Whenever people think of anime, there’s an ingrained impression even today that it’s full of giant robots, ninjas, pirates or other crazy and fantastical elements that are, in an oversimplified manner, “cartoonish.” Even nowadays, there’s a communication barrier between those who got into anime and those who didn’t. There are certainly many reasons for it, and I won’t patronize anyone by assuming that I understand such reasons, but more often than not, anime has impressed me on just how broad a range it has in its thematic variety. Aside from the most common mainstream anime like “One Piece” and “Naruto”, there have also been poignant anime about the neutrality of nature and its cyclical life and death like “Mushishi”, anime that portray mental illness in a lighthearted fashion like “Kuuchuu Buranko”, or even anime about the innocence of crossdressing like “Hourou Musuko”. Furthermore, each anime I mentioned has a very distinct artstyle of its own, so the reasoning of “I don’t like anime artstyle” never really convinced me either.
Then there’s “Inuyashiki”, an anime that’s the equivalent of Pixar’s “Up” but far more tragic and socially relevant in its tackling of ageism issues in Japan, an anime about a superhero old man.
Based on the manga “Inuyashiki” by Hiroya Oku (creator of the popular sci-fi manga, “Gantz”), the 11 episode seinen anime (anime targeted at adult males) tells the tale of Inuyashiki Ichiro, an old man dying of stomach cancer. He has lost connection with his family and even the world at large, and he feels left behind without any meaningful purpose in life. That is until an accident caused by extraterrestrials that changed his life (and body) forever, along with another teenage kid named Shishigami Hiro. Their body is replaced with a robotic one, and both of them take a different approach to their newfound life and body; Hiro chooses to kill while Ichiro chooses to save lives.
Beyond its ageism issues on the surface, Inuyashiki is also about the human capacity for both good and evil, and how people can sometimes take for granted the life and the time that they are given. There’s a very clear duality to both Ichiro and Hiro with both of their viewpoints on life practically mirroring each other. While Ichiro is forgotten by the world at large, including his own wife and children, Hiro still has friends and a family that cares very much about him, not to mention a female classmate who has a crush on him. While Ichiro remains compassionate towards a society that’s cold and indifferent towards the elderly like him, Hiro feels that it’s logical for someone to only care about his own loved ones and friends while remaining apathetic towards the lives of others. What’s similar between them, however, is that they have both lost touch with society long before they became machines; their attempts to heal and kill people are ways that they could feel alive again in their own nihilistic existence.
I haven’t read any other work of Hiroya’s except his most famous work, Gantz, but it was easy to tell from both Gantz and Inuyashiki that his works are very critical of the Japanese society, or perhaps even humans as a whole and how we are becoming more cold and indifferent towards one another in the digital age. While Gantz deals with this more explicitly by exposing people’s hypocrisy and prejudice, Inuyashiki seems like an antithesis to Gantz, showing the humanity that still exists within what seems to be a cruel and uncaring society on the surface. It’s almost as if Hiroya was calling out on misanthropic readers who have misinterpreted his works as advocating violence for violence’s sake. In fact, other than a yakuza gang that committed heinous acts of violence and assault, most characters in Inuyashiki aren’t portrayed as the kind of inhumane monster that Hiro definitely is. No matter how callous or selfish people act in Inuyashiki, Hiro’s senseless violence feels far more sadistic every time.
There’s an especially disturbing scene in episode 2 where Hiro gradually kills off members of a family while soaking up their emotions and trauma simply to feel alive again. Unlike most violent scenes in mature anime, this particular one feels harder to watch because it’s more focused on the emotional pain of the family members that Hiro feeds off of like some junkie, not to mention how the entire murder is slowly drawn out as Hiro forces the father to talk about his feelings in the moment and how he feels about the death of his wife. Needless to say, Hiro is established as a complete monster from the very start, and yet he too is later shown to have people he cares about and protects, whether it’s his mother, his childhood bestfriend, Naoyuki Ando, or the girl who has a crush on him, Shion Watanabe, and her grandmother. There’s still love buried somewhere beneath this monster, and it’s only after his loss of these few connections to the world that he goes off the deep end and goes on a rampage against the entire humanity.
In contrast, Ichiro uses his newfound powers for the betterment of humanity by going around hospitals healing terminal patients, saving people from burning buildings and helping the homeless. While it’s easy to simply classify Hiro as the villain and Ichiro the hero, that’s oversimplifying these characters, as they are two people trying to find significance in a life that has become meaningless for them, in a world that they feel they no longer belong to. More than just about something shallow like good and evil, Hiroya’s works have often been about the contrasting subjects of nihilism and existentialism (though not necessarily existential nihilism). Even though Ichiro actively helps people, his actions are not necessarily altruistic. Rather, much like Hiro, Ichiro admits that he does what he does to feel human, to confirm to himself that he’s not just a machine after the alien reconstruction, but someone who still retains empathy, kindness and that feeling of catharsis from seeing cancer patients become well again and reunite with their family happy and in peace.
Something that caught my attention was Hiro’s love of manga and manga characters over people. He shows more interest in fictional characters than real people, something that’s been prevalent among Japanese youths who value “virtual girlfriends” rather than going out and actually find a real partner, thereby partially contributing to the country’s decline in population and birthrate. There’s this pervasive feeling of disconnect between people in the anime where Hiro’s mother was doxed by some kid on the Internet, or the reporters who preyed on the her after she’s exposed as the mother to a serial killer, or the students who glorify Hiro as some kind of idol, discussing among themselves how sexy he is in spite of all the horrific acts he has done. Both the author Hiroya and the anime Inuyashiki tread this fine line between the apathy and compassion of people, with both Hiro and Ichirou embracing this duality of humanity. Inuyashiki doesn’t paint humanity as entirely malicious or entirely loving. Instead, it tells us that there’s an innate goodness in all of us, that there’s potential for people to care about one another even if they sometimes need a little reminder from their elders.
Like many anime worth praising, Inuyashiki’s opening and closing theme songs are noteworthy as well for their representation of the show’s themes. “My Hero” by Man with a Mission is an intense battle cry signaling the two protagonists’ fight for their place in life, with lyrics like “Are you losing your way, or are you lost? Where are you going? Tell me, my hero, where are you going? What do I need to end my war?” Meanwhile, “Ai Wo Oshiete Kureta Kimi E” (“To You, Who Taught Me Love”) by Qaijff is a more somber and tranquil song lamenting the appreciation and love one might have wished to give their loved ones while there was still time, while they were still around, featuring lyrics like “Is there a special person in your life? They’re closer to you than you think, but you probably don’t see me.” Both songs convey that burning need for connection people have towards the world and their loved ones, even if they’re not always willing to admit.
At its core, Inuyashiki is a moving story full of heart and loneliness. There is rarely an episode that doesn’t either disturb you with Hiro’s violence or make you cry from seeing the people Ichiro has helped and how grateful they are for a new life, just as Ichiro has been given his. It’s one of those rare spiritual journeys in anime that reflect on the more profound questions of life rather than simply entertain the viewers. Inuyashiki touches me deeply with its sincerity towards life, and while it could sometimes be heavy-handed in its preaching, it’s nonetheless a unique reflection of our place in the world that I wish to see more of in the evergrowing medium of anime. If it’s proven anything, it’s that there can indeed be an anime out there for everyone, even the despondent elderly who have been neglected and forgotten.
Final Rating: 8.9/10