Don’t Fear the Reaper; Shin Sekai Yori Episode 4

Looks like with this episode, the true story of Shin Sekai Yori has finally begun. Cue exposition dump!

Note: Due to the Hurricane, Steven’s post was interrupted and thus he will resume his talk on Shinsekai‘s worldbuilding and its parallels to The Giver on Episode 5’s post.

illegenes: Well, I don’t think I could say “I knew it,” but this episode was right within the scope of my predictions. Despite this, it still managed to surprise me.

When it comes to exposition showtime, I tend not to be a fan. Episodes like this, where the format relies more on “tell” rather than “show,” come out as clumsy and lazy to me and also tend to cut a lot of corners in the process. We’re usually forced to hold our attention for more than 5 minutes on a long dialogue that is wound with unfamiliar terms and names. As such, the entire process becomes nothing more than hard push for us to get invested in the story. This, combined with awkward pacing as the exposition dump transitions to a relatively useless scene, creates a dull episode with much to gain, but nothing to really like.

But here, Shinsekai Yori proves to me that it still knows exactly what it’s doing. Strife with imagery as rich as the information itself, the long-winded storytelling becomes a clever device that not only exposes partial truth; it subverts the entire format the show has been following so far. The first critical and ingenious mark is the fact that no human being is the one relaying the information here: it is a mechanical object, holding no regard for the children and thus explaining facts, not stories. The brutal information, combined with well-timed and clever visuals really leaves an impact on the audience. We feel everything the children feel: an overload of information that is not only unpleasant to watch but also sickly to hear. The buzzing of the flies over decaying bodies, or the blood splatter of the gruesome victims, with white noise and voices laid over more voices subtly added between each shot: this is all essential to building up an atmosphere of paranoia, and it’s this sort of stuff that Shinsekai does best. The facts explained are set at just the right pace for us to quickly absorb but still be disoriented from the mass amount of knowledge we’re trying to sort out and collect.

The graininess effect still continues to be one of my favorite things about Shinsekai.

The greatest part about the relaying of this information is not just the process, however. It’s the fact that it takes every story we’ve gathered from Episode 1 – stories previously thought to be propaganda or useless, aesthetically appealing introductions to the twisted humanity of the world – and gives them a story. It strings them together into something much more significant and meaningful than previously thought. At the same time, it also exposes the faultiness of the system. We originally thought that the real-time events were useless and that the moral stories were important; instead, these roles have been reversed. The moral stories may seem to have played off the central ‘theme’ of each episode, but I see now that they also had some truth to them, and were mainly used to contain the children and their fear. The flashback/flashforward stories we’ve been exposed to – snippets of the past – were the introductions to the episodes for a reason.  First was to divulge some juicy details about how society progressively decayed over time into a fragmented state; the second was to juxtapose this demise with the rather unnaturally ‘peaceful’ setting that our main cast lives in. They were actually quite significant! And on the other hand, the moral stories that we listened to every week did have a grain of truth to them, as I previously predicted. But it’s more than just a grain. Blowdogs exist and pose an actual threat; fake minotaurs are actually librarians. The rise of psychic beings whom eventually end up becoming the main population of the world only leads to the destruction of society, rather than the evolution of it. The world Shinsekai so cautiously tried to build as eerily calm and neutral is full of dangers as it has regressed into a primitive nature, held weakly by scientists who can only watch and act accordingly.

If there are any cliches or faults here, Shinsekai either extemporizes them or hides them under a beautiful curtain of color and imagery. The rise of the Reaper, as Wendeego explains later on, along with the floating ‘lotus flower’ that the priest sits on (no doubt yet another Buddhist allusion to purification and sound of mind), give a unique but also surreal atmosphere to the scenes. Still, if there has been one thing lacking, it’s character development. Our cast is well-established enough to the point where I can distinguish who from who, but even then, it’s still not enough for me to be concerned for them. Even the scene where Mamoru begins to cry when he’s forced to sit on the lotus flower doesn’t really reach out to me as something tragic, since I can’t connect with any of these characters. It’s then important for me to say that as someone who focuses more on solid character development, I don’t particularly mind about how Shinsekai fleshes out its cast just yet. This weak point has been overshadowed by so many other strengths that at this point I’m much more intrigued by the atmosphere and world-building than the characters themselves.

And thus, Shinsekai has continued to up its game in most places: how high can it go? I’ll leave the answer to that question with the next episodes, but I can tell you this: this show has definitely set itself apart from most psychological thriller anime, and I’m looking forward to it grow into something new and more beautifully terrifying than ever.

gallifreyians: I wasn’t exactly too pleased with the previous two episodes of Shin Sekai Yori, deriding them for their overemphasis on (boring) world-building, minimization of characterization and character development, and general lack of the ability to generate interest. While not necessarily improving on most of those fronts, Shin Sekai Yori‘s forth episode creatively supplies us with an exposition dump that re-invigorated my enjoyment of this show.

