Ajin: Demi-Human

(Neo, Uncooked Media)

Ajin is Tokyo Ghoul meets 24. That’s not a subtle analysis, but then this horror-action-thriller isn’t in it for the subtlety. It’s about grabbing the viewer early and propelling you through chases, story rug-pulls, fiendish masterplans and – we should warn you – scenes of torture that don’t show as much as Saw but make you feel it just as much. Though if you’re a fan of Tokyo Ghoul or 24, you’ll be used to that kind of thing.

Let’s not shy away from it – Ajin opens very like Tokyo Ghoul. (In Japan, the Tokyo Ghoul manga began ten months before the Ajin strip.) Both open in a present-day Japan where the general public is fully aware of the existence of “monsters” which look human. In Ajin’s first episode, schoolboy Kei asks a teacher if the Ajin are human, and is told brusquely that they’re not. What the Ajin are is far less clear, except that they’re seemingly unkillable. Whatever injuries they suffer, they will recover in seconds. They’re extremely rare – no more than a few dozen official cases. The discovery of a new Ajin is accompanied by a media circus and an intense hunt for the specimen.

Unfortunately for Kei, he is the new Ajin. One moment, he’s an ordinary boy in a reverie, stepping carelessly into a street. A lorry reduces him to pulped roadkill in front of his classmates. Then they see him crawl out from under the wheels, looking uncomprehendingly at his hands producing black spores. At once he’s bounty, he’s prey. One of Kei’s “friends” grins horribly; humans may not be Ajin, but they’re still monsters.

The chase is on. Kei’s family are useless; no-one suggests they’re Ajin too (it clearly doesn’t work like that) but they coldly disown him. But Kei’s already on the run with his one ally, a biker boy called Kaito. Kaito used to be his friend, but Kei shunned him on orders from his mother. As you can tell already, Ajin is heavy on empathy, of how human nature divides our world into people we care about and people we don’t.

The “fugitive” opening is hair-raising. It’s normal for anime to have young protagonists, but here it really heightens the fear and squalling indignation (“It’s not fair!”), as Kei is hunted by pretty much everyone in a nationally-sanctioned sport. The series keeps its energy up through a series of surprising, well-timed twists that change our understanding of key characters and the apparently simple story. The later episodes challenge our identification with what we thought was the hero, twisting the “empathy” theme ingeniously.

Ajin also plays with our jaded expectations. When the show introduces a gentlemanly Ajin who offers Kei sanctuary with others of his kind, it looks like the show will develop identically to Tokyo Ghoul. Oh no it won’t! Later, in the build-up to a terrorist attack – even Ajin’s slowdown episodes have a ticking clock – there’s what looks like an idiotic scene in which the staff of a company ignore a terror threat and wave intruders through to do their dirty work. But the dumb-looking scene has an explosively smart payoff.

Compared with the best Tokyo Ghoul characters, Ajin’s are less compelling, except for the lead terrorist, a middle-aged murderer blessed with lethal dry humour. Ajin’s storytelling operates more like 24, springing from one crisis situation to the next. The first six episodes were released as a film, included on this set, and they feel cinematically fast and taut, with a minimum of sidetracks.

Ajin often lets supporting characters vanish from the story – another similarity with 24 – but it can still handle its players impressively. The last big battle is convincingly savage and desperate, pitting Ajins against human special ops fighters. Not only are the characters well defined, even with no real backstories to them, but it’s easy to root for both sides at once.

The real hurdle is the presentation. Ajin is made in cel-shaded CG by Polygon Pictures, which also made Knights of Sidonia. The look is functional and simplistic; the palette is mostly drab, even in the infrequent sunlit scenes. And yet the look is good enough, and it’s helped enormously by fixing the biggest bugbear of bad CG; the eyes. Kei’s eyes dart madly and frantically; how ironic that a series about the limits of empathy makes us feel for a CG puppet.

It’s a shame that Polygon’s style has more trouble with Ajin’s poster boys. These are towering black phantom mummies that some Ajin can summon up from air to fight on their behalf, like a Shonen Jump power-up. When these hulks appear individually, they look uncanny and frightening. Their bandages flicker and flow, textured like an old stop-motion monster. But when the mummies fight each other, it looks horribly clumsy, and it’s almost impossible to tell the combatants apart. Luckily, though, they’re actually pretty unimportant in this engaging, deep-end paranoia thriller.