illegenes: There are few shows which can manage to wrap up their story thematically while resolving and validating a strong central character arc. There are even fewer shows that do it, while leaving a strong taste in your mouth as you sit back and wonder what you’ve actually experienced. I could count the names off my hand; Mawaru Penguindrum, Katanagatari, and Utena are all some excellent examples, and it seems to me that Shinsekai has joined the rank of these pieces of work (and art) by creating a strong, conclusive, and rich finale that will stay put in my memory for a long time.
Of course, there are many things, both subtle and not subtle, that made the finale so enjoyable and satisfying to me; but to start, I’d have to go back and actually explain, in my perspective, of how an ideal conclusion should be created. For a show like Shinsekai, which created thought-provoking themes through a stylistic execution of show and not tell, it was even more important that the finale actually concluded things while still being able to present itself as a complete and sustainable work. We could almost think of it as an essay; with a strong introduction, a meaty and detailed body, Shinsekai needed the legs to stand on its own. We could even argue that the legs would be the strongest part of the story, as the show has been building up so many important questions regarding human beings and the societies we create. The ending had to finish definitively; for it to collapse while having so much buildup and such strong execution would almost break down the entire point of the show itself.
It was a worry then, when we had one episode left, and so much to resolve. The pseudofiend hadn’t been killed off; we were still unsure of the future of society, let alone if anyone survived the war, and the fate of the queerats themselves. Would Shinsekai give us a nihilistic, cruel ending? Considering how the rest of the series had progressed in such a manner, the thought didn’t seem far off the mark. But to my complete surprise, Shinsekai proved me wrong. Not only was the finale the warmest episode in the entire show, and not only did it resolve nearly every plot and theme while managing to make Saki’s narrative triumphant and essential to the entire meaning of the show; it also managed to re-establish its questions and create new questions to linger in our minds. Who is the victor, and who is the loser? What should we do to cherish our children, and in what ways can we nurture our future while never forgetting our past at the same time?
But I’m already venturing into further territory without really going into explanation. Let’s go back to where we ended: Episode 24 marks a rather twisted tale of events as the Psychobuster – our only hope – is lost as Saki, who is only human (and has lost far too many people already), destroys the item and thus any chance of defeating the Fiend with it. We’re thrown back into despair as Kiromaru, Saki, and Satoru are literally forced into a corner, with no way out. But as the show has proved it throughout, time and time again, Saki, when in the darkness, will always find a way to return into the light. And so Episode 25 brings us to this masterful conclusion as in the first five minutes, Saki uses her final riposte: Kiromaru as a sacrifice to kill the Fiend, whom we realize, isn’t one in the first place.
There are two somewhat valid complaints to this start: first, the conclusion to the Fiend’s arc is rather anti-climatic, and second, there seems to be a plot hole – or at least, one that isn’t very well explained within the context of the story. I, for one, personally disagree that Maria’s daughter’s death was rushed. It was meant to be anti-climatic for a reason; the series was never about her existence, and so the rest of the time was spent resolving other themes that needed to be focused on. The second problem is something I’m still confused about: death feedback. It’s been clearly said back in Episode 5 that death feedback was a genetic trait, so my question is: how did the pseudofiend die from killing a queerat, but not humans like it should have genetically done so? The only answer to this is that death feedback is also environmentally based, which is something I wish the show had hinted at or at least explained a bit, but frankly, that was the only problem I did find in the finale.
As the rest of the finale steers toward denouement, one of the main highlights – if not the strongest parts of the entire series – is Squealer and his defense against his actions, which Wendeego will talk about. What struck me as incredible was how his argument touched thinly veiled and objectionable content – specifically the system of institutionalized oppression and its reinforcement through the erasure of knowledge and history. (More on that later.) But what topped the already-incredible was Saki herself. As I explained in the previous episode review, Saki’s nascent characterization is central to the meaning of the show. Her loss, emotional triumphs, and forlorn victories all come together at this point when she makes the final realization that non-PK humans are the ancestors of the queerats, who were forced to ‘devolve’ in order to ensure that Cantus users would remain at the top of the chain. However, what really makes the finale – and Saki’s arc – stand out – are the final minutes of the show, which belong to Saki alone. Shinsekai almost tells us throughout the last episode that humans will repeat their mistakes. That nothing has changed, when Squealer is put on trial and is forced to go through horrible torture. We are bound by our past actions, and thus cursed to live through them once more.
But. There is so much hope to be found. The village puts up a war memorial instead of erasing the past. More than 10 queerat colonies are saved. And the village’s greatest anchor and weapon of hope is Saki herself, when she finally grants Squealer peace and dedicates her life to saving the future, using the loss of all those before her as her guidance. “By then, I had realized that there were far more important things than rules,” she remarks as she burns Squealer’s corpse. Saki takes her rightful place as leader, keeping all documents of Fiend and Karma Demon nature so that people can learn from knowledge, rather than trying to hold onto it for individual purposes.* And lastly, there is a list of districts, none which are stamped in red, or crossed out. Saki has made sure to create peace and equality not just for herself, and not for the people of the past, but for the future generation, including her very own child. The entire show then, is an experience; both as a lesson to Saki and as a way to flesh her out into becoming the beacon she is at the very end.
