2 out of 5
Directed by: Hiroyuki Seshita (Chief), Hiroaki Andō
covers season 1 and 2
I was really trying to wait to watch AJIN the anime until I’d finished the manga. It was in my Netflix queue; I kept getting worried it would be taken down before the series ended, though I’m sure smart marketing people / robots knew there would be an uptick in viewing every time a new tankobon released. But I’d stare at it… continue starting it… then pledge to wait some more. The American releases of the books were actually staggered pretty well, consistently giving us two a year, but as we were closing in on the conclusion, the temptation overwhelmed me, and I decided to start the anime, prior to final volume 17’s release. I figured I could align completing the show with the books, and knew up front that the series diverged from the print version anyway, so in case I ended up finishing it – no spoilers.
Every other AJIN book release or so, I would reread the entire set of tankobons. Partially as a refresher, but also because I dang love the manga, and the consistency with which its story evolved and iterated upon itself never disappointed. I was planning one of these rereads when I got book 17, so it’d been a relative while since, at least enough time for some finer details to fade. That also seemed like a good time to start the show, as I wouldn’t be comparing and contrasting – it would be easier to assess the anime on its own terms. And so I began.
And after a few episodes, I questioned: were the books actually this boring? Were the books actually this dumb? Had I somehow gotten it wrong?
I’m guilty of pointless preamble in these reviews, but I thought some context was important here: yes, I consider the manga one of the best comics of all time, but I am a proponent of separating different versions of media as much as one can. There might be things I question why they’re changed from one format to another, but as long as the change is ultimately a successful one, all’s good. So I wasn’t sitting there and throwing my hands up in fussiness over the way AJIN the anime altered AJIN the manga, rather I was just confused by it, questioning my taste in manga if something this dunderheaded had captured my attention so effectively. Because the show does mimic some things rather well, enough to sort of tickle the AJIN pleasure centers that’d undoubtedly developed in my brain, but… if it was mimicking, why did it feel so not, not right? Why was I struggling to sit through even half of the first season?
In an afterword of volume 17, writer / artist Gamon Sakurai mentions how the series began as written by Tsuina Miura, who had a decidedly different approach: a kind of seat-of-the-pants shonen thing, where they’d toss their immortal AJIN lead, Kei, into various situations and just kind of make up the way out. This does work for the first volume – arguably propped up by Sakurai’s designs and energy – but given how exponentially better the series got and continued getting thereafter, and noting that some small bits and bobs of that first volume were casually discarded, it seems clear that AJIN really only thrived because of Gamon. The anime, meanwhile, feels like what probably could’ve happened had Miura stayed on.
Anime is often created while the manga is ongoing, capitalizing on a series’ popularity. So, yes, AJIN anime’s writers would either have to pad things out to make time for Gamon’s chapters to release, or make up some things on their own, and ultimately go their own way. They did both. And I can sort of imagine the pitch by studio Polygon, showing off how their CGI could capture IBM battles – black “ghosts” that AJINs can materialize – and show off bad guy Sato’s military prowess in slickly animated action scenes, and that that was all it took to get the greenlight for an adaptation. Meanwhile, all the budget went into these scenes, rendering the remaining 4/5ths of the show into static scenes where the camera holds on shots for no discernible reason except to run the clock. The script takes cliff notes from the source, but then adds to it in the most dude bro ways possible, while subtracting all of the better character moments. And sure, toss a moment of fan service into one of the more emotionally hard-hitting scenes from the books; sure, add in a busty character with a visible panty line. Essentially, anything that comes across as creative, or as an interesting plot swerve – that’s Gamon’s stuff. Anything that feels like predictable action movie tropes or stupid ass forced drama – that’s “original.”
I know, I’ve gotten into compare / contrast territory after all. But solely assessed as an action series, AJIN falls flat. Yes, the fight sequences can be visually entertaining, but not much beyond that works for them, with the sound mixing oddly underplaying the soundtrack so that such scenes feel rather muted, and the effects for the AJIN themselves very stereotypical, very “stock” sounding. Outside of these, as mentioned, the direction is oddly unmotivated, assumedly because of all the decompression that was necessary. AJIN the manga is never slow, though it has plenty of non-action moments. Gamon just sensed how to properly pace this stuff, and it’s all ticking time-bomb feeling, with character and plot revelations arriving in a flurry; meanwhile the series is already decompressed in how its action is handled, with fight sequences extending over multiple tankobons, lovingly detailed. So, no, you can’t do that in a show, thus (if they wanted to get this to two seasons) requiring these long, dawdling episodes with pointless pauses and plenty of “let’s state exactly what’s going on” type dialogue to fill screen time. Polygon’s stiff, streamlined character models during these moments worked better in a more sedate series, like Knights of Sidonia; AJIN probably required something grittier, and more detailed, and Polygon’s look is very much not that.
And then there’s the disappointment of what the show does with its premise. Ajins are an emerging race of “demi-humans” who can recover from any death. Since their discovery, they’ve been moderately persecuted – considered non-humans – and there are rumors of governments using captured Ajins for experiments: testing weapons, medications, etc. Our POV is Kei Nagai, a student whose life is turned upside down when he comes back to life after a mortal car crash. Running from the police, he connects with Sato, another Ajin who he soon discovers is running a crew of, essentially, terrorists, planning on striking back at the corporations and governments who’ve been torturing Ajins.
Being immortal is nothing new in fiction, but the way it’s applied in AJIN can be a lot of fun, as it’s weaponized. Sato will use himself as a purposeful ragdoll in order to infiltrate his targets, and if you understand how to manipulate your own mortality and revivification during a fight, you can battle endlessly, cueing those cool action sequence. On top of this are the IBMs, which are a further superpower, able to physically interact with the world and capable of great feats of strength (and violence) and, y’know, invisible to all non-AJINs.
In the books, Gamon rearranges this power in ways you’ll never be able to predict, time and time again. In the show, Sato’s “master plans” are always – literally – just walk in and shoot people. Yeah, there’s an impressive bit of overkill he employs in an early episode, which is unique to the show, but it’s also indicative of the dumbed down nature of the show’s approach, as it’s a rather non-sensical moment, lacking in any creativity beyond spectacle. Kei gets a similar streamlining, as his personality is a rather complex one, which they maintain to a degree in the show – understandably softened a bit – but remove a lot of his intuition; he’s a much more faceless protagonist, just as Sato is a faceless villain. The same goes for the side characters: Kō is now a complete doofus; Tosaki is an asshole; Izumi has no backbone. All of these adjustments are acceptable on their own, but the combination means that nothing in AJIN – beyond those sparse action moments – stands out, and with the writing erring toward the very predictable and trope-y, and the pacing slow, it’s just an incredibly underwhelming and often eye-rolling experience.
I got halfway through season 2, rather on a trudge, and then ended up getting the final tankobon, rereading the series, and starting AJIN the anime back over again. Surely I was doing more comparisons that time, but a lot of the changes made even less sense with the manga fresh in mind – little small tweaks early on that were responsible for my initial questioning as to whether or not I’d misremembered the source material as being so obvious. But even allowing for these changes as being a way of making the material somehow more general audiences, I really just can’t get over how little they ended up doing with the core concept, and how much time the show wastes on getting to those little bits. I’ve taken it to task more than it needs to be probably, because it’s not horrible, just very average, with a whole lotta boring filler.