Recently, I have found myself drawn to stories that are unafraid to explore the political aspects of their characters and universe, and as such I was looking forward to Ajin: Demi-Human (Studio Polygon, dir. Seshita Hiroyuki and Andō Hiroaki), as it tackles everything from bigotry to terrorism, from vigilantism to corrupt government officials. It’s a shame, then, that it seems ill-equipped to handle such heavy topics, and opts instead to be a fast-paced, action-heavy supernatural romp. This needn’t be a problem, but in order to succeed, the anime needs to be bolstered by some very strong writing.
In this version of our contemporary world, humans have been aware of the existence of Ajin for nearly two decades. First discovered in Africa, these creatures appear human, but are impossible to kill. Japanese teenager Nagai Kei (the ubiquitous Miyano Mamoru, who also performs the lovely end credits song) is taught in school that Ajin are to be feared and hated, so when Kei is struck by a lorry and survives, his classmates and even his family turn on him. Forced to flee, Kei is hunted by the police and a handful of shady government officials who aim to neutralise this new threat.
Based on the manga by Sakurai Gamon, the anime garnered controversy when it first aired due to Studio Polygon’s use of CG animation. Many viewers complained that it was too ugly, or too bland. Personally, I was very impressed. As my first CG anime, it blew me away with its facial expressions and body animations. Granted, some of the characters’ movements were a little stiff, and one could argue that it doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as more traditionally-animated series, but overall I had no issue with it. If anything, I appreciated the novelty, and it has certainly convinced me to seek out similarly-animated titles.
Visual aspects aside, the series was somewhat disappointing. The first few episodes intrigued me, and when Kei teamed up with his estranged friend Kai (Hosoya Yoshimasa), I was excited to see how these two boys would become fugitives. However, Kai is all but forgotten after episode three, so instead we follow the inconsistently characterised Kei, who over the course of the series goes from anguished to eerily calm, and back again, at the drop of a hat. There is an attempt to explain this behaviour, and while it should be a refreshing change for an anime protagonist, in the end it feels poorly explored and, as a result, rather bland.
In addition to Kei, the cast is woefully underwritten. Tosaki (Sakurai Takahiro), who is the closest thing we have to an antagonist, is the typical anime government type with a cruel streak. He is followed at all times by his subordinate Shimomura (Komatsu Mikako). As the only major female character, she offers some expositional dialogue, but mostly she follows orders and, like any true professional, blushes furiously when she makes mistakes. She is also secretly an Ajin, and in exchange for Tosaki’s protection, she uses her superhuman abilities to aid in the capture of others of her kind. Apparently, she feels neither guilty nor conflicted about this.
Although Kei is the main character, the real focus of the series is Satō (Ōtsuka Hōchū). He is another Ajin, and at first his motives are unclear. He appears helpful and gentlemanly, but is clearly hiding something, and he ends up at the heart of the more memorable and climactic scenes. It’s clear that he is supposed to represent the views of an oppressed and feared minority, but instead of being a complex, flawed idealist, he borders on becoming a supervillain, with no redeeming features beyond the admitted coolness of his action sequences and one-liners.
Ajin certainly doesn’t suffer from pacing issues, but more often than not plot threads and characters are introduced and then forgotten. The aforementioned Kai is hurt the most, especially as he features so prominently in the opening credits sequence, but there are others: the unfortunate schoolgirl, trafficked by thugs, who manages to escape their clutches but then disappears, all within a single episode; Kei’s mother, who is a cold, distant figure, but has no real motivation for disowning her son; and Kei’s sickly sister, who views her brother as ‘trash’, and spends most of her time in a hospital bed. Their impact is slight, and the anime appears to forget their existence entirely. On top of that, the finale resolves very few (if any) plot threads or character arcs, leaving it open for the sequel that aired between October and December 2016.
All in all, Ajin: Demi-Human shows great promise. While I would have preferred a more political focus, I did enjoy some of the action, and the supernatural element was rather fun. However, the characters are painfully shallow, and the plot takes far too long to establish exactly what it sets out to be. In the end, while there are some memorable moments, uninteresting characters hold the series back, and result in an underwhelming experience.