Ajin: Demi-Human (Season One)
Ajins are otherwise-human individuals who cannot die- or, more accurately, cannot STAY dead. They also can emit a screech capable of paralyzing nerves, AND at least some can create "Black Ghosts", temporarily-existing, incredibly powerful entities easily given to murder. On the other hand, ordinary humans seem to have a penchant for performing cruel experiments on the Ajins. As Bugs Bunny used to say, "Of course, you know this means war!"
This has turned out to be one of the more difficult reviews for me because, as a character in this show LITERALLY illustrates, nothing is really self-contained; everything exists in a larger context, so while you might feel a certain way about something when trying to evaluate it in isolation, it's inescapably part of a larger social milieu, and that social context can come down on it like- well, a ton of bricks. For viewed in isolation, Ajin: Demi-Human is a well-paced action thriller ("well paced" meaning you won't be bored even though the plot's climax, much less the story's denouement, is clearly intended for a later installment); it has some surprising twists and turns, as well as some clever visuals (the last thing I expected was a visual reference to Dr. Strangelove, but there it was); and it's as dark and cynical as one might wish- IF one wishes for such. But that social context kept hovering over it, made of real-life horror.
The show's early focus is on Kei Nagai, a student who wants to be an "outstanding person", but his own sister Eriko thinks him cold and unfeeling, especially since, at their mother's urging, he distanced himself from Kaito, a boy who was a friend of both the sibs, but I gather Eriko especially liked. A horrible traffic accident reveals Kei to be an Ajin, which causes his supposed "friends" from school to wish they'd known so they could have turned him in for the reward money offered for Ajins. This is only the beginning of the show's incessant depiction of ordinary humans as greedy sadists. Soon we will discover that the government is capturing Ajins to conduct experiments on them- in one case, as far as I could tell, merely for the purpose of inflicting gratuitous pain on the test subject- and is also leasing them out as, essentially, reusable lab rats. (The show has already established that Ajins feel pain as readily as anyone else; they die as readily as anyone else; they just don't STAY dead.) It reminded me of the treatment of the Dicloniuses in Elfen Lied, except that the objectives of the Diclonius experiments were usually a bit more clear; and, while the Diclonius females were chained naked to a wall, the Ajins (all of whom we see, save one, are male) are all wrapped in bandages, a number stenciled on their heads, and strapped to a table or a chair. The bandages would seem to me a problem for the use of the "researcher's" implements (it's not completely graphic here, but you WILL know what's going on), but I can understand covering the faces; depersonalizing the test subjects would undoubtedly make it easier for the "researchers" to live with themselves. (Years ago I visited a friend in medical school, and she showed me her cadaver; I found out that the faces of the bodies are also covered, though in that case to protect the dignity of the deceased rather than spare the feelings of a torturer.) The difference between the over-clothed male test subjects in Ajin versus the nude-women-in-chains of Elfen Lied I guess you can attribute to what we will euphemistically call the cultural gender norms of violent exploitation.
I know it sounds pretty awful, and in a sense the thing ups the ante as kind of a reverse Shiki, for while in Shiki you start off hating the "monsters" but grow to hate the humans as well for their equally cruel reprisals, here the roles are reversed, and you WON'T end up cheering the Ajins who rise up to fight the humans under the leadership of a "rogue" Ajin just known as Mr. Sato. (AKA "Hat" for his headgear; he dresses as a common laborer, as perhaps a revolutionary leader should.) There's only one genuinely idealistic character left in this show by the end of the First Season, and given what we've seen so far, I have doubts about his long-term prospects as well.
I won't say any more about the idealist, but I will say a bit more about Mr. Sato, an interestingly cryptic, and inventively scheming, character whose ability to self-resurrect ad infinitum is appropriately reflected in his habit of playing video games "at the greatest difficulty level"; since he can't take death seriously in real life, why should he care how many times he "dies" in a game? But the reality WE live in is quite a bit different, and that's a more basic problem; I'll come back to that later.
Speaking of problems, one of the characters permits a good segue into a description of another issue. He's named Tosaki, and his permanent scowl reflects his personality; while we're given some justification for his own sadistic actions, he does indeed carry it to extremes, even being willing to torture a fellow human to get the information he needs to maintain his position (and his life.) We'll call him the Jack Bauer of this show. But the limitations of his facial expression may also reflect the limitations of the show's artwork and animation. It's computer animated, and it suffers most of the same flaws as other shows of this type, mainly a certain lack of definition in the characters' faces, and, most of all, a lack of fluidity in the characters' motion, particularly noticeable when the characters are simply walking- that lurching quality seemed even worse here than usual, and was pretty distracting.
There's also a tendency for characters to be introduced and then quickly disappear from the story. Real life may indeed often be like that, but fiction usually builds a bit more story around its characters, even the ones that just kind of wander in.
But the basic problem for this show, for me, was the issue of timing most of all. At one point, the humans plan to defeat one of the Ajins by simply shooting him, over and over, to try to KEEP him dead. Like all the other gun violence in this show, it's pretty graphic, and- living as I do in Orlando- this was all maybe, literally, a little too close to home for me. Unfortunately, real humans, unlike Ajins or video game characters, don't come back from lethal bullet wounds.
Dark, cynical as hell- I personally found it a bit TOO cynical about the human race- and maybe it's just too soon after real, recent events; but as I said, some of the plotting is ingenious, and it moves quickly. I'd still recommend it over fanservice fluff & nonsense like Big Order. The *Black Ghosts* in Ajin somewhat reminded me of the avatars in that show- both have a mummy-like appearance- but the Black Ghosts look like they're made of carbon, and tend to be a bit unruly. Kei's final strategy to control HIS was quite clever, as so much of this show, despite the violence, IS. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: We have one scene that comes awfully close to torture-porn like Saw, and people get shot over and over (with blood), mauled, and in many other ways (at least temporarily) killed. (By the way, while I don't remember seeing any decapitations, we're TOLD that even THAT won't prevent an Ajin from self-resurrecting.) Netflix says TV-MA; I'd almost go NC-17 on this, but since there is SOME limit to the graphic-ness, I'll say R. No sex at all; there are few female characters, and all of them seem content to go along with what the boys want, though I'm hoping that at least one of them who actually CAN do something (you know who I mean, if you watch this) will actually rebel and take a stand at some point.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of Netflix
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Ajin: Demi-Human (Season One) © 2016 Polygon Pictures
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