I have to admit, I’ve been kind of dreading this essay. Granted, I actually dread pretty much every essay – this may come as a surprise, but writing mostly feels like work, and it’s only having written things that I normally like (or the feeling of editing something I’m already happy with, or that last-act stretch, when the writing feels like those burning, fleeting seconds after a shot of whiskey, and the absolute worth of the task tingles down to your extremities… okay, yeah, writing is actually pretty great). But normally I only fully break down shows I’m very passionate about, and the reason I’m saying any of this is because that’s not how it’s going right now. Right now I’m going to talk about Shinsekai Yori, and I have to admit the show left me kind of cold.
Not that it’s a bad show! No. It’s actually an extremely good show. Many people already love it, and many more should be introduced to it, because they will love it too. It has a remarkable number of strengths in its favor.
Let’s get into those right now, actually. Obviously massive spoilers ahead. And if you haven’t seen the show but arestill reading this for some reason, in the briefest possible (and lightly spoilerific) terms: it’s about a group of children growing up in a future, semi-agrarian, post-apocalyptic society where the awakening of people with psychic powers 1000 years in the past (aka present day) has resulted in massive bloodshed, chaos, and ultimately the establishment of a system where all children are closely monitored for signs of weakness or instability (and swiftly killed if deemed necessary), memories are altered to create a harmonious society, and an underclass of sort-of molemen known as queerats serves the Cantus (psychic power) wielding humans as more or less slaves. All of this is explained in the first 3-4 episodes, so if you’d like to leave now and watch this sweet show, I would greatly encourage you. The spoilers are gonna come thick and heavy from here on out.
First, Shinsekai Yori’s greatest, central, most obvious strength and focus is its worldbuilding. The show takes great care in elaborating every detail of its world, from the current paranoid stability of District 66 to the series of grim decisions that led to this point to the culture and motivations of the subjugated queerats. It feels solid, much moreso than most fictional worlds do, and every episode reveals the great care that went in to thinking through and articulating this world.
Second, the show tells a very satisfying story, and it tells it well. The decision to follow the protagonists from age 12 through 26 lets the show reveal every variable at its most emotionally satisfying point – from the early mysteries of their upbringing and society, through the nature of queerat society, through the understandable fears of their adult world. The plot beats all land in professional sequence, and it builds towards a finale that seems inevitable, which is always a good sign.
Third, the show’s control of tone and genre is exemplary. It conveys an atmosphere of paranoid mystery early on, which takes momentary detours into slice of life, adventure, war epic, psychological horror, and straight-up horror. By framing the adolescent trials of the protagonists against their slowly growing awareness of the terrors surrounding them, the show maintains a sense of tension and fear that I have seen replicated in no other anime. This isn’t surprising – while it is easy enough to empathize with an anime character, it is much more difficult to feel truly afraid for them, and this show manages the feat through a combination of careful atmosphere and brilliant details, such as the slowly revealed information regarding the tainted cats.
Fourth, the shows’ aesthetics are quite strong. Though the animation is nothing special and the budget doesn’t seem remarkable, the show often slips into moments of true beauty, where abstract shapes and somber tones represent the mental landscapes of the protagonists, which in a show about burgeoning psychics has a tendency to quickly mirror their physical landscapes as well. The show’s attention to detail in worldbuilding extends to the scenery and even costume design of the show, again increasing the feeling of a living, breathing world.
Finally, it definitely covers some interesting thematic territory, as well. The central themes concern mankind’s blindness to its own failings, and the narrow ways it defines virtue or humanity. As children, the protagonists rage at the adults for failing to treat them as human beings – as adults, they themselves question why the creatures they subjugated, deprived of dignity, and committed genocide against would want to hurt them. The value of education is warped towards propaganda – a natural love of children (in both a physical and metaphorical sense) is turned to fear and a need for absolute control. They fear that which they do not understand, and consider all that is unlike them to be an enemy in disguise – their distrust of those they share their society with results in tragedy again and again. They are blind to their commonalities and blind to their own failings, and their moments of honest reflection are few and far between.
