As Shinsekai‘s true wheels begin to turn, setting the plot in motion, we once again examine the foundations of the children’s relationship and the true nature of storytelling.
gallifreyians: I have very specific thoughts about trailers and the relationship they have with their respective works, in that I feel that a trailer should be a perfect reflection of the source material. In keeping with that philosophy of mine, I extrapolated from the above trailer that Shin Sekai Yori would be a Ghibli-esque bildungsroman about children with telekinesis that uses a dystopian setting as a device to move forward a character-driven drama — which to a certain degree was corroborated by the premiere episode.
But with episode two and three moving farther and farther away from this vision, I simply have to call the show out. Instead of delivering an interesting, compelling, character narrative, Shin Sekai Yori has limited itself to unimaginative, predicable, world-building and completely ignored any pretense of characterization or character development (presumably to focus in on that later in the series), turning itself into a rigid, inorganic story about cardboard cut-outs. An author cannot simply abandon their characters because it would be any form of inconvenient for them. The entire point of a story is to present a complete, compelling narrative; for which complete, compelling characters are required.
illegenes: I had a feeling that all was not well with these past episodes of Shinsekai Yori, and unfortunately, it seems that those feelings are realized with this week’s events.
While the show may have seem disjointed for Steven, for me it followed a consistent format week after week. The setup was simple: we were introduced to a real-time event in the distant past (the future for us, the audience), and then given a story narrated by one of the students about the past. The first episode had the story about the Akki, a demon who lurked beyond the outskirts of society, and was a threat to those who dare go outside the taboo rope, which was then followed by the real event of the brutal murders. The second episode was about the karma demon, who prided himself on his abilities – a pride that eventually led to his own corruption and downfall. Here, the real time event is when the priest burns his followers after being given his title. In the third episode, no story is told, but a real-time event is shown. A samurai with his group opposes a landlord of “Light” and slays him with one blow before falling to his death. What replaces the story time is an evaluation of what we have been given so far. As Satoru narrates about the blowdog and the minoshiro (this society’s Grim, depending on how you look at it), an essential question is asked:
And thus, the catch is shown. But it also raises a more significant question with the fact that the ‘evil minotaur’ is actually a ‘librarian’ created by humans to keep the documentation of humanity’s efforts: what if every story told so far has been false? We can gather that these folktales exist to teach these children a lesson – fear as well as the consequences of not obeying the rules – but what if it’s just at that? Or, on the other hand – what if there is an underlying, actual threat behind each story, but not the actual threat we think it is? We pass tales on for a reason, but Shinsekai has proven that it does nothing without a reason, leading me to believe that we, as the audience, are consistently given the power to see but not hold knowledge. Following this logic, it would be easy to gather then, that the storytelling system is faulty for a reason: that there is a large amount of information manipulation going on, but a grain of the truth still likes somewhere in the story itself. I wouldn’t be too surprised, but it does show how much control paranoia has over the system. This is no utopia the kids imagine; it’s a dystopia and of course every action is watched. But the fact that the show would subvert its own format so early in the show is bold, if not almost reckless. At the same time, it’s yet another warning that nothing is what it seems, and that we’re going to have to tread carefully when we watch this show, because everything is so subtle and open at the same time. Shinsekai takes the “show, don’t tell” idea very seriously (almost to an extreme in some ways) and it’s something I really am comfortable with, even if the character development is put on hold with the world-building.
Even then, it’s still important to notice that it’s because Shinsekai‘s society is so alien in nature, that it’s hard to decipher the development of these children and their ideals of the world. Luckily, we know their personality traits, so we can pick apart tidbits of information handed to us. For example, Satoru’s rebellious nature obviously signals a sort of innate displeasure of the world around him and his intense need to become liked. Shun is a trickier character: his maturity and subtle way of manipulating the rules could be a seed of something much more malevolent or forgiving, depending on the path taken. Our protagonist, Saki, is a comfortable balance between these two extremes, so it’s even more essential to understand how she connects with this group so we know what she really is like in the future. This is all just mere speculation, but as our cast is forced to ‘grow up’ next week, there’s no doubt in my mind that these character quirks are only going to contribute to future actions. After all, our cast is expected to hit adulthood sometime during the series, so it’s important that we understand the essential basics of how these characters work, both in terms of individuality and in relationship to others, so we can comprehend how they grow up and evolve.
At any rate, our time of peace has come to an end. Children are incorruptible – the true symbols of peace, kindness, and the cradle of humanity, they say, and while these kids’ only sin is their untainted curiosity of the world around them, I can’t help but think that their time of innocence will abruptly be shortened next week when they learn the actual authenticity of the society they live in. Let’s just hope for the best….
wendeego: With the next episode presumably thrusting the plot of Shinsekai into motion, let’s take note of what we know for sure about the show at this juncture. It is set one thousand years after our own, in a dystopia ruled by psychics. It is an animator’s showcase, with every episode providing ample opportunity for new voices to strut their stuff. It teeters on the line between showing (conveying huge amounts of background detail through visuals, fairy tales and interactions) and telling (the narrator flat-out informing the viewers of the rules of episode 2’s game.) It is relatively slow paced, the character designs are bland and unremarkable and their development has taken a back-seat to what has essentially been three episodes of worldbuilding.
Three episodes in, and the best word to describe Shinsekai remains “potential.” As fascinating as these episodes have been at times, I think Shinsekai still has a ways to go before becoming legitimately great. Two things hold the show back: the lack of a distinctive voice and its relatively weak characterization. As good as this show looks (the opening bit of this episode in this particular was gorgeous) it’s rarely been entirely consistent, jumping between multiple styles for seemingly arbitrary reasons. It strikes me as a journeyman work, constructed by a director who, while he might have a great eye for visuals, is still learning how to work the ropes. Secondly, while I thought the interactions between the kids were handled pretty well this episode, they all have a long way to go before becoming really interesting. People have been comparing Shinsekai to Dennou Coil, but the latter was probably one of the most genuine portrayals of childhood I’ve seen in animation while I think the former has a ways to go before it reaches that level.
That said, the problem with examining Shinsekai at this point is that either of these points could be totally invalidated in the next few episodes. Not only do I have the feeling that the show’s focus is already beginning to tighten to a laser point, but assuming it really does pull a paradigm shift in the next episode I’m betting that the characters will have to change and evolve drastically to keep up. Right now I’m probably more intrigued in the secret history of Shinsekai than the characters, but I’m betting that will change very soon as shit gets real and the current cast finds themselves tested by the knowledge in the false minoshiro. I’m not yet entirely confident in Shinsekai, but it remains entertaining, atmospheric and deeply creepy. With luck it’ll soon transcend that and become legitimately great. We’ll see!