[Note: this review is being handled by a different staff writer than Meowth900, who did the weekly episode recaps for this site.]
The world can be a very terrifying place. The people who surround us on a daily basis, for example, can be a great source of unknown knowledge and horrors. You never know if the person who sold you coffee this morning has some dark secret within, and it’s probably not something you think about all that much. The guy in a suit that bumped into you on the sidewalk could be anything from three kids in a human suit to a monstrous killer… emphasis on “monstrous”. Many science fiction stories have taken to exploring this kind of paranoia about our fellow man, whether it be Invasion of The Body Snatchers, John Carpenter’s take on The Thing, or the subject of this review: Parasyte –the maxim-.
Parasyte is an adaptation of a manga series originally created by Hitoshi Iwaaki, published from 1988-1995 The anime adaptation first premiered in October of 2014, nearly 20 years after the manga’s conclusion and after the rights to produce an American live-action adaptation of the manga (which had been in development hell for quite some time) finally fell through.
The premise is as classic as it gets: parasites of unknown origin (presumably alien) find their way to Earth and begin taking over human hosts to improve their chances of survival. Our protagonist, high school student Shinichi Izumi, becomes the victim of a parasite attack himself, but due to circumstance (thank god for headphones), the parasite is unable to take full control of his brain. Instead it has to settle for Shinichi’s right hand, forcing Shinichi and the parasite (eventually dubbed Migi) to develop a symbiotic relationship. Together the two most learn to cooperate, as Migi uses Shinichi to preserve its own life and Shinichi uses Migi’s powers to defend himself and his loved ones from the various other parasites that have infested Japan. Everyone Shinichi cares about is a potential new victim, including his family and his classmates, especially his love interest Satomi Murano, and he must protect them at all costs.
A well-worn idea to be sure, but Parasyte still offers a solid starting block for an action-horror series, and it does start off with its best foot forward, especially with regards to animation direction. Studio Madhouse brings an appropriately grotesque amount of detail to the shapeshift-happy titular creatures, with constantly shifting muscles and tendons, multi-eyed abominations bearing razor-sharp teeth and blades, and of course all the blood and gore that such mutations would entail. The opening episode is no doubt the best example of its animation strengths during the first major fight of the series, when the duo has to work together to fight off a parasite-infected dog. Migi itself also exemplifies the show’s visual flair, with the mutant entity being undoubtedly the most visually expressive character in the entire series.
The action as a whole is pure visual spectacle. Most of the fights are enjoyable tense as, despite the ostensible two-on-one approach to each scenario, there’s still a constant struggle between the more human approach that Shinichi has to fighting and minimizing casualties and Migi’s more calculated pragmatic instinct to just survive regardless of who else has to suffer. It makes for an engaging dynamic during fights as you’re constantly left wondering which of our leads’ approaches will ultimately win out, assuming they can actually live to the end.
It’s good that the action and fights are fun to watch because in almost every other respect, Parasyte is a pretty bad show. Most problems with the series stem from the story and how it’s executed, mostly feeling unfocused, lazily repetitive, and occasionally just plain infuriating.
The first thing to note about the story is that it feels oddly fractured and segmented. While most limited-run anime (i.e. the 13-24 episode series) are usually cumulative, constantly layering and building plot threads one on top of each other until they’re all resolved, Parasyte opts to take an approach more akin to the pacing of American superhero comics. Stories usually progress in chunks of 3 or 4 episodes, normally resolving some kind of present conflict while leaving just enough loose ends for a continuing narrative. While this isn’t automatically a bad thing (as one could argue that, for example, most shonen anime do the same and there’s nothing wrong there), Parasyte doesn’t have the luxury of continuing for an indefinite amount of time. It’s a story that is meant to have a clear end, and the series just awkwardly meanders from one plot point to another without ever clarifying what that end truly is.
You can see this present in the way many of the secondary characters are handled, showing up to play some undefined role for some undetermined amount of time and then exiting the narrative. At one point, Shinichi and Migi encounter Uda, a character who also is the victim of partial parasitic mutation. In his case, the parasite adopts the name Joe and, unlike the cold calculating Migi, is quite an abrasive loudmouth. Uda and Joe present an interesting counterpoint to our two leads and could have gone somewhere solid character-wise, but they only show up for a couple of episodes and their impact is so minimal that you wonder what the point was of having them in the narrative. The same applies to Uragami, a cannibalistic prisoner who has the mysterious ability to sense parasites despite not being a parasite himself. They never explain the nature of his sensing ability, because I guess you’re just supposed to go with it. He’s recruited by the Japanese military to deal with the parasite infestation towards the back half of the series, but halfway through the mission, he literally just ditches the military for no adequate reason, only showing up again in the very last episode.
Others just get killed off just to provide cheap motivation for Shinichi to continue fighting because apparently “just survive” isn’t good enough. The first of these deaths is Shinichi’s mom, which I don’t have much of a problem with since it’s within the first handful of episodes, actually providing a decent springboard for Shinichi to continue fighting other parasites, and it’s the only one that feels like it was planned from the start. The other two female deaths, not so much. At one point Shinichi encounters a character named Kana, a mysterious woman who has the ability to sense parasites (much like the aforementioned Uragami) within others despite not actually being a parasite herself. She dies for essentially the same narrative reason as Shinichi’s mom, but here it feels much more forced and shows the writers didn’t really think through her role. In addition, her parasite-sensing abilities are never once explained or expanded upon during any episode she’s in, thus making her death also come across as a cheap copout so they wouldn’t have to come up with an answer.
