Shin Sekai Yori

Shin Sekai Yori

gallifreyians: There is always that one show that is a cut above the rest of the season, and Shin Sekai Yori is definitely that. I don’t think that there is anything in either Fall 2012 or Winter 2013 that can or could ever hold a candle to it. Instead of a plot, we have a narrative; there is no arrow that points linearly from the beginning to the end, but a continuum of arrows that point out infinitely. It is something I’ve said before but something that I need to say again: Shin Sekai Yori takes different ideas and different concepts based around specific but distinct story ideas and weaves them together into a tapestry of a story that really exceeds all expectations.

Back near the end of summer of twenty-twelve I remember being decidedly dejected at the lack of good shows in the coming Fall season; none of the shows seemed to show any promise, except for possibly Shin Sekai Yori. What convinced me to pick up the show wasn’t the premise though, it was the trailer. I am a big believer in trailers conveying the spirit of the show, and what the Shin Sekai Yori trailer conveyed was both adventure and the feeling of a journey. The trailer’s promise is ultimately delivered in the show, but in ways so much larger than can be captured in “adventure” or “journey”.

Shinsekai is an exploration, it is larger than a journey and larger than an adventure because it dares to strike out in areas that go unexplored by anime. Instead of the single-minded path of a journey, we get an ever-expanding look at the world and stories of SSY from the perspective of Saki. Saki’s struggles are the crux of the narrative, and are expanded in every direction in a way that truly makes her a complete character. Saki deals with the oppression and immorality of her government, her complex duality of feelings for both Maria and Shun, her sexuality, and the intersection between political matters and her identity. I would say that I haven’t seen a show that would dare to “go there” with a female protagonist and narrator who is a canon bisexual as well as a political figure. This exploration of Saki is so truly full and cogent that I can’t help but wax about how revolutionary I think it honestly is.

Shin Sekai Yori is about Saki and everything that entails, literally everything. Not a stone is left unturned in the story of the show and that is something truly powerful because it paints a picture of a woman that is more full than any other portrayal; not only is Saki a woman, but she is bisexual politician who is allowed to own herself, her choices, and her sexuality within the confines of one of the most sexist industries the world over. Not only is the subject matter different and compelling, but also the way in which that narrative is explored to it’s fullest potential in every direction imaginable is something never before seen within a mere twenty-five episodes.

The deciding factor that can either elevate an anime to new heights or drag it down into the pits of Tartarus is the execution, not just the execution of the technical aspects of art, animation, and music, but also the nuanced execution of the narrative; how the story that wants to be told is ultimately told matters. In the case of Shin Sekai Yori: the story is told deliberately, with a painstaking attention to details and with a painstaking fullness to those details. With this perfect execution, an idea that could’ve so easily gone so very wrong became a plot, became a story, became a narrative that constructed a complete and compelling character whose struggles I’ve loved to watch play out for the last half a year. In the end, Shin Sekai Yori has cemented itself an A- in my book, and while I am sad to see it go, I am hopeful that it will pave the way for future characters and stories just a good, just as well crafted, and just as expanding of the horizons of anime.

illegenes: I think to say that I would be just a casual fan of Shinsekai at this point would be an understatement. There are so many things this show dares to do, and does it right, which overshadows the small problems that were scattered evenly throughout. Rarely has an anime captured me on first sight, and has satisfied me right down to the ending itself, but Shinsekai managed to do it, and it’s hard to bid farewell to such a strong show.

Shinsekai Yori focuses on the lives of five children as they struggle to understand and adapt to the cruel and changing world around them. In one perspective, we could see this as a sort of ‘coming of age’ story, or we could see it as a new addition to the dystopian genre. But personally, I see Shinsekai Yori as an experiment in storytelling. We could align it up with shows like Kaiba or Penguindrum as it tries to expose serious commentary on the state of our society and the falsification and price of security and knowledge, while giving us a compelling plot and cast at the same time. It also has this sense of confidence in the way it tells its story that a lot of anime lack these days. You can tell that from the very beginning, Shinsekai is different and knows what its doing, and if you’re engaged, you’re in for a very solid and exciting ride.

