γνῶθι σαυτόν; Shin Sekai Yori Episode 8

gallifreyians: Episode seven was undoubtedly a weak episode, yet that surprisingly didn’t lessen my enjoyment of that episode. Episode eight, however, takes a nose-dive into the banality of high school-style romance and becomes Degrassi instead of not the elevated Shin Sekai Yori episode I’d foreseen.

To be specific, “Omen” occupies an awkward space between plot-pusher and filler — there is not enough material for the episode to actually make an impact on the story or entertain the audience, yet it is not skippable in the least. All of the occurrences that make up the loose plot of episode eight convey information that is (or rather, could be) very important to the altered characterization of the cast and the new relationship dynamics, and thus are integral in a sense. I would not say that the merit of integrality is any sort of excuse for poor execution though, because that is surely what this is. There was no cracking open of a character, their relationships, and their motivations à la Revolutionary Girl Utena, but rather a presentation of the shell of the matured cast without any examination — rather like typical high school drama shows, presenting but never delving — lending itself to the uncouth, blasé, and often unintentionally droll product we saw. What could’ve been was not what was with these characters, and the same can be said of the more arch-plot aspects of the episode.

A name like “Omen” lends the idea of claustrophobia, paranoia, and impending doom, but when is that atmosphere actually achieved? Never; I never feel the smooth, polished, slick horror that I should — And I think that’s something rather wrong! It tries to sell me more mature characters, with altered relationships and more fleshed-out motivations; it tries to sell me a paranoid, ominous atmosphere; it tries to sell me a brand new arch-plot; but in the end Shin Sekai Yori simply doesn’t and we are left with phony advertisements. The only time the audience is shown anything like what Shin Sekai Yori advertises is in the last five minutes, where Shun tells Saki that all those years ago they did not fool the elders, and that he is being sent away to be “made better”, and also that she should wear a dog collar to ward off copy-cats. Then what? — The episode ends, leaving us with all of the arch-significant events and atmosphere-building condensed into four or five minutes.

Sure, one could quantify Shun’s conversation with Saki as a ‘omen’ of sorts, yet it is only a nominal quantification — in terms of qualification, in terms of execution, this ‘omen’ is nothing more than a slightly unsettling conversation. The key to the execution of this episode is the atmosphere, and the key to the atmosphere is the buildup, so then where is all of that? I am very much flabbergasted by Masashi Ishihama’s appointment of director, because from this episode especially it looks like he has no idea what he’s doing.

illegenes: Episode 8 takes a departure from the adventurous highs of the previous arc and settles down back into what I think Shinsekai Yori does best: a subtle judgment of social norms and the inherent flaws found within a utopia that is all too frailly constructed.

Two years have passed and our cast has grown into rather remarkable protagonists; Maria can fly, Saki can weld glass together, Satoru can create a flat surface, and Mamoru can fully create a painting from sight alone. Shun, whose power is known to be the most mysterious and powerful, is tasked with raising a living being, shaping it from his own consciousness and making it into his own image. In other words, it is a job equivalent to godliness. (I’ll refrain from making any more Dharma parallels here and just say that Shun has paved the road to success quite well). But whereas our five ‘ordinary’ friends struggle and succeed with their tasks, Shun creates a monster. One would think that a teenager with such high capabilities would be less likely to fail, but the opposite actually occurs. “Why?” the audience asks, and while we can associate Shun’s erratic behavior with a strained responsibility and genius intelligence, the show fails to address these certain aspects, in favor of raising others: How does the schoolroom satisfy the emotional, spiritual and mental needs of adolescent children? What are the consequences of engaging in sexual foreplay as adolescents? And (in relationship to this week’s Psycho Pass, ironically) what is the balance between distress and eustress, and how does this factor into a civilian becoming a successful contributor to society?

Question 1 has been asked from the beginning – it’s obvious that Shin Sekai‘s utopia, though seemingly flawless in its creation, has many cracks and chips in its foundation, and Shun is an embodiment of those cracks. Pressured by society to live up to its expectations, and filled with paranoia brought by constant supervision, Shun is not allowed to make one mistake. There’s no doubt that intellectually he’s being challenged at a specific level that nourishes his power needs and makes him grow in strength. But underneath the surface lies something much more troubling and unnourished; an aspect of health that the classroom ignores. Shun’s mental health has been degrading over the past two years, and this is only exaggerated with his attitude and relationship toward Satoru, which brings us to Question 2. He has alienated himself from the very society that tries to help and empower him. He has made himself into a monster.

There’s no doubt that Shun uses sexual foreplay to release any sort of stress that he takes in within the classroom, and to an extent, it does work. By being in a relationship with Satoru, Shun finds distraction, a sort of hobby that makes him forget the world around him. But it doesn’t help him find the answers he seeks – answers that can only be found by looking within oneself. Or as the Greek aphorism has it, “γνῶθι σαυτόν” (know thyself). Shun empowers himself through sexual means, but does not use the opportunity to ask himself what he wants and what he’s constantly frustrated about. And so, instead of helping and building Shun as an individual but also as a participator in society, engaging in a relationship with Satoru only makes Shun distance himself from the world even further, to the point where he must go to a village to heal his ‘sickness.’

