Inuyashiki and Wary Optimism

Inuyashiki Last Hero is available on Amazon Prime.

During its relatively brief existence, Amazon’s Anime Strike “channel” (now rolled back into the rest of their Prime Video offerings) had a knack for consistently snatching up the license for a poignant, would-be sleeper-hit anime of each season. Notably, Scum’s Wish made its audience care deeply about its characters despite their morality ranging between selfish and reprehensible; The Great Passage’s fantastic script shone straight through a mountainous language barrier (Amazon is also the English-language publisher of the equally-fantastic source novel, by the by); and the enrapturing atmosphere of Made in Abyss has brought it extensive critical acclaim in the North American market.

An offering from the service’s last “season” as a separate service, Inuyashiki Last Hero gave all of the recent joint Netflix-Marvel projects a run for their money, if not frequently one-upping some of them. It arguably has the strongest grip of any on the core of that particular subgenre of superhero adaptation – a more grounded character dealing with the horrible repercussions of violent crime at the street level – despite its back-cover synopsis sounds utterly fantastical.

For context, the first episode sees an aimless teenager and defeated older salaryman both struck by a crashing alien spaceship and reconstructed as cyborgs. Said aliens are never mentioned again throughout the series, and the particulars of the characters’ new bodies are given as minimal of explanation as possible. Rather, the show blows straight past this one out-of-band, deus-ex-machina moment to incite its premise and moves on. It’s an admittance out of the gate that this particular origin story is unimportant compared to what comes after.

That’s going to be a recurring theme.

Another reversal of the norm is in how it seats the protagonist and antagonist. If yiu have even a passing familiarity with action-focused shows, movies, or games, you’ll be familiar with the “normal” dichotomy: the idealistic young hero will overthrow the manipulative and stagnant older villain, representing forward progress in the face of a broken, ingrained, inflexible mindset. But Inuyashiki takes its ball and runs in exactly the opposite direction.

Here we have Mr. Inuyashiki front and center, a sort of elderly equivalent of the wishy-washy down-on-their-luck Charlie Brown archetype, drawn out to a sorry conclusion. Seriously, even for comic-book heroes or action protagonists that are pointedly written to be “old” (such as Jay Garrick, Master Roshi, or even a post-timeskip Han Solo), the physical toll of their age is generally shrugged off or played as a joke. The lead character here may be near-indestructible, but still at every turn he seems ready to collapse from the physical strain of just trying to make it down the stairs in the morning or carrying groceries home, and his state of affairs from the get-go is appropriately miserable.

Meanwhile, Hiro, the show’s second-billed character, is tricky to nail down. Despite the over-the-top despicable actions he goes through at times, he can toes the line between a deuteragonist with his own arc and a straight villain; it’s another distinctive characteristic of 2015’s Daredevil in particular that Inuyashiki goes toe-to-toe with as a contemporary. Suffice to say, Hiro is as impulsive and selfish with his newfound powers as any teenager might be, but regrettably lacks the proper sense of responsibility to temper his actions.

To loop back to a previous article, Inuyashiki (the show) has its message all laid out: your circumstances don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to your actions and attitude. We see Inuyashiki (the man) come from terminal illness and a household seeming to balk at his very presence, whereas de facto antagonist Hiro is shown to lead a relatively carefree life with a stable-if-small network of supportive friends and relatives. If anything, their roles are set up to be reversed – Inuyashiki has every reason to be a bitter, spiteful old man while Hiro should be gleefully playing superhero (heck, he’s even got the pun built into his name).

But again, Inuyashiki aggressively resists what would be apparent at a glance. What makes all the difference between them, and what the story may be arguing for, is a deeper sense of self-awareness.

And that’s something that the antagonist simply does not have. The only times where Hiro is acting on behalf of anyone aside from himself, it’s on a borrowed sense of morality, prescribed but never internalized. As time goes on, he disassociates himself from his humanity, outright saying that deliberately invoking visceral reactions in himself is the only thing that makes him feel alive in spite of a clearly robotic body, which with his lack of self-control spirals into an exaggerated power trip. He’s just close enough to a genuine teenage melancholy for pity, but so markedly removed from reasonable thought in such critical ways that he resists our empathy. Even if we understand his pessimism, such a spectacular failure to see outside his own narrow view makes it so that we scarcely empathize with him.

Inuyashiki, meanwhile, is the very model of mindfulness. He comes across as doggedly modest and feeling as small as the best of us despite his bulletproof body and the ability to fly. He’s been around the block enough times to know how things stand, and to realize that it serves him better to operate only within his own great-but-limited ability rather than upsetting the fruit basket. Despite getting his second wind, he’s still very much a man at the end of his life and dreadfully afraid of not being able to help as much as he ought. For as much as he is clumsy and ineffectual, he acts with gravity and understanding and finds personal fulfillment in others’ gratitude.

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Light spoilers on the direction of the final two episodes contained between this image and the next.

The show never stops hammering this home, even in the (predictably un-gratifying) fight between the two. In the middle of their tussle, while Hiro is going out of his way to destroy and maim for minimal benefit to himself, Inuyashiki is still spending more time trying to rescue a bystander than paying mind to self-preservation or catching his attacker.

And this is their only confrontation – verbal, physical, or otherwise – in the entire series. Out of eleven episodes, it takes until the tenth for its two principal characters to even meet, and even then Hiro never learns Inuyashiki’s name (signalling a lack of empathy, whereas Inuyashiki in turn has been actively moving to minimize the impact of Hiro’s actions).

Why should they go head-to-head, after all? There’s nothing about their worldviews that stands to move forward – Hiro has no interest in following Inuyashiki’s ideals, and Inuyashiki has already reached the end of what he can do to rationalize what Hiro has done. It’s the juxtaposition of the two that’s most interesting, and in a way the show stays on-message by focusing every preceding episode on an underlying, indirect comparison between personal outlooks and what they make of the same gift that comes across much more cleanly and compellingly than any super-fight would.

In the end, the world continues to turn. Closing its loose ends has a sense of finality for these two characters, but the world doesn’t and never has revolved around a few select people. Rather, life moves on for everyone else in the cast, with little hints here and there hinting that Inuyashiki’s conscientiousness and foresight is validated through his family, whereas Hiro fails to leave a similar emotional mark in the end. It’s more a grounded end than many superpowered narratives will end, with the admittance of the width of the world and these characters’ impact on only a fraction of it.

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“I should have appreciated who I was. I finally realized this once I became a machine.”

Inuyashiki is a series with the heart of a comic book story and the soul of a science fiction story: for what spectacle it provides and outlandish elements set everything off, the conflicts it’s truly interested in are alarmingly real and emblematic of how we interact with the mundane. It doesn’t shy away from a harsher view of the world, that doesn’t deter its mindset from ultimately landing on optimism.

And that’s as real as you can ask from a sixty-year-old superhero.

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