“You start pretending to have fun, you might have a little by accident.” –Alfred Pennyworth, Batman Begins
An uneasy peace exists between the divided nation of Westalis and Ostania – the Westalis organisation WISE deploys their top operator, Twilight, to get close to the Ostanian political leader of the National Unity Party, Donovan Desmond, with the aim of averting open conflict between the two nations. To this end, Twilight assumes the false identity of Loid Forger and is tasked with starting a family with the aim of enrolling a child at the prestigious Eden Academy. Although the task is daunting, Loid ends up adopting Anya from the local orphanage and encounters Yor Briar, a young woman who’s been looking for a partner to allay any suspicions of being a foreign actor. After their meeting, Loid agrees to marry Yor. This family might be a sham, and blissfully unaware of one another’s true identities (Yor is an assassin with the secretive Garden organisation, and Anya is a former child test subject with telepathic powers), but over time, they slowly manage to advance Loid’s plans of enrolling Anya at Eden Academy and have her become a capable student who can befriend Donovan’s son, Damien. Despite the various setbacks in Loid’s assignment, he comes to care for both Yor and Anya, finding himself surprised at Yor’s physical prowess and Anya’s gradual integration into the student body at Eden despite her disinterest in academics. Proving to be an unexpected surprise, Spy × Family very rapidly became a favourite among viewers for its unique combination of spy thriller, slice-of-life and comedy elements in conjunction with an engaging story and well-choreographed fight scenes – the series’ appeal lies in its ability to employ elements from a variety of genres and successfully incorporate these together into a cohesive, gripping adventure that simultaneously shows the significance of Loid’s actions from a big-picture perspective and presents more touching moments from the day-by-day misadventures that result from Loid and Yor still being new to the idea of parenthood as they try to raise Anya. The myriad of elements here in Spy × Family means that the series is able to touch on a wide range of messages and themes. Loid comments that a lot of families must also be faking it, trying hard to appear their best to others while at the same time, genuinely working hard to be the best for their children, speaking to the idea that appearances are deceiving. Similarly, Loid also thinks to himself that the assignment is structured in this fashion because taking direct action against Donovan wouldn’t stop the war: soft measures are needed, and this is why he’s been given such a task. In reality, use of lethal force against a high-ranking target is typically not even considered as an option because of the potential for creating unintended side effects, and as a result, nations will employ diplomatic and social means as a first line of defense against perceived hostilities. On top of these topics, the innocence of childhood is also utilised to juxtapose the uncommon nature of Yor and Loid’s work with a child’s imagination and open-mindedness: while most adults would lose composure at the thought of a top-tier operator and crack assassin, Anya finds her adoptive parents’ occupations extremely novel, even though she sometimes becomes worried about what Yor and Loid might do.
There’s a plethora of conversation topics in Spy × Family worth praising, but at the end of the first half, the most standout message arises from the fact that, in spite of himself, Loid shows concern for Anya and Yor beyond the demands of his assignment. He is legitimately worried about Anya’s gaining admittance into Eden Academy, and when she makes it, he collapses into the lawn in relief. Loid has been trained to compartmentalise his emotions and focus on the task at hand, and initially, he rationalises his concerns as being worried about putting the outcomes of his assignment in someone else’s hands, whereas previously, he’d been accustomed to doing everything himself. However, it soon becomes clear that taking on a phoney family has not stopped Loid’s emotions from manifesting: whenever Anya’s hurt or sad, Loid does his best to console and comfort her: he even comes close to punching one of Eden’s interviewers out after he makes Anya cry. On the surface, he’s doing this to keep his fake family together so he can complete his mission. However, a part of Loid also acts this way because it is intuitive to do so: Anya and Yor might be tools to an end, but the hesitation and contemplation he shows as Spy × Family wears on shows that he’s beginning to see them as proper human begins, more than instruments in his mission. In this way, Spy × Family shows how spending time with people will accelerate the bonds that form between them, and this is perhaps an inevitable part of being human, no matter how well-trained one is in separating their duties from personal lives. However, from the approach Spy × Family has taken, this is clearly not a bad thing, and it is especially fitting that Loid be tasked with raising a family with the aim of eventually befriending Donovan and learning more about his goals – despite Loid’s exceptional social engineering skills, one can surmise that shrewd politicians like Donovan have their bullshit meters turned up to eleven and can trivially spot deception from a mile away. To become a convincing friend and eliminate any doubts, Loid must act more human: being together with Anya and Yor provides the perfect opportunity for him to integrate this into a part of his routine. Spy × Family shows that Loid’s talents are sufficient for the task (as seen when he is able to play the role of a loving husband perfectly in front of Yor’s younger brother, Yuri), but there are moments where spending time with Anya and Yor also shows viewers a side of Loid that is decidedly human. Where these moments come through, to even the most effective counter-surveillance measures, Loid’s merely an uncommonly talented husband and loving father to Anya, leaving viewers with no doubt that his mission will be successful and allowing one’s mind to focus on the host of other things that Spy × Family does well.
