Shelf Life
Ajin: Demi-Human

by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,

With the latest season of Natsume's Book of Friends earning high marks, I decided it was finally time to give the series a try. I'm watching it from the beginning, so I'm a few episodes into the first season as I write this. I've enjoyed what I've seen of it so far, and I can see why it's been able to keep going for as long as it has. Of course, I doubt I'll be able to catch up to the simulcast any time soon. Six seasons is a lot of anime to marathon. Welcome to Shelf Life.

Jump to this week's review:
Ajin: Demi-Human

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Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Ajin: Demi-Human
Nothing this week.
Nothing this week.

I'm familiar with the term "demi-human" from my episode reviews of Interviews With Monster Girls, but Ajin: Demi-Human takes a very different approach to the idea. Here's Gabriella's review of the first season.

3D animation gets a pretty bad rep among anime fans, so as a 3D show dumped onto Netflix a while after it finished airing, it's no surprise that this didn't receive a lot of discussion when it first came out in 2015. Knowing that it's based on a popular manga, I considered Ajin: Demi-Human a promising anime buried by circumstances – first for its unpopular aesthetic style and then for its unorthodox release schedule. So when I got this show for review, I didn't know what to expect. Would this story be buried under clunky models, clipping issues, and poor background integration? Beyond that, was there even a worthwhile narrative to bury?

Well, at least for this first release, I'm happy to call Ajin: Demi-Human one of the most successful 3D anime I've seen. I've struggled with previous examples of anime-style CG, such as Berserk, BBK/BRNK, and even Expelled from Paradise. I've just never seen one of these shows where the animation wasn't constantly distracting. Ajin, however, represents a milestone by managing to naturalize the CG through simple character designs, smart color work, and strong compositing. It also doesn't try to make the show look more like traditional animation by drastically cutting down the frame rate, a mistake previous 3D anime have made. Fluid motion is 3D's primary aesthetic strength over traditional, so it's a mistake to pare that down for the sake of an assumed convention. As it stands, the 3D's fluidity results in some impressive action sequences throughout Ajin. Character animation is also consistently strong, rarely falling prey to the usual problems of making the characters seem flat-faced or weightless. It'd still look better if they'd managed to achieve this level of motion using traditional hand-drawn animation, but considering how difficult that would have been for a television production, I'd call this a fair trade-off. At this point, I'd say that Ajin: Demi-Human represents, if not the style's full potential, a version of anime CG that can hold its own alongside 2D animation.

Of course, the show's visual success wouldn't be worth much if the story were bad. Fortunately, Ajin: Demi-Human is a strong thriller, well-paced and plotted, featuring interesting characters in harrowing circumstances. It starts out conventionally enough: Kei Nagai was a normal (if unusually intelligent) high schooler until a life-changing accident outs him as a Special. These Specials are Ajin – unkillable humanoids who regenerate their bodies no matter how many times they're violently destroyed. Ajin appear spontaneously in the population and pass as human until the first time they “die.” If you learn that you're one of them, it's best to lay low – the government ruthlessly hunts down Ajin in order to perform painful experiments on them. Kei, however, doesn't even get the chance. His first regeneration is in public, instantly marking him as a wanted man throughout the country. With the help of an old friend, Kei goes on the run. The problem is, he has issues relating to people in the first place, so can he really tolerate that type of unconditional, sacrificial kindness? Ensuing events put Kei in conflict with his own values, Japan's elite anti-Ajin taskforce, and a cabal of revolutionary Ajin with their own dubious goals.

The result is a supernatural thriller in the vein of something like Death Note. Ajin: Demi-Human also reminds me a lot of Monster, with its smart character writing and musings on the nature of psychopathy. Kei looks like a Milquetoast Anime Protagonist™ at first, but he blossoms into a distinct and interesting character. Since his sense of empathy is naturally dull, it's easy for Kei to be indifferent toward the pain of others. However, he also possesses a sense of justice that acts in contrast to his loner instincts, which he struggles to either suppress or understand. The shows deuteragonists, Tosaki and Kou, serve as his foils in different ways, luring him into action again and again. Meanwhile, the villain is an absolute scene-stealer. He's a restrained, charismatic maniac with gloriously destructive ambitions. The show imbues him with a fantastic – although not overdone – sense of threat, and watching him scheme is as fun as seeing our heroes attempt to overcome him. That's really tricky to achieve in thrillers, but Ajin: Demi-Human totally nails it – balancing power levels so that the protagonists seem capable and not overwhelmed by the villain. If the villain is too strong, then it'll look like authorial contrivance when they eventually triumph. But if they're too weak, then it'd seem unrealistic that they survive long enough to sustain the narrative. The perfect balance is for the heroes to be right behind the villain in their capabilities until the climactic reversal, at which point they're definitively outplayed. That's what Death Note accomplishes for most of its run, as does Psycho-Pass and the aforementioned Monster.

For the most part, I watched the show dubbed. The dub was done by Spliced Bread Productions, a smaller studio that seems to work with Netflix a lot. The result is a strong dub, localized well and featuring strong performances all around. The cast includes some familiar names, like Johnny Young Bosch as Kei, Bryce Papenbrook as Kaito, and Todd Haberkorn as Tosaki. There are also some rarer voices, like Pete Sepenuk as Sato. Sepenuk doesn't sound as old as the Japanese seiyuu, but he otherwise nails the combination of menace and charisma necessary for the role. The adaptive script does a good job of naturalizing the dialogue, but there are a few issues with changing the meaning in translation. This mostly happens in the first few episodes, but it's stuff like “take care of yourself” standing in for “I believe in you.” These may seem like stock phrases, but the line is uttered at an important moment, and the two are not equivalent to one another. It only happens occasionally, but it is unnecessary.

These discs include the show in Japanese, English, and Spanish. Extras are sparse but contain clean OPs/EDs, teasers, and animatic sequences. This release also includes the first compilation film.

Ajin: Demi-Human is one of the best surprises I've had throughout my tenure on Shelf Life. I came in with rock-bottom visual expectations and no knowledge of the story, but was hooked just a few episodes in. This release only includes the first season, but I'll admit that I got so into it that I hopped onto Netflix to watch the sequel immediately after. It's just an eminently watchable show – not particularly deep, but featuring some excellent plotting and propulsive pacing. It's like they tailor-made an anime for binge watching. Perhaps dumping it all at once onto streaming was a blessing in disguise. So, when is the third season?

I don't have any Shelf Obsessed entries to run, so that wraps up the column for this week! Remember to send me your photos at [email protected] if you want to show off your anime and manga collections. Thanks for reading!

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