ANIME REVIEW: AJIN - DEMI HUMAN
Genre: action, thriller, supernatural
Year of broadcast: 2016
Studio: Polygon Pictures
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
Writer: Gamon Sakurai (manga) Hiroshi Seko (series composition and principal script writing)
Number of episodes: 26
Runtime per episode: 24 mins
A while back I read a manga. It didn’t have that many volumes yet. I think only four were released back then. But it was gooood!!!! It was this kind of supernatural action series but unlike other series it wasn’t about super-powered individuals going full DBZ on one-another. Instead it was much more like a modern terrorist thriller. It was extremely fast paced with all these different twists and reveals along the way that constantly kept you on the edge of your seat. I read all four in one sitting cause I couldn’t stop reading wanting to know what was gonna happen next. And by the end I was thinking: “man…they really oughta turn this into an anime”. As you might’ve guessed that manga was Ajin and the anime is what I’m here to discuss today.
The story of Ajin begins in Africa with a massive shootout between an American soldier and a bunch of local guerrilla fighters. The weird thing is though that despite the many, many times that the guerrillas gun down the American soldier he almost instantly gets back up again. As we learn later this is because he is an Ajin: an immortal being with supernatural abilities. This basically means that Ajin are higher in the food chain than humans and as you might expect this scares the shit out of humankind and they hunt down these Ajin with all their might. Which really sucks for our main protagonist: Kei Nagai. A super intelligent but not terribly empathetic high schooler who one day gets hit by a truck and, you guessed it…comes back to life. From that moment onwards, Kei is being hunted by Japanese law enforcement, intelligence agencies and even the military for every waking second of his life. Complicating things even further is a terrorist organization of rogue Ajin, demanding equal rights for their species. A noble goal for sure however their methods are anything but. Thus Kei becomes caught in a very violent conflict between two sides who become ever more ruthless in the pursuit for their goals. A conflict that begins to escalate further and further and from which there is no running away.
Now if you’re anything like me than that premise alone will get you really excited. There is a ton of potential for great storytelling here. You have the mystery of who the American soldier is and how he ties into all this. You have a story without clear good guys and bad guys which always makes any kind of conflict so much juicier. And you have a main character who’s not instantly like-able but will definitely grow on you. So, what does the series do with all this potential? Well…it mines it for all it’s worth.
Series composition was done by Hiroshi Seko who also did the same thing for Seraph of the End, Kabaneri of The Iron Fortress and wrote the screenplay to the terrific gothic zombie flick The Empire of Corpses. Seko succeeded in turning an already damn good manga into something even better. If you know anything about me, you know that I like shows with a lot happening in it. And Ajin is definitely that. Big actions set pieces are interspersed with increasingly convoluted intrigue and an ever-deepening plot. All while moving along at 150 miles an hour with you being dragged behind it trying desperately to catch up. With twists and reveals that are placed just so that every time you think you finally have a handle on what’s going on the show ends up pulling the rug out from under you in increasingly shocking fashions that never actually jump the shark at any point.
In all this madness and mayhem however there are definitely quieter moments where the characters really get to shine. And what amazing characters they are! The main protagonist: Kei Nagai is a teenage genius. Admittedly teenage geniuses are kind of a dime a dozen in anime and oftentimes it’s just an easy way for writers to wave away plot-inconsistencies by saying “of course he figured out that really unlikely scenario, he’s a genius!” However, the difference here is that while Kei truly is a genius it’s never taken to such extremes that it becomes unrealistic. He can think three steps ahead of everyone else but he still makes mistakes and there are still things that he cannot foresee. Also, what he has in abundance in terms of rationality and logic he really lacks in terms of emotions and empathy. This isn’t immediately apparent at first but the further the story gets the more you get the idea that there is something very wrong with this kid and ho boy…does that ever turn out to be the case. At the same time the show isn’t content with just letting him be who he is either. Throughout the series, Kei goes through a ton of development as events shape and re-shape him for better or worse.