Screenshots and Commentary
- There are a lot of moments in Spy × Family worth commenting on, and while a handful of readers might be interested in a five-part series on everything Spy × Family does well, for the purpose of this talk, I’m going to focus on the family and fieldcraft pieces, which, in a standout series that already does everything right, are especially well done. The contrast between Loid’s life as an intelligence operative and the situations he finds himself being thrown into creates comedy, lightening the mood up considerably in a setting that would otherwise be all-serious.
- When Loid adopts Anya as his child, her application suggests that she’s six, but her mannerisms and speech patterns are consistent with someone who’s four. Despite possessing telepathic abilities and giving her previous foster parents no shortage of trouble, Loid decides to stick things out – he’s unaware of her powers and chalks it up to uncommonly good intuition. For her part, Anya uses her powers in a way that a child might and gives even the well-trained Loid some trouble, but despite her carefree manner and a propensity to cause trouble in the way children might, Anya is very aware of those around her and does her best to keep the peace, even if she doesn’t fully understand what the adults mean when she glimpses into their thoughts.
- Atsumi Tanezaki voices Anya – I know her best as Harukana Receive‘s Claire Thomas, but Tanezaki’s also played Aobuta‘s Rio Futaba, Miu Amano of Blend S and My Dress-Up Darling‘s Sajuna Inui. Seeing Tanezaki’s performance here in Spy × Family is exceptional – as Claire, Tanezaki is bold and confident, but her delivery of Anya’s lines is spot on and matches the precise intonations a child would make. Voicing children is a challenge, and the last time I was this impressed with a voice actress playing a child was Satomi Kōrogi’s performance as CLANNAD‘s very own Ushio Okazaki.
- Yor Briar is the next part of Loid’s plan to build a family – he’s already gone ahead and looked into suitable single women for his ruse and, when a chance encounter brings the two together, both agree to build a relationship for their own ends after Anya expresses a wish for Yor to join their family. Yor appears perfect for the role of a wife with a government job, which will allay suspicion, while on her end, Yor worries that remaining single at her age will lead her to being suspected as a foreign actor and feels that being with Loid will give her the illusion of normalcy, getting her coworkers and brother off her back and allowing her to continue her secret occupation as an assassin.
- Ironically, Loid ends up proposing to Yor as a part of their ruse to those around them, and things happen in a manner that is befitting of a spy and assassin couple. The dynamic here in Spy × Family is reminiscent of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, as well as 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me: I’ve always liked stories where the male and female leads are able to compliment one another – competent characters eliminate any doubt in the viewer’s minds that the overall story will be jeopardised, and this provides viewers with the reassurance that the series can portray a different side of things. Spy × Family chooses to employ comedy, and it does so in an effective manner.
- Once Yor moves in and takes the surname Forger, she becomes a part of the family. On her first day with Anya and Loid, Anya decides to give her a grand tour of the place, and Loid decides to set in motion his plans for Operation Strix, the name of his assignment to close the social gap between himself and Donovan so he can work out a way to avert war without use of force. The Strix is a mythological bird associated with death and misfortune, but it can also refer to malevolent forces like Witches, but for me, when I hear the word “Strix”, my mind immediately goes towards ASUS’ Strix line of GPUs. On their product page, they state that the GPUs are named after the owls, being the high-end products that offer players with the sharpest experience.
