It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single manga reader in possession of good taste, must be in want of a waifu. More frankly, if the manga subreddit is anything to go by, what internet denizens truly crave is a wholesome, mutually supportive relationship between two characters who will make them feel vicarious joy.
Unfortunately, this is as difficult to find as a male romance protagonist who realises that a girl loves him. Off the top of my head, the recently licenced You Got Me Senpai! fits the bill, but most other pleasant relationships are locked off to the West. Even less available is the adorableness of child-rearing manga; the English-speaking West is mostly stuck with Sweetness and Lightning, Barakamon, or Yosobato! which are good, great, and supreme respectively. Or they have the second half of Bunny Drop (don’t read the second half of Bunny Drop). And although there is a definite shift afoot in the shounen action manga arena towards greater character-driven works as the norm (rather than being outliers), there is still a deficit of good manga relationships in the West.
There are many, many charming images like this one.Screenshot: Spy x Family (Shueisha MangaPlus App)
Enter Tatsuya Endo’s Spy X Family, a series so bluntly intent on planting itself at the intersection of action and childcare that it’s literally the title. Consistently one of the most viewed manga series on Shueisha’s recently launched MangaPlus site, it only falls to the likes of One Piece, Dragon Ball, and My Hero Academia. No doubt this is mainly due to the series being a web-exclusive and thus avoids the piracy, but I have to believe that the success is at least partly because this series is a fortnightly balm to cure the hunger pangs of the manga reader starved of genuine pleasantness. For it absolutely whets the appetite.
Set in a French-tinged analogue of East Germany during the Cold War, superspy Agent Loid Forger (Codename: Twilight) is tasked with infiltrating a corrupt politician’s inner circle to gather valuable intelligence that could turn the tide of the conflict. To achieve this, he must ensure his daughter is accepted at the prestigious Academy, attended only by upper echelon of elegant society and his target’s child. The slight snag in the plan is that Loid doesn’t have a daughter or a wife. Enter Ania, an adorable esper whom Loid adopts, and Yor Briar, who is secretly a deadly assassin. Now all they have to do is become a perfect family unit. Simple, really.
Of course, Ania didn’t enjoy having corpses hidden under her bed quite as much.Screenshot: Spy x Family (Shueisha MangaPlus App)
It’s a winning concept on paper, but weaving these tonally distinct strands together could leave the work feeling unbalanced. If one thread breaks, the whole premise collapses. Fortunately, Endo aims the episodic action towards furthering the familial bonds, and such tight writing invariably makes the resultant chapter endearing and exciting. The setting provides fertile ground for applying this formula in an array of circumstances that illustrate the particular facets of this makeshift family. The very specific nature of the inciting mission had concerned me that the seemingly limiting parameters of sending a child to school would cause the plot run aground, but Endo deftly pivots the story, opening up possibilities for all the characters to shine. The scope of the series expands, but the family unit remains cohesive, while the individual members have more of a spotlight.
The real masterstroke is giving the child, Ania, telepathy. Doing so eschews the limited agency and understanding of younger characters, which might otherwise turn them into a functional prop given the action focus. But the telepathy permits Ania to have an active role while also allowing for some great comedic moments of a precocious child silently reacting to the knife-wielding, poison-concocting, gun-shooting endeavours of her unwitting parents. The dramatic irony is delicious.
The drawbacks of mind-reading…Screenshot: Spy x Family (Shueisha MangaPlus App)
All this talk of concepts, formulae, and functions makes this story seem as coldly calculating as a top secret agent. Indeed, the clean lines and dynamism of the illustration could make one question if this entire series was tailored to be as universally appealing as possible. And who knows, maybe it was? But if so, Endo expertly guises any cynical manipulation with emotional layering that feels authentic. Such authenticity ultimately stems from Ania’s development being the heartfelt centre of the piece. Just as parents rushing to console a crying child, Loid and Yor focussing on Ania’s growth as a person and moving past the trauma of being an orphan prevents their more bombastic qualities from overwhelming their characterisations. This story accentuates the nurturing importance of family, and Ania is a genuine emotional tether for her adoptive parents.
Following the early chapters, the story has enriched the evolving family dynamic, but slightly at the expense of the individual relationships, especially Loid and Yor’s romance. This is cushioned by their discreet professions, but also—if my memories of occupying my parents’ time is any marker—actively raising young children, even independent ones like Ania, leaves little time for snuggling. It is really a minor quibble because their respective adaptations to motherhood and fatherhood are so damn charming. Besides, spying and family-ing are on the eponymous agenda, and both are done with panache. If you can stomach limited actual romance, then seeing Yor and Loid defend one another and their child is as solid a demonstration of a healthy relationship as any, albeit a bloodier one.
Sometimes the romance is also very bloody. But beautiful. Screenshot: Spy x Family (Shueisha MangaPlus App)
It’s barely begun, but Spy X Family is one of the most assuredly written and flat-out fun manga series I’ve read in a long time. It’s a perfectly blended antidote for apathy towards stale relationships and action, and I can barely wait for my fortnightly dosage. The euphoria I feel when reading this series could possibly kill me, and I’m okay with that.
Spy X Family, by Tatsuya Endo, is available for free on Shuiesha’s MangaPlus app or online site in English and Spanish. The first volume was physically published in Japan in July 2019.
Screenshot: Spy x Family (Shueisha MangaPlus App)
Thank you to MamaLuigi and ProtonStorm for their meticulous editing and helpful suggestions.