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Anime Music: Spy x Family

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By Andrew Osmond.

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A spy, an assassin and a telepathic tot walk into a story. That’s the set-up for Spy x Family, but it’s pretty much the show’s punchline, too, repeated over and again. And we still love it. In particular, the anime’s opening and closing titles are YouTube-friendly masterworks, visions of domestic family bliss that you thought vanished with 1950s advertising.

These titles are accompanied by multiple songs. Arguably the biggest earworm is the peppy “Souvenir” by Bump of Chicken, which was the opening song for the second half of the first season. It was quickly embedded in Tokyo’s piped music soundscape, where it sometimes felt as ubiquitous as Frozen’s “Let it Go.” But if you find it too slickly controlled, you may prefer the jazzily madcap “Mixed Nuts” – that opened the show’s first episodes, created by the group Official Hige Dandism. More recently, the show’s second season opened to the unmistakeable tones of the singer Ado, following up her epic stint on One Piece Film: Red with another swerving, swaggering barnstormer, “Kura Kura.”

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Then don’t forget Spy x Family’s end songs – the soft but funky “Kigeki” (or “Comedy”) by Gen Hoshino which closed out the first episodes; the perky “Shikisai” (or “Color”) by the singer yama which closed out the season’s second half; and the relaxed soaring of season two’s end song, “Todome no Ichigeki” (“Finishing Strike”) by Vaundy – he also wrote the outro to Chainsaw Man, “Chainsaw Blood.”

Like the best blockbusters, Spy x Family would have been impossible to make with an “If you liked this…” algorithm. It has explosive action and moe cuteness, but remixed quite unexpectedly. It feels essentially left-field, like something that grew from a shaggy dog story. Maybe that’s why a dog wanders in later.

As its name implies, Spy x Family crashes the spy action-thriller into a heartwarming comedy about family bonds, even if each family member is reading a very different script from the others. There’s a superspy dad, an assassin mum and a button-cute tot who happens to be a telepath. Mum and dad only know their bits of the story. They each think they’re the only one who has secrets, and that the people they share a household with are all normal. It’s like if Superman worked at a newspaper where everyone had a secret cape and went around flying at night. The mind-reading daughter knows everything, but she’s only six, so her comprehension’s a bit limited.

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Spy x Family wears its own disguise. The anime starts by chucking us into a slightly-fictional Cold War, where the countries are called Westalis and Ostanis, and the capital is called Berlint. (We hope there’s a Parisd and a Londonk, and a Tokyop). The first scene shows an assassination; later that episode, a crook is shot in front of a googly-eyed little girl who knows she’s not in an Enid Blyton story. “A pistol with a silencer!” we hear her think (a lot of her dialogue is internal). “A real bad guy!”

Luckily, rescue is on the way from the girl’s new daddy, who’s a kind of James Bond. (Well, not really, but we’ll discuss that later.) His codename is Twilight, though he soon changes that to Loid. He’s slender, dapper and dashing, and he’s a top agent for Westalis, changing his name and identity at the drop of a hat. He’s been given a mission to spy on an Ostanis dignitary because… frankly, that’s not important. What is important is he needs to create a fake family as cover, including acquiring a child who can befriend his target’s child at a super-elite school, and let Twilight get into the social circles of the higher-ups. Yes, a school parents’ evening could help win the Cold Wat.

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The first move of Loid (as we’ll call him from now on) is to adopt the little girl mentioned earlier, who’s called Anya. He finds her in a shady orphanage. Unknown to him, Anya is telepathic, and that’s a great joke straight off. Here is Loid the superspy, and the show puts him instantly in the dark about what kind of story he’s in. Loid sees Anya as the way to get to his target, but actually she’s the infiltrator, giving us a way into the story. She’s a moe (super-adorable) character; practically all the show’s opening and end title sequences revolve round her, as do many of the episodes. But, unusually, much of the humour revolves around Anya being so out of place, both in action scenes and in ordinary interactions.

