I picked up this volume out of hope that the series would improve after the inauspicious start it presented in vol. 1. Guess what? Things did improve! Granted, the nature of the improvement doesn’t immediately turn this into a must-read title. In fact, the way things play out here make me wonder if mangaka Gamon Sakurai really knows what he’s doing here.
At the end of the first volume, Demi-Human Kei Nagai had split off from his friend Kai to meet up with others of his kind in Japan. These other Demi-Humans had also kidnapped his sister, so Kei has some additional motivation for seeking them out. Upon meeting the affable Hat (yes, really) and the taciturn yet violent Tanaka, Kei finds out that they only kidnapped his sister to get his attention and she’s since been released. While Kei is subsequently reassured about Hat’s intentions by talking with him, he’s tagged with a tranquilizer while talking with the Demi-Human and wakes up covered in bandages and strapped to an operating table in government custody.
Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Hat and Tanaka aren’t being entirely upfront in their dealings with Kei about what their agenda is. They’re looking for another recruit in their fight against the government forces that capture and experiment on Demi-Humans. Convinced that Kei’s attachments to his previous life are too strong, they come up with a clever and (at least on the surface) effective way to get him around to their thinking. “Ajin” doesn’t have a very large cast yet, but Hat and Tanaka have emerged as its most interesting members so far.
The problem is that I don’t think Sakurai was aiming for that kind of reaction to their arc in this volume. I get the impression that the’re meant to come off as liars and scumbags when pitted against Kei’s honesty and moral integrity. However, the mangaka has shown us that the government forces in this world are unrepentant monsters willing to carve up Demi-Humans for reasons of “experimentation” regardless of the fact that they still possess human thoughts, feelings, and emotions. We also see in another chapter that they’re even willing to break a few national security laws to keep tabs on the Demi-Human sympathizers in Japan. All of this, and we’ve yet to see any real instances of Demi-Humans posing any kind of significant threat to the general populace. Any violence that happens in this series, so far, has come down to these beings defending themselves from other people who want to exploit them or government forces who want to experiment on them.
So when Hat and Tanaka get their hands on some heavy weapons and break into a government facility with the intention of breaking Kei out (along with one other thing we’re not told about…) their actions come off as downright heroic. It’s not hard to think that everyone who dies at their hands in the assault has it coming in some way as a result of their involvement in this kind of operation. Hell, I’m even willing to give Sakurai bonus points for naming the chapter where this happens “Killtacular.” It also shows that he’s got some pretty good chops for displaying action as we see with Hat’s gunfight and lateral thinking when it comes to dealing with the tranquilizer darts he’s being attacked with.
In the midst of all this is Kei, who we see being vivisected by the government forces and struggling to hold onto his sense of self via an internal dialogue with his mental image of Tanaka. I get that we’re supposed to see his refusal to give in to the power that being a variant Demi-Human affords him as being heroic in its own way, but the reason he doesn’t basically comes down to a genre trope. As this is a shonen series at heart, Kei doesn’t go on a murderous rampage all because of the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP (™). Kei thinks back to that look he got from Kai after he demonstrated his powers and our protagonist just can’t find it in his heart to betray that special bond he had with the one person who didn’t try to take advantage of him after he found out he was a Demi-Human. Given that Kei was trying to distance himself from Kai at the very beginning of this series, I find it difficult to believe that their bond is strong enough for the former to survive the mental trauma of being repeatedly carved up without anaesthetic. In the end, said “bond” comes off as feeling less like a deeply significant plot point than as a way to foster the propagation of yaoi doujinshi for this series.
There’s also an extra chapter in this volume that flashes back to tell us about one Shinya Nakamura. In the main story, he’s known as the “nightmare scenario” for Demi-Humans and it’s implied that he could be the reason for the government’s particular approach for dealing with these creatures. While having a crazed Demi-Human actually give the government a reason for their inhuman measures would’ve made for a more interesting read, things play out in much the same way for this flashback chapter. I did like the horror/suspense elements at play here as Shinya has to hide the “evidence” of his death, though he’s eventually found out in a cleverly macabre way. However, the government forces are just as sadistic and mean as they are in the main story and Shinya’s actions feel justified in equal parts self-defense/giving the bastards what they deserve.
Right now I’m more interested in seeing how Hat and Tanaka’s fight against the government forces is going to go than in finding out what’s going to happen to Kei. Really, it’s just unreasonable to think that he’d be able to emerge from the mental trauma inflicted by the government’s research into his condition with an “Aw, shucks, sorry for the trouble,” mentality. I like the way Sakurai flouts genre conventions with Hat and Tanaka’s exploits, but he hews too closely to them with Kei. Almost as if he’s afraid that making his protagonist unsympathetic in any way would cause his readership to lose interest. As it is, Kei is too bland in his characterization and I worry that the rest of the narrative will follow suit in due time.