It’s All In The Game; Shin Sekai Yori Episode 2

gallifreyians: I unfortunately wasn’t able to review the first episode of Shin Sekai Yori like I had originally planned (needless to say it was a total nine out of ten), but thankfully I will be able to review this second episode.

The first thing that struck me about this show was the change in the style of the historical and anecdotal scenes. In the scene detailing the crowning of the fifth emperor of the “Holy Cherry Blossom Dynasty”, I really disliked the film grain effect, especially when the production team combined it with a poor focusing effect. I really have nothing against film grain (I think that it can do wonders atmospherically) and I actually quite like depth of field effects in anime (when they are done well [look at me throwing out photography/videography terms]), but in this specific scene they felt incongruent with the rest of the show. Tonally this scene came across as hyperbolic and cartoonish (unrealistic I should say, as Shin Sekai Yori is technically a cartoon) as opposed to the serious, almost literary, science-fantasy of the rest of the show — which was certainly not helped by the grain and sloppy D.O.F. effects. Perhaps if the color of the scene had been less orange-red-yellow and more varied and executed without the poor D.O.F. effects — or possibly even done in the same style of the first episode’s anecdotal episode and the ending — it would have come out better. The same can truly be said of the anecdotal scene about the karmic demon: the aesthetic of the scene is simply not good. This anecdote does utilize the same style as the other anecdotal scene, but when the film grain/texture effect/s are added on top of that you simply have too many ideas going on at once. The simplicity of the anecdote scene of the first episode was simply so powerful and so striking (and thus such a contributing factor in the impact of the scene) that adding anything greatly diminishes that power.

The visual prowess of the show is, unfortunately, not the only aspect of the show that lost it’s proverbial power. I also found the plot of the show to have lost something from the previous episode. As always the issue with adapting a media as solid as a novel into a segmented media such as television presents the issue of giving each segment just enough material to cover that also presents the audience with a closed plot; and here I think that Shin Sekai Yori did not do as well as it had previously. I feel as though the first episode had it’s own distinct plot that was nicely wrapped up by the end while still leaving room for future development of the over-arching plot. The second episode, however, seemed to be much less well put-together; being composed of three distinct plot points, the second episode (in rather stark contrast to the first) seems to me to be that in-between episode composed of the bits and pieces that don’t fit anywhere else. The boulder race game, the incident with the Monster Rats, and the opening to the camping story are very much disjointed, independent events that can function without the presence of the others, making them a poor choice to stick together in a single twenty-three minute episode.

What does bind the three segments together however (but does not excuse their disconnected stories) is their wonderful thematic coherence. In general, dystopian fiction deals with government and abuse of power, and so the idea of laws and rules and all of the ideas surrounding the breaking of those laws/rules obviously pops up once in a while — and this theme is very much embodied in the first two segments: the boulder race and the Monster Rat incident. While the first episode was a general introduction to the world of Shin Sekai Yori and the over-arching themes of the series, episode two is able to really focus in on a single theme. In the climax of the boulder race, one of the opposing team used their Power to directly stop the Pusher that Shun was controlling, which is a direct violation of the law that states that two Powers are not allowed to come into direct contact because it would (could?) create a rip in the fabric of space and time (…or something). The show then brilliantly juxtaposes this with the Monster Rat incident, where Saki breaks the law that students cannot use their Power without direct and explicit permission from their teachers/higher-ups — and this juxtaposition begs a huge question: is it okay to break the rules for the right reasons? When Manabu on the other team used his Power on Shun’s Pusher, it was for the petty reason to win the final round while Saki used her power to save the life of the drowning Monster Rat. In the eyes of the law, what is the difference between those two acts? Nothing; to the dystopian government, Manabu and Saki are both dirty rule breakers who need to be punished for their transgressions.

Yet when the audience looks at them, we see Katayama Manabu as a nasty child with complete disregard for the possible consequences of his actions as long as they allow him to achieve his person ends, and Saki as growing young girl with a sharp moral compass who is very aware of the impact of her actions on others. The sharpness of this contrast between the in-universe legal and moral social position and the real life legal and moral social positions is where the point of the episode lays: this universe — in subtle, nuanced ways — is corrupt, and our protagonists are going to learn it the hard way. The pointed thematic of the episode is honestly, in my opinion, the true saving grace, lending an ideological cohesion that the first episode lack in many ways.

illegenes: If the first episode was just an introduction to the world of Shinsekai, then this episode was all about building upon those hints further while also focusing on group interaction.  The game seen in this week’s episode was not only fascinating, but incredibly creative – and allowed for our group of protagonists to really work with one another and focus. We also learned about some of the rules in effect at the school – for example, it’s forbidden to use your Cantus on others (I guess in a way this could be a form of bullying or just massive murder, considering how capable these kids really are – remember Episode 1?) and that our main protagonist has a crush on the smart guy. Which I kind of like.

