They say that eyes are the windows to the soul. As visually oriented creatures, human beings rely on sight to explore the world around us, cataloguing and categorizing every little thing that nabs our attention. It’s our eyes that help us navigate and interact with others.
As much as we laud ourselves for being creatures capable of communication, a good deal–if not–most of our communication is nonverbal–and something that we pick up with practice. Because knowing where and when to focus your attention is key to survival. Space out for a second and you get called on in class while your teacher berates you for not attending to lecture. Space out for a few more and you get crushed by a speeding truck.
While Ajin’s CG aesthetics will be an acquired taste for most anime viewers, it provides an excellent study of how we can use gazes to convey emotion, to communicate and to provide characterization. Ajin, I’d argue, is all about the gaze, about getting us to pay close attention. And what better way drive home this point of hyperattentivity than by opening with a grisly scene of young African soldiers barely out of childhood getting blown to bits in a turf war?
Blink and you die. A hard lesson that our nameless African soldier learns when he’s thrown into a landscape of hell. Here, the only emotion we receive from his eyes are that of unadulterated fear. He blows the brains (and then some) out of an enemy soldier, drops to the ground in relief, at his victory. There, you see that, God, I survived! But he needs to keep looking because once he looks again, he sees the impossible–the soldier twitches, his eyes open, and suddenly, despite having had several rounds of bullets pierced through him, he’s standing back up again. Our nameless soldier boy’s stumbled onto something forbidden, something he shouldn’t have seen. Seconds later, the undead soldier gets tranquilized and ushered away from his view (quite literally in a body bag) and our view. We can’t look at him anymore but like the soldier boy, we remember all that our eyes tell us.
But as much as we’d like to turn our eyes away from the violence (who am I kidding? Ajin’s got our attention now), our gaze is fixated on these monsters, these humans who can’t seem to die. Like the repeated revivals of the Ajin, the media (and apparently high school curriculum) force us to keep looking, to keep scrutinizing these creatures who look just like us in every way, until they show us that they can’t be erased from sight, can’t be unseen. Society has trained people to be hypersensitive and discriminating of any peculiarities, defining the boundaries between human and monster–us and them. Stay away from that Yankee kid–he’s not normal, he’s weird. Who knows, he could be one of those Ajin monsters you’ve seen in a video going viral on Youtube.
“If you want to become a good human being, you must choose better friends to keep company with.” -Kei’s mother.
Our protagonist, Nagai Kei, is on constant alert to make himself invisible, to make himself so utterly unremarkable, to not be seen. Look, he’s so studious, just what you’d expect of someone who wants to become a doctor. He hangs out with the right sort of friends, not the yankee riffraff that’ll bring him nothing but trouble. He even looks like your ordinary Japanese schoolboy with his conservative dress and haircut–no crazy anime hairdos here. With his eyes averted downwards, a mannerism of fear and insecurity belies one of reservedness and respectful of authority. Only, we, the audience, who can see his averted sight, know how utterly terrified Kei is under society’s oppressive, judgmental gaze.
“No…I really am…no, no! I’m not! I’m not! I’m human!” -Nagai Kei
The figurative oppressive gaze becomes nightmarishly literal when Kei’s Ajin status is revealed for all to see. Society’s eyes are everywhere and before Kei has just enough time to hightail it to the nearest temple in the city, everyone knows who he is and everyone is looking for him. Classmates and acquaintances, aided by the powers of hindsight and egged on by society’s conforming methods of persecution. Yes, I always knew that Negai was a bit weird, a bit odd. He didn’t really seem human at all, did he? Of course, he’s an Ajin!
Our eyes help us see, but it’s our minds that help us focus on what we need–or who we need–to survive. Although Kei’s mother forces her son to break ties by deleting Kaito’s phone number from his cell phone–she can’t have her son associating with the wrong sort of people–Kei determinedly fixes his gaze on Kaito’s number, his link to his dearest friend. This attention to Kaito is what ultimately saves his life. He remembers Kaito’s number and dials it and Kaito, ever attentive to the neighborhood happenings, is already packed and ready to go and save his friend.
But how long can they keep the police, heck, the entire Japanese government’s gaze off of them? And while Kaito’s gaze is easily the most open and friendly of the gazes we’ve seen so far, that’s not exactly a shining endorsement. We have no reason to believe that Kaito’s intentions are bad, as he seems to care for Kei, but then again, we don’t know enough about him to make that judgment call. As Ajin shows us, we can’t take our eyes off of anything or anyone for even a moment because before you know, all eyes will be on you.