Are these conclusive results to establishing peace? No. But to do that would be to go against the way Shinsekai has done things for the past 24 episodes. The show has never handed us information or solid details on a plate; rather, it relies on foreboding and only giving us hints. Saki’s first steps toward paving a better future for her kind and the queerats are also important because they don’t decisively erase the oppression of a race which has been going on for years. Change does not start big; it starts small. Institutionalized oppression does not simply vanish in a few years. It will take a long time before the Cantus users gain the correct mindset to realize their wrongs and try to right them. It will take an even longer time for these actions to take root and create a stable future. But to go and say that this is Shinsekai‘s final voice – one of uncompromising despair – seems to be missing the point of what the show has tried to to say since Day 1. Yes, we’ve explored the darkness of the human condition. But even when all has been burnt to the ground, humans still have the capacity to rebuild, and that is Shinsekai‘s warmest, strongest, and last message left to tell, as it concludes with all of the people Saki has lost, telling her that she can do it – that we can do it, if we try.
An object of fear becomes one of hope. It’s been a great ride, Shinsekai, and rarely has anime captured the essence of storytelling and sci fi into such a powerful, 25-episode capsule, but you did it, and you did it well.
*According to novel spoilers, the connotations behind this are much more depressing. However, it’s important to realize that the anime is a separate entity from the novel; I respect both endings, and while the anime ending is more positive, both are appropriate for the themes presented.
gallifreyians: Strangely I find myself in the minority with respect to the ending of Shin Sekai Yori; this show is not and was never bad — and neither was the ending — but I can’t help but feel that while this is true, the end of the show (specifically episode twenty-five) isn’t necessarily good. I was very much underwhelmed by the ending and did not think that it was the ending that a show like SSY deserved.
I’ve discussed before how deliberate and precise everything in the show is (or rather was); different stands of narratives were woven together to create this sort of intricate tapestry of a story that explored human nature, the ethics and efficacy of government, human sexuality, morality, mortality, and racism — just to name a few! The story of the show was so fluid and free, exploring everything at once in a very organic format that allowed flawless transition from one theme or plot or time period to another; and in that way none of the arcs that developed in the plot along the way ever ended, they simply resolved and led into the next part of Saki’s life. With respect to that, the overall end of the show simply doesn’t fit.
The story that’s been getting told, it’s one about life and about humanity and about trying to live the best way you can given the circumstances you’ve been bron under; it’s about surviving as a human in face of everything and trying to be a good person in a fucked-up world. Saki and Satoru were captured by queerats and separated from their friends yet still things went on, Group One discovered the horrible truth about their society and yet still life went on, Saki lost Shun and Maria but still life went on, Saki’s world was torn down by Yakomaru and nearly everyone she had left died and even then Saki went on living and trying to make things better.
And that takes us to now, at the end; Saki engineers a plan to kill the child of Maria and Mamoru by sacrificing Kiromaru, which leads to the capture of Yakomaru and the rebuilding of Kamisu. Yet, does life go on? Obviously, yes, it does, but is that what Shin Sekai Yori says? – No.
The end of the show seems to want to close the book on the show by seemingly closing the book on Saki’s life. Instead of the reassuring “and life went on” from Shin Sekai Yori, it’s heavily implied that after the close of this story, Saki’s life is essentially over. We don’t get from the end of the show that simply this part of Saki’s life is over and that she goes on to do something more, but that since the “exciting” part of Saki’s life is over, she is content with doing nothing for the rest of her life. To me, that is a hardly okay thing for the show to do for two reasons: first of all, it is counter-productive to the theme of the show that no matter what happens we can move on and forward with our lives (which I’ve discussed above), and secondly it makes a critical misstep in assuming that now that Saki is married and expecting a child that she cannot assume any other role than wife and mother.
The second reason can be seen in series six and seven of Doctor Who, in which Amelia Pond is reduced as a character to being the wife of Rory Williams and takes a passive role to him in every episode. Despite continuing to travel with The Doctor, Amy is painted as someone who wants and should want nothing more than banal “domestic bliss” and let her husband do all of the heavy lifting for her because she’s “his” — the idea that marriage removes the possibility of Amy Pond actually being an agent in the story of her own life. Just as in Doctor Who, the issue here is how incompatible this characterization is with both Amy and Saki.
Shin Sekai Yori is a story about Saki, and so she is the agent through which the plot of the story moves forward both textually and thematically. Within Saki’s life she has consistently been an active participant and exercised her power of free-will as freely as she could under a variety of circumstances. This consistent response for Saki to be her own woman constitutes a subtextual characterization that the ending simply shattered and subtly links to her change in sociological role.
