For all the variety and thrills that exist in anime, it can be surprisingly difficult to find a straightforward spy thriller to watch that’s not either a twist on another genre (Spy × Family’s spy action riff on domestic comedies) or inherently supernatural (Darker Than Blue). There’s anime like Joker’s Game, Golgo 13, and Eden of the East, sure. But if you’re looking for a dystopian espionage thriller anime in the mold of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six by way of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series, you can’t go wrong with Shūkō Murase’s 2017 dystopian sci-fi thriller Genocidal Organ.
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The third entry in a trilogy of anime feature adaptations of the late Japanese sci-fi author Satoshi “Project” Itoh’s novels, Genocidal Organ is far and away the best of the bunch. Ryotaro Makihara’s The Empire of Corpses is based on an unfinished Itoh story, and boy — does it sure feel like it, while Michael Arias and Takashi Nakamura’s Harmony is pretty decent all in all but can’t quite match Genocidal Organ’s sleek visual style and thematic gravitas.
Set in the near future, Genocidal Organ centers on Clavis Shepherd, a member of an elite black ops team of neurologically enhanced super soldiers tasked with hunting down “John Paul,” the CEO of an international consulting firm linked to a string of conflicts and genocides that appear to follow him everywhere he has traveled. To apprehend John Paul, Clavis is assigned to go undercover and get closer to John’s lover, Luci Skroupova, in the hopes she will inadvertently provide a lead as to his whereabouts.
As he steadily grows closer to grasping the full scope of John’s plan, Clavis becomes increasingly unsettled not only by the moral costs of his own actions, but by dawning realization of something he had never thought possible — the existence of a previously undiscovered region of the human brain that, when stimulated, elicits uncontrollable acts of mass violence and extremism. In short, a “genocidal organ.”
Where Genocidal Organ fills the gaps left by other espionage-themed anime of its ilk is in its world-building and deference to a fictional universe that exists in conversation with our own. The film not only takes place in the wake of the fictional detonation of a homemade nuclear bomb in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo — a city known as the site of the longest military siege of the 20th century — but explicitly in the wake of the September 11 attacks. “The day the Twin Towers fell in New York, something changed; we got dragged into the War on Terror,” Clavis says in a voiceover played over a montage of him walking through the streets of downtown Tampa. “Though there was some pushback against the invasion of privacy, overwhelmingly we were afraid. As time went on, we voluntarily gave up more and more of our freedoms in order to feel safe. We never wanted to suffer such trauma again. But the fact is, it’s impossible to be truly safe or truly free.”
If you thought that dialogue sounded like something you’d hear during a cutscene for a Metal Gear game, you’re not too far off. After all, Project Itoh was a friend (and something of an informal protégé) of Hideo Kojima, the creator of the critically acclaimed tactical espionage action game series. The influence of the Metal Gear series is all over Genocidal Organ, with an emphasis on spycraft, scintillating action, and a complex web of backdoor political intrigue and opaque interpersonal allegiances that comprises the film’s plot. Then there’s also the frankly unsettling bio-organic military hardware and stealth suits using material harvested from dolphin carcasses. Yeah, it gets weird.
Even the film’s aforementioned plot device of a hidden region of the human mind susceptible to manipulation feels eerily reminiscent of the vocal cord parasites that feature prominently in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Given how close Kojima and Itoh were, with Itoh having been chosen to write the Japanese tie-in novelization of 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Kojima including a posthumous dedication to Itoh in the end credits of 2010’s Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, it’s not entirely out of the question that Kojima might have partially been inspired by his late friend’s most critically acclaimed novel in the making of what is now (all but certainly) his final Metal Gear game.
Genocidal Organ is a dark, fascinating, and morally gray thriller that becomes sort of unhinged in the third act, but ultimately culminates into a chilling speculative military drama that probes at the inherent ethical murkiness of American geopolitics and humanity’s seemingly insatiable predisposition towards mortal conflict. Genocidal Organ is probably the closest that any subsequent creative work — film or anime — has come to emulate the idiosyncratic appeal of the Metal Gear series. However, even separated from that context, Shūkō Murase’s film is a thoroughly entertaining spy thriller in its own right, with a cool protagonist navigating a frighteningly uncanny universe populated by existential threats from within and without. It’s a movie that feels as strange as the world in which it was made, and it is precisely for that reason why it succeeds as work of contemporary espionage storytelling.
Genocidal Organ is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.