- Ahead of the applications to Eden Academy, Loid takes Anya and Yor on some high culture experiences around town, including an opera showing and a museum of fine art. While this is a part of his plan to ensure Anya has familiarity with culture and the performing arts to strengthen her application, one unintended side effect is that in the process, Loid also learns to relax just a little. This is the reason why I ended up choosing the page quote: in Batman Begins, Alfred suggests to Bruce that he act a little more like a billionaire playboy philanthropist after Bruce unveils his plans to become Batman. What Alfred means is that, for folks who are dedicated to their work, it’s still important to maintain that balance.
- By forcing one to take some downtime, one might find the merits of doing so. In Spy × Family, Loid begins to appreciate these moments of normalcy in spite of himself and occasionally catches himself wondering if this is the life of an ordinary person. In Tom Clancy’s novels, John Clark’s work was especially taxing Sandy, as she worried every time he set off on a mission. When Clark contemplates retirement, his wife cannot help but be relieved. While Loid and Yor are both extremely competent, unlikely to be killed in the line of duty, their work is also quite tiring.
- Anya immediately takes a liking to Yor since she acts as a mother figure, although when Anya delves into Yor’s mind, she finds the latter’s thoughts to be quite scary. In spite of this, she loves Yor very much and is sufficiently comfortable around Yor to make offhand remarks that can be quite hurtful: despite her considerable skillset, Yor is a poor cook and unfamiliar with the things that wives are expected to do. Saori Hayami voices Yor: of her extensive and impressive resume, I know Hayami best as GochiUsa‘s Aoyama Blue Mountain, Sawa Okita of Tari Tari and Yuzuki Shiraishi from A Place Further Than The Universe.
- The Forgers have done their best to prepare for a pivotal moment in Operation Strix – the admissions interview to Eden Academy. Anya had barely passed her exams, and the interviews are to gauge both the student’s temperament and the parents’ amplitude in raising their children. En route to the interview, the Forgers are subject to a variety of surprises: as a family that came out of the blue, Henry Henderson is surprised by their presence and seeks to test them. On each and every occasion, he ends up impressed at how well-prepared they are, and how elegantly everything is handled.
- The part that Loid had dreaded most was the interview: although Henry and Walter Evans are amicable and fair, the other interviewer, Murdoch Swan, is unfriendly and arrogant, deliberately seeking out any reason to reject the Forgers owing to his bitter stance on marriage. In the end, after Murdoch asks a question that brings Anya to tears, Yor and Loid both find themselves exercising all of their self-control to keep from physically beating up Murdoch, only for Henry to do so on their behalf. Henry has no qualms about accepting Anya as a student, and after an excruciating day where they wait for the results, the Forgers learn Anya’s been waitlisted.
- Soon after, Anya is admitted to Eden, and both as a part of his guise, and in part as a consequence of his own relief, Loid consents to do something special for Anya. When Anya asks for a Bondman like experience, Loid decides to go with it. This exercise may seem overkill, but WISE is more than happy to comply, knowing Loid’s keeping Anya happy and maintaining a good relationship with Yor is essential for Operation Strix, as well as owing to everyone’s open admiration for the legends surrounding Loid. In this way, Loid and his informant, Franky, arrange for a castle to be rented out so Loid can act out a scene from Bondman, a spy cartoon Anya’s grown very fond of.
- Although the expense involved in this “operation” is so immense that Loid’s superior immediately asks him about it, Anya is thoroughly impressed that her father is able to pull everything off as effectively as he did. A large part of Spy × Family that I haven’t been able to showcase in this discussion are the action scenes: they’re very dynamic and difficult to capture in screenshots. Spy × Family was jointly produced by Wit Studios (The Rolling Girls) and CloverWorks (Akebi’s Sailor Uniform, My Dress-Up Darling and Aobuta): the artwork and animation are both of exceptional quality. The townscapes and details in the environment are intricate, while movements during fight scenes are fluid and smooth.