To imply that Saki’s life is done with everything exciting and nothing will really happen beyond this point is to say that Saki will no longer act as an agent in her life or in the world around her, which completely breaks her established characterization. This is further compounded as a problem by linking via coinciding this event with her marriage to Satoru and subsequent pregnancy, implying that she is not longer allowed to occupy the role of an agent because of the change of her marital status. This is a huge problem now because not only does it fly in the face of Saki’s characterization, but is also incredibly sexist in nature. For Saki to “have to” be limited to being a mother and wife without being an agent is to say that there is not only a specific way that Saki other women should act, but also to say that they need to be subservient to their husbands by giving up their ability to make decisions about their family and about themselves — an incredibly sexist idea subtly mixed into the ending.
While I did have other issues with the ending regarding the execution of the end of the “Fiend arc” (among other things), the idea that Saki doesn’t remain Saki and that life doesn’t just go on outweighs everything else and really sours the ending, skewing everything. While I honestly think that Shin Sekai Yori could’ve been a ten out of ten, it really suffers from an all-to-common case of a badly done ending that keeps it at a nine out of ten.
wendeego: Natasha and Steven have done a good job discussing the ending as a whole, so instead I’m going to try something a little different and talk about something very specific. Something that affected me personally, and for me might have been one of the strongest moments in the show.
There’s been a lot of talk about Squealer in the blogosophere. Some have lionized him as a freedom fighter doing his very best against impossible odds. Others have pointed out that no matter how valid his cause may have been, the methods he used were extreme to the point of undoing any justification for his actions. Let’s remind ourselves that the same queerat who stood up to the court half-way through this episode and cried “We are human!” is the same creature who lobotomized his queen, sent countless soldiers to their death while slaughtering entire tribes of queerats, probably did unspeakable things to Saki’s friends Mamoru and Maria, and enslaved a child (with the goal of eventually enslaving countless human children) with the intent of teaching him to murder his own kind. History has taught us that those who are great are often fraught with contradiction, and while I have no problem labelling Squealer a “great” character, he is also one who has committed any number of unforgivable acts. He deserves the punishment that the humans inflicted upon him–but does he?
The truth is that I underestimated Squealer. In previous episodes, I had great respect for him as a character, but was convinced that everything he accomplished was motivated by a desire to no longer be hurt. When Saki and her friends first meet Squealer, he is naked, a servant to a queen who would devour him at the slightest provocation. It was easy for me to assume that his successive rise in power was due to a desire to no longer be eaten, hurt, or killed. But this episode made one thing clear that I did not expect. Squealer did not fear pain. What he did fear was oppression. Not just for himself, but for the rest of his kind. He became the leader of his kind and committed atrocities not just for himself, but for others as well. That Squealer was capable of selflessness all along is something that I never anticipated, but now it makes perfect sense. If Kiroumaru is our queerat representative who still believes in ethics and chivalry, Squealer is the one who has put literally everything on the line in order to free his kind from systematic oppression and brutality.
I think that in the end, if Saki is the protagonist of Shinsekai Yori, Squealer is its secret secondary protagonist. What’s important here is that we do not witness his entire arc as a character. All that we receive are specific moments of his growth, captured at least once in each of the series’s arcs. A slave in the first arc, he becomes a warlord in the second and finally a dictator–then a prisoner–in the third. Until the very end, we are never entirely sure what he is thinking and whether we can trust him, but in a way this actually makes sense. Men such as Squealer, who plot to revolutionize the world from the shadows, are inherently unknowable. Squealer is a monster, but he is also human. He is simultaneously legendary and pitful. He may have deserved imprisonment, death or worse, but if anything his treatment by the humans of Saki’s society prove the validity of exactly what he spent so many years fighting against. But he dies with his ambitions unrealized, reduced to literally a sub-human state while the future of his people remains in flux.
This is why I found Saki’s final moments with Squealer one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the entire show. In a sense, the two of them are the most important players in the story. Saki was our eyes, or means of discovering and interpreting the world of Shinsekai, and Squealer represented the other, the dark truths lurking in the background of the series that did not become knowable until it was far too late. So it meant something to me when Saki did the last few burning cells that remained of Squealer a favor by speaking softly to him as he died. The girl chosen by the immortal Tomiko as the future leader of humans, lulling the mastermind of the queerat revolution to sleep. The only favor she could grant him. A gift from one person to another, and with it the understanding that what Squealer could not accomplish through slaughter, Saki will achieve through love and kindness. Society changes slowly, and it is clear that the humans have learned nothing from the queerat revolution. The world is complicated and dangerous and will not change easily. But we know–and so does Squealer, maybe, or what is left of him–that Saki will not give up. That she looked the end of her world straight in the eye and did not falter. That sooner or later, the old world will become a new world. That the future is uncertain, but there is hope.