You know, I would’ve liked to have read a series about a cold-blooded killer with otherworldly powers uniting others of his kind to fight against a social order that would otherwise exploit them to the fullest extent. That’s the kind of series “Ajin” felt like during its first few volumes as Sato/Hat tried to get the powerful demi-human Kei on his side while staging an all-out assault on a government facility dedicated to the bloody study of these creatures. Problem is, that’s not the story mangaka Gamon Sakurai wanted to tell. The shonen manga roots of this series were too strong and Kei was going to have to step up as the hero at some point while Sato would be revealed as the villain of the piece. That’s (almost) exactly what happens here as Sakurai actually takes some steps to making this series read like the more-violent-than-usual shonen action series it initially came off as. It’s not really a good thing, even though there are a few interesting plot points that survive this transition.
Surprisingly, they’re not all native to the thread involving Sato and his crew. After his stunt in the previous volume brought some more demi-humans out of hiding, he reveals his plan to gain recognition of their rights: Murder as many humans as possible to force the government into it. Probably not elegant enough for Magneto’s standards, but it’s still something I’ve never seen him try. While some of the demi-humans that have gathered are up for the slaughter, a few have real issues with this plan. They observe that the plan is crazy and (later) that the man likely has a separate agenda he’s not cluing them in on. Most of them are immediately taken out by Sato and Tanaka, his chief henchman, but one gets away to go play a supporting role in Kei’s storyline.
Whatever reasoned arguments Sato had for his actions in the previous volumes take a backseat to outright supervillainy here. The government’s plan for dealing with demi-humans may be completely wrongheaded, but fighting them by orchestrating a terrorist act doesn’t make one’s cause seem any more right. Reprehensible though his actions may be, Sato is still the most fun character to observe in the book. Utterly confident in his actions and able to appreciate the thrill of them in a way that the other cast members can’t or won’t, he at least makes his villainy resonate in the love-to-hate-him kind of way.
The man is still far more interesting than Kei, the title’s ostensible protagonist. After Ko, the one demi-human who escaped from Sato’s gathering, winds up on the run from the government, he uses his abilities to track down Kei who has gone to ground in the countryside. While Ko is all for teaming up to take down Sato, Kei is trying to force his “I’m a man of peace! I’m done killing!” moment well before he’s earned it by assuming the role of an old woman’s grandson and living a relatively normal life for the time being.
I’m sure Sato would appreciate the measures Kei goes to in order to keep his current life, but they just make our protagonist come off as that much more unlikeable. Unless Sakurai has some real clever twist planned that will see this main character written out of his series, this current development comes off as more of a stalling tactic than anything else. In this situation, I feel more sympathy for Ko than anyone else. He has “going to die horribly in order to motivate the protagonist” written all over him. That disappoints me because the mangaka does a better job of nailing the sympathetic fugitive vibe with this character than with Kei. Ko has a clear direction and sense of morality. Kei is a mess of conflicting impulses which stem from bad writing more than anything else. If he does wind up getting killed off in the next volume or later, I won’t mourn his loss.
Last, but not least, is Tosaki who gives us a perspective from inside the government as they chase after these demi-humans. The man has suffered a serious loss of face in the wake of Sato’s attack on the research facility over the course of the past two volumes. So much so that Tosaki now has to deal with a former subordinate, Sokabe, who has been tapped by his boss to replace him. However, he still has the eccentric scientist Dr. Ogura and a demi-human of his own under his thumb. Making matters more fun is that his superiors are aware of only one of these secrets.
While I can’t really bring myself to root for him, given that his approach to dealing with demi-humans isn’t really any better than his bosses, it’s easier to empathize with Tosaki as a result of his current position. He’s the straightforward man dealing with duplicitous supervisors who are planning on using him as a sacrificial lamb should everything go wrong for them at some point. I like this inter-departmental tension and that’s likely down to the fact that it’s one of the few plot threads that Sakurai has managed to pull off with a minimum of wrongheadedness.
I remember when this volume arrived and I was eager to see if this would be the point at which the story went right off the rails or got back on track to its prescribed destination. We wound up with more of the latter than the former here. I’ll admit to having fun with observing how Sakurai is wrenching his various plot threads into the direction he wants them to go. The problem is that they’re either headed in very predictable directions, or contain very little that’s objectively good about them. I’m not bored with “Ajin” yet, but the point where that will happen looks to be closer after everything I’ve read here.