Why SPY X FAMILY is a 21st Century Cold War Drama

While it might be strange to consider it as such, the rough spy comedy SPY x FAMILY is actually a gripping drama from the Cold War. But that only leads to the question of what makes this story relevant to modernity. Spy stories are certainly nothing new. In fact, they usually reflect the period in which they were made. So the question is why SPY x FAMILY had to be a Cold War story – 30 years after the end of the Cold War – and why it works for the narrative as a whole.

SPY x FAMILY debuted on Shonen Jump+ in 2019 as the creation of mangaka Tatsuya Endo and his editor Shihei Lin. The series features a convenience family in which each of the three main members has an earth-shattering secret. The father is a spy, the mother is an assassin and the daughter is a mind-reading esper. SPY x FAMILY takes place in a Europe that is clearly a Cold War analogue, with several obvious references to the media, products and culture of the time. There are countless parallels, most notably that the whole thing revolves around the “unsteady peace” that was established after a war that ended about 10 years ago. The story revolves primarily around spy agent Agent Twilight as he tries to raise his adopted daughter as part of his mission to get close to a powerful bureaucrat with rumored plans to start a new war.

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At a glance, the SPY x FAMILY Anime may be pure Shonen Jump comedy, but in the darker moments of the series it becomes clear that the reason for the Cold War setting is that the narrative just works best in that setting. It’s historically significant to the mainstream of the series, given the impact of spies during the actual Cold War. It’s also the most thematically appropriate take possible, as the show emphasizes lies and deception – hallmarks of the Cold War era. And yet everything works because of the timelessness of the ideas themselves.


Why SPY x FAMILY had to be a spy story


SPY x FAMILY Anya hearing aid

The decision to write a spy story wasn’t particularly complicated, but that decision likely led to the choice of Cold War setting. Tatsuya Endo and Shihei Lin’s writer-editor team have worked together for a decade. Endo-sensei was involved in a handful of other works, including two serializations and a number of one-shots, including the three that would serve as the basis of the new project: Rengoku no Ashe, I SPYand Ishi ni Usubeni, Tetsu ni Hoshi. They ultimately contributed to what would eventually become SPY x FAMILY, albeit in a largely perfunctory, perfunctory way. But it was because of the success of I SPY that Lin Endo-sensei suggested making his next series work into another spy story.


In the time between the two projects, Endo-sensei had the thought that maybe they should strive for something more realistic than his previous work. I SPY was mostly a romantic comedy. SPY x FAMILY is similarly comedic, but has a range of far more serious undertones and themes scattered throughout, displaying a sort of realism that it is I SPY had not particularly. In fact, that desire for a more realistic story probably had a lot to do with the set decision SPY x FAMILY in a world at the height of a tense Cold War. More mature and realistic themes tend to be best served by more mature and realistic environments. As fantastic as the superficial aspects may be, the real world is all too familiar with the Cold War environment.


Why SPY x FAMILY is set during a Cold War


SPY x FAMILY Thorn Princess Yor

All told, spy stories have been around for 200 years. The very first spy novel The spywas published in 1821. Still, the genre endures and evolves to reflect the times. SPY x FAMILY is intentionally set in an environment reminiscent of a arguably bygone era due to the historical importance of that era to the concept of spies. It’s obvious based on the climate of paranoia the series presents. But nowhere is it more evident than at SPY x FAMILY‘s James Bond references. Since the anime’s story is meant to reflect the era of the super spy, there’s no better reference point than a classic literary character and a cinematic juggernaut like 007.


See also: Daniel Craig’s James Bond era was the darkest (which is a good thing)

Created in 1953 in the early days of the Cold War, the James Bond character was essentially a direct product of the information wars that were beginning to overtake actual combat. Its popularity exploded in the 1960s following the launch of the Bond film series. The first installment, 1962 dr Nocertainly had its success in part due to the spy craze in the media at the time, caused by concerns raised by the Cold War itself.

The Cold War-bred paranoia of The Red Scare resonates strongly SPY x FAMILY. The people of this world are afraid of another war. So much so that they often report themselves to the world’s secret police, suspecting their fellow citizens of being an enemy spy for the dumbest of reasons. This greatly contributes to the motivation for the assassin to “marry” Yor Loid Forger, aka Twilight. Single women are only reported because they are single and that would complicate things for both Yor and her secret job. But this paranoia also creates an environment that lends itself perfectly to espionage stories, as it inherently requires a spy’s skills of stealth, intelligence gathering, and most importantly, deception.


Why the SPY x FAMILY narrative works for the 21st century


SPY x FAMILY Young Twilight

SPY x FAMILYThe Cold War setting is thematically appropriate because the ideas of this historical narrative are timeless. It’s a story about the lies people tell and the masks they wear—a concept that doesn’t point to a specific time period because it’s imbued with human nature. The series does everything it can to establish that every significant character is someone who wears a mask or who regularly lies. The Forger Family is the most obvious example of this, with a spy in enemy territory, an assassin, and an esper who can’t tell anyone about her powers. Characters that appear later aren’t all they appear to be either, including various other agents, Yor’s own brother, even a school bully. All of these characters are liars, but they are all telling themselves what they think they need to do to justify those lies. This adds to the importance of lying to the human condition, be it love, family, or a more peaceful world.

The situation between East and West within the series favors this climate of lies. The characters largely justify their lies based on the effects of a previous war that touched on their lives. The first episode of the anime shows this most clearly with a young Loid crying and alone after war decimated his home. So he armed himself and became a spy, the ultimate deceiver. Yor is a character who lost her parents and took a job as an assassin to support herself and her little brother financially, despite the fact that the group she works for has extremely patriotic leanings, presumably due to the war. It’s the shadow of the previous war that leads to the tense new Cold War, where paranoia runs so high that these mysteries seem necessary. Ultimately, the Cold War represented in SPY x FAMILY is perfect for the series as it reflects the historical importance of the spy and perfectly accentuates the themes of the narrative.


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