Which, by the way, is something that doesn’t just apply to him either as almost every character in this show is constantly changing, re-asessing their goals and what they truly value in life. Now I’d love to talk about all of them but I think they’re better discovered on your own. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the show’s principal antagonist: Mr. Satou, the leader of the terrorist organization of Ajins. Satou is every bit as intelligent as Kei and far more messed up in the head. He exudes this air of danger and hostility despite his usally very calm demeanor and soothing voice. He comes acros as this kind old grandpa but beneath it hides a ruthless individual with a penchant for inflicting massive amounts of pain on others. Though what really makes him stand out as, in my opinion, one of the best villains in anime is that you never quite know what he’s truly thinking at any point and thus can’t predict what he’s going to do next. Leading to many, many surprise turns that make this show all the more entertaining to watch.
ART AND ANIMATION
Now this is where I fear I will lose a few of my readers, because I’m not gonna beat around the bush here. This isn’t a traditionally animated series, it’s a CG anime. But honestly: that fits this show perfectly! When I read the manga, I got the feeling that this was like the Japanese equivalent to an American live-action show like 24 or Alias. And because of the way it’s animated it actually looks a lot like a roto-scoped live-action show which only enhances that feeling.
There's also the fact that there things you can do with 3D animatation you just can’t do with 2D animation. Like for instance way more dynamic camera angles and way more camera movement than you would ever see in a 2D animated series. This is because 2D doesn’t have the advantage of being able to move the camera around freely in a 3D animated space. And this in turn led to some of the most stunningly spectacular action scenes that I have ever seen in any anime. With the camera flying from one corner of the room to another while characters are constantly moving around and visual effects like muzzle flares and ricochets really bringing the scene to life. All in a single continuous shot!
And another major upside to 3D animation is that unlike with 2D animation, the quality remains consistent. With traditional animation there’s always this balancing act of which scenes directors want to be animated with a higher framerate and high quality animation, and which ones should be animated with the barest minimum of animation. Which, depending on the budget and the people involved can result in some very jarring animation issues at times. With 3D animation, however the quality of animation can be completely consistent throughout. Of course this can result in an anime that looks consistently awful but in the case of Ajin the overall quality of animation is really quite high.
The action scenes are the big standouts obviously but even quieter moments can still be quite impressive. Like a short but very important conversation that takes place between two lead characters in episode 15. Through the use of clever camera angles and shifting the focus between characters within the same shot this very basic scene becomes much more dynamic and engaging to watch than you would expect from a simple conversation between two people, sitting down.
Now as good and impressive as the animation for Ajin is, the art itself is rather simplistic in comparison to the highly-detailed art from the manga. Though to be fair, simplification of the art style when transitioning from manga to anime is quite common. Just look at the decent but fairly average art for the Rainbow anime in comparison to the mouthwateringly beautiful artwork for the Rainbow manga.
Of course this begs the obvious question: how can Ajin’s cg animation look so good while other cg anime looks so crap? The answer is simple: because it isn’t ashamed of what it is. In Japan 3D animation is still very much frowned upon so a lot of 3D animated shows try their hardest at not revealing that it is in fact 3D. Hiring directors who’s only experience is in 2D animation. And these directors then go on to direct their project as you would a 2D animated series. As a result you get some very awkward looking shows. Ajin on the other hand is animated by Polygon Pictures. A studio with a history of working on lots of 3D animated Hollywood films before committing themselves fully to anime. It's directed by an in-house director who has only worked on 3D animated projects. In other words, these are people who know what they are doing and have lots of prior experience with the medium. So, while other studios are desperate to hide their 3D animation, Polygon Pictures display’s it proudly and for all to see. Which is exactly why Polygon Pictures is currently the only studio capable of producing not just good, but great looking CG anime. And Ajin so far, is their magnum opus.
