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Anyone keen to point the finger (often fairly) at Hollywood for a lack of creativity and a dearth of new ideas in its global economics-driven industry should take a seat for director Katsuyuki Motohiro’s adaptation of Ajin: Demi-Human. Based on Gamon Sakurai’s manga series and following an animated film trilogy as well as an animated television series, Ajin gets the live action film treatment because it’s a medium that hasn’t been exploited yet. The film also comes from a new tradition of manga-based monster movies wherein humanity is about to be consumed by some kind of creature or has already subsumed it. Best of all, they’re usually two-part “events”: Gantz, Parasyte, Tokyo Ghoul, Attack on Titan, the list goes on and on. For every accidental treat (I Am a Hero) it feels as if there are dozens of lazy, barrel-scraping properties that are being milked to death, with diminishing returns.
Hackneyed and familiar — entirely unnecessary seems obvious — Motohiro again takes a property that’s been overworked (he helmed an endless series of Bayside Shakedown movies spun off from television) for a pedestrian sci-fi jaunt that brings nothing new to the table. No doubt Ajin: Demi-Human will find traction in Asia where manga is still a selling point, and there will be some takers with genre events and among manga completists everywhere, but after that the film likely to fade fast. Which doesn’t mean there won’t be a sequel.
As the thinned out version of the 50-odd-part comic book story begins, anonymous, garden-variety medical student Kei (Takeru Satoh) survives a fatal traffic accident, which reveals him as an Ajin, a just-discovered subspecies of humanity. The Ajin are immortals that also harbor some kind of ghost-like demon thing that they can force out of their bodies to fight. Kei winds up in a government lab that’s performing all manner of grotesque experiments on Ajin, but is busted out by a radicalized Ajin survivor, Sato (Go Ayano), and his right-hand man, Tanaka (Yu Shirota). Naturally, Sato and Kei have different worldviews — Sato seeks power and autonomy, Kei’s not interested in violence, only in curing his terminally ill sister Eriko (Minami Hamabe) — which leads to a string of fights between them and their ghosts.
But here’s the thing. The Ajin are, it would seem, truly immortal. When Sato and Kei fight, and one finds himself at a disadvantage, he kills himself, regenerates, and starts again. Contrary to what Motohiro may think, that narrative quirk doesn’t create any drama. Being immortals renders the story absolutely devoid of any stakes to Sato and Kei’s conflicts, and the nefarious government type that handles Ajin affairs, Tokari (Tetsuji Samayama), transforms into a totally toothless character whose primary job is to stand around and glower. Not only is Ajin exhausting in its storytelling, it’s sloppy, with characters coming out of nowhere: where, exactly, Sato finds his tiny army (mostly disaffected teens) is a mystery, as is the point of a detour to an elderly villager’s house and the resulting angry mob. Any allegory stemming from Sato and Tanaka’s status as terrorists looking to establish an Ajin-only, self-governing society within Japan is lost amid the overly kinetic CGI ghost fighting (they resemble skinny Michelin men) and Ayano’s mustache-twirling performance. To be fair, writers Koji Seiko and Masahiro Yamaura give him so little to do he’s probably just trying to keep himself awake. The same can be said of Hamabe’s damsel, who at one point bonds over coffee with Tokari’s partner, Ajin cop Izumi (Rina Kawaei), leading … absolutely nowhere.
Tech specs are acceptable if unremarkable, and fortunately are a visual complement to the creature feature-ish material.
Production company: Toho, Dentsu Inc., Amuse Inc., Kodansha Ltd.
Cast: Takeru Satoh, Go Ayano, Tetsuji Samayama, Yu Shirota, Minami Hamabe, Rina Kawaei, Yudai Chiba
Director: Katsuyuki Motohiro
Screenwriters: Koji Seiko, Masahiro Yamaura, based on the manga by Gamon Sakurai
Producer: Akihiro Yamauchi
Executive producer: Minami Ichikawa
Director of photography: Akira Sako
Production designer: Yukihisa Satosu
Costume designer: Atsuyuki Okada
Editor: Yukako Kishino
Music: Yugo Kanno
Casting: Toshie Tabata
World sales: Toho
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