Storytelling is Shinsekai‘s finest point, as it not only just gives you space to interpret what’s going on and why, but also manages to do many things at once – characterization, world building, red herrings, etc – without feeling like there’s too much being crammed. At first the characters seems a bit stereotypical and stock-like, but as the plot progresses, you begin to connect and empathize with them. Likewise, the exposition seems a bit vague and scattered, but it becomes significantly more consistent and important as the story goes on. Everything has a set pace and is revealed in time, with very few plot holes here and there. Without spoiling anything, I’d say that almost everything in Shinsekai, whether it be frustratingly slow or teasing, is very deliberate, and that in time, your answers will be found! With that in mind, Shinsekai never relies on the “tell don’t show” method that we sometimes see all too often nowadays, so unless you’re willing to do your part of the share in terms of thinking, Shinsekai will seem often clueless to you (when it’s really not).

The main problem then, lies with how slow Shinsekai decides to take things. Mind you, it’s a worthy price, as things really come full circle by the end of the story, and you realize how thorough and complete the story is, but if you’re not engaged with the first few episodes, a good chunk of the show can seem to be boring or useless, and it’s possible that you could drop the show. The disjointed narrative at times can also be unhelpful. It’s because Shinsekai relies so much on engaging the audience with the first couple of episodes that the rest of the wave is dependent on how you liked the first few episodes. This is cleared up by the fact that the last arc is the strongest as it brings everything in together, but for those who don’t like the slow burner kind of show, I’d stay clear of Shinsekai.

The animation is decently consistent; there are three episodes that have a significant animation change (two are because a different director had taken on those episodes and he has a unique style) but for the most part, Shinsekai‘s animation is pretty well done. The music is also excellent – the OSTs have some great tracks to accompany the tragic and haunting atmosphere of the show, and while some are forgettable, some are not, and it’s worth checking out once you’ve finished the show. My personal favorite picks are the themes for each timeskip (accompanied with a orchestral and choir version) and the fantastic ED, Wareta Ringo.

All in all, it’s a very strong and distinctive package, and if you’re willing to put up with minor gripes here and there, Shinsekai is a worthy ride to take, even if it was a financial disaster.

wendeego: I’d be lying if I said that Shinsekai Yori was an entirely smooth ride. The direction of the first few episodes verged on disjointed, jumping between uneventful school life sequences and massive infodumps. The animation could be inconsistent, without the strength of vision of an auteur like an Ikuhara or Yuasa to back it up. The central cast took a very long time to come into their own and become interesting, and even the story itself doesn’t really come together until the end of the series. Shinsekai was the first anime directed by veteran animator Masashi Ishihama, and it’s clear throughout that the staff are learning the ropes as they go. It’s sad but unsurprising that so many cast the show aside, scared away by the show’s rapidly mutating visual style or unflinching portrayal of sexuality.

This is a shame because as it happens, Shinsekai Yori is probably one of the best animated works of science fiction in years. That includes Steins;Gate, by the way. Set a thousand years after a new strain of humanity brings society to its knees, Shinsekai has scope and ambition wholly unbound by the constraints of well-worn anime tropes that have bound many of its recent peers. It’s an adaptation of a massive novel that won the Nihon SF Taisho Award alongside Dennou Coil back in 2008. Let that sink in for a moment: Shinsekai was based on a story that won an award alongside one of the best science fiction anime of the past decade, by any metric. Compared to Dennou Coil, I would have to say that Shinsekai falls a bit short; it lacks the remarkable consistency and sure hand that characterized the former. That said, in terms of its big ideas and overarching narrative, Shinsekai is easily Coil’s equal.

Dystopian fiction is in vogue these days, from young adult fiction like The Hunger Games to Gen Urobuchi’s cyberpunk misfire Psycho Pass. In both of these narratives, society is clearly in the wrong: Hunger Games is dominated by a rigid society maintained by an upper class that has bought into consumerism at the expense of freedom, while Psycho Pass presents a system literally ruled by sociopathic brains. Katniss’s goal is clear–to play (and fight) the system as best she can without her loved ones being hurt. Psycho Pass is more ambiguous, its cast clearly unable by the series’s end to come to a proper resolution on whether the SYBIL system is necessary or dangerous. As science fiction, Shinsekai is really more in line with the latter. As sinister as its society might be at first glance, it soon becomes clear that while the humans are very much responsible for their predicament, all their actions have been in the service of preventing an even worse fate. But what separates Shinsekai from something like Psycho Pass is that it actually dares to provide answers to its societal predicament, and whether those answers are correct or not they clearly illustrate something about the human condition we might never have seen otherwise.

