It’s taken us 9 episodes to get here, but the wait was (sort of) worth it; after eight consistent episodes of teasing and luring us around, Shinsekai Yori finally strays away from the subtleties and goes for the downright horrifying. On the surface? It’s just another episode with Saki resolving to find Shun. But underneath lies a bubbling pit of potential, answers and even more burning questions.
illegenes: This was the first episode since Episode 4 where I truly felt like the show wasn’t dragging itself along, trying too hard to be mysterious and cautious. This episode was daring. It was smart, it was well-executed, it hit the highs in all the right places, and made Saki much more interesting than before. From the minute she restrained herself from engaging in sexual activity with Shun, I knew she was going to be special, and so far she’s been fitting the main protagonist shoes quite well. But more than anything, what sold me on this episode were two main things. The first is a second subversion or play on the storytelling format, which I’ve previously talked about, and the second is dystopian imagery, which hints at these parallels.
I discussed last week about how Shun had started to alienate himself from those who were closest to him, and how his struggle to live up to his potential the paranoia and distress that was building up inside him. In essence, he was becoming a karma demon – a monster. This episode, while lacking in Shun completely, showed me two things: that his progression has only worsened, and that his tale was exactly like the story told about the karma demon in Episode 2. Think about it: the lines of the story are as follows.
“There lived a boy in the village 180 years ago. He was a boy of great intelligence, but he had one weakness. As he grew into a man, it became increasingly clear to everyone. The boy mocked all things around him so as to glorify his intellect. He pretended to listen carefully to all the things that the school and village’s adults taught him, but the important lessons never touched his heart. Pride plants the seeds of bad karma. Solitude was his only friend and confidant. Solitude brings the seeds of bad karma to fruit. His bad karma grew rampant like vines, watered by his thoughts. Unbeknownst to him, the boy’s bad karma spiraled further out of control, and eventually he lost all humanity. He…had turned into a karma demon.“
The parallels are distinctive. As Shun progresses into adolescence, he becomes increasingly frightened and anxious about his life and his purpose in the community, as well as his powers. He grows angry and confident. He purposely shuns away his predecessor – the only hope of him ever achieving balance and success. He pushes himself away from his friends and family, and loses himself in the process. There is one difference though; whereas the boy in the story was unaware of his fall, Shun is very aware of what’s happening to him. It’s the reason he tries to distance himself from Saki and Satoru; ironically, it’s also the same trait that accelerates his problems. Either way though, if we follow this story, we can only assume that Shun’s fate is going to be sealed by something immensely tragic, or that Saki will be in time to save him from his demise. What’s brilliant about this is that this is a refocus on the stories told back in Episodes 1-4, which were seemingly useless and were only there for shock entertainment. However, we realized they did serve one purpose – their existence questioned the validity of the storytelling system in the world of Shinsekai and if the real threat behind the stories was much larger. Here, that question is answered. The stories are a threat, not because they’re stories. They’re true. And they’re happening in the show, real time.
How is this supported through the imagery this week though? Well, there’s a specific scene in this week’s Shinsekai where Satoru and Saki go to look for Shun and end up traveling to his village in order to find him. What they do find is something quite different – beautiful and terrifying in nature.
The Swallow Tailed Moth is a specific sort of moth that’s known to be quite common in Europe and Asia. For the most part, these moths are pretty normal – they can multiply by the hundreds quite easily and feed on a variety of trees. However, when a moth infestation begins, it’s disastrous, and a quick glimpse at how these swallow tailed moths have corrupted their surroundings is enough to give me shivers. I’m not sure if the destruction of trees in Episode 2’s story is caused by moths, but I can definitely tell you that the outlook is the same, which only serves to show how it’s Shun who has progressed into darkness this time, not Satoru as I talked about in Episode 5. The fauna is also certainly strange – what’s show here is a red azalea, a type of flower that is know to be equally beautiful as it is toxic. Beautiful in that the red color is valued by many culture, toxic in that eating just a small dose can be lethal. Combine this powerful scene of the apocalyptic terrain with gravestones/tombs and the ending scene of Saki wandering in a desert filled with withered trees, and you’ve got a strong signal from the show, telling us that something serious and terrifying is really going to start. Shinsekai has cast away the buildup and is now heading for the straightforward, without abandoning the subtle visual storytelling that makes it enthralling – something I really appreciate and admire.
