Let’s talk Shinsekai Yori (From the New World) [新世界より]
Been meaning to write about this, and hopefully with near 2 years in between I can look back without being influenced by the emotional rush of the moment.
If I were forced to rank animes in a list it’d be very near the top, perhaps amongst my favourite top 5. It’s certainly amongst the first few I recall when I think about animes (though that’s partly because it’s still relatively new).
It is undeniably unique, both in art, theme and directions. The artstyle is reminiscent of a ink painting, flat with few highlights even for animes, this unique style makes it hard to be grouped with any other animes or any preconceived notion of its setting or genre. Actually it is quite hard to put any labels on Shinsekai, while it would be sci-fi in other mediums (as its original book is), inside the wider world of anime where some amount of mystic and special powers is practically a given, this is hardly a distinguishing feature.
Usually by the end of an anime’s first episode I have a good idea of what kind of show it is. School drama, shounen hero, slice of life, comedy, mecha, harem…etc, usually all this is fairly laid out in the first episode, both in terms of world setting, art style and OP/ED. Shinsekai has none of these (doesn’t even have an OP, just ED), which both works for and against its favour.
The good thing is I have no idea what to expect, the bad thing is I also have no idea what to expect and don’t know whether to keep watching or not. Not giving hints of what to expect is great in a book or movie where time required is short and small and you’re probably already invested in finding out what the story is when you bought it. Giving no hints of expectations is not so good when you’re competing against all the other animes in the season and asking for investment of attention for the next 3 months (or in Shinksekai’s case, 6 month). If it weren’t for liking the artstyle and stubborn dose of curiosity, Shinsekai would have been dropped within the first 2 episodes (when animes either makes my cut or gets dropped).
As it is, Shinsekai was relegated to be “watched on the side” anime, something to be played on the second monitor as background while I’m doing stuff on the web.
It was not till maybe the 9th or 10th episode (almost an entire season over) when the second story arc begins to play out does it fully grab my attention and I go back to rewatch the previous episodes. Shinsekai’s incredible scope and world building presents a huge problem where most of the 1st arc is just foundation building. That is a huge ask in anime, to ask the viewer to invest a good part of 8 episodes just to get to the real story. The way it chose to start the early episodes with a sort of prologue, telling the story of some earlier era that seemingly did not have relevance to the current timeline certainly did not help, especially when these prologues will prove to be of utmost importance later down the track.
The early section is Shinsekai’s biggest fault. Once past that the seeds planted from the very first moments begins to bear fruit, threads intertwine and forms the most stunning displays, even some you weren’t aware to have been woven into the fabric. Aspects of world setting once seemed irrelevant and mentioned as after thoughts, becomes cornerstones upon which towers are built. Small mentions by various characters that did not quite fit becomes clear when the full implications of their words are revealed. Things that felt wrong and gnawed at you from the deepest recess of thoughts comes to the surface. From climax to climax, the story unfolds at a pace that leaves me holding my breath, almost suffocating in its intensity.
The forbolding disappearance of Maria, scenes of the two girl’s long friendship and bond, sung in the voice actress HanaKana’s saccatrine voice, was one of the most haunting and heart breaking moments for me. It was innocent, sad, and most of all resigned, a calm acceptance of the cruelty of it all. It was only several weeks later did I gather the strength to pick Shinsekai back up.
Shinsekai’s brilliance lies in how its world, told through Saki’s eyes, all comes to intersect in ways that were cleverly foreshadowed, in ways that were not immediately obvious but plain as day after the fact. It’s one of the best example of show not tell. Even today I’m still finding new interpretation of events based on various hints shown. While sometimes I fault other works for being obtusely vague for the sake of creating a facade of depth, that Shinsekai allows this level of ambiguity is something to be appreciated, that things are told through Saki’s point of view means there are events that we do not bear witness to but can only fathom with imagination, horrible events that dares us to explore and put together in order to make the pieces fit. It almost forces you to face the terrible themes and messages, even if subconsciously the mind screams to escape such dreadful thoughts.
Shinsekai questions morality, of good and evil, the concept of us and them, the question of necessity and sacrifices, of individuals and society. It’s not a pretty story, there are few moments I’m not gasping with shallow breaths. Different from Urobuchi’s works where tragedy of circumstances are forced upon the characters, where protagonists end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, or are forced to witness terrible acts and have things dear to them taken away, Shinsekai is simply a tragic telling of society. Where many other tragedies have you feel for the characters, for the unfairness of their misfortune, of the cruelty of fate, Shinsekai’s tragedies are just is.
There’s no unfairness to speak of, no wrongs being committed and no injustices to correct. There’s no moment of redemption, no cartharsis, there’s never a moment where you can cheer for the main characters. Even when they finally win the weight of it is too heavy to bear. There are few moments of hope and even fewer of joy. Almost, a reflection of the real world, and perhaps that is what makes the whole show so chilling.
There are no villains, no bad guys, if it weren’t for Saki being the main character there wouldn’t even be sides. Just different actors acting the best they can given the positions they are in. Some stories are about characters drowning in despair. Shinsekai is about drowning you.
It’s an SA- show, marred by its initial pacing, even though I do not know how the world building could be presented better.