Does mangaka Gamon Sakura really know what he’s doing with this series? That’s the question his characterization of Kei, the title’s protagonist, posed in the previous volume and things only get worse in that regard here. Granted, all of the stuff regarding the plans that Sato (A.K.A. “Hat”) has in store for the demi-humans of Japan and the government’s own schemes come off pretty well. The thing is that they’re not the focus of this series. While “Ajin” hasn’t reached “trainwreck” status yet it only feels like it’s a matter of time before that happens.
Sato got some bad vibes from Kei after he rescued the kid from the vivisection he was subjected to at the government’s demi-human research facility. After all, how could someone who has spent the last several days being cut up, killed, and then cut up again not want to exact bloody vengeance on his captors? Kei didn’t, and that turns out to be a problem when Sato starts taking out some of the staff. The boy intervenes and suddenly the two demi-humans are now at odds. At the same time, government agent Tosaki takes steps to further his own agenda that involve the brilliant but eccentric scientist Dr. Ogura.
What gives me reason to be concerned for this series’ future is that it looks like Sakurai feels the same way I did about Kei. The character is essentially “generic shonen hero #2456” and something needed to be done in order to make him more interesting. Sakurai’s decision in this regard isn’t actually a bad one as he sets out to make Kei a cold, uncaring conformist and illustrates this point through flashbacks from his sister. Making your hero into something of a bastard definitely sets him apart from the standard shonen hero mold and exploring how he applies that self-centered kind of thinking to his current situation has definite potential.
The problem is that it’s also at odds with how Sakurai has been developing Kei over the past two volumes and even his actions in this one. We’ve already seen Kei strike up a bond with the outcast Kai previously and even reject murdering the scientists who have been experimenting based on this connection. Then in this volume we have the boy taking up arms against Sato to save some of the scientists and even risking his life to rescue a critically injured one. That last bit happens during the flashbacks which are meant to establish Kei as a cold, logic-first sycophant. Talk about your mixed messages.
I’m not sure if this can even be explained by editorial interference. Maybe Sakura got the idea to retcon Kei into a cold-hearted bastard from his editor at this point in the story and decided to run with it. However, he and his editor clearly didn’t give much thought as to how this particular twist would mesh with what had come before. It also appears that they wanted to have Kei start growing out of this particular mindset right away and into a worthy shonen manga hero. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to that, but you actually have to put some effort into establishing the mindset the character needs to grow out of first. Problem is that Sakura just can’t commit to having Kei let the scientists die in order to make this particular bit of characterization work. After all, that’s not what shonen heroes do. For all of the graphic violence it presents in order to set itself apart from the shonen genre “Ajin” is still bound and dragged down by its tropes.
At this point I wouldn’t mind seeing Sato make good on his threat to kill Kei and become the new protagonist for this series. He’s a much more interesting character and while his comparison of himself to Hannibal Lecter isn’t without merit, the man has much more of Magneto in him. Here Sato is, leading an armed and violent uprising against the forces who have oppressed his people with no small amount of justification for his actions. Peaceful co-existence is not on his agenda and he’s building an army to see that his agenda is carried out. It’s an approach that has worked well for many years in regards to Marvel’s Master of Magnetism and it suits Sato quite well here. Sakurai may be intending for us to think of Sato as the antagonist here but he remains the most interesting character in the series and the most consistently characterized as well.
… It occurs to me now that if Sato is this title’s Magneto, then there’s a likelihood we might be seeing its Professor X at some point. A demi-human who seeks peaceful co-existence with humans with his own team to help bring that about. As Kei represents a powerful yet self-centered outsider who might be recruited to their side, that would make him the Wolverine analogue in this series. All I can say to that happening is “No.”
Meanwhile, Tosaki gets some fleshing out here as we find out his main motivation in working for the government as well as his own tenuous position in their services. Even if he still remains a bastard, his actions are easier to sympathize with now that we know where he’s coming from. More fun is Dr. Ogura, the eccentric scientist who specializes in demi-human research. Rather than the crazed, manic stereotype that characters in his position usually are, his personality is far more dry and sarcastic. This is seen best when he flips off a military officer to make a point about how light is reflected. Dr. Ogura and Tosaki both end up in an interesting place at the end of the volume and seeing how their dynamic develops from here should be interesting.
Between that and seeing how Sato furthers his agenda there’s enough to keep me reading on a legitimate basis. As for Kei’s story… I’ll admit that even with all of its problems there’s still a part of me that’s interested in picking apart how it goes wrong and seeing if Sakurai can salvage it into something worth reading. Then again, it’s actually kind of a novelty to read a series where I’m genuinely rooting for the antagonist to succeed. In spite of its issues, I’m enjoying “Ajin” and want to see where things go from here. If only to see if its failures wind up dragging it down into “Future Diary” territory or blanding things out like “Terra Formars.”