Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote a short story — more a thought experiment, really — called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", about a world where all are happy and well-provided for, under the sole condition that a single child be kept in perpetual misery and squalor. A-JIN: Demi-Human opens with a common fantasy trope (there are people among us who are functionally immortal) and, by degrees, backs into the same kind of troubling territory as "Omelas".
Consider. If human society had a supply of beings that could be perpetually resurrected in perfect health after suffering any number of indignities, wouldn't that be a useful way to test drugs, harvest organs, provide emotional scapegoats? But would the gains to the whole be worth the degeneracy involved in setting up such a plan? And what happens when those scapegoats decide to take up guns and blow out their tormentors' brains?
When Netflix and Polygon Pictures previously teamed up for the space-ark story Knights of Sidonia, I liked what I saw, both in terms of the technical execution and the flavor of the story, although I felt the whole thing was aimed mainly at existing anime fans. That it was adapted from a manga was only part of why; it also had certain story tropes, especially in its second half, that aimed it more at the anime crowd than a general viewership. A-JIN is the more directly daring and provocative of the two, and one more likely to garner a general audience — although that's not itself a prerequisite for success. It has charms apart from that.
Not one of us, but also not one of them
Many stories about Others Among Us begin with the assumption that the average person on the street knows nothing of such things. A-JIN stands this on his head: the average person does in fact know about the "A-JIN", or the "Demi-Humans". Kill them and they come back to life seconds later. If the authorities discover you're one, they'll hunt you down, although what happens to you after that is anyone's guess.
Kei Nagai, a kid with no more insight into the A-JIN than anyone else in his class, soon finds out firsthand what happens to A-JIN when the authorities get their hands on one. Seconds after being hit and killed by a truck, he revives — he's an A-JIN himself, and now everyone he's ever known is prepared to turn him in. The only person who breaks rank is Kaito, a childhood friend with an anti-authoritarian bent, who plops Kei onto the back of his motorcycle and helps him light out for the territories. It's possible Kaito is doing all this just to be that much more of a flouter of the rules, but it soon becomes clear Kaito sees Kei as his friend first and everything else second.
It also becomes clear Kei will either have to run forever, or find a way to stand his ground against the entire rest of the human race. When a pair of kidnapper-killers (with a freshly abducted girl in the back seat of their van) stumble across Kei and Kaito, they try to seize Kei and claim the bounty on his head. Scumbags that they are, the story has a particularly horrible death in store for them, one that involves the "Black Ghost" — a sort of apparition, reminiscent of a bandaged Invisible Man, that manifests to protect Kei.
Kei is not the only one who has such a skill. So does Sato, the "Man in the Hat", a fiftyish, always-smiling fellow who looks like he belongs behind the counter of the corner newspaper stand. He and his other A-JIN cohorts could be best described as revolutionaries — they've banded together not only to avoid capture by the authorities, but to declare independence of a sort from a world that refuses to see them as anything but test subjects. He's not above abducting Kei's hospitalized sister and using her as bait, but that's minor compared to his larger game plan: to allow Kei to be captured by the authorities and experimented on as a way to break whatever connection the kid still has with humanity at large.
More than human, less than humane
With any story that features a super-power of some kind as a major element, the easy way to figure such things into the story is to have the protagonist's mastery of that power be the route they take to overcome the various difficulties the plot throws at them. A-JIN has that going on just about from the git-go, as Kei — clumsily at first, then with growing confidence — uses both his unkillability and his Black Ghost to gain tactical advantages.
The show has great fun spinning action thrill rides around the ways the A-JIN's abilities can be used, but even on that basic level it also exhibits how smartly it's been put together. When Sato invades the government facility where Kei is being experimented on, he demonstrates just how much more dangerous and powerful an A-JIN is when they've fully mastered their powers. It's exhilarating, but it's also deft characterization: when Sato threatens to use his powers to unleash anarchy on the world, the story has done the work to make that seem like no idle boast. It's also made Sato into that much more three-dimensional a figure. His goals and methodologies are terrifying, but his reasons are completely comprehensible. If the world doesn't even want to think of you as human, why give it the benefit of the doubt?