γνῶθι σαυτόν relates to confronting the imbalance within and accepting oneself. Combine this with adolescence; a critical time where imbalance occurs as we grow and try to come to terms not only with our sexuality, but emotional and mental changes. Distress and eustress will result, and need to be equalized in order for a sense of true happiness and healthiness to occur.  There is no doubt that it is thus even more essential for Shun, and the others, to understand their weaknesses, emotions, and sense of self, and to be more aware of one another. While the society these friends may live in may seem peaceful, one forgets that it is only as quiet and stable as long as the civilians allow it to be, and delude themselves into thinking they do live in utopia. Shun has awoken himself from the sleep that betrays everyone else’s senses, but in doing so, has caused himself to be a clutter of imbalances; a buildup of distress and delusions, which has led him to be excluded from the society. Assuming that the rest of our protagonists may follow the same route, I think it’s safe to say that this is the time where the biggest decisions will be made: to either accept what’s going on, as well as understand one’s limits and potential, or to continue playing false and pretend for the rest of one’s life. Ironically, for their friend, our group will do the former: but what will the consequences be? And will they truly outweigh the problems that comes with struggling to live in an illusion, as we saw with Shun? Is there a happy end to be found in this dilemma? Shinsekai has yet to answer, but I’m sure the answers will come soon enough…

(On a side note: I do think it’s interesting that each character has a certain trait that’s associated with their role and/or personality in the show: Maria’s talent for flying may be connected with her desire to become something more than she is, Saki’s talent to mend makes her the main protagonist as she might be able to fix relationships between people and heal, Satoru’s ability to flatten and mold physical objects may be an attribute of physical prowess and determination, Mamoru’s ability to perfectly portray what he has observed signals his passivity and demonstrates his role as an observer in the story, and Shun’s ability to mold life and death hints at his ability to shape the world for the better or worse.)

wendeego: No matter what qualms one might have about its execution, it’s hard to deny that Shinsekai has guts. This is a series that has dared to create a living, breathing world that plunges head-forth into social taboos, refusing to dumb itself down for the sake of an audience. Some have complained that the staff has dumbed down aspects of the original story, but frankly this is a series that has already dealt with mass brainwashing, consensual sex between twelve year olds and societal adolescent gay romance. Considering how conservative anime can be, I’m surprised that Shinsekai made it through the adaptation process as intense as it already is.

Here’s a bit of homework for you: name another anime series that has dealt straight-on with adolescent sexuality, post-FLCL. Probably the most recent example is Mysterious Girlfriend X, a series that many mistook for bizarre and unsettling fanservice but was actually one of the most honest portrayals of the adolescent male psyche to be released in years. But before and after, nothing. As much as anime has plumbed the depths of sexual depravity on occasion, resulting in dozens of terrible series founded on misogyny and sexual exploitation, very few have attempted to deal with the teenage sexual impluse head-on. Even many shoujo series skip over the subject, casting romance in highly idealistic terms and refusing to get down to the heady and biological impulses that lie under the picture-perfect relationship. The amount of manga dealing head-on with these themes is much, much greater, but few of these are ever adapted, and those that are, are often rounded off until none of the original edge remains.

Shinsekai faces adolescent sexuality head on, refusing to make compromises to ensure the comfort of the audience. Even more amazingly, it deals with homosexuality without flinching. This isn’t a show that fits easily into the yaoi or yuri genres. Outside of the words of the false minoshiro, there was no massive signpost saying “WARNING: this is a show depicting two men graphically making out on screen.” Some of the reaction on message boards to this episode has been flat-out hilarious (i.e. “tounging! ahhhhh!”) but I think it’s important to take these messages into account and realize that Shinsekai made a lot of people uncomfortable this week. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Anime needs more shows that deals head-on with controversial issues without either making itself more palatable to general audiences or relegating itself to a niche.

That’s not to say that Shinsekai is necessarily perfect in challenging our expectations. As has been previously noted on Twitter, the portrayal of homosexuality in the show comes unnervingly close to the stereotype of gay love being an indulgence of youth, a quick experiment during adolescence that ultimately comes to nothing. This could very well be the case, and if that’s so then Shinsekai is probably not either as progressive or daring as it appears to be. But hell, with the anime industry in the state it’s in I’d take a show like Shinsekai that ruthlessly challenges social norms over any number of merchandise-driven franchise shows. Shinsekai has its problems, but while there are shows this season–or this year, for that matter–that have better writing, pacing or execution, I can’t think of any other series that comes close to its sheer scale or the questions it asks of us. No question about it, I’m in this series for the long haul.


3 responses to “γνῶθι σαυτόν; Shin Sekai Yori Episode 8

  1. That side note was deep – I hadn’t thought about that.
    Also glad to hear Mysterious Girlfriend X getting mentioned! I loved the show for the same reason you did, and I also feel like the “genre” of dealing with adolescent sexuality is underrepresented as a whole. The only other shows I can think of that are even somewhat close are B Gata H Kei, maybe parts of Bake/Nisemonogatari, and possibly Hanasaku Iroha (although that’s a mess). And all of those generally focused on the more “young adult” side rather than the “adolescent” one.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard some surprisingly good things about B Gata H Kei! Now that I think about it, I’d also forward a section of the enormously underrated Bokura ga Ita, which has the main couple come pretty damn close to having sex in one episode. That said, I do wish we had more series that explored the same territories as FLCL, MGX and, of course, Revolutionary Girl Utena. Where’s Yoji Enokido when you need him?

      Thanks for the comment! My mind was blown by Natasha’s side note as well to be honest :)

      • Huh – I guess I’ll put Bokura ga Ita on my “to watch” list then!
        And YES to that – everything Enokido touches is gold.

        As for BGHK, I think it deserves the praise (in general), and would definitely recommend checking out at least the first couple episodes if you have time. Yamada’s quite the character.


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