaki, over and over. She’s being held against her will through blackmail as far as we know, and Tosaki is the only one who knows the truth. If she’d just let Kei’s IBM kill Tosaki (or was it Kou’s?) wouldn’t she be a free ajin? I’d hate to think it’s something cliched like she’s in love wth him or something, but I do believe it’s a question that begs to be asked. As for Tosaki, while he’s marginally sharper than most of the humans on his team, one wonders how many more times he’s going to get away with letting ajin slip through his fingers before he runs out of rope.
The ending (such as we get one) is a two-pronged affair. Satou issues another terrorist video, laying out phase 2 of his plan: he’ll assassinate 15 people complicit in the mistreatment of ajins, and if Japan doesn’t capitulate to him before he finishes he’ll enter the “final” phase (and he opens his eyes so you know he’s serious). And Kei and Kou make their escape thanks to some mysterious powers from Kei, and a seeming resistance to Tosaki’s tranquilizers. Whether this is another manifestation of the legendary Nakamura Shin’ya incident I don’t know, but it’s clear Kei is very anxious not to go back on that dissecting table. The final moments with he and Kou are a sort of peachfuzz Thelma and Louise, the two of them jumping off a cliff together (the look Kei gives Kou when he asks what “worship” means is priceless).
And now, we wait. I’ll certainly continue to follow Ajin in movie form, because it’s a damn good story and it has me thoroughly hooked. One might agonize over what might have been – a multi-cour traditionally animated series from Production I.G. or Madhouse, say – but that didn’t happen. And what we’re getting, in fact, is a darn sight better than the bulk of what we get from anime – one of the tighter and move gripping thrillers of the past few years. That’s something to be grateful for, and I am – Polygon may not know how to make characters look realistic, but they absolutely know how to choose a story and adapt it splendidly.