I‘ve often debated with my friends which story element should come first: the characters or the plot. As with anything, it will ultimately come down to personal preference, but, at least to me, there seems to be an easy way to gauge the impact media will have based on how strongly the audience can identify with the characters. The world and the story may be grandiose, but true emotional connection comes when the audience can feel the triumphs and failures of the characters on screen. Even a mediocre story can be lifted and sustained by characters who endear themselves to our hearts.
Luckily, Spy x Family isn’t mediocre in any respect…mostly.
From the beginning, this anime practically announces that this story is to be all about the characters. Sure, there’s a cool spy plot where there is a critical mission that must be accomplished for the fate of the world, but in all honestly, it really feels like the plot was created as a sandbox for the characters to play in. What they’re doing isn’t as important as just being there to watch them do it. It’s one of the strongest cases for “characters first” that I’ve seen in a long time.
To not spoil too much, the basic premise is the world’s top spy has a mission that requires him to infiltrate the ranks of a distinguished educational institution. In order to do so, he must create a fake family. Through happenstance, the daughter he picks is an esper (someone possessing psychic abilities; basically, she can read minds), and the wife he picks is an incredibly deadly assassin.
Of course, none of them are aware of who the other is (except the daughter, who keeps each of their secrets in addition to her own). As the anime repeats time and again:
Everyone has a part of themselves they cannot show to anyone else.
This unlikely cast of characters work hard, occasionally stumbling as they try to sell the idea of their fake family while keeping their deepest secrets from one another. And to varying degrees, each character carries a hidden desire to turn this fake family into a reality, leaving their complicated problems behind them and existing with one another.
Even with different motivations, the sincerity with which they try to succeed in their deception is both endearing and funny to watch. The little esper is especially committed to making sure she succeeds so that her Papa can complete his mission (and her window into each of their minds makes for a great audience insert as you listen to her commentate on their actions).
If I had one criticism, it would be the finale. For the first eleven episodes, the plot progresses nicely, barely giving you time to breathe (I know that sounds like a negative judgement, but it’s positive in this case). When the final episode hits, the show takes a detour. You can tell they’re likely animating one of the small bonus chapters that usually exist in manga. The small bit of foreshadowing you get at the end of episode 11 is ignored, and the show wraps up with a little slice of life aquarium adventure. While it was still enjoyable (and yes, I know I’m being slightly critical given my earlier comments about the world being a sandbox), the episode did feel slightly out of place. Luckily, a second cour is slated for the fall.
Ultimately, that episode does little to detract from an otherwise thrilling and engaging ride through the lives of Lloyd, Yor, and Anya Forger. Their familial bonds blossom into something comfortable and endearing. And ultimately, you find yourself hoping their bonds as a family solidify and take root rather than hoping for the success of the school mission. In the end, it just seems like the family is much more important.