Spy x Family is, quite understandably, proving to be immensely popular in the current anime season. Like many well-regarded shows, it’s based on an original manga, so I decided to check out the source material to date and see where some of that enduring appeal has come from.
Spy x Family (pronounced “Spy Family”, to clear that up once and for all) is the work of mangaka Tatsuya Endo, and it is by far his most successful work to date, with over ten million physical and digital copies of the first seven volumes in circulation. It kicked off in 2019 and is still running today — nine volumes are currently available, seven of which have been localised at the time of writing. The eighth is set to arrive in the west in September of 2022.
For the unfamiliar, Spy x Family’s concept is that ace spy Twilight has been dispatched to the fictional country of Ostania in order to spy on Donovan Desmond, leader of the country’s National Unity Party and potential warmonger. Desmond is a notorious recluse, and as such it is decided that the optimal way for Twilight to get close to his target is to pose as a family man with a “wife” and “child” and enroll said child in the same prestigious private school as Desmond’s sons.
Twilight acquires an apparently suitable child from a local orphanage, and said child, Anya, turns out to be telepathic — though throughout the first seven volumes she is still yet to actually reveal this to anyone. As for a wife, a humorous sequence of events leads him to forming a sham marriage with Yor Briar, a renowned assassin who has been working as an office drone in local government in order to maintain her cover. They also later acquire a dog named Bond with the power of precognition.
While Spy x Family’s setting is fictional, it’s clearly based on the Cold War tensions between the western world and the former USSR. Life in Ostania isn’t easy, and people live in constant fear of being taken away by the secret police on a variety of flimsy justifications — indeed, Yor fears that being a single woman of a certain age makes her inherently suspicious, and as such she happily jumps into her fake marriage with Twilight without hesitation.
We’ll save going through the details of the plot for a potential volume-by-volume exploration of the series as a whole at a later date; instead, today what I want to talk about is why Spy x Family works so well in general — and why it’s proven to be so astronomically popular since its original release.
Essentially, it boils down to the series’ masterful combination of seemingly disparate elements. Despite the espionage-based premise, the series can be quite comfortably categorised in slice of life territory, since the majority of the unfolding narrative involves the fake family life at the core of everything becoming increasingly genuine-feeling over time. Yor, in particular, develops quite a taste for playing the part of a housewife, despite being absolutely terrible at it — and Twilight’s increasing anxiety and exhaustion over the whole situation allows him to play the stressed-out father perfectly.
Child characters in manga and anime can easily be quite annoying, or feel like they’re rather throwaway, but one of the best things about Spy x Family is that Anya is a well-crafted main character, and a considerable portion of the overall narrative is spent exploring her and the challenges she faces attending a prestigious school. Her troubled (and, to date, unclear) background means that she has a distinct perspective on life that doesn’t necessarily match up with the “elegance” demanded of Eden Academy’s students — and yet she somehow manages to muddle through.
The school sequences are handled with a clear appreciation and enthusiasm for classic British public school dramas — which go far beyond Harry Potter, let’s not forget. Eden’s students compete for the prestigious “Stella Stars”, as acquiring eight of them allows them to join the exclusive ranks of the Imperial Scholars, who get to wear cool cloaks and enjoy special social occasions.
Anya achieving this will be the easiest means through which Twilight will be able to accomplish his mission — but unfortunately it becomes apparent very early on that she’s certainly not going to be able to achieve that through her academic abilities.
Instead, Anya has another objective to consider: attempting to avoid acquiring eight “Tonitrus Bolts” for bad behaviour or underachievement, since getting a full stack of those results in expulsion. This system feels like it’s right out of a 1950s children’s novel, and it absolutely works beautifully in the context of Spy x Family’s numerous unfolding narratives. The exact date in which the series is set is never made completely explicit — perhaps because the setting is fictional — but it certainly looks to be around the mid-20th century, which would make this sort of private school shenanigans entirely appropriate.
It’s not all about Anya, though. Twilight (or Loid, as he becomes known in his family man role) and Yor have plenty of their own opportunities to shine, and these often end up being rather comedic in nature. The fact that both Loid and Yor are hiding their true identities from one another — yet Anya immediately knows the full story on both of them thanks to her telepathy — makes for plenty of amusing situations, particularly when Yor gets flustered (which is quite often) and inadvertently reveals her seemingly superhuman capabilities as an ace assassin.
One of the most pleasing things about the manga as a whole is how effortlessly it switches between styles at a moment’s notice. On one page, you’ll be enjoying the simple, clean art of some slice of life fun, the next something unexpected and dramatic will happen, accompanied by the bold, detailed lines and exaggerated special effects of shounen-style action sequences. On another, something incredibly sinister and disturbing will occur, reminding us that this whole thing is unfolding in a Cold War situation; on yet another, you’ll enjoy situations that are just plain comedic.
Sometimes these situations even overlap, such as a particularly memorable sequence where Twilight and a partner from his intelligence agency are forced to play a deadly underground tennis match while avoiding collapsing floor tiles, sniper shots and the increasingly unreasonable behaviour of their opponents. Or a scene where Bond the dog is worried about Yor’s terrible cooking killing him and ends up dramatically breaking out of the house in search of Twilight, ending up helping him accomplish a dangerous mission in the process.
Plenty of characters embody the blend of comedic, sinister and dramatic, also. Yor’s clingy brother Yuri, for example, is an absurdly jealous siscon any time he’s around Yor, for example, but in his day job he’s an incredibly sinister member of the Ostanian secret police, and we see him torturing and abusing his captives on several occasions. Likewise, Twilight’s aforementioned tennis partner is an enormously capable field agent — but she’s also utterly obsessed with Twilight and wants nothing more than to prove herself more worthy of being his “fake wife” than Yor.
Spy x Family’s flip-flopping between genre and atmosphere could easily have become exhausting if handled poorly, but thankfully the whole thing is paced absolutely beautifully. We’re allowed plenty of time to enjoy the more heartfelt moments — which increase in both frequency and intensity as the series progresses and all the characters grow closer — and yet the more dramatic, action-packed sequences never cease to be enjoyable.
The inherent absurdity of it all is oddly thought-provoking, too; it’s a reminder that real world politics can often be absurd, too, particularly given that we don’t know a lot of what goes on behind closed doors on the real world stage. Okay, we don’t have as many telepathic six-year olds and dogs who can see the future in our world, but you can bet your bippy that the world’s espionage agencies are all up to some exceedingly peculiar nonsense, all in the name of getting one up on their neighbours — and that was even more likely to be the case during the real-life Cold War.
Spy x Family is that rare thing: a popular work that is completely and utterly deserving of all the praise, plaudits and commercial success it has enjoyed since its launch. It feels like it’s written from the heart and that it has something to say, but it also recognises that tackling sensitive political subjects requires a delicate touch and the ability to acknowledge that absurdity as well as the more disturbing aspects.
It’s been a consistently compelling read, demonstrated by the fact that as I finished reading each volume on my Kindle Paperwhite, I immediately picked up the next without hesitation — at £3.99 each for the digital versions, it felt silly not to continue straight on with something I was enjoying so much.
Only trouble is, now I’ve run out of volumes until September! Oh well. Time to watch the anime, perhaps?
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