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Anya reacts to something in her unique way Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

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Spy x Family got the perfect narrative device (and meme queen) with Anya

Tiny telepath Anya might be one of the best audience surrogates in recent memory

The anime adaptation of Tatsuya Endo’s Spy x Family started out its season strong, showing both the ability to flex the talents of its production staff and willingness to play around with the source material, expanding on it without losing its spirit. It’s a pleasure to watch on many levels, from the slickly choreographed action to the genuinely sweet domestic drama and even just the swinging big band numbers of (K)now_Name’s score (especially the hilarious parody of its own theme that uses recorders to replace the string section).

The pilot episode also very clearly laid out a recurring theme for the season — that, for all of the show’s outlandishness, much of its emotional through line lies in Loid’s early discovery that parenting is hard, and requires more vulnerability than he’s accustomed to. The show continued to home in on Loid’s insecurities throughout the season, all while his save-the-world mission slid more and more into (somewhat) regular parental anxiety as he flapped about his daughter’s failing grades and more, keeping her happy and maintaining the image of a good parent.

Not long after, in Spy x Family’s second episode, its pretend family unit was completed by the arrival of the assassin Yor (aka “The Thorn Princess”), a delightful combo of genuinely terrifying lethality as well as something of a klutz, who guzzles wine by the bottle and breaks heels mid-drunken brawl, frequently failing to recognize her own ungodly strength, not to mention hilariously daydreaming about solving menial problems through murder. It’s funny that Yor’s often bizarre support only stresses Loid out even more, though her displays of inhuman strength barely raise an eyebrow. The show’s one-line sell — in my mind anyway — is that it’s a comedy that riffs on the mix of espionage and domestic drama of works like The Americans and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, where a spy and an assassin create a fake domestic life together while concealing their identities from each other. The key to making the story work, however, isn’t just the tension of the parents’ mutual deception, but that of their adopted child Anya.

Yor, Anya, and Loid dancing together in a different animation style Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

Some of the best comedy around Anya, who’s secretly a telepath and the only person fully in the know for the course of the series, comes purely from her reactions; the show’s goofiest expressions are reserved for her. As well as being plain adorable, Anya’s attempts to intervene often lead to a wonderful comedy of errors and other absurd moments in the context of her extremely fancy private school, an analogue of the Eton Colleges of the world in its sole purpose seeming to be the manufacturing of a new generation of the elite.

One of the show’s most straightforward pleasures can be found in the creative translations of Endo’s visual style, comic timing and ridiculous expressions into motion, which are paired with some excellent voice work, such as in an encounter between Anya and her target Damian and his sycophantic cronies. Her attempts to defuse hostilities end in the most memed still of the season. Or, better still, a dodgeball sequence featuring a 6-year-old with the build of a JoJo protagonist, his absurd stature a delightful exaggeration of what it feels like to play sports against kids who had that growth spurt just a little earlier than everyone else. The anime doubles down on the manga’s absurdity through its voice casting as well as its emphatic, maximalist animation and fun, frivolous reference jokes.

Beyond such ridiculousness and Anya being a reaction imagery goldmine, having a character privy to the same dramatic ironies and crucial information as the audience gives the show a sense of momentum even in its quieter episodes. Three people and everyone they encounter all keeping secrets from one another is a difficult premise to maintain without a whole lot of internal monologue, even with strong and slick visual storytelling. But Spy x Family — the comic too — avoids becoming didactic or stolid simply through how it utilizes Anya. Every idle thought becomes potential for the plot to go off the rails in some way, or for the young girl to aggressively, comically take action to help Loid accomplish the objectives of his “Operation Strix.”

Part of the fun of Arya is she can act on the same information as the audience, often quietly maneuvering her parents into doing something cool, while usually being as gleefully entertained as us. Such access to people’s inner lives is not unlike The Disastrous Life of Saiki K, with its central character (who would rather mind his own business) also possessing telepathy. But the key difference here is Anya is a toddler, and unable to use this knowledge with any kind of proficiency (or sometimes even genuine understanding).

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

Anya might be one of the best audience surrogates in recent memory, as Endo’s story (and by extension the show’s) is able to preserve dramatic tension and the potential for farce simply through the fact that Anya is a very young child. Knowing things doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to act on that knowledge, nor even understand it. Like the viewer, Anya sees the innermost thoughts of the characters and the arc through which the events of the episode are supposed to proceed — only, in her attempts to anticipate this, she often makes things spin out of control a little.

There’s a fun tension between Anya being the most knowledgeable character as well as the clumsiest, especially in a setting where intelligence is power. It’s also simply really funny to see her, a 4- or 5-year-old (her age is so far unconfirmed but she’s younger than her classmates), try and enact change on the world stage by knowingly and readily taking part in her adoptive father’s mission of espionage. Sometimes this just manifests in amusing incidents of copied language from either her peers or her parents, sometimes it results in actual heroism; the penultimate episode of the season’s first half sees her save a peer from drowning. She has good instincts at least, honed well enough by the end of the season that she becomes somewhat accomplished in making things go her way. During an outing to an aquarium, she quietly assists Loid on a mission she knows is happening parallel to their trip, by acting like she’s been kidnapped by his target in order to provoke a comically violent intervention from Yor.

While in that regard Anya’s telepathy has become a benefit to her and those around her, the series’ writers rightly explore it as a crutch, a way for her to avoid working. She doesn’t have a natural aptitude for anything in particular, used to copying answers and the language of everyone around her. Throw in the short attention span of a child her age and the constant influx of info, and things unfold exactly how they would with a 5-year-old, derailing trains of thought and getting different objectives mixed up. The children in Spy x Family don’t always talk like children, because this is a comedy, so it’s striking when the show leans into Anya’s most childlike qualities in that way.

Yor and Loid smile and make heart hands Image: Wit Studio/CloverWorks

As an extension of this, Anya’s telepathy sometimes simply feels like an allegory for the eerie emotional sensitivity of children. In the ninth episode, “Show Me How in Love You Are,” Loid passes off one of Anya’s observations as such. But, she has much more insight into her adoptive parents’ ludicrous, hilarious flights of fancy, as even the most normal parent-child conversations can lead to fantastical thoughts like Yor imagining a handbag dog wielding a combat knife against her child. It also works on this level with her peers, wealthy snobs who mock Anya’s (fake) upbringing. Her knowledge doesn’t always give her an advantage — sometimes it only provokes anxiety, and that allows her room to grow as an actual character rather than serve as a narrative device alone.

Because of her telepathy, Anya’s the only person who knows (but maybe doesn’t fully grasp) the scope of what’s happening and its importance, and her makeshift family’s part in it. Seeing her catalyze some kind of change in these people is also one of the show’s greatest charms. Anya may not be able to fully change the course of things in her parents’ place of work, but she can confront them with those buried feelings, in that clumsy way of hers. Even in the episodes that take the focus off of her attempts to save the world on her father’s behalf, her observations drive the other characters to look inward. Her observations often provoke something in Loid and Yor that they’re unsure they’re able to talk about with anyone else, given the solitary nature of their professions and the need to focus only on the mission at hand. They hide their love of this calmer domesticity from their bosses, who require them to only act as weapons. By default, Anya is their closest, most genuine confidant.

It’s but one of many layers of Spy x Family’s delights — I haven’t even brought up the family dog named Bond — and the second half of this first season is sure to bring many more treats that play with what a typical outing can turn into when this family is involved, whether that’s extreme tennis matches or doomed holiday cruises. When the new episodes do arrive, we’ll be right there with Anya, reveling in seeing both sides of these stories.

The first season of Spy x Family is streaming on Crunchyroll.

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