Ajin: Immortality on the Third Rail

Join me for just a moment in imagining a society with the following conditions: 1) a government-aided, medical organization is keeping a dark secret from the public. 2) It is rumored that the organization is using human test subjects for inhumane experimentation, the harvesting of organs for scientific progress, and to boost the economy while lining their own pockets. 3) Occasionally, video footage of the horrific experimentation leaks, but the medical organization publicly denies the videos as fake and deceptively edited. 4) Though the organization strives to save face, they do so from a position of stated disbelief that the alleged victims are actually people or human. 5) Likewise, the inhumanity of these victims is taught in classrooms, government offices, and declared on the news, both local and national. 6) These inhuman beings are called Ajin (“sub-human” or “demi-human”) because they are practically-immortal, that is, incapable of dying.

Now, be honest for a moment. At which point during the previous six conditions did it feel like I started describing a sci-fi novel instead of reality? All six conditions describe the contextual setting of the 2016 Netflix-exclusive anime series Ajin, but those first five conditions also might sound familiar to you for a different reason. If you have used social media at all since 2015 you have most likely run across content from the Center for Medical Progress and their undercover videos of Planned Parenthood representatives. While the bone-chilling content was certainly the most riveting thing about the videos, looking back, it was equally incredible to watch society’s various reactions to them.

Some pro-choice advocates commented across social media that their minds had been profoundly changed. People who had considered themselves pro-life before became fervently so. There were also just as many people commenting that the videos were deceptively edited, unlawfully obtained, and showing no evidence of wrongdoing even as the video above their comment showed dismembered bodies being picked through in a glass baking-dish like produce at a market. Despite the extremity of the content and the reactions it inspired, discussions of Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities have all but ceased even as video leaks and court cases continue to develop this year. So, what could an action-thriller anime about black, mummy-looking ghosts and immortals have to contribute to culture’s waning interest in conversing about abortion? A good bit, actually.

Now, this is not to say that Ajin is an intentionally pro-life series out to frame and expose the horrors of abortion, neither is it light-hearted and hopeful at this point of its telling. The six conditions listed at the beginning are actually rather sparsely developed by the series after a certain point, as the cat and mouse, action-oriented side of the plot starts to crowd out some of its more existential implications. And while I’m sure, as is often the case, that the manga does a better job with the story’s finer details, the anime version of Ajin leaves plenty of room for open-ended conversation. Given that the manga began in 2012, it cannot be said that Ajin’s release in 2016 was an intentional commentary on the abortion furor of 2015. Regardless, Ajin has a remarkable ability to sneak past the “watchful dragons” of the abortion issue to effectively reframe the definition of life, the question of the soul, and how human nature affects a social movement.

When addressing life and the soul, Ajin goes about it indirectly by removing excuses, working in the negative like marble sculpture until the subject is revealed. Arguments in the debate over life in the U.S. have come to the point now where we’ve moved beyond questions of science and on to what are essentially arguments over inconvenience, possession, and rights. Advances in technology and scientific research have removed any chance of denying that life begins at the point of conception. While some still argue through obfuscation by referring to the baby as no different than an organ or by using “fetus” and words like it in a clinical way,  pro-choice arguments now often morph into, “I am an autonomous being and you must recognize my rights,” which is to say, “this fetus might be its own separate life, but it is trespassing in my body, on my property. Therefore, any rights you think it might have come second to my own, on a lesser level than those of a human.” There are many different ways of dismantling an argument like this, but Ajin is unique in how it removes this contortion of definitions altogether and offers a different context.

In Ajin, it is impossible to tell who is and who is not an Ajin until that person dies. Ajin’s protagonist is a diligent high school student named Kei Nagai whose aspirations are no greater than to graduate and join the workforce until one day he is hit by a bus, dies, and then resurrects without any sign of injury. Like Kei, every person discovered to be an Ajin was first considered to be a fully human being until suddenly they exhibited a quality excessive of  humanity and were promptly redefined (like mutants in X-men, if it helps to think of it that way). The fact that Ajin are still as hated and hunted as they are despite the fact they were considered human five seconds ago makes for a bleak perspective on human integrity, but it’s certainly not an unfounded perspective. And yet, Ajin is not done ratcheting up the inconvenience for those who would dehumanize humanity.