“Disappearing Children” and “False Minoshiro” were certainly a form of exposition, as I’m sure Natasha would love to tell you about, but my issue with them was their lack of anything truly special: all of the events of episode two and tree were mind-numbingly normal, everyday experiences. As a reader, viewer, listener, etc of various forms of fiction, I don’t read for the mundane, I get that enough in my real life. No, what I want in my fiction is to follow the out of the ordinary, the extraordinary, so for Shin Sekai Yori to serve me an elementary school drama (which was more along the lines of documentary than drama) in place of what I perceived to be a character-driven dystopian fiction is rather insulting.

Although, after some introversion, I feel that those feelings may be more of a result of this story’s similarity to the format of The Giver, a brilliant dystopian coming-of-age novel by Lois Lowry. The novel begins very much like our show, providing exposition in the form of an examination of the every-day life of the protagonist before delving into the real meat of the book. During my read of the novel I called this move by Lowry genius, yet now find it’s use in SSY to be boring, which leads me to believe that my previous exposure to this narrative device may be clouding my judgement more than a little bit. That said one still cannot excuse the abysmal characterization that Masashi Ishihama* has given our Five-Man Band.

(to be continued in Episode 5’s post)

wendeego: This is the dirty secret of anime: a great number of the medium’s most memorable shows are horrifying messes. Evangelion ended twenty-six episodes of gratuitous religious symbolism and conspiracy in a festival of still images and moving lines. Macross spent many of its final episodes treading water, only achieving focus in the final stretch. For all the emotional power of Eureka Seven, the overarching plot makes very little sense. Every one of these anime, and many more, are horribly imperfect, even terrible depending on the opinion of others. Yet people still remember them, and to this day every single one of those shows are held up as classics of the medium. The reason for this is that despite whatever lows there might be, the highs are so electrifying that any other problems the show has are ultimately excusable. The plot of Evangelion might have been scattershot and occasionally nonsensical, but nobody can deny that the scene where Unit-01 devours Zeruel in a fit of bestial rage is one of the most effective in the medium.

What I’m saying here is that episode four of Shinsekai Yori might have been the first legitimately great episode of the series. That’s not to say it was perfect, of course. While this episode’s exposition dump was done just about as well as it could have been considering the circumstances, the fact that it had to resort to a novelistic crutch in the first place damaged what could have been the best episode of the season. But if the series so far has been a waiting game, an enormous amount of potential without an outlet, this episode might have been the first time in the series when that monstrous potential has been realized. Not just once, but twice!

It’s a testament to that exposition dump mentioned earlier that one of those electrifying moments occurred right in the middle of it. Of all the crucial information that our heroes learned from the minoshiro, perhaps the most terrifying and unexpected wasn’t the sordid history of PK users, the death toll of the past thousand years or the secret of their society. For me, it was the bonobo moment–the part where both the characters and the viewers realize simultaneously that like the aforementioned animal, they have been conditioned to have sex when emotionally unstable. The following onslaught of images, ranging from Saki and her mother to that suggestively yuri-esque shot in episode 1 where Maria embraced Saki from behind, revealed just how sneaky Shinsekai has been in planting its hints. It would have been fairer play if the show had been more obvious establishing sex as a major element from the get go, but the way it handled that particular scene removed any doubts I might have had about the director. Shinsekai hasn’t been handled perfectly by a long shot, but when you have scenes as brilliantly executed as this one mixed in I’m willing to be a bit more forgiving.

The second scene might have been the greatest visual moment of the season thus far, and that was the unleashing of the Reaper.

Up to this point, our understanding of the cast’s psychic powers have been limited to moving rocks, lifting clods of earth or binding people’s abilities. But while the last of those three was admittedly creepy and unsettling, this sequence might have been the first in the show so far to be out-and-out terrifying. Beautiful, yes. Awe-inspiring, too. But also the first glimpse we’ve received in the modern day that there is a reason why human society has gone so far in placing the cast in a situation where their ability to wreak havoc is limited. Any person with the ability to do something like this would have to be restricted, and were hundreds of the population to develop this capability overnight…well, it’s no wonder civilization completely changed.

But more than that, this scene was just a heart-stoppingly gorgeous piece of animation. If bits and pieces of Shinsekai have been all over the map aesthetically, I hope that the rest of the series coheres behind this moment. While the opening segment of episode 3 was great (if completely inconsistent with the rest of the series) and other parts have been solid, the Reaper sequence is a Shinsekai I can get behind: chilling, beautiful and strangely melancholy despite the massive carnage. here’s hoping the next twenty episodes or so follow up on this one’s promise, because if this show is just going to improve, we might have the first legitimately great anime of the year on our hands.

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