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The following contains spoilers from chapter 4 of Ajin. For the record, Ajin is pretty cool, it very much follows in the footsteps of Akira, but as far as I’ve gotten it’s a bit substance lacking; I recommend at least checking it out before reading on.

So I got into Ajin through the anime a few months back, and decided to check out the manga while waiting for season 2 to hit Netflix. While the first book left me overall a little underwhelmed (it’s not bad, but I think the anime benefited from the foresight of having 6 volumes of the manga already released), two panels caught my attention.

Ajin volume 1 page 89

Ajin: volume 1, page 89

While the little bureaucratic gag in itself is kinda funny and also helps convey the dark seriousness of the series, when I first read this I got something very different out of it.

Like I said, I watched the anime first, so I already knew at this point that that girl, Izumi Shimomura, is an Ajin, a type of creature that is not human, according to the government and general public.

I also read this in a printed, bound, and sold retail manga, not a scanslation. This page happens to be on the left side, so I didn’t notice the tail of that first speech bubble. It isn’t cut off by the binding, but it’s far enough back that it’s easy to overlook if you aren’t pulling the spine apart. The point is, I read it as an ambiguous speech bubble, with no clear speaker.

Because it wasn’t immediately clear who was saying “We are not humans,” and Izumi’s face fills up like half of this already big panel, if felt to me like the readers were supposed to initially infer that it’s her line, before realize in the next panel that it was actually her boss, Yu Tosaki. Thus planting the seed that she may actually be an Ajin, foreshadowing the reveal two chapters later.

This kinda blew my mind for a few minutes. It opened my eyes to a whole new way to use speech bubbles and framing. I thought it was the most clever use of an ambiguous speech bubble I’d ever seen in manga!

Then I searched up the scanned page to us in this article, and, well, that was pretty disappointing.

I get that the foreshadowing is still there. I mean, you’ve got like half the page taken up by nothing but Izumi’s face and “We are not humans,” in point 72 font. The inventive framing element is still there. The added tail on the speech bubble doesn’t actually detract much from that, and if I had read the scanslation initially then I’d probably be just as hyped about this whole thing without the tail.

But I can’t un-see it. It was that little bit of extra brilliance that never was. There wasn’t even a reason to put the tail on that bubble; Tosaki was out of the frame, so a non-tailed bubble would be the expected way to handle it. Hell, I just browsed through the whole volume again, and as far as I can tell this is the only instance where an out-of-frame character gets a tailed bubble. This was a deliberate decision. Mangaka Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai deliberatly did this to irritate me specifically!

Okay, probably not. But now I’ve spent nearly half an hour examining this page from every angle, trying to find any reason why the tail is there and what it might add, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’ve made way too big a deal of this.

The point is, speech bubbles are cool. They can be framed in clever ways, and keeping a speaker ambiguous can lead to some interesting inference and interpretation. There’s also about a million other cool things to do with them, but those are the two I was interested in today.

Don’t Lose Your Way