Impressions of the New World; Shin Sekai Yori Episode 1

If this is a show that’s captured all three of our interests, then it can only mean this: Shinsekai is clearly off to good start.

wendeego: If there’s one word that sums up the first episode of Shin Sekai Yori, it’s “potential.” It’s a risky prospect, of course: an adaptation of a thousand page novel split into two parts on publication, dealing with three stages in the lives of five young people lost in a postapocalyptic dystopia. This is a world away from the light novel and manga adaptations that have defined recent years, and it certainly shows. Adapting so much complex material properly would be a difficult prospect for anyone, and considering the relative inexperience of the staff, a complete disaster is not entirely unexpected. This first episode already held warning signs that something was amiss–occasionally wonky pacing, remarkably thin characterization and a general lack of subtlety that may or may not turn viewers off the show entirely. It’s no Another in its relentless attempts at generating fear, but it isn’t quite at the level of a Paranoia Agent or Boogiepop Phantom either. There are also reports from novel readers that this first episode has already begun to neuter certain scenes from the original source, although time will tell whether those scenes were simply re-appropriated into later episodes.

That said, while Shin Sekai Yori is a little unsteady on its feet, there’s no denying its drive. This is a series that throws the viewer into the deep end, drowning them in words and concepts and mysteries ranging from the nature of the protagonist’s psychic power to the likely malevolent system controlling the world, to the various spirits and creatures wandering the halls. But there’s the implication in the sheer amount of natural detail packed into the setting, from the brilliantly creepy fire ritual early in the episode to telephone games of psychic etch-a-sketch, to imply that the actual story itself more than justifies the obtuse build-up. Not much was explained this first episode, but with twenty-four episodes to go and an entire world to explore, Shin Sekai Yori still has time to stretch its limbs and ease into a good pace.

But the selling point of this series thus far might very well be the atmosphere. The series so far has made no bones about the fact that it is set in a hellishly repressive dystopia with a dark secret, but so far the series has been so effectively creepy that its lack of restraint hardly matters. This is coupled with the fact that the visuals are absolutely astounding, providing some of the most gorgeous shots of the season so far. Particularly effective were the brief fairy tale sequence near the middle of the episode, where the art reaches a kind of breathless stylization; the opening silhouettes of children playing against the deep blue of the evening sky; and the ED, which might rival Madoka Magica’s in horrific implication. Shin Sekai Yori‘s director might be relatively inexperienced, but he has some impressive animation work under his belt (including work on Tatami Galaxy and on two of Bleach’s best OPs) and it looks like he knows his way around the visual palate. The soundtrack is similarly effective, if occasionally overbearing.

To be honest, there’s no guaranteeing how Shin Sekai Yori will turn out. The source material is apparently strong, winning the Taisho Award with the excellent kid’s sci-fi anime Dennou Coil in 2008. But the relative inexperience of the staff, coupled with the complexity of the material, could very well mean that this show will quickly devolve into an impenetrable mess. That said, there’s a verve to this material that makes me think that the creators believe they might just be able to pull it off. Whether it succeeds or fails, this is a series to watch very closely over the next couple of weeks.

illegenes: What happens when our society is nothing but a dark and murky reflection of the nature that rules animal life? Shinsekai Yori gives us an answer, but it’s not a pretty one.

Here’s how it works. Not only does Shinsekai give us the feeling that these children are nothing but raw materials being farmed, but it also gives us this sort of Big Brother figure where every step of a child’s development is being watched. The moment our protagonist wakes up with books being thrust around in the air is the moment she is thrust into an alien world neither she or the audience are familiar with. Cleansed of her ‘sin’ – her youth, her innocence and naivety, she is cast out of the normal society and pushed into one where comfort and pleasure don’t really exist. What do we find in this “new world?” A school which is less about forming interactions that last and more about building up the abilities that make you stand out. Let’s compare this to our current understanding of child development and the schooling system:

Our characters are around 12 years old, which puts them at “sixth grade” in terms of development. Sixth grade is also known as the year where a lot of transitions, both emotional and mental, take effect and are a crucial time for a child to ‘function properly’ in society. It’s the year where a child begins to obsess with his or her image and become extremely self conscious. It’s where they’re trying to fit in: look for a space outside family, and see where and how they are a part of society. According to Jean Pignet, children at this age are able to form abstract thoughts and use hypothetical situations to solve problems. Individual opinions are also formed here and as such, the root of what one calls an ‘identity’ is built at this age. The most suitable response to this development in terms of schooling then, is to foster an area of careful care and appreciation. Friendship-building is crucial and thus, most sixth grade classrooms are created in a sense to promote emotional security. Recess is created for at least thirty minutes after lunch. “Homeroom” time is often a period for concentration and studying purposes, but it’s also a time where friends can study together. In class, discussion is encouraged, if not required: it’s essential that each child can contribute to class but also understand that their opinion and thoughts matter. Group activities are also created so that children can cooperate with one another and learn how to be both a leader and follower.

In Shinsekai Yori, this is all horribly skewed. Yes, group activities exist. But instead of creating cooperation, the classroom instead focuses on competition – on difference of ability – rather than friendship. “Survival of the fittest” seems to be the moral here; children taunt each other based on how poorly they’ve done in studies, and view themselves based on how powerful they are. The construction of ‘identity’ is fundamentally different, as these children don’t focus on personal opinion to build their selves. They focus on how much talent they have. Attributes of power are prioritized over individuality. This isn’t always a bad thing, as we all consider ourselves different from one another, but this is through a varied perspective of attributes and qualities: our nature, our power, our inheritance, our feelings. But in Shinsekai, the development of self is built on one quality alone. This isn’t to undermine the nature of the kids’ identities nor their relationships with one another in the show, but let’s face it: the children in this dystopian world are brought up very differently than the ones we see today. So what does this exactly entail?

Shinsekai‘s world is brutal. What we’re left with are fragments of a society that have decayed; a system teetering on the brink of ruin. A warped dystopia where instead of massive electronics counting your every thought, it’s a ghastly monster (or something more?) that consumes children at night if they don’t pass school. A place where a child’s life is meaningless if it holds no significance to the masses. Where the children population is carefully controlled depending on how skilled your child is. A society where true political power is meaningless, and laws must be obeyed, in school and out of it. There is no freedom or future in Shinsekai – it’s no wonder then, that the kids will attempt to find their individuality and answers on their own, and run away, as the synopsis suggests.

But does all of this world-building mean that Shinsekai‘s first episode functions as well as Penguindrum or Jinrui‘s? No. But it is extremely clever nonetheless. Deliberately vague, messy and incongruent, it plays with our minds and feeds us tidbits of information, hoping to ensnare us just as it has with its characters. We are left with nothing but beautiful, striking visuals and a haunting sense that something worse is going to happen. The only show to have stirred up the same jarring senses is Bokurano and we all know how that show went. Here’s to hoping that the characters of Shinsekai don’t suffer as much.

*Natasha’s Note: Steven is also covering Shinsekai; however, due to unfortunate circumstances (his complex caught on fire!) he’ll be without an Internet connection for a while. We’re trying to see a way around this, but for a bit, Shinsekai will be covered by both me and Wendeego.

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