We see it in Shun, a boy whose life begins in promise and ends in crushing despair. In Maria, who sacrifices everything for the boy who has loved her secretly for years, only to be taken advantage of by the enemy in a moment of weakness. In Squealer, a “queerat” who begins the series as a grovelling slave and throughout the series, while hidden from the eyes of the viewer, gradually evolves into a visionary leader willing to do literally anything to win freedom for himself and his people. In Saki, a girl (and eventually a woman) who is faced with an almost impossible dilemma: coming to terms with a society that fears its young so much that it slaughters them so they do not become powerful, a society that is terrible and wrong  but also the only possible human response to a great quandary. Shinsekai presents the viewer with a puzzle that has grown progressively more tangled over a thousand years of history, one that threatens to bring down a society that might deserve its own destruction. But it never descends into self-loathing or hatred. It refuses to portray society as anything less than an assembly of people who remain human despite everything, for better or worse. The puzzle is not solved outright, but the long process of righting a fatally flawed system has clearly begun. Saki’s future, and that of her people, lay in our hands.

Shinsekai Yori was a financial failure. This is a shame because in many ways, it’s precisely the kind of show that the anime industry needs right now: a series with something important to say, totally unaffected by the years of obsessive insularity that have constrained the industry’s vision. But it’s not too late! If you were turned away by the first few episodes, or if you’ve flat-out never heard of it, go watch Shinsekai Yori. If you’ve seen it and loved it, show it to your friends. It’s series like this that remind us all that the medium is still capable of great things, after all these years. Imperfect it may be, Shinsekai remains an achievement that will likely rank up there with the best of the year. Now, if only the novels would be published in English…

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7 responses to “Shin Sekai Yori

  1. This is definitely a series that stays with you. I had no idea its BD sales were so low, though. I can understand it not being very marketable, but I hope it at least achieves some kind of cult following.

    It seems to be a common complaint/lament, but the first few episodes didn’t bother me so much, (to be fair, I watched the whole show in about two days, instead of following it weekly as it aired), and in retrospect, they actually act as a clever kind of misdirection. The prologue sets a really dark and gritty tone, and up until the false-minoshiro incident, I thought Shinsekai was going to be structured like yet another school-time drama–just one set in a strange place and period. The show has these elements, but it develops them in very sophisticated and non-traditional, non-pandering ways. Even episode 4’s surfeit of information didn’t bother me so much, because by quickly and efficiently answering so many seemingly important mysteries, I became curious about what the show was really going to be about. The story as a whole has an unusual structure, but it worked for me.

    The show’s attitude towards sexuality is a good point of discussion. I dunno, I might be jaded about how often anime and manga tend to fetishize same-sex relationships, but I really really liked how matter-of-fact Shinsekai was about it. The characters simply thought that dudes kissing other dudes and girls kissing other girls were perfectly normal things. More importantly, the show’s direction reflected that attitude. I got the impression, though, that these same-sex couplings were perceived as an adolescent phase, and that ultimately citizens were expected to marry opposite-sex partners and have children. Saki and Satoru “conveniently” lose their same-sex love interests, but it makes you wonder whether and how those relationships would survive into adulthood. Maybe a kind of polyamory is facilitated? I realize this totally wasn’t the focus of the show, but it’s an interesting world with interesting relationships. Within all of the scientists’ manipulations of human genes and behaviors, maybe “creating a society of love similar to that of bonobos” was a pretty good idea.

    And yeah, I hope I can read the novel in English someday. I believe The Crimson Labyrinth by the same author is supposed to be good, so I guess it can’t hurt to check that out in the meantime.

    • I completely agree – as someone who watched Shin Sekai Yori when it aired and waited for each week, I had no issue with the first episodes (or any episodes, to be honest) myself, but apparently many did and thus dropped it soon afterwards (hence contributing to the low sales in the first couple of volumes). That said, an experience of marathoning is often slightly different from the experience of live-watching, but nonetheless, I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as we did.