For example, when Anya first meets Loid at the orphanage, she impresses him by solving a crossword puzzle that’s way too old for her. But what Loid doesn’t know is she’s just read the answers in his mind, which makes her seem much smarter than she is. This causes Anya no end of problems later, when her new dad expects her to pass gruelling tests to get into her target’s elite school!

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Later, when (mild spoiler), Anya does get into the school, there’s some adorable comedies of errors and confusions with the other kids, and especially with Damian, the boy Loid needs Anya to befriend. Damian acts like some snobby monster, with shades of Draco from Harry Potter, but… Well, there’s more to him than that, though he won’t admit it. What’s really funny is that Anya is oblivious to these complexities. She can read minds, but that’s not the same as understanding feelings. It’s rare for an anime character to be so precocious and so age-appropriately dim at the same time. Another implicit joke is that while Anya can’t understand a little boy, she can understand her daddy behind his lies. Grown-ups can be much simpler than kids.

That leaves the mother, Yor, who’s an assassin. Her character’s well established in her first set-piece, when she comes to a hotel dressed up like Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, slaughters a roomful of men and then frets her dress is all bloody and what will she wear for her party date? Actually, the date is with Loid; Yor has no idea who he is really, but she needs a companion for the evening, and Anya helps introduce them. (She’d just love an assassin as her new mum.) How Yor and Loid actually pair off is the stuff of grand farce, culminating in them both being caught in a shoot-out while frantically trying to hide the fact that they’re both combat veterans. It’s romcom heaven.

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While Loid’s relationship with Anya is cemented from the start, his relation with Yor is more of a slow-burner, with comic diversions like Yor’s struggles to cook non-lethally, and the introduction of her hyper-possessive kid brother. Although Loid and Yor are adults, and they’re officially married, they feel like two hyper-shy teenagers – one episode cliffhanger has them realise to their horror that they’ll have to kiss. Even in later episodes, the characters are effectively still dating. There’s a disastrous restaurant heart-to-heart scene that starts with their drunken confessions and ends with a literal foot-in-mouth.

From the moe Anya to her “shy teen” type parents, Spy x Family is peppered with anime tropes. There are James Bond jokes – Anya’s secret name is “Subject 007” and a character called Bond joins the show later on – but it’s not really a Bond spoof. Earlier I mentioned 1950s advertising. James Bond was the ultimate 1950s men’s lifestyle advertisement, a package of travel, fine dining, and women on tap. In Japan, Monkey Punch drew on that dream to create his super-thief Lupin the Third. But Spy x Family has quite different values: it’s shyer, sillier and much less macho.

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One unusual thing about Spy x Family is that it is, after all, an anime about a family. For Western fans, a lot of Spy x Family’s appeal may be precisely that its family framework feels so different from most anime fare. At the same time, it offers familiar anime pleasures; the comfort of slice of life series about young friends living together, interspersed with action stories of ticking bombs and deadly tennis (yes, seriously).

Japanese viewers might see it differently, though. In Japan, there are some very long-running series – longer than One Piece! – which are also centred on families. It’s just that these are series that were seldom shown in the West, and certainly never with success. At the genteel end, there’s Sazae-san, a Sunday afternoon series that shows the small slices of life of a happy Tokyo family. It’s been going fifty-four years and more than two thousand episodes, making it part of anime’s bedrock.

Like Sazae-San, Spy x Family’s cosiness that puts it at the opposite end of the scale from the weird, dysfunctional, deranged families of The Simpsons, Family Guy or Japan’s Crayon Shin-chan. Even loveable cartoon families – those in Bob’s Burgers, The Incredibles and, The Flintstones – are often driven by frustrations, worries and grudges, in a way that feels foreign to Spy x Family. Even if you can’t accept that Spy x Family is really Sazae-san with extra bombs and shootings, then Spy x Family still has a deep layer of mellowness, of underlying calm, what anime fans call iyashikei.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Spy x Family is currently streaming on Prime Video; the soundtrack is available for pre-order from Anime Limited and the movie Code: White is screening in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 26th April.

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