On its surface, being un-killable seems like something wonderful. But in the world of the new anime film Ajin: Shodo, all that awaits you for eternity is nothing but years of painful human experimentation.
Ajin is set in a world where fifteen years ago, immortals (known as "Ajin") were discovered. While only 46 have been found (as you have to die to know if you are one), they are regarded as inhuman and thus have no rights. When a new one appears, governments race to capture the Ajin and subject it to everything from drug trials to car crash testing. It is a hellish existence that is literally without end.
Ajin is the story of Kei, an incredibly intelligent high schooler who is hit and killed by a truck one day after school -- only upon death his body repairs itself revealing him to be the 47th Ajin. Dying in public leaves Kei's secret revealed to the world. He has no possibility of returning to a normal life. He has only one chance: to run.
Kei's escape is aided by his estranged childhood friend Kaito and the two are hunted by government agent Tosaki and his secretive assistant Izumi. As the newest Ajin, Kei is also sought by a pair of Ajin that who are living free -- though their true goals and motivations remain a mystery.
A lot of Ajin: Shodo is spent setting up the world and characters (as this is the first in a planned film series) -- and this is where the film is at its most enjoyable. Learning what the Ajin are and what exactly their power-set is ends up being a lot of fun.
When it comes down to it, the film is based on a single two-part gimmick: how to use immortality superpowers to fight in unexpected ways and how to most efficiently take down a person who can't die. Unfortunately, this is also where the film fails most plainly.
In the story, mankind has had 15 years to figure out how to best capture an Ajin. In this time, the sum total of their tactics is tranquilliser guns. Don't get me wrong, as Ajin don't heal until they are killed, tranquillisers are a great weapon -- but they are far from the end-all-be-all. In the film's big action climax, which involves an Ajin breaking into a testing facility, the humans could have easily won with a single gas grenade -- so of course, they don't use one despite the fact that they are wearing gas masks. In fact, the film's whole plot seems to revolve around the fact that both sides haven't really thought through this whole immortality thing.
Moreover, I found it hard to take the world itself seriously -- especially as it is supposed to be our own but with a twist. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I find it a bit of a stretch that random people are having their human rights taken away and are being subjected to human experimentation in modern Japan simply because they don't die. I mean, just look at how animal testing is viewed these days and then imagine if the test subject were a living, breathing person and not a cute little bunny.
There is also an obvious problem in how the emergence of a new Ajin is handled. In the film, it is often repeated that any human who captures an Ajin gets 100,000,000 yen (around $1.1M). Sure, this plot device makes for a tense action-filled movie, but logically it is foolish in the extreme. It ensures every person on the street will be keeping an eye out, but it also means they will attempt the capture themselves -- without informing the police or anyone else. As you can guess, more than a few people die trying. (This is why in the real world police reward information leading to an arrest instead of demanding people do it themselves.)
But while the world the movie portrays falls apart under scrutiny, the visuals are some of the best I have seen in any 3D-animated anime. Polygon Pictures, the studio behind the similarly animated Knights of Sidonia, has clearly focused its talents in one area in the creation of Ajin: faces. Because of this, characters in Ajin have a staggering range of emotion. Their faces are constantly moving with expressions and eye movements that only last milliseconds but tell volumes. Fans of 3D animation as an art form will likely enjoy this film for that reason alone.
Ajin: Shodo is a film with a great basic concept -- immortals being hunted for use as lab rats -- but it is rather shaky on the follow-through. While the implications of a society reacting this way to immortals are touched on, it is only the shallowest of explorations. Moreover, the tactics used to battle immortals seem laughably simplistic with even a few minutes thought. As a big dumb action movie it is entertaining enough, but it is certainly far from anything deeper.
But that 3D animation, though. Damn.
Ajin: Shodo was released in Japanese theatres on 27 November 2015. The Ajin TV series will begin airing in Japan on 16 January 2016, and has been licensed by Netflix for release in Australia in mid-2016.