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Spy x Family makes parenthood the real impossible mission

Fatherhood is hard, even when your kid is a cute psychic

Loid dodges an assassin swinging a pipe at him, catching his hat while Loid ducks. Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

Not long after literally barricading his adopted child inside his new apartment, Spy x Family’s frosty and aloof secret agent, codenamed “Twilight,” discovers that this whole parenthood thing isn’t quite as easy as putting a group of armed henchmen in the hospital.

Based on Tatsuya Endo’s ongoing Shonen Jump action-comedy manga, Spy x Family finds its humor by crossing Cold War-era spy dramas with the more mundane domestic troubles of raising a child. It’s tempting to call it a slice-of-life comedy in disguise, because while there are moments of action and an overarching espionage narrative, it’s mostly about a guy dealing with being a new father.

This genre crossover happens because of Twilight’s latest mission, “Operation Strix.” In order to monitor a political extremist, he must enroll a child in the prestigious school the mark’s own child attends, leading to Twilight’s adoption of the young girl Anya. And so, the greatest spy in the known world, the man with hundred faces (thanks to some Mission Impossible-style rubber masks), becomes a man just like any other new to parenthood: confused and unfathomably exhausted.

Though, unbeknownst to Twilight, Anya isn’t an unwitting accomplice in the mission. She’s fully aware of the role she’s playing because of her ability to read minds, a talent resulting from scientific experimentation. In Anya, Spy x Family finds itself an incredible audience surrogate. She’s almost always in on what’s happening from every angle, but she’s incapable of doing much to change the course of the narrative — and Anya’s first attempt to get involved immediately ends in disaster.

Anya looking at spy tools spread around her dad’s room in shock Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

Spy x Family, which has only aired one episode so far, is very funny — especially when the show plays its mix of absurdism and dark comedy completely straight. (A guy gets executed on the spot for suggesting that maybe it doesn’t matter if a member of parliament wears a toupée.) Though the art style feels fairly plain, there’s a charm to the retro spy pastiche and vague evocation of ’80s Berlin architecture, which includes a long and ominous concrete wall decked in barbed wire. But the most fun part of Spy x Family is seeing even the mightiest, coolest person around weakened by their growing attachment to their child. First seen cooly breaking the heart of a beautiful woman whom he had gotten close to for cover, “Loid Forger” (Twilight’s undercover name for this domestic mission) struggles to maintain a similar emotional distance when it comes to his adoptive daughter.

It’s easy to see why Twilight folds so immediately when it comes to Anya. He sees something of himself and his own miserable childhood as a war orphan in her, weakening his instinct to cut and run. Anya’s also the most adorable comic character of the past couple of years — one primed to become a meme with her broad range of ludicrous expressions and reactions, as well as providing a good half of the show’s comedic moments.

In exploring the iron curtain around Twilight’s heart, the acclaimed director Kazuhiro Furuhashi’s background in action also comes into play. His work on Dororo and Mobile Suit Gundam: Unicorn, as well as on classics like Hunter x Hunter and Rurouni Kenshin, translates to the domestic drama and spycraft pastiche of Spy x Family in delightful ways.

One might think sequences featuring cold-blooded murder would be at odds with the show’s slice-of-life elements, but in fact, it’s a thematic compliment. The action in the first episode of Spy x Family isn’t particularly flashy, but that doesn’t mean it’s unappealing. If anything, the detail of the animation in those moments is quite pleasing, and the choreography is precise and snappy. But with its quick, single strikes and swift disappearance of foes into a makeshift smokescreen, the action remains matter of fact.

The slickness of the action and its sense of functionality only throws Twilight’s clumsiness as a new parent into sharper relief — especially as he talks about menial tasks as though they’re part of a spy mission and not just the normal aspects of caring for a child. It’s in how he wraps up a fight where he’s outnumbered with speed and grace, but is faltered by a 5-year-old who knows exactly how to emotionally extort him (even with the benefit of telepathy, it’s usually by crying). And so, rather than perfectly planning and executing his mission, Twilight’s learning and making things up as he goes along, like a regular dad.

Loid lifts Anya up in the air in celebration Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

But the setup of the (Spy x) family required by Anya’s conservative private school isn’t complete by the end of the series premiere. This needing to be as close to a nuclear family as possible, Twilight’s next step is to search for a spouse, leading to an episode title that’s already making me laugh: “Mission 2 — Find a Wife.” Though we haven’t met her in the anime yet, Twilight’s “wife” turns out to be an infamous assassin. This will introduce a Cold War-era Mr. & Mrs. Smith angle to the series, as a constant game of deception and espionage plays out within their mirage of domestic bliss.

In the manga, once Twilight has his new family in place, the story progresses at a patient pace, content with situational comedy and paternal relationship drama over high-stakes action. If the anime follows the same formula, it should hit that sweet spot for people who don’t quite want to give up action completely, but are looking for a show that’s a little more introspective than the next shonen slugfest.

Going off the first episode and what we know of the manga’s story, there’s a lot to be excited about with Spy x Family. (Though it remains to be seen how Wit Studio and Cloverwork’s co-production collaboration — something that’s a fairly unique crossover in itself — will work out over the course of the season.) It may still be early days, but we already have a good idea of where Spy x Family is heading as its isolated and frosty lead character begins to discover the comforts of companionship and (mostly) unconditional love. But as Twilight himself will probably learn, indifferent anticipation and analysis is overrated. Sometimes it’s just nice to see a cold heart thaw.

New episodes of Spy X Family are available on Crunchyroll every Saturday at 8:30am PDT/11:30am EDT.