The music for this show was done by Yugo Kanno who, for me at least, has become synonymous with one of my favorite shows of all time: Psycho Pass. And when you compare the two shows it becomes very obvious that he was the perfect choice for this show. Because Ajin, even more than Psycho Pass has this way of constantly building tension and excitement as it charges forward. Which Kanno’s soundtrack backs up beautifully. Each track gets you pumped as hell and by the time it reaches its climax you feel like you can take on the world. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the main theme and tell me that, that isn’t the epitome of badass.
The openings are a bit of a sticking point for me. Mostly because of how good the first one was and how bad the other two were by comparison. The first opening “How do you sleep?” was done by a band called Flumpool, who did a great job capturing the tone and feel of this show. It’s loud, fast paced, grungy and gets you hyped as hell for what’s to come. In the second season however this OP was replaced by one done by Angela. Which was kind of a logical choice since they also did both OPs to Polygon Pictures other major anime series “Knight of Sidonia”. And they did a great job for that show. But Knights of Sidonia is a very different show and I don’t feel Angela managed to capture the feel of Ajin as well as Flumpool did. To make matters worse halfway through the second season the OP got changed again to another one also done by Angela which in this reviewer’s opinion was quite terrible and sounded more like the OP to a generic battle shonen series rather than a supernatural action thriller.
Ajin is a series that takes an all too familiar premise “super powered individuals living in our everyday society” and turns it into something we haven’t really seen before. It’s fast paced, edge of your seat exciting and has a well thought out story full of spectacular action scenes, huge twists and turns, terrific character drama and even a few genuinely funny moments of comedy. Backed up by stunning animation and a soundtrack so adrenaline fuilled you could run a marathon to it. Which is a pretty apt comparison since this is the kind of show that once you start watching, you just keep on going all the way to the end.
Speaking of endings, that's another thing that’s so great about this show. Because, despite the fact that the original manga is still ongoing and the fact that it does end with the potential for a future continuation, when you reach the end of the show you really feel like you’ve watched a complete story. The plot has come full circle and the character arcs have reached their logical endpoint. I hope they will make a third season but if that does not happen then I’m fine with what we got because as it stands Ajin is a show that over the course of its 26 episodes managed to tell a complete story and told it very well.
With everything that I have written so far it should come as no surprise when I say that Ajin is the most entertaining and exciting show that I have seen in a long time. However, that does not mean that it is also the best. On a moment to moment basis Ajin is fantastic and an absolute joy to watch. But once you’re done and you look back at it you do realize that there really wasn’t a whole lot of depth to it. Ajin is a blockbuster but as far as blockbusters go there really isn’t anything as good as this! So, grab a big bowl of popcorn and enough drinks to get you through the night and prepare for an absolute rollercoaster of a show that you’ll want to ride all the way to the end.
All 26 episodes of Ajin can be streamed legally on Netflix. No DVD or BD release has been announced though I’m sure that will happen in the near future.
First recommendation is another terrorist action thriller though one without the supernatural element: Terror in Resonance. If you liked the constant tension, major plot twists and terrific character development in Ajin then you’re gonna love Terror in Resonance.
Second recommendation is for a manga rather than an anime. And that manga is Tokyo Ghoul. Though I begrudgingly admit that a Tokyo Ghoul anime exists I would very much prefer it if you didn’t watch it and instead read the manga. Tokyo Ghoul also has a premise of super powered individuals living in present day society but unlike Ajin takes it into the direction of a gothic slice of life series, with a major emphasis on socio-political themes and literary references. If you liked the story of Ajin but thought it was too action-y and lacked real depth than Tokyo Ghoul will be right up your alley.
Special thanks to @Kuze, @Shi, @Shannon Apple, @Narilka and @Tonto-banchou for providing feedback and useful suggestions.
Anime Review: Ajin - Demi Human
A review of the 2016 supernatural action thriller series animated by Polygon Pictures and based on the manga by Gamon Sakurai: AJIN - DEMI HUMAN
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