- Loid’s handler, Sylvia Sherwood, assigns him with his assignments. Although she normally works a desk job at the embassy, she was the one who trained Loid and is a superb operator in her own right, although performing the same sorts of stunts that Loid performs is quite taxing for her. Sylvia and Loid share the same business relationship as M and James Bond do, although unlike Judi Dench’s M, Sylvia lacks M’s sense of dry humour and matronly dignity. However, were Sylvia to resemble M, Spy × Family would be seen as being too close to James Bond. Creativity in the setting, characters and goals mean that Spy × Family is quite distinct, although Bond fans will doubtlessly have picked up on some commonalities.
- Anya’s name and background both are references to James Bond: as a test subject, she was referred to as 007, which is James Bond’s double-O number when he’s in active service, but her name is also a callback to The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Major Anya Amasova, a Soviet agent working for the KGB. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Amasova is presented as Bond’s equal, with the intellect and physical prowess to match Bond and even outwit him at times. This was a first in James Bond: previous Bond Girls were very much the stereotypical damsel-in-distress archetype, so it was refreshing to see someone who was a competent and skilled operator in her own right. I was actually a bit surprised that people didn’t catch this reference: while The Spy Who Loved Me dates back to 1977, it is Roger Moore’s best Bond movie and quite worth watching.
- In Spy × Family, Yor is to Loid the same way that Amasova is to Bond: possessing extraordinary strength, Loid is surprised that he’s only just able to keep up with her, but she’s also determined to play the part of a good wife. Yor’s background means that she often imparts on Anya some unusual lessons, and this is not without consequence. On orientation day, after being bullied by Damian and his friends, Anya recalls a conversation with Yor and decides to punch Damian’s lights out. This results in Anya being branded as being violent, and Anya expresses remorse at the incident: although her new best friend, Becky, thinks Damian got what he deserved, Anya recalls that the whole point of her being here is so she can befriend Damian and get Loid closer to Donovan. For her troubles, Anya has a Tonitrus Bolt placed on her record.
- Exceptional students, whether by merit of academic excellence, athletic prowess or community service, earn Stella. Students who accrue eight Stella join the Imperial Scholars, students with more privileges, while those with eight Tonitrus bolts are expelled. As far as academics go, Anya has a natural affinity for languages and struggles with mathematics. While she occasionally considers using her ability to peer into the thoughts of those around her to stay afloat, she decides to put in a more concerted effort to do her best for Loid’s sake. Because Loid’s plan had been to either have Anya become an Imperial Scholar and then attend a social event for the parents of these top students, or otherwise see Anya befriend Damien, Anya does her best with both endeavours.
- She ends up spending a whole day trying to find Damien so she can apologise to him, and while his friends doubt Anya is being sincere, a series of misunderstandings causes Damien to develop a crush on her, even though he’s too proud to admit it. Damien and his friends, Emile and Ewen, initially resemble Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, but in Spy × Family, Damien is shown to be a hard worker, and his friends actually regard one another as peers. Seeing the dynamics that form among the children in Spy × Family speaks volumes to the idea that despite outward appearances, people are more than what they seem. On this basis, I would feel that even Donovan is probably someone who can be talked to: he shares some design characteristics with Henry, and while Henry outwardly looks strict, he’s actually caring and observant. As such, there is a possibility that despite his reputation, Donovan might be someone who could be reasoned with.
- Appearances being deceiving forms a bulk of Spy × Family‘s comedy: Yor’s younger brother, Yuri, is suspicious of Yor’s marriage and apparently having forgotten to tell him. To assage Yuri’s doubts about Loid’s being an excellent husband, Yor and Loid decide to have him over. While Yuri is outwardly a civil servant, he’s actually a highly effective member of the secret police and is, in fact, tasked with the hunt for Twilight. His reasoning goes out the window where Yor is involved, and he admires Yor a little more than is healthy; this aspect of him is employed for comedy, preventing him from suspecting that Loid is actually his target.
- It does appear that everyone of note in Spy × Family is either uncommonly strong or uncommonly durable. During their evening, while Loid and Yor do their best to present a loving couple to Yuri, he adamantly rejects Loid and demands the pair show their commitment to one another by kissing. Loid’s trade craft means he has no qualms with this, but Yor’s assassin training doesn’t have a social piece to it, so she struggles. Embarrassment builds, and she ends up making to slap Loid, only for Loid’s swift reflexes to kick in: he dodges Yor, and she ends up putting Yuri on the floor, instead. Such moments are intentionally comedic, and this does much to remind viewers that, espionage setting notwithstanding, the characters are very much human.
