Older fans of any medium can sometimes feel burned out by over-used tropes. When this happens, I try to take a step back and give myself a break rather than thinking “why is everything all the same?! It’s not like the good old days!” or railing against something that’s not aimed at people like me in the first place.
Maybe those of us who prefer anime shows about grown adults with jobs rather than being about teenagers in high school are a minority, but I still find it refreshing when a story draws inspiration from different places. Even on its own merits though, Spy x Family is a winner because it’s suspenseful, endearing and outrageously funny. I’m just glad that it happens to be my own personal sort of televisual catnip.
Spy x Family does rely on a lot of genre conventions, but many of these are from classic film and TV spy thrillers rather than other anime shows. Its setting for instance is unusual: an alternate-history Cold War-era Europe; at least, that’s what’s heavily implied by background details such as local politics, place names and landscapes. The first episode shows an aerial view of what looks like Eltz Castle, the city is referred to as “Berlint”, and even the trams look like those of cities like Berlin, Vienna or Warsaw during that time.
The premise of “Twilight”, an unflappable secret agent who takes pride in working alone, being assigned a mission that requires him to pretend to be a husband and father named Loid Forger is instantly amusing, because he’s pulled out of his comfort zone and tries to apply his existing skill set to unusual situations. The candidate he tricks into being his “wife”, Yor Briar, is in the related business of undercover assassinations, and has her own reasons for pretending to be married. Even Anya, the child in this setup, deliberately chooses to take this path simply because to her naïve eyes it looks infinitely more interesting and fun than life in an orphanage.
The “fish out of water” concept is a tried-and-tested one (The Way of the Househusband for instance), but this is also a cheeky send-up of the whole espionage genre. The popular image of spies in fiction owes a lot to that of James Bond, who is – especially by 21st Century standards – rather problematic and unlikeable when you really start to think about his motives, methods and personality in general. This I think is why the uneasy transformation into “Loid” is so satisfying, because he is forced into settling down and behaving like an ordinary dude with a wife, child and normal job.
The same goes for Yor, who is shown to be coldly calculating during a mission yet endearingly dorky and poorly-adjusted outside of working hours. She gets into this whole charade through a hasty series of white lies and frantic attempts to save face, and the comedic value of the juxtaposition of her career so far and the demands of her new situation is pretty obvious as well.
Loid and Yor were already looking for someone to take on one another’s roles, but Anya is the one who provided the final push, and she’s possibly the most entertaining one of them all. The idea of her being a telepath initially struck me as a bit of a gimmick that doesn’t quite fit the otherwise-realistic setting, but it’s worth suspending your disbelief over that. Although her adoptive parents both have their fair share of comedic moments, this kid is HILARIOUS. The “gyah!” exclamations and chibi reactionfaces manage to justify the adaptation from page to screen on their own.
Loid and Yor aren’t aware of one another’s real professions, but thanks to her mind-reading ability Anya understands this perfectly…at least, as well as a child of her age can. The idea behind spouses in spy stories hiding their jobs from one another has been done before in Hollywood and elsewhere (Mr and Mrs Smith and True Lies being two well-known examples) but Anya adds an extra level of complications and comedy value because she knows more about her “parents” than they do about each other. Naturally, she daren’t let them know any of this, because maintaining her new life promises excitement and adventure like that of her favourite TV shows.
This alone would be reason enough for me to recommend it, but it’s more than just an action-comedy: it also gets you emotionally invested in the characters.
The three of them team up for convenience’s sake, but there’s something genuine bubbling under the surface: consciously or not, they truly wanted to find each other. Their origins might lie in a shadowy and cruel world, but as individuals they’re really quite decent human beings. They bought into their respective employers’/guardians’ assurances that they were helping to bring about world peace, but this new situation provides an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a bit of normality at the same time. I daresay that this will provide a source of conflict later on, but I guess we’ll see.
Episode 3 provides a neat example of how their real lives and cover story clash, but the “purse snatcher” segment gives a tantalising glimpse of how they can work together. The way that this part of the episode played out could only have happened because of how each of them – separately of course, without knowing what the other two were thinking – decided to get involved, which led to a positive resolution. You just want them to succeed in their mission and find happiness together, you know?
A bit of googling about the original author suggests that he moved away from darker-themed stories on his editor’s advice, and at this point I’m hoping that this particular tale doesn’t stray away too much from its light and feelgood vibe. There’s plenty of scope for serious socio-political stuff to rumble on in the background in order to keep espionage thriller fans entertained, while still delivering on the situational comedy. The idea of a “found-family” landing in a worldview reminiscent of John le Carré might seem unexpected, but I think that it’s getting the balance just right. I think we may have a real highlight of 2022 on our hands here.