      I think Shin Sekai Yori does a good job of handling sexuality! I can say that as a queer myself, the show doesn’t necessarily queerbait; a common trait we see in shows, whether it be tv drama or anime. It is true that the canon pairing is heterosexual, but what’s great is that the show never invalidates the bisexuality of these characters – the love they shared for Shun and Maria was very real, and is a part of them and their characterization, especially Saki. Same-sex relationships are often fetishized and used for fan service, but to me, Maria and Saki’s relationship was portrayed as very real and heartfelt, which was really important to me.

      Either way, I’m glad a show like SSY exists; it’s series like these that need to exist once in a while, even if they may be financially unsuccessful, to remind us why anime is important and perhaps, why we love anime in the first place.

      • I can’t speak as a queer person myself, but I definitely agree that SSY was refreshing in its perspective. I also like how the narrative stressed that both Satoru’s feelings for Shun and Saki’s feelings for Maria never went away, even after their respective deaths. I guess even if their society still viewed those relationships as a “phase,” the characters’ feelings were depicted as nothing but genuine. And it was heartening to see how Saki and Satoru’s mutual affection for Shun ended up bringing them closer together, whereas 9 times out of 10 that love triangle setup is used to drive characters apart. The whole series is full of subtle little subversions like that.

        • Oooh, definitely. Usually phases like that contribute to erasure of queer ships as valid relationships, but Shinsekai made sure those feelings stayed throughout and even contributed to character development and resolve. And like you said, Shun was a connecting thread between Saki and Satoru, just like how Saki’s love for Maria (despite her ending up with Mamoru) propelled her through the show as she tried to survive and forgive.

  2. wendeego, your section really resonated with me. I think for all it’s flaws, SSY’s strength is the sprawling tale it attempts to tell and the fact that it provides feelers into possible solutions rather than simply dwelling on the issues themselves. It’s sheer ambition in the end is enough to triumph over its flaws.

    I also agree with Steven’s point on Saki as an actual strong female protagonist (sdshamshel actually just posted on the subject as well, which helps reinforce the point). I’m inclined to try and make comparisons to Akane from PP, who seems to share some similarities with Saki, but I haven’t really put too much thought into it.

    • Thanks! It’s interesting that you brought up Akane from Psycho Pass, because I’d argue that she was easily the best thing about the show. Urobuchi has a weird tendency as a writer to subject his female characters to extreme physical and/or metaphorical abuse (see Kyubey wrenching out Sayaka’s soul in Madoka Magica, or the infamous scene in Psycho Pass with the masked man and the hammer) but I think that not only was Akane’s character arc the most interesting of the cast by far, but it’s frankly a miracle that it turned out as well as it did. It could have gone wrong in so many ways!

      That said, in the end I think Akane’s worth as a character is diminished a little bit by the fact that she fulfills the same stock role we see appear over and over in Urobuchi’s works: the innocent girl who is bent by her surroundings until she becomes stronger than the impossible forces arrayed against her. In the end she’s one of Urobuchi’s metaphorical constructs (though better than most) while Saki strikes me as more of a genuine human being who draws strength from within rather than from the outside. Feel free to disagree though!

      • You’re spot on with Urobutcher – it’s this problem we see over and over with his female leads that ends up diminishing their presence. By being put into such a ‘typecast role’ to fill, they are less seen as real people and more as vessels for him to make his narrative points. Although we can still respect them as characters, it’s a bit of a hallowing out.

        I feel like many agree that Akane’s character in PP was by far the best part of the show, and it is a little bit surprising that it turned out so well. I know I was pleasantly surprised at least. But again, you’re right – since we know she’s just going to be subject to a bunch of trauma in order to harden her character, it diminishes the command of the presence a little bit. Given that Saki is not subject to the same constraints (and that she seems to handle what obstacles she encounters with a more “human” reaction, at least in my take), she appears much more as a character in her own right.

        Drawing her strength from within rather than without is a telling statement that I think says a lot about the narratives in question. PP has Akane driven by a grand narrative, while SSY seems to have Saki (in part) driving the grand narrative. It’s definitely an important difference.

        I was trying to think of other strong, independent female protagonists/characters to compare Saki to – Kino, Horo, Utena, Urabe, and Senjougahara, off the top of my head – and I think the best comparison still rests on Akane from PP. Let me know if you can think of any other apt comparisons – while there’s nothing wrong (in fact it’d be pretty awesome) with Saki being the first of her kind, I’m just curious if there’s any big precedent/similarities.

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