Parasyte: The Maxim

(Neo, Uncooked Media – I also wrote a review of the first live-action Parasyte film for the MangaUK website.)

(Volume 1)

Parasyte starts with its money shot. A middle-aged husband and wife face each other in a dimmed room; then the man’s head splits and unfolds into a Venus flay-trap, with rows of teeth and a half-dozen eyes on stalks. The woman can’t scream, only gasp in halting, terrified breaths before the thing chomps her head off. Then a synthetic but spiky opening theme kicks in (by the group Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, heard on the end of Hunter x Hunter). The music races like a hysterical heartbeat, as if the woman’s terror outlives its owner.

In this SF-horror epic, people turn into flesh-eating nightmares after being infected by wormlike parasites. It feels like a film we’ve seen before, rooted in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But Parasyte’s twist is to tell its story, not through the eyes of the police or clueless bystanders, but through a freak accident. A schoolboy is attacked by a parasite in his bed and stops the creature worming to his brain, but gets the thing lodged in his hand instead.

In some ways, this is less like a horror movie than the story behind a horror movie. Against the background of a global invasion, it focuses on one invader which cocks up and gets stuck in its terrified victim. The invader is Migi (‘righty’), so named because he possesses the boy’s right arm. He can stretch and morph it into all kinds of bizaro shapes before eerily subsiding into a normal-looking hand again. (For other sentient anime hands, see Midori Days and Vampire Hunter D.)

His schoolboy host is Shinichi, a nervous, mildly geekish wallflower who must become a hero fighting for humanity on both concrete and abstract levels. Migi isn’t strictly his foe; most parasites are driven by a hunger to possess and eat humans, but Migi has his – or possibly her – hunger sated by Shinichi’s blood circulation, and is instead consumed by a curiosity that’s intense and dispassionate. Migi swiftly learns Japanese (from books, though there’s a joke later when we meet a parasite who learned his elocution from TV). As Migi explains eloquently to Shinichi, he’s on nobody’s ‘side.’ He’ll help Shinichi fight other parasite monsters for the pair’s shared protection, but he’ll cut out the lad’s eyes rather than let him expose Migi to the world.

The anime Parasyte was made in tandem with a live-action film version of the story; both are being released by Animatsu in two parts each. If you’ve seen the first live-action film, the anime covers roughly the same material, but with far more characters, plotlines and amplified themes. It’s a coming-of-age story, like a Shonen Jump saga with more gore but added nuance. For example, Shinichi’s heroic journey is triggered by Migi’s invasion of his hand, but it’s made clear that Shinichi is kind and courageous already. Migi can calm the boy in a crisis, but only by making him so logical and passionless that his friends cower away from him, as if he’s a pod person from Body Snatchers.

The story is enormously engrossing, largely because there’s no reset button, no way to take back the enormous developments that come quickly. The anime execution, by the Madhouse studio (Death Note, Ninja Scroll) is strong if not the studio’s best. Character expressions and acting are often good, sometimes stilted or cardboard. The morphing Migi is a gift to animators, and indeed has fine transformations, squashing and stretching ickily, but not as many as we might have hoped. The fight scenes are positively disappointing at times, as the parasites repetitively flail their tentacles and talk through their moves. Yet these fights can still be exciting, thanks to the characters and script – for example, when Shinichi must swallow his fear and walk into the blur of tentacles. The later fights improve.

Apart from the flexing Migi, the show has no ‘super-deformed’ humour, but the early episodes have a surprise touch of goofiness, like an old Hollywood teen comedy. This is quite enjoyable before the horror ramps up and Parasyte’s episodes start ending on masterful killer cliffhangers. Yet there are also moments of delicate humour. In one scene, Shinichi’s maybe-girlfriend tentatively takes his right hand, then hesitates and takes his left hand instead. The very next scene switches to two emotionless monsters about to have sex.

Parasyte’s gender politics are fascinating and controversial. They have plenty to attack; the manned-up Shinichi becomes a magnet for girls who continually fail the Bechdel test, including a supporting character – a bad girl turned stalker – who’s written cruelly and shallowly (which doesn’t stop her having good scenes). Parasyte also has a running obsession with motherhood which becomes comically obvious. Yet at the same time, there’s no worshipping of male ‘macho’ ideals, which the show provocatively presents as a female illusion. And then there’s the multishaped, freeform Migi at the show’s centre, portrayed as male in the manga and the live-action Parasytes… yet voiced in the anime by a woman.

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