Ajin has a lot to say about human nature and like so many anime before it does it through the not-so-subtle method of making the main characters not exactly human. However, subtle or not, it is effective and the end result is a character like Kei Nagai who is an interesting character to take a closer look at. Actually, there’s a number of characters in Ajin who would do well with some more scrutiny, but let’s start with Kei today.
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What if Kei Nagai had actually been a nice guy?
Nagai’s story is pretty disastrous when you think about it. If you had to live it I am certain it would break you. The poor kid is run over in episode one and if this had been an isekai story he’d soon be meeting a god like figure, getting a power up, and suddenly becoming the lead of his very own fantasy harem. Alas, wrong genre. Nagai is fortunate in that he doesn’t die but it is amazing how nobody views it that way. He learns that he is actually one of the immortal Ajin and from that point forward he is on the run.
It works very well within the context of the story, but you have to wonder why nobody seems more upset that someone ran over a kid on the street. It is straight to tracking him down and using him as a test subject. Even his family almost immediately distance themselves from even the thought that there is a connection between them.
And again, this fits with the context. Why we get little time with Nagai before his close encounter with a vehicle, he’s cold and removed from others. Even his family find him hard to deal with. This isn’t the same as him being an active jerk or the like. Nagai is very careful to go through the motions of family life and school and his outward appearance is one of being a perfectly normal kid. Yet, when a crisis hits, there’s only one person who actually reaches out to Nagai and through Kaito we learn just how cold Nagai can really be to others.
It makes it difficult at times to sympathise with Nagai. Which is probably what was intended because if we actually felt sympathetic, some of the stuff he goes through would be fairly sickening to watch. Okay, it is pretty stomach churning anyway but with just enough emotional removal (your mileage may very).
Every decision Nagai makes is for his own benefit.
While you could probably argue that most decisions most people make are for their own benefit, not so many are quite as cold as Nagai. Even his facade of model student is so that he won’t be hassled by parents or teachers rather than any real desire to follow the expectations. His interactions with peers are sufficient to prevent him being ostracised or bullied but not enough that others actually impose upon him. In short, every interaction in Kei Nagai’s life is a calculated one and that is even before he realises he isn’t human.
After the realisation, there are a couple of moments when Nagai briefly allows himself to make an emotional decision when it seems like he’s encountered Sato who seems like he understands what Nagai is going through. However, given how that ends, we don’t see Nagai doing that again. While a lot his actions in season 2 seem like they will benefit others, ultimately Nagai is concerned with self-preservation.
Was it his immortality that changed Nagai?
It might be argued that the reason Nagai was so removed from people even before he knew he was an Ajin was because he wasn’t human. Certainly when we start meeting other Ajin it becomes clear that the majority are violent or crazy or both (though whether they are like that because they are Ajin or because of the way Ajin are treated is an argument that could definitely be had).
However, when we turn our attention to the human characters in the show, such as Nagai’s family or Tosaki who is tracking the Ajin down, or even Nagai’s former classmates, what we see is an ongoing array of characters who only care about themselves and their immediate goals. Nagai’s family more or less immediately cut him loose once they realise his nature in order to be left alone with Nagai’s sister outright betraying him at one point. His classmates see his experience as a source of gossip. And Toaski treats everyone with contempt whether they are human or Ajin.
About the only decent human in the story is Kaito and he really gets the short end of the stick on so many occasions it makes you wonder why he is still trying to stand by Nagai.
It’s up to the audience to determine the true monsters.
As I said in the beginning, Ajin isn’t subtle. While the Ajin themselves are problematic in that some of their behaviour is clearly villainous, the monstrous actions of the authorities as they seek to control them are more concerning. When Kei is taken captive, after being set up by Sato in the form of a lesson, what is done to him is horrendous. That Kei is not the first they’ve done it to is worse.
Like so many stories before it asks the question of whether monsters are monsters because of their nature or whether the way they are treated creates monsters. Not to mention it asks us to really look at human nature and the actions we tolerate within our societies. While the Ajin are fictitious, discrimination really isn’t.
Nagai isn’t a nice guy but his story is important.
I don’t like Nagai as a person. He’s cold and at times cruel and his vision only extends as far as his benefit is concerned. Yet, he is a fascinating character because his existence makes you question your own moral compass and guide to making decisions as well as those of people around you. As part of a cast of characters who all raise interesting questions about moral choices, Nagai works very well and it would be interesting to see how is character developed in the events after the anime ends.
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