Regarding next week, I can already imagine a group of angry Shinsekai Yori fans groaning as the animation heads for another dramatic change (to what seems like…yet another Shigeyasu-directed episode?), but personally, I’m all the more excited. Shit has finally hit the ceiling, and it’s time to find out what’s really in store for our main protagonists. Count me in as the one who thinks the party has just gotten started!
wendeego: I’ve been a bigger fan of the past few episodes of Shinsekai than my blogging compatriots: they weren’t always perfect, but they were definitely fascinating and even daring attempts to expand the world of the show while taking serious risks in the bargain. That said, I would say that this episode of Shinsekai was easily the best so far: tense, visually stunning, and remarkably creepy.
If this episode had a theme, it’s “you can’t go home again,” particularly for Saki. A settlement has been frozen, draped with moths and turned into a crater by unknown forces. Anyone could be watching at any time. Saki’s parents know more than they let on, and on top of that our heroine has realized that her very name indicates that she was not the first of her parent’s children, and that her older sister must have been spirited away. There’s definite proof that the leaders of her settlement are watching, and they aren’t taking kindly to recent developments. The copycats exist, and they’re terrifying.
I think it’s no coincidence that when Saki flies into action at the end of the episode, she leaves to find Shun at night. One of the first things we hear in Shinsekai are the strains of “Goin Home,” a song set to the tune of Dvorak’s New World Symphony but actually used in schools and various other places in Japan as a clarion call indicating that it is time to leave and return to the hearth. As children, Saki and her friends return home immediately after hearing that song as night comes. But the song no longer holds power over Saki. She goes in search of Shun despite the presence of what must be a strict curfew. Perhaps she would hold back if she felt she had a home to return to, but she does not: the government is against her, her parents lie to her and she knows that the calm facade of the society she inhabits has been ruined for her forever. Running out alone to save her crush might not have been very smart–she might have stood a better chance of success had she brought her friends into the equation as well–but it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. Right now Saki must feel like she’s the only person she can trust, and time will tell how true that is. As of now, the cats have come out to play, the last bits of the societal goodwill that comes with childhood have been burned away, and the preview of the next episode indicates that things will not turn out well.
To put it simply: as close as this series has come occasionally to fulfilling its potential, the next episode looks like it’s going to be the real thing. I can’t wait!
gallifreyians: Everything I’ve seen so far out of Shin Sekai Yori has felt intellectually stimulating, intricate, and complex, but not viscerally thrilling. Episode nine then propels itself forward into the plot and surpasses all the other episodes by providing just this: a deep inward thrill with the horror and action of the story.
I’m not saying that Shin Sekai Yori hasn’t provided plenty of horror and action before, because it has, but rather that episode nine reaches new heights with it’s horror. What many people don’t understand is that there is a subtle difference between intellectual horror, visceral horror, and gore. Gore is the banal Saw-esque ‘horror’ where you have blood and flying body parts everywhere, which is not actually frightening itself; intellectual horror is the horror that Shin Sekai Yori has delivered so far, the kind of horror where you only understand the fear of the situation mentally, and have no emotional reaction; and then you have the visceral horror of Alfred Hitchcock, where you react with a deep emotional, deep psychological response. …And that Hitchcockian horror was thrilling.
It is interesting to note that despite this dynamic shift, the aspects of the show that generate this visceral thrill are the same ones that have so far consistently delivered a less-than-compelling response; the difference being instead the execution. Execution really makes or breaks anything, and this is especially true of SSY considering the spotty execution some of the episodes that we’ve already seen. The difference in execution with this episode is how everything is made so extraordinarily personal for Saki. Sure, the Minoshiro’s tale was horrible and yes, it was about her society, but there is a difference between knowing about the horrors of the world and actually experiencing (read: feeling) them.
The zenithal moment of the horror/thrill of the episode came precisely from this difference, that moment being the one where Saki is struck by the memory of her dead sister, Yoshimi. This realization both redefines and recontextualizes the atrocities of society for Saki — and thus for us. Saki exists in Shin Sekai Yori as our point of view, and we can only appreciate the narrative in the context of how Saki experiences it. For Saki everything has now become personal, the cognizance of the memory of her sister having been forcibly removed making Saki feel the desperation of the situation. Now she (and we) can fully appreciate how horrible things under the current regime can be.
The difference between knowing and feeling is a fairly large one; arguably just as large as telling vs showing. Feeling is the result of showing, and creates a depth of appreciation that telling and knowing simply cannot. Shin Sekai Yori has raised the bar on itself with episode nine by illustrating that it in fact does know the difference. So episode 10 better not disappoint!