As a Tokyo-based writer, I will introduce you to various aspects of pop culture such as manga, anime, movies and music. I want to spread the joy of Japanese pop culture around the world.
Hello! I’m Mokugyo, a writer who loves manga and anime. It’s ridiculously cold in Japan now, and I hate winter. I’m freezing to death! With all the anime I’ve been watching all my life, I started wondering if there is any way to resureect myself after dying.
That’s why today, I’m going to introduce you to Ajin: Demi-Human, the anime series about immortal humans who return to life after death. I’ll also give you a rough introduction to Japan’s history of full-CG anime.
Ajin: Demi-Human is originally a manga series written and illustrated by Gamon Sakurai. It has been published in seinen manga magazine good! Afternoon, which publishes mainly sci-fi fantasy stories. The magazine is not particularly well-known, but a few major hits were released through it, such as Maria the Virgin Witch and Sweetness and Lightning, both of which were adapted into anime series.
The manga series Ajin started in 2012, and it’s still on-going as of January 2017. It tells the story of battles between immortal demi-humans and humans. The protagonist, Kei Nagai, was once a normal high school student until he died in a car accident. It all would have ended there if only he didn’t returned to life right away. He was discovered to be an Ajin after resurrecting in public, and is now hunted by the government. The immortality of the Ajin is a threat to them, so they want to destroy them. Satou, the most dangerous Ajin, is extremely talented in combat and challenges humans. The battle between Ajin and humans gets fierce and intense, forcing the protagonist to get involved. The manga series is popular and was made into an anime series. A live action film adaptation is also announced to be released in 2017.
Ajin got its own anime adaption in 2015. It’s a full-CG animation, a technique that’s still uncommon in Japan. An Ajin film trilogy was released from 2015 to 2016, and the television series followed the film series in 2016. It is noteworthy that they produced both the film and the TV at the same time. They had different directors, but they used the same human models for reference. This production system was a new attempt enabled by full-CG animation.
There have been several full-CG anime series produced in Japan, but there are still not as mainstream as those produced by American heavyweights Pixar and DreamWorks. It costs a lot to produce a full-CG anime, and the production cost won’t be covered if the final movie or series doesn’t become popular. Furthermore, we have a long history of cel animation thriving in Japan. Even now in 2017, the term anime basically refers to cel animation in Japan. We see advanced digital technology every day, while continuing to have characters drawn by hands. Also, many people tend to say that it isn’t necessary for anime to be fully animated on a computer. They say the technology for CG animation is not fully developed yet to make the movement of CG characters seem natural.
Let’s look back at the CG anime history in Japan. One of the first full-CG animated films was Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released in 2001. Even though it was based on a popular video-game franchise, it failed commercially. In 2004 and 2007, an international team produced two sci-fi action anime films called Appleseed and Appleseed Ex Machina. They both received positive reactions, but they were not enough to justify more CG anime to be produced.
Family-friendly films were also produced using full-CG, such as Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror and Yona Yona Penguin. However, these films were not majorly advertised nor distributed, and they failed to be noticed by the general public. In 2014, Stand By Me Doraemon was released. It was the first full-CG movie with big commercial success in Japan with a box office total of 8.3 billion yen. Doraemon has always been very popular among Japanese people and its first full-CG anime film appealed to many as ‘a film to make you cry’ by combining the best-known short stories of the original work to a movie.
Japan is known for anime, yet Stand By Me Doraemon is the only very popular full-CG anime film produced in Japan.
There are only a few full-CG anime hits produced in Japan, but that doesn’t mean that people are not trying to make more full-CG anime. Especially these days, cel shading, a type of rendering designed to mimic the 2D style, has become very popular. The name comes from ‘cels’, the clear sheets used for 2D anime.
For example, One Piece: Straw Hat Chase released in 2011 was the first film of the popular One Piece series to use computer animation. It was a rather short film (30 minutes in length), but it used cel shading to make it appear like 2D.
Short Peace released in 2013 is a project composed of four short anime films. One of them, Tsukumo, used cel shading effectively and was nominated under the English title Possessions for ‘Best Animated Short’ at the 86th Academy Awards. Expelled from Paradise released in 2014 is another full-CG anime film co-produced by Toei Animation and Nitroplus. It’s an original sci-fi action film. Generally, it is quite risky to make an original anime film compared to those based on popular series, but I guess the situation for anime film production has been changing for the better to allow that.
Today, more full-CG television series have started to become popular. Arpeggio of Blue Steel -Ars Nova- aired in 2013 and received positive reactions for its natural movements of the characters. Knights of Sidonia aired in 2014 and was not fully animated on a computer, but it used CG very effectively and received critical acclaim, even winning some awards outside of Japan. The animation studio which produced Knights of Sidonia also produced Ajin, the last paragraph of this short lecture on full-CG anime history in Japan.
The best part of the anime series Ajin are the action scenes of Invisible Black Matter, aka IBM. Ajin have the ability to create this creature called IBM. It is like a black ghost with a humanoid form and it can cause physical damage in combat. It disappears like smoke after some time and you can’t think of this ghost-like creature being animated in any other way than CGI. The battles of IBM and the gun action between Ajin and humans were very effectively animated by computer.
Moreover, the unnaturalness or weird feeling you get from CG when it is mixed with traditional ways of animation, actually helps in illustrating the characters of this particular show. For example, people find out that the protagonist, Nagai, is an Ajin, and he can’t live his normal high school life anymore. He continues to die and come back to life and loses his humanity. Ajin looks like a normal person but he is not. This odd feeling and discomfort you get from CG fits perfectly with the characters. In the anime, Nagai looks even less emotional and inhuman than in the original manga. Generally speaking, you don’t want to relate to a cold-blooded main character. But in this particular series, this inhuman cold air Nagai has appealed to the fans.
Satou, another Ajin who attacks people, is a terrorist. This series illustrates the problems we have in our modern society but delivers them in a fantasy story. The theme of the series is very modern. Ajin is a very underrated show, and it deserves way more attention.