“Spy x Family” is one of the reasons I’m looking back at 2022 this way instead of just pushing a top 10 list. I’m not sure that I’d put the hit anime on a top 10 list. For all its unbridled enthusiasm and sense of joy, it has some pacing and focus issues and one or two subplots fall flat for me. Yet I’m going to remember it way better than anything I’d stick at #6 or #7 for the year. It’s going to mean more to me going forward than most things on a top 10 list would. So what’s the point of that list? We don’t watch series so we can organize lists. We watch series for how they bring out the human parts of ourselves that we don’t always get to feel in other moments of our days.
“Spy x Family” appears to land as the most popular anime of 2022 by far, and for good reason. In a land that’s based on the Cold War between West and East Germany, the spy Twilight is assigned to befriend a high-ranking government official who plans to restart an active war. The best way to do this is through the official’s son, who attends a prestigious private academy. Under the cover of Loid Forger, Twilight will have to adopt a child, find a fake wife, get his new child enrolled at the academy, and ensure that she performs well enough to join the social club of upper echelon students.
Things go off the rails pretty quickly. The child he adopts is Anya, who hides that she’s a telepath discarded from a state experiment. She’s not the age Loid needs to enroll her, and she’s not the academic standout that would get her in, but she can read his mind and fake exactly what he’s looking for.
Anya tells no one she’s a telepath – she’s scared she’ll be hunted and rejected. She does use her powers to help connect Loid with a potential new mom – a woman named Yor who’s an elite assassin. Yor’s fearful she’ll be investigated for the unofficial crime of not being married. Loid needs someone to play a wife. Yor needs someone to play a boyfriend. Anya takes care of the rest.
The pair agree to play out a fake marriage. Loid is unaware that Yor is an assassin, Yor is unaware that Loid is a spy, they’re both unaware that Anya is a telepath, and Anya knows everything about them to the detriment of anything academic. And that’s all way before they get the dog who can see the future.
What follows would usually be a comedy of strangeness, of hiding truths and miscommunicating with each other. Instead, it’s something rarer – a comedy of normality. Yor’s strength and martial prowess come off as normal to Loid because those are the kind of people he’s always been surrounded by. When they put on a massive role-playing game for Anya and a drunk Yor plays a witch who fights Loid, he doesn’t wonder why she’s a better fighter than the most legendary spy in the world. He wonders about the role-playing, “Why is she using physical attacks when she’s a witch?”
Raising her younger brother without parents, Yor imagines she has no clue how to parent despite being immensely caring, attentive, and fiercely protective. She’s never had anyone to affirm that she’s doing things right, and even if he can be slow on the uptake, this is what Loid can ultimately give her.
Anya has meant nothing to anyone, and has never had the opportunity to make anyone proud, but here has a chance to participate in an operation that can save the world – even if she misinterprets what’s going on half the time. What’s strange to the world around them is the greatest amount of normal and comfort any of the three has ever experienced.
We get to see spy missions, some with Anya and some without. These are routinely good and often ridiculous – finding microfilm swallowed by a penguin, winning a brutal underground tennis tournament. One of my favorite moments in the series is a brief vignette, only minutes long, where Loid meets with his handler, petals falling from a nearby flower. Loid quietly recognizes that his handler has overlooked a fine detail in her disguise, and when she asks him about the mission, he brags about Anya like any parent would – a gorgeous moment of two spies losing their edge for different reasons.
Anya is the series’ motivator, though. She’s a below-average student, but when her parents try to help her, she can only read their thoughts about spying and assassination. She’s not a savant or phenom, but a kid who knows she’s saddled with the fate of the world, something she understands by reading Loid’s mind, but can’t share with anyone lest she reveal her secret.
What connects about her is that her parents do everything they can to shield her from their burdens, but because of who Anya is they never have any chance of doing so. All they can do is support her through them. In between dodgeball tournaments, craft fairs, and dog adoptions, there’s something about this that speaks to our modern moment. Anya’s played as the cutest thing on television, as a character who exudes ‘must be protected at all costs’, but her attempts to befriend a politician’s son and help Loid succeed in his mission are nearly all remarkable misfires because kids aren’t tactical. They’re unpredictable, pushing boundaries, fearing the lack of them, and just getting a sense of how the world works. In its own way, amid dozens of unrealistic events and satires, “Spy x Family” gives us one of the most accurate depictions of how a kid acts.
Anya stands up for others and what she witnesses as the truth, but she’s also a huge troll who’s naturally curious and likes seeing what she can get away with. She tests out empathy and ego, lying and self-sacrifice. She’s a kid who barely knows anything, except the reality that the future of the world hinges on her accomplishing a mission way beyond her capabilities. Even if it’s desperate, doing something is better than not taking any action.
That’s why “Spy x Family” is a joy. It has a couple subplots that I’m not big on, such as Yor’s brother who works for the secret police and harbors an obsession for his sister, or Loid’s protege who wants to take Yor’s place. The series is a remarkable, quick-witted comedy, sure, but it’s also one where Loid repeats his mantra of creating “a world where children won’t have to cry anymore”, something Anya believes in and takes to heart because she’s never known a world like that before.
We root for Anya partly because she’s an innocent kid with a streak of gremlin, but mainly because this is her chance to live a life where she has hope and is protected. The fate of the world is abstract and hard to grapple with. The fate of one kid is something we can feel in our bones and fight for. We need to see this family work, and as it messily comes closer together, it’s a joy to have it reaffirmed for us that yes, this is a family that cares for each other more and more by the day.
“Spy x Family” is a cleverly over-the-top spy anime, a savvy comedy, a solid actioner, a beautiful story about adoptive family, but what works best about it is that it’s a story of a child finally having the opportunity to be happy and loved.
And its theme songs are absolute bops.
You can watch “Spy x Family” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.
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