That said, the game provides some insight into how the school tries to educate its students. It not only encourages creativity, teamwork and competition, but it also enforces this unique sense of ‘high judgement’ or as I’d like to call it, “Our word is law!” Even when our team wins as the other team broke a rule, the teacher says it’s a draw and there’s little space for arguing given. If you break the rules, you’re dead. Who can’t say that going against a teacher’s commands would result in the same sort of thing? What’s more troubling is that everyone was aware of how the other team broke the rules, and yet, our group was never rewarded for their efforts. It makes me wonder if this competition was more of a test to see who’d give in under pressure. That’s precisely what makes Shinsekai all the more terrifying: the factual evidence is minimal, and any information we glean may or may not be true. Likewise, our main cast also understands that something is fundamentally wrong here, despite not having the power to see all the events that we, the audience, sees. Though this knowledge is suppressed by that fear and the desire for utopia, they are equally as frightened of the adults who teach them, and thus they are very much aware of the kind of society that they live in. A society where if rules aren’t obeyed, people are punished, and where a cast system exists for those who lack power and are so disgraceful that they cannot be touched nor looked at. And that is Shinsekai‘s saving grace. Our characters aren’t stupid – they’re children, yes, and they’re prone to making mistakes due to their natural curiosity, but they aren’t blind to the world around them, and that’s essential for me to start caring about them.

But it also has me wondering: what do we really know about our characters here? The way Shinsekai is set up makes me feel like I’m being overloaded with information that I can’t process yet, almost Penguindrum style. Other than our main protagonist and her estranged relationship with her mother (which is actually really fascinating, considering she’s the only adult character who has some depth to her), nothing has been revealed about our other characters and the lives they’ve had to lead in this twisted world. Can we really trust anyone? Can we even trust our narrator, who is revealed to be Saki herself? What is real in this show, and what is not? From a New World isn’t just about exploring a new world: it’s literally about exposing a place that is so foreign, so fundamentally different than anything we know about today, that it’s frightening. Thus, the true mystery and sense of horror of the show comes from the increasingly intense claustrophobia: the paranoia, lack of knowledge and the idea that something formidable is closing in. It’s a nice breather from the usual gorn anime uses for horror effects, but whether all this hard work will come to fruition or not is yet to be seen.

In terms of animation and visuals, Shinsekai has smoothly progressed forward. I actually loved the grain use in the flashbacks. Not only is film grain used to achieve a vintage effect – fitting for a flashback to a society that’s ‘outdated’ in these children’s eyes, but it’s also a physical sort of feel to the grittiness and disturbing visuals used in the flashback itself. Like a tape that’s gone bad, with color use that’s dull, almost ‘inverted’ and nightmarish, the flashback in Shinsekai was nothing less than beautifully disturbing. My favorite scene of the entire episode was the orange rotting. It was absolutely breathtaking in animation, but terrifying to the eyes nevertheless. It all goes to show how Shinsekai makes sure we can’t – and don’t – look away, for every detail in this show is crucial to understanding what’s actually going on. We may not be fully aware of the larger forces at hand, but each episode gives us a handful of puzzle pieces to look at. The day where we can actually put something together may not be far off, as Shinsekai can only keep up this sort of mystery format for so long before we get bored. But given how controlled everything is, I think the show understands this, and knows exactly where it’s taking us. So for now, I’m comfortable with letting the show steer us forward at the pacing it prefers. After all, the real horror has yet to come. Oh, we know it’s coming all right. But just like everything in Shinsekai, the big question is: when?

wendeego: Count me in as somebody who enjoyed this episode’s historical opening as well. It was admittedly over the top, but as a surreal nightmare of blue fire and hysteria I thought it was quite effective.

Otherwise, what I found most interesting about this episode in particular was how committed it was to its school life setting. You’d expect that a future school for psychics that likely brainwashes its students into obedience and picks off underachievers would be darker and moodier, but I’d say that so far the school in Shinsekai has come off far less outwardly sinister than, say, Jintai’s hellish academy. I was especially struck by the music, which seemed lifted directly from just about every visual novel attempting to convey the supposedly carefree days of school life. It helps of course that these characters are twelve years old, not high school students–the innocence of their surroundings is a little easier to take. In addition, the game that formed the centerpiece of this episode (played by psychics, of course) received a greatly needed kick in the pants from Shun, whose erasure of the hole on his side of the field implied that the point of the game isn’t so much to win by conventional means, as it is to creatively bend the rules as far as possible without breaking them. Which is, of course, what the head of the opposing team does before the Copycat supposedly spirits him away.
Even in the midst of what should be tedium, there’s a welcome undercurrent of unease that makes Shinsekai that much creepier.

There are a handful of directorial touches I’m still not sure of. The introduction of a narrator in the form of what is presumably an older Saki is discontinuous with the previous episode, and seems to me a pretty cheap technique to introduce exposition without having to convey that information through trickier means. The end of the episode, with the implication that one of the cast would cause trouble farther down the line, felt a bit oddly placed, just like how the previous episode’s mention that the girl had disappeared came off as slightly anticlimactic. Shinsekai does a lot of things right, and the source material it is based on is supposedly strong. But there are enough bits of choppy pacing seeded throughout these past few episodes to imply that the staff has a ways to go before their handling of the material becomes faultless rather than admirable but rough.

That said, if there’s one thing the staff of Shinsekai have nailed, it’s the visuals. The character designs continue to be (deliberately?) generic, but some of the shots are outstandingly beautiful and the general atmosphere of the show is fantastic. Also introduced this episode were the rat people, whose mangled speech seeded with intelligible words of worship might have been one of the most effective moments of the episode for me. With the coming episode’s camping trip, it looks like the biology of this strange new world is coming into focus. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shinsekai ups the stakes in the near future and throws its cast off the deep end, in the style of a certain other show about children made slaves to an unfair system. But so far, the ride to that inevitable moment of reckoning is just entertaining enough to be well worth the trip.



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