A-JIN also goes the extra mile to provide this kind of complexity to the characters who represent the government agency that captures A-JINs. Yu Tosaki, a cold-eyed, hard-boiled G-Man type, and his female assistant Izumi Shimomura, at first come off as little more than your standard bad cop/good cop pair. What complicates matters is that Shimomura is herself an A-JIN, one whom Tosaki has been protecting. As long as she uses her powers to unmask other A-JIN and bring them in, all is fine, but of course nothing is that simple. (I also sensed hints that Tosaki is not proud of having to do this, but that the complexity of the skein surrounding them wouldn't have made any other relationship between them possible.)
At the center of it all is Kei, and it is downright tragic to see Sato's worst expectations about Kei fulfilled. By the time he escapes from dissection table where he's been experimented on, he's traded up his scared-kid attitude for something a good deal more cold-blooded and predatory. When he crosses paths with an old woman living out in the country, he exploits her good will and allows her to pass him off to others as her son as he figures out how to better make use of his Black Ghost. When another A-JIN, a kid about Kei's age, stumbles across him, Kei imprisons him in an upended trailer and ignores his pleas to join up with him and stop Sato. Kei's callousness is hammered home most by what he doesn't do, though: when Sato kicks into gear a plan that's one part Fight Club and two parts V For Vendetta, Kei stays camped out in the sticks, watching the whole thing on TV. That it takes death and destruction on such a vast scale to move him isn't a character flaw; it's now the whole point — and our lead-in what is ostensibly a follow-up season.
A bad show tends to do a lot of things poorly; a good show tends to be guided by smart decisions across the board. I suspect much of what makes A-JIN on point is that its source material, the manga, made those good decisions to begin with, and the TV series doesn't get tempted to fiddle with success. It's one of the fringe benefits of anime adaptations of manga typically being somewhat slavish affairs. There are times when they're not, although that's mostly due to practical concerns, like the manga still being in progress (see: Fullmetal Alchemist, Claymore) — but when they are, and the source material was sterling to begin with, the adaptation usually can't help but follow suit.
A-JIN is also a level up, if only a slight one, for Polygon Pictures and its CGI animation techniques. The company's previous work, Knights of Sidonia, was set in a far-future, outer-space environment, all corners and angles and boxy mechanical designs — exactly the sort of thing that looked good coming out of a computer. It was the people that suffered, as they had a tendency to look a little too marionette-like. (Partly justifiable, in that many of them were clones, but only partly.) A-JIN is set in a world that is unmistakably the here and now, and while its characters and environments do still look a little stiff and boxy, there are many moments and shots where they don't. Facial expressions, in particular, look a good deal more realized now than they did in Sidonia, and that's vital given how a good deal of this story turns on emotions or lack of them.
Sidonia sported some truly dazzling and head-spinning space-combat sequences, as well-staged and creatively visualized as anything seen in a big-budget Hollywood production. A-JIN has eye-popping material of its own — human-on-A-JIN and Black Ghost Vs. Black Ghost combats that play like the punch-and-shoot-fests in Hong Kong films. Most any scene involving Sato is a dazzler; the big standout is a scene in the last couple of episodes where a S.W.A.T. team takes him down by continually killing him, only to have Sato's sniper buddies on the nearby rooftops turn the tables. Then they're put out of commission by other S.W.A.T. snipers. Then those guys are taken out, and Sato pries himself loose and unleashes a bloodbath that James Cameron would have applauded for its sheer ingenuity. (For all I know, maybe he did.)
You've probably deduced, both from the subject matter of the show and my discussion of how it's treated, that A-JIN isn't nearly as jokey or self-consciously "anime" as Knights of Sidonia sometimes was. You'd be right about that: it hews more closely to gritty primetime live-action productions like Sense8 or Blindspot than, say, Arrow or The Flash. Does that mean it's designed to win a larger share of mainstream viewers than Sidonia was?
I'm always iffy on such questions, in big part because I feel like that misstates the mission. As Netflix turns more into a platform for original content and less a conduit for other studios, it's found multiple vertical markets to serve, with anime only being one of them. I don't expect "mainstream" viewers to glom onto A-JIN any more than I expect anime fans to pick up on something like Grace and Frankie. Yes, it would be great if A-JIN — or Sidonia, or whatever else Netflix and Polygon Pictures concoct next — turn into crossover hits of some kind. But there's no sense in forcing the hand of chance. Just making a show that's good on its own terms is hard enough, and what we have here is very good indeed.