Premiering back in April, Spy × Family has not only become one of the most popular shows on Netflix but also currently ranks as one of the Top 10 greatest anime of all time, according to 750,000 users over at MyAnimeList. The story is a very simple one. While on an undercover mission, a master spy enters into a pretend marriage with a master assassin, with neither knowing the other’s true occupation. They also have an adopted, unbeknownst-to-them telepathic daughter and later take in a clairvoyant dog. The psychic characters aside, the premise does seem vaguely similar to the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but the anime does a few things differently that have allowed it to reach new heights of popularity. Let’s find out what they are.
A Ridiculous Premise Taken to Ridiculous Extremes
Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which told the story of two master operatives falling in love and starting a family despite not knowing what the other really did for a living, was a qualified success. It made enough money and got good-enough reviews to have gotten its own TV reboot starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine, set to premiere this year on Prime Video. That being said, most of the positive reviews focused on the movie’s action, which was great, but it feels like director Doug Liman could have done more with such a unique premise than just an action movie. Spy × Family goes that extra mile.
Two people unaware of each other’s secret identities despite living in the same house, which in both takes on the story is full of deadly weapons and spy equipment, is a ridiculous premise. Mr. & Mrs. Smith asks the audience to just go with it for the sake of comedy and action. Spy × Family, on the other hand, leans heavily into that ridiculousness and piles on even crazier stuff on top. This includes the couple’s telepathic daughter Anya, who later in the comic gets a dog that can see into the future.
Entire episodes of the anime are dedicated to getting Anya into an elite school so that her “father,” a legendary spy known as Twilight, can get closer to a politician father of one the students there. Without spoiling too much, during the entrance interview episode, the mother of this fake family, a lethal assassin known as the Thorn Princess, ends up knocking out a rampaging cow with ninja nerve-strikes.
The anime takes this kind of refuge in its own cuckoo insanity from the start until the basic idea of two master field operatives coincidentally using each other as cover starts to sound like the least crazy part of the entire story.
A Smaller Focus on Action
While there is beautifully animated action in Spy × Family, the anime could probably be best described as a slice-of-life. Normally, the label is reserved for stories that focus on the mundane, everyday parts of life, which doesn’t really seem to jibe with a story about espionage and assassinations etc. But action scenes actually take up a very small part of the anime, with the rest being dedicated to the family trying to appear normal to the outside world, which, bizarrely, creates even more suspense than explosions and car chases.
Alfred Hitchcock explained it perfectly when he described a theoretical scene of people talking about, say, baseball, when suddenly a bomb explodes. It would be shocking but only for a short while. However, if the audience is shown the bomb first and told that it will explode at the end of the baseball talk, then the mundane sport conversation suddenly starts to drip with suspense. That’s essentially what Spy × Family does.
Because we know the real identities of the “Forgers” (the apt fake name used by Twilight), even the simplest scenes with them — such as going to an aquarium — feel dramatic and keep you on the edge of your seat because the family members are always on the verge of being uncovered as frauds. Mr. & Mrs. Smith lacked that. Scenes showing Pitt and Jolie just chilling at home and almost figuring out each other’s secrets were very rare. Hopefully, we will get a bigger focus on the Smiths’ domestic life in the reboot series.
What the Anime Can Learn from the Live-Action Movie
That’s not to say that Mr. & Mrs. Smith didn’t do interesting things with its premise. The best part of the movie was how both characters were presented as gray anti-heroes working for shady organizations. Neither Pitt nor Jolie had the moral high ground. In Spy × Family, though, at least throughout the first season, it’s clear that Twilight, despite using underhanded methods, is working for the “good guys.” The anime is set in a Cold War era-esque, European-like country of Ostania, which seems to be a stand-in for the Eastern Bloc with its brutal Secret Police and citizens living in fear. Twilight’s mission is to prevent the country from waging war on the neighboring Westalis, a country that just wants to prevent war and give everyone a chance to live in peace.
Hopefully, Westalis will be revealed as a secretly awful place like Ostania in later seasons, but as of right now, they seem like undisputable good guys. That brings down the story a little. Somewhere between Spy × Family and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there is the perfect story of a marriage between two action heroes who don’t know each other’s identities. So, what you’ll probably want to do is watch both and get the best out of this funny, rarely-explored cinematic premise.