- Terrifying assassin she may be, Yor has adorable moments of her own, and of everyone in Spy × Family, Anya has the most “funny face” moments. The visual expressiveness accentuates the idea that at the end of the day, everyone in Spy × Family is human. This aspect of Spy × Family is what makes the show so relatable for viewers, but the story’s actual success comes from the fact that there’s something for everyone. Folks with an interest in politics will enjoy Spy × Family‘s portrayal of foreign affairs and the significance of intelligence as a component of political decision-making. Viewers with families of their own will relate to Loid’s thoughts about how sometimes, it can feel as though one’s ad-libbing things to keep things going, and that other families are also trying to look like they’ve made it, but at the end of the day, what matters most is ensuring one’s children are happy and disciplined.
- Fans of espionage fiction, like myself, will get a kick out of the sorts of things that Loid can do and have access to, while viewers who appreciate sakuga will certainly enjoy the fight scenes, fantastically-rendered opening sequence and visual fidelity. Viewers who prominently watch comedies will laugh heartily at the moments of dramatic irony, and slice-of-life fans will have their hearts captured by Anya’s naïveté. In this way, Spy × Family is actually quite similar to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Yuru Camp△, both of which excelled precisely because they could appeal to such a wide range of viewers and combine everything together seamlessly.
- Not every anime that attempts to weave so many elements together is successful: when done improperly, such anime come across as being excessively busy. Extreme Hearts and Kanojo, Okarishimasu are recent examples of anime that do too much. At its heart, Spy × Family succeeds because after the core premise is established, the story doesn’t stray from this path, and everything that occurs is tied to this goal. Loid is laser-focused on Operation Strix, but everything that follows, whether it be Loid and Yor’s fake marriage, or Anya’s initial troubles at school, all relate to Operation Strix. This simply shows how misadventures can follow even when one is following a plan, as well as how one might pull out of a difficult situation and turn things around with a bit of grit and creativity.
- When rumours abound of a dodgeball tournament potentially leading to students earning Stella, Anya decides to train with Yor. On the day of the game, her class squares off against Bill Watkins, an unusually fit and perceptive student who takes pride in doing his best for his father. While Bill handily trashes Anya’s class single-handedly, his mature demeanour evaporates when Anya evades all of his shots. In the end, it turns out that Stella aren’t awarded for common activities and are only given for exceptional acts of excellence.
- When Loid’s superiors worry about Anya’s progress, he decides to take her to the local health centre so that Anya can participate in some community service. Although Anya’s lack of coordination means that even the simplest tasks are difficult to her (unsurprising for someone who’s only four), her telepathy allows her to pick up on the fact that someone’s fallen into the pool and is drowning. She hesitates to tell this directly to Loid, worried he might send her back to the orphanage should words of her powers get out, and to this end, fabricates a fib that lets her to rescue the boy, even though she’s unable to swim well.
- Anya’s act of singular daring and valuing of a human life earns her a Stella. Seeing the values at Eden Academy suggest to viewers that, despite Ostania being a parallel of East Germany, the people here have good values, and citizens are shown to have comfortable lives. Provided they don’t run afoul of the government or secret police, it does feel as though life in Ostania is quite normal, and that children are raised into being proper citizens who have a sense of discipline, responsibility and loyalty. Ostania appears to stand in contrast with East Germany, where life was described as being monotonous and dull. While the essentials were never in short supply, citizens’ lives were decidedly more dreary than their West German counterparts.
- This doesn’t seem to be the case in Ostania: throughout Spy × Family, the characters are shown to have access to a decent variety of meals. When Loid takes his family to restaurants, said restaurants serve steaks. Loid and Yor end up buying an ornate cake from a local bakery to cheer Anya up and show her that, even if there’d been some awkwardness between the two earlier, they’ve managed to talk things out. At the Eden Academy’s canteen, Anya enjoys omurice, a dish of Japanese origin. After being awarded her first Stella, Anya’s classmates wonder if she’d cheated, but Damien openly states that Eden Academy is a place of integrity, and the instructors are above corruption.