Kei quickly learns that Ajin are capable of summoning ghost-like manifestations that are invisible under most conditions to everyone except other Ajin aAJIN zerochan.netnd which are made of the same black material that is present around an Ajin anytime he or she resurrects, seeming to relate the two phenomena. Later in the series Kei meets Ikuya Ogura, a biophysicist who is renowned for Ajin research. Ogura refers to the “Invisible Black Matter” as “vestiges of the soul” that are separate from the body, but evidently linked on a much deeper level (1.10 “They Start to Decay As Soon As They’re Created”). IBMs typically manifest for only a short time since the soul’s existence as a physical thing goes against natural law and requires a considerable amount of effort to maintain. Because it is the realization of his soul, Kei’s IBM responds to him with the hateful disdain he has for the people around him by doing the opposite of what Kei tells it to do and even firing some of Kei’s mean-spirited phrases back at him. But not only do IBMs reflect emotion, their summoning can also be related to emotional responses like fight or flight, as though IBMs were an instinctive defense mechanism. All of this should sound familiar to Christians who believe that words and actions flow naturally from the heartspring, and that trials expose personal character like fire exposes wood grain.

But while the existence of the soul is obviously familiar to Christians, it is in direct opposition to the pro-choice argument of rights and possession which tries to build its house on the sands of materialism. If it is not actually the greatest, N.D. Wilson’s commentary on the materialist worldview is certainly one of my favorites:

Atheist Fortune Cookie: There is only the material world. […] You have no soul, and love and loyalty are chemical by-products…. You have no purpose, no deeper meaning, and are no more valuable than any other mobile composting machine…. Also, as you have no soul, the concept of you is itself shaky, as your self-identity is simply the result of an arbitrary atomic boundary imagined by static electricity in spongey tissue inside a spherical bone that appears to be proud of any carbon-based meat that happens to be electronically connected to it. You are not important. […] Also, you should be open to new opportunities this month. (Death by Living 102-105)

Simultaneously bleak and laughable, right? But it highlights how our lives are a testimony against materialism when we guiltily feel the need to justify our actions by defining a developing human life as subhuman, merely a “clump of cells,” or by reassuring the mother of its inability to feel pain. Ajin flips this argument for a materialistic view of yet-born babies on its head. Instead of arguing that a different stage of life is subhuman or insufficiently material, Ajin makes a subtle argument that an Ajin’s abnormalities are actually just a clearer manifestation of the soul which exists in all humans and, therefore, that the elements required for resurrection exist in each of us and the only difference among us is whether a catalyst makes that resurrection occur.

But before we get to celebrate how such a concept sounds like the makings of a Gospel message, the show ceases to work subtly in the negative and takes a stick of dynamite to what it’s sculpted. When addressing human nature’s affect on social movements, Ajin states directly in no uncertain terms that the revelation of these truths about life and the soul will not inspire any kind of change in the public. Sato, despite being the chief villain of the series, manages to offer a most damning critique of our society while talking about his own,

As long as it doesn’t affect them, people can be completely disinterested. That’s our nature. There are already countless fake experimentation videos on the web. No one can tell the difference between the fakes and the real thing. […] This plan wasn’t aimed to gather humans. It’s to gather Ajins. Ajins will be able to tell that those videos are real. (1.7 “I Swear I’ll Cover the Whole Thing Up”)

Sato’s intention was never to convince all people because he knew what we all know deep down about ourselves — that bearability is sometimes our greatest and only criteria regarding believability. However, Sato is right in the other direction as well, that the truth of the matter will be evident to all who have eyes to see. Even though the point is unfortunately being made by the villain of the series, it’s worth noting that even he understands how those people who have seen the evidence for a soul within themselves will be able to recognize the presence of a soul in the victims, and will not be able to dismiss the video’s evidence so flippantly.

It’s interesting that the most frustrating and compelling elements of the stories we write for ourselves are the behaviors of the characters we write to represent ourselves. We see their arguments, their treatment of others, and their personal failings and we get frustrated because we know that they should be acting differently. They’re in a story, after all! Perhaps that frustration is precisely the reason Ajin takes such a pessimistic view. Sato, the villain, is portrayed speaking insightful things about life and the soul even though he has every intention of abusing both. Kei Nagai, the protagonist we’re supposed to root for, too often acts like a completely unlikable sociopath. But perhaps that is how Ajin sneaks past our “watchful dragons:” It makes you dislike the characters and their actions before you ever ask why that is, as a subtle encouragement for you to stop and do precisely that.

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