The last of these deaths is with one of the other significant parasites of the plot who adopts the identity Reiko Tamura, whose focus is on reproducing and spawning a natural-born parasite/human hybrid. She’s also shown working with a group of other parasites to experiment on creating new creatures, the end result of which is Goto: a creature controlled by five different parasites operating one body. Ignoring the fact that apparently just birthing a baby causes her to develop human feelings of attachment (which is a completely different irritating can of worms), her death scene is arguably one of the most poorly written moments in the series. Not only is the “humanization through motherhood” plot point come off as irritatingly outdated, but the actual tensions and emotions of the scene are undercut by the show’s other significant flaw: the ungodly terrible music.
Ken Arai is the one responsible for composing Parasyte’s music, and it is bad on nearly all fronts. The overwhelming majority of tracks are electronic-oriented, incorporating elements of chiptune, trap, and even a lot of dubstep. There’s also a couple of piano bits thrown in there, but for the most part Parasyte’s music is all about synths, trap beats, and thundering bass drops. The soundtrack’s problems are two-fold: not only are most of the songs awful or just straight up annoying on their own, but they also fail in the context of the series itself. The music as a whole sounds more like what you hear in a mediocre night club in Miami Beach. This is absolutely the wrong type of soundtrack for this kind of show, as the high-energy electronic beats often find themselves working to undermine the otherwise solid tension present in many of the show’s action scenes, for example. The main fight theme of the series is called “Hipnotik”, and while it does have some nice ideas with ominous choir chants and a few orchestral elements, the tweeting synths and programmed drums add way too much energy for a fight between shapeshifting parasitic monsters to be fully tense. Going back to the death of Reiko, this scene is actually set to the show’s ending theme, “It’s The Right Time” by Daichi Miura, a hilariously sunshine-happy song that completely undermines whatever emotional impact it would have had otherwise.
There are only two pieces of music throughout the entire series that are remotely appealing to listen to. One of these is the track “Lives”, a somber piano ballad that plays over a scene in which Migi tragically perishes during a battle with Goto. It’s a haunting tune that actually enhances the tragic nature of the scene instead of working against it. The other is in the final episode, and it’s a solo piano rendition of the show’s rancid opening theme, “Let Me Hear”, performed by Japanese techno-metal abominations Fear, and Loathing In Las Vegas. The OP on its own is just the worst: overproduced annoying Warped Tour-style trash where the auto-tune is cranked up so high that you don’t even realize that half of the lyrics are “sung” in English. It just sounds so much better as a stripped-down piano piece without all of that slop on it.
Speaking of the final episode, it is easily the worst part of Parasyte’s plot and one of the most ridiculous non-conclusions in all of fiction. After killing off Goto, all of the parasites (or rather the ones we know of in Japan) suddenly and unexpectedly begin to assimilate into society, becoming less of an obvious antagonistic threat. In essence, they just sort of… stop being the bad guys, which emphasizes my point of the show’s narrative being unfocused and ultimately building towards nothing specific in particular. Migi abandons Shinichi, going to sleep for an indefinite period of time, and this happens at the worst possible time: when Uragami suddenly shows up again and captures Satomi. He eventually confronts Shinichi and then proceeds to deliver an annoyingly preachy and unsubtle monologue where he *literally* announces himself as a metaphor for the inherently violent and animalistic nature of humanity. It’s worth noting that this happens just a few minutes after Shinichi himself gives a pretentious monologue about how mankind treats both the animals we share the planet with and the planet itself. The series chooses to go out on awkwardly forced message mongering so blunt-force and unsubtle that even Captain Planet would be laughing hysterically. As a whole, it’s a rushed final episode that commits the major sin of rendering everything ultimately pointless. Nothing was accomplished at the end of the series run other than some dead bodies that didn’t matter, especially considering how the parasites just go away with no definitive explanation as to why. Oh, and Shinichi manages to save Satomi because Migi’s power is still within him, but who really cares? She’s been such a colossal non-presence in the narrative up to that point, only really showing up to repetitiously question his identity (take a shot every time she asks something similar to “You *are* Shinichi Izumi, aren’t you?), that I can’t really care about what happens to her.
The last thing I should touch on is the English dub of the series, which is a mixed bag but ultimately decent. Unfortunately, the weak link is Adam Gibbs as Shinichi, who plays the character with a disaffected flat monotone throughout the entire series run. It doesn’t work as well as it should because given that Shinichi’s character development is about slowly losing his attachment to his humanity as time goes on, he already starts the show sounding pretty bored to begin with. Conversely, Brittney Karbowski as Migi fares much better, perfectly capturing the inherent deadpan of a cold calculating creature only concerned with its own survival. Most of the secondary characters fare much better and do perfectly okay, with the biggest standout being Andrew Love as Uragami, who elevates this otherwise minor role with some truly menacing voice work, emphasizing the character’s psychotic nature with every word uttered.
Parasyte is the perfect example of the worst kind of bad show: one that starts off with such massive promise and potential but then quickly shitting the bed at nearly every turn. From its sloppy unfocused narrative full of wasted plot points and characters to the irritating blunt force trauma of its message mongering and the terrible music choices, the show pisses away nearly all the good will it won over with its impressive first handful of episodes. Because of this, I would even argue that it’s tied with the entirety of Sword Art Online for the worst thing the current run of Toonami has aired. At least SAO didn’t write a giant check that it knew it couldn’t cash. So much wasted potential.
Final rating: 3 possessed right hands/10.