- In the finale to the first season, Loid ends up taking Anya and Yor to an aquarium to show the neighbours that he’s maintaining a work-life balance and keeping everyone in the household happy. Although the neighbours are initially skeptical after Loid disappears to locate a penguin carrying microfilm for a chemical weapon, he manages to pass off his disappearance as trying to win a prize for Anya. Loid’s ability to get things done border on the supernatural, and his ability to memorise penguin names and act as a proper penguin attendant would put The Aquatope on White Sand‘s Fūka and Kukuru to shame.
- Besides a pleasant trip to the aquarium, the finale also gives viewers a glimpse of how Loid and Yor are beginning to act as parents would: when Anya attempts to sneak into Loid’s room while playing pretend, Loid reprimands her, only to realise he’s overstepped. While he’s acting in the mission’s interest, his response is consistent with how a parent would act: he and Yor end up playing along with Anya to take her mind off things, leading to smiles from those in the neighbourhood. I realise that in this post, I’ve only covered a fraction of what makes Spy × Family so enjoyable for so many.
- The first season had ended quite abruptly, with the finale concluding back in June, but with the second season kicking off tomorrow, fans of Spy × Family will be able to get right back into the party very soon. The praise for this series is well-deserved, and in fact, I am of the mind that this is an anime that is universally enjoyable regardless of one’s preferences for genres. I will be following Spy × Family‘s second season with enthusiasm. The first season has sold me on the story and characters, so I look forwards to seeing what awaits Anya at Eden, along with surprises that lie in store for Loid and Yor.
Aside from providing viewers with a wonderful combination of thriller and comedy elements, Spy × Family nails the portrayal of the nature of intelligence, as well. While Spy × Family does present some elements of espionage that belong more in an Ian Fleming novel, such as the quintessential spy who is a sauve sharpshooter able to extricate himself from remarkably perilous scenarios, Spy × Family also takes the time of showing fieldcraft as Tom Clancy presents it: in his novels, Clancy writes that the best intelligence operators blend into their environment by hiding in plain sight. This is best exemplified in Adam Yao, whom Clancy introduces in Threat Vector as a NOC who runs an intellectual property firm as his white-side job. Yao is presented as being an expert of “selling it”: this is to embrace whatever role the situation demands and act with confidence that one belongs. In this way, Yao succeeds in striking up conversation with people and learning more about his objectives than he would by digging through their trash. That Spy × Family chooses this approach over the traditional James Bond way of blowing up a super-villain’s secret lair is welcoming because it shows the social aspects of espionage: while films tend to dramatise the martinis, girls and guns, real intelligence and fieldwork is a matter of persistence and patience: more often than not, intelligence is conducting surveillance on people to see what they know, and if they might be an asset, talking to people and gaining their trust. Spy × Family‘s portrayal of espionage incorporates James Bond, but the main mission Loid undertakes here is a textbook example of “selling it”: in order to get close to Donovan, Loid must sell being a loving father and husband from a cultured background worthy of Eden. While he, Anya and Yor experience some growing pains, it is clear that by the end of the first season, the three do appear to be a picture-perfect family beginning their own journey together. In portraying Loid and Yor as being competent, there is little doubt that Loid will succeed in his mission: the excitement in Spy × Family therefore comes from seeing what lies ahead, whether it be Anya’s efforts to befriend Damien, Loid’s trying to balance his other responsibilities with keeping up the façade of being a good father and husband, or Yor’s assassination work and the potential for her to clash with Loid should either learn of the other’s actual identity (á la the 2005 film Mr. & Mrs. Smith). There’s a great deal to look forwards to in Spy × Family, and with the first episode coming out tomorrow, I’m excited to see this story pick up where it left off – Bond Forger, a Great Pyrenees briefly seen during the penultimate episode after Anya desires to look after a dog, has yet to be formally introduced to the family, and this will doubtlessly add to the dynamics in a series whose characters, settings and overarching story have already been exceptionally fun.