illegenes: Did you turn your lights off when you watched this episode? I didn’t, and in a way, I’m kind of glad of it.
(trigger warning: blood, abuse)
I don’t think I’ve seen such a terrifying episode in anime since Jigoku Shoujo – and that’s been a while. Needless to say, Shin Sekai Yori continues its spiraling descent into the pits of horror as we come face to face with Darkness itself. Oh, not just the nameless monster that’s lurking a creepy and ruined hospital, who easily uses his Cantus to set people ablaze. I’m not just talking about how the episode took place at night either. The terror lies within the execution and pacing of the episode – all perfectly timed and directed to make sure a paralyzing fear was permeated into every part of the atmosphere.
What creates good horror though? What separates something as intense as Shinsekai from, let’s say, Another? H.G Lovecraft states that horror must be unidentifiable. “A writer must never state a horror element when it can be suggested.” Shinsekai, a master of “show but don’t tell” storytelling, proves this with episode 19. Oh, we know from the minute the night sets in, and the foreboding music plays, that something terrible is going to happen. That anticipation builds only as Saki, Satoru, and the others dock the boat and climb to shore, only to find a gaping hole in the hospital. And it only climbs from there. In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact ‘climax’ of horror in Shinsekai Yori as the events only follow up one after another, increasing in relentlessness. From the massacre of the queerats, to the cocoons of the hostages, to the patient and man from the previous group being set on fire, to the monster nearly opening the door only to kill the doctor instead, and finally, to the fact that it manages to follow Saki and Satoru on the boat – there is no space in this episode to breathe. As I said in the previous review, we are no longer omnipotent viewers. We do not have control of the camera. We are souls trapped in the eyes and bodies of Satoru and Saki, as we witness and feel what they feel.
But what’s important to understand is that Shinsekai never really states what we’re facing. While we’re itching to scream, we’re also building answers. Why are there cocoons? Why create hostages? Who is the Fiend? Where did it come from? Is there a way to stop it? What’s going to happen to Saki and Satoru? At the same time, we never see the face of the Fiend. We don’t need to. Shinsekai plays into our comfort zone – while we’ve relied on theories and imagination to bridge the gaps in previous episodes, here, we’re relying on that exact imagination to create a terrifying image to haunt us. The thought is scarier than the actual subject – that is how horror is accomplished and that’s why Episode 19 aces the atmosphere perfectly.
The stakes are also raised here, and so is the actual sense of mortality, as we witness more and more deaths – gruesome, tragic, and yet still very powerful. What’s admirable about Shinsekai in this episode is how we’re introduced to several random characters, and yet we feel for their death (or at least, I did) because we’re not only just scared for them and ourselves; we’re given just enough fear to believe that anyone who dies at the hand of such a monster is unfortunate. To the Doctor who ironically ends up saving Saki and Satoru’s lives, to the young woman who decides to stay with one of the captives to give them time – these are all brave and fragile souls that easily shatter, and if anything, it’s truly sad that we have to see them go. This is especially seen through Saki’s eyes, who hasn’t been able to save anyone since the show began – both loved ones and strangers.
With such a powerful and frightening episode, is there hope left? Shinsekai seems to be telling us no. But it’s through the narrator (whose very existence proves that Saki must survive these events) and Saki herself that tell me yes, once again. If Saki is the embodiment of hope, love, sacrifice, caring and a strong will to survive, then maybe – just maybe – so can Shinsekai‘s society too, adopt these traits. But that’s for Wendeego to expand on now, isn’t it? :)
wendeego: This would be the part where I swing in out of nowhere and expand on what Natasha had to say for this episode. But before I can do that, I’m going to have to talk about Psycho Pass, Gen Urobuchi’s currently airing homage to dystopian thrillers a la Equilibrium and Minority Report. Got it? Good.
