Going to the cinema is a luxury these days because ticket prices rise quicker than I can watch dramas, but the opportunity to watch Sato Takeru on the big screen again was hard to resist. Oddly enough, the last film I caught in the cinema was also another live-action film starring Sato – the final act in the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. This must be a sign, so I splashed out the cash and had an enjoyable couple of hours.
Nagai Kei (Sato Takeru) is a hospital intern who discovers he is an “Ajin” when he is hit by a truck. Ajin are immortal beings with the ability to regenerate when they die and can summon IBM (invisible black matter). They are regarded as dangerous by the Japanese government and subjected to experiments when caught. Kei is rescued by Sato (Ayano Go), another Ajin who is hell-bent on exacting revenge against the government for its treatment of the Ajin. As Sato’s actions become more extreme, Kei finds himself having to choose sides…
Ajin is an ongoing seinen manga written and illustrated by Sakurai Gamon. Since its original run in 2012, it has spawned anime films, an anime series and now a live-action film. Some changes were made to the live-action, such as upping Kei’s age (in the manga, he’s a teenager) and lowering that of Sato (originally a white-haired old man). I suppose it would probably have been more difficult on an older actor to successfully portray all the action scenes in the live-action (and there were plenty), so this change was somewhat understandable. Certain key characters in the manga, such as Kei’s friends Kaito and Ko, were also not included, and there were adjustments to Kei’s character, which I found a pity as keeping his more distinctive traits would have made for a more intriguing protagonist and less of a “us vs them” story.
The Ajin universe, at least in the film, is populated by people with agendas of their own – the key characters are at best a touch morally ambiguous and fall rather cleanly on either side of the divide. This is a bit of a pity because the film brings up a number of issues worth pondering, such as the ethics involved in the inhumane experimentation on the Ajin, discrimination against and segregation of a people different from mankind, the humanity (or lack of) in the Ajin, and the bio-medical concerns that come from the Ajin’s ability to regenerate to a state prior to being injured. As a society, we have not evolved if our first instinct to something different is fear and revulsion, even if that something looks, walks and talks just like us. The film does depict the mass hysteria that results when Kei is discovered to be an Ajin and forced to go on the run, and when Sato wreaks havoc on government agencies, but beyond the panic, there isn’t much fruitful debate on the possible consequences and the way forward. Perhaps one cannot expect a film of only two hours to deal with such weighty issues, but it wouldn’t hurt to feature just one serious conversation about it.
Sato Takeru once again played a reluctant hero as he did in Rurouni Kenshin. Kei just wanted to live life quietly as he worked towards his ambition of being a doctor so as to find a cure for his sister Eriko’s (Hamabe Minami) illness, but being discovered as an Ajin has thrown that into disarray and he’s forced to go on the run with Eriko. As the main character, he’s surprisingly subdued and is prompted to act only when Sato goes on his rampage against the government. I put this down to Kei being more of a reactor until the final third, and even then it was only in his showdown with Sato that he really stepped up. I’d have liked to see Kei being a bit more proactive even if it was for his own self-interest (and he has the right to be selfish in this case) – bleedin’ heart avengers wanting to save the world are boring, so give me a protagonist who is more morally ambiguous and straddles the ethical divide. Still, I did like Sato’s performance as Kei and thought he did what he could with the character. His scenes with Eriko and the granny who gave them a temporary roof over their heads were mellow and heartwarming.
Ayano Go was more front and centre for the better part of the film, as his character’s grudge against the government pretty much drove the story along. I really enjoyed his destructive rampage on the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Self-Defence Forces – it was just so satisfying to see Sato come back to life and mow down his opponents each time the government forces thought they’d killed him. You’d never have imagined that one man could do so much destruction, but it was pretty much the Sato show throughout as he outsmarted his opponents time and again. He did have a sob story (he was experimented on for 20 years), but it was merely mentioned and never allowed to become some melodramatic plot point that weighed down the narrative. Ayano was generally fine and certainly looked to be relishing the villainy of Sato, but he was not as sinister as I’d have liked – that cold, calculative smirk somehow fell just a touch short even as his actions showed how ruthless he could be.
I didn’t like Tosaki Yu (Tamayama Tetsuji) at first because he was being such an asshole towards the Ajin, and his about-turn on working with Kei wasn’t as organic as the film dispensed with Tosaki’s backstory – his comatose fiancée Ai is his motivation to pursue the Ajin and keep his job at the ministry as the head of Ajin research, so that he could pay for her medical bills. He also clearly knew Shimomura Izumi (Kawaei Rina), his bodyguard, is an Ajin but this wasn’t made clear in the film until towards the end. Adding his backstory, and probably that of Shimomura, would have helped clarify his attitude towards the Ajin. Still, I thought Tamayama did a decent job on a fairly unlikeable character, and I did like the scene where Kei gives Tosaki a tiny dose of his own medicine by nonchalantly threatening to harm Ai if he didn’t agree to Kei’s terms on taking down Sato. Both Kawaei Rina and Hamabe Minami were serviceable in their roles, and I liked Shimomura’s face-off with Tanaka (Shirota Yu) – girls can kick ass too, and Shimomura certainly didn’t give an inch.
The action scenes were a fun romp and I really enjoyed them, happy in the knowledge that the same action team from Rurouni Kenshin was responsible for the fight choreography. The CGI for the black ghosts and IBM was also done well even if I sometimes had difficulty distinguishing which ghost belonged to whom since they were either black or shades of grey (and Kei himself could produce multiple ghosts). Pacing was solid, with plenty of twists and turns, and I didn’t feel the fast and furious action overwhelmed either the narrative or characterisation. Despite the changes from the manga, the film managed to create a universe that feels organic and lived in.
Overall, a fun watch and recommended for fans of either of the leads.