I’ve seen plenty of people these past few days compare Psycho Pass and Shin Sekai Yori. Both shows are set in futuristic societies where free will has been erased, and the government has been forced to make horrifying compromises in order to ensure the survival of humanity. Both of these societies are at risk of being destroyed from within, the former by the inhuman demagogue Shogo Makishima and the latter by a combination of Machiavellian queerats and a mysterious fiend who’s seemingly thrown in with their lot. Now, I’ll be honest: thus far, I’m not a big fan of Psycho Pass. It pays lip service to plenty of potentially interesting ideas, but undermines itself with scatter-shot character development, violence framed nearly pornographically and the repeated abuse of women, a device prevalent in so much of Urobuchi’s work that it’s becoming more than a bit disturbing. But there’s a distinct difference between the worldview of Psycho Pass and Shin Sekai Yori that I think proves crucial towards illustrating why Psycho Pass fails for me while Shin Sekai Yori succeeds.
To put it simply, Psycho Pass generalizes the inhabitants of its dystopia as spastic, dependent sheep while Shinsekai takes their humanity into account. An example of the former might be episode 15, also known as the episode where Makishima’s plan to revolutionize society finally takes off. Computerized helmets that render their users impervious to criminal consequences sweep the streets, leading to a sudden wave of crime including everything from stealing to rape to cold-blooded murder. Old men and women are killed. A woman is beaten to death with a hammer on the street. The problem, though, is that up to this point we’ve had no previous exposure to the common people in the world of Psycho Pass. The only people we’ve met have been cloistered away in workplaces or boarding schools, hardly the ideal environment to understand how the nuts and bolts of society function. So when the people themselves join the act, slaughtering the helmet-wearers without any second thoughts, our reaction is less of “this is precisely what humans are capable of” and more of a “huh???” Of course there would be a mob, of course people would riot, but I think the notion that anyone in this setting, without exception, would go berserk and just start murdering people when threatened reveals a fundamental contempt for humanity that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. The only exception to the rule, Urobuchi’s light shining in the darkness, is Akane: a privileged, well-off and well-educated Inspector who’s about as removed from the common people as can possibly be imagined. Akane happens to be the most well-rounded character in the show, but the fact that she alone is capable of goodness while the populace of Urobuchi’s dystopia are a bunch of sedentary and/or murderous assholes with little room in between strikes me as enormously naive and maybe even elitist.
Like Psycho Pass, Shinsekai populates its broken society with individuals capable of rashness, arrogance and stupidity. It makes no bones about the fact that the rise of the queerats and their pet fiend was an inevitability, born of years and years of mistreatment and an inflated sense of self-importance bordering on a god complex on behalf of the humans. The queerats might be capable of horrors, lobotomizing their queen and slaughtering thousands without any care for the consequences. But they’re no more terrible than the humans who have enslaved them; humans who have systematically murdered their young, fearing that they would become fiends or karma demons, for centuries. It’s a battle between two evils without innocents or victors, and if there are those who are good–Saki, Satoru, maybe even Tomiko, who has arranged the deaths of millions of children in her lifetime–then they are outnumbered by everyone else, who sleepwalk to their deaths. It’s a society that’s gone so long pruning itself for imperfections that it’s forgotten what being human means.
But what makes Shinsekai work, and what makes this particular episode work, is empathy. Shinsekai reveals the profound flaws of its carefully crafted society but it portrays each and every one of that society’s individuals as living, breathing, fallible people. They might in the majority lack imagination and free will, they might be unaware of the gallons of blood soaking their hands, but they still have friends and families and jobs, and live happy lives despite the frankly terrifying shadow hanging over their society. Atmosphere, sound design and effective use of editing are all key elements of horror, but what’s even more effective is when said horror is happening to people we actually give a damn about. Not everyone in the boat with Saki and Satoru are sympathetic–at least one is an unreliable asshole–but none of them are demonized, and they die not in a splash of artfully choreographed blood but instead a sudden, terrifying scrunch. These are people who have been forced by their history and circumstances to do terrible things in order to stay alive, and as Saki and Satoru explode dozens of queerats with their PK this episode it’s clear that there is no going back to the idyllic (if sometimes unsettling and creepy) childhood days of their youth. Slowly but surely, the people of Shinsekai are being made to own the mistakes made over the long history of the society they were born in. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see what happens next–whether Saki and her friends find a way to cut the Gordian’s knot threatening to destroy her home, or whether she dies in the crossfire. All I’m sure of is that things are only going to get worse before everything is said and done.