Reflection is actually a key word in Shinsekai Yori – the motif of the mirror as reflector of truth comes up constantly throughout, from the way they often use mirrors to safely observe their surroundings, to Saki’s discovery of her sister’s last message, to Shin attempting to break through to Saki through a mirror reflecting the lost children, to Saki and Satoru’s ultimate attempt to make Maria’s child realize its own “humanity.” Honesty is hard bought in this world, and all these characters would do well to take a long, hard look at themselves.
But that’s really not what these characters are about. Though I’ve been quite laudatory regarding this show’s many merits, its one critical failing is a failing common to many worldbuilding-focused shows – a void at the center. Though its characters actions are generally understandable, they are rarely personal. Though their reactions resemble those of humans, they are never deeply felt. They are often merely observers to the plot, and even when they are central to the narrative, there is just never enough unique detail to these characters to make their conflicts ring true. In a show based entirely on worldbuilding and overt narrative plotting, this is an understandable flaw, but in a show whose conflicts ride on human emotions, it’s a fairly damning one – and great portions of this show, as well as certain key dramatic turns, ride fairly significantly on your connection to these characters. This lack of personal connection couples with some fairly serious pacing issues in the first and second acts (the “searching through snow” saga in particular) to drag the show down somewhat significantly, and ultimately made the show’s resolution ring hollow for me.
One key example: the character of Shun is central to the protagonists’ emotional journey (in fact, the longing for a lost friend/lover is basically the central emotional undercurrent of the second half of the show), but who is Shun? Early on, he’s established as the soft-spoken leader of the group. On the camping trip, he shares one intimate moment with Saki (incidentally, this star-reflection moment doubles as another great use of that mirror motif), and briefly holds her hand. Later on, he dates another of their friends, and then he has to go away because his Cantus is leaking. The show spends several episodes chasing after him (in fact, you could probably describe the majority of this show as a continuous montage of people walking through places and looking for things, while occasionally discussing the places they are walking through and things they are looking for), and it’s eventually revealed why he had to go away. Then he dies, and his memory is erased from the minds of his friends, and the show spends copious minutes detailing their attempts to regain his memory.
The show constantly tells us his memory was important to these characters – but why would that memory be important to the viewer? That one moment he and Saki shared? Because that’s pretty much the only distinct character-developing moment you get from him, and the show knows it, because that’s the only memory it brings up when trying to portray Saki’s need to remember him (well, that and his death scene). If the emotional undercurrent weren’t so critical to the show’s goals, this wouldn’t be an issue, but regaining Shun’s memory is one of the critical conflicts of the show, and that recollection is supposed to ring as cathartic – but because Shun (and the cast overall) are never really made distinct, it just comes across as one more in a sequence of events that occur – a narrative beat, not an emotional one. And this tendency to only go through the motions of human sentiments happens continuously throughout the show – in fact, it’s also a critical failing of the other central emotional absence in the show, when Maria’s exodus prompts a massive flashback revealing a friendship the audience wasn’t actually there for.
One other succinct example would be when the show skips ahead to the characters’ mid-20s, where the two remaining protagonists are depicted as having a falling-out. Is this made emotionally understandable to the audience? No, the show directly says “we had a falling-out over something stupid, so I was glad we were friends again.” That is not how emotional development works! The show treats its emotional moments as requiring no more prep work than its narrative ones, and that works to the detriment of most of its emotional resolutions throughout. I know what these characters are, and what roles they play – but I never really feel like I know whothey are.
One character does know who he is, and his is the true hero’s journey of this show.
Squealer (or Yakomaru, his slave name) is not an honest man – but this is not a time that calls for honest men. As a queerat, he lives a life of utter subservience to the Cantus-wielding humans – though his species is as intelligent as the humans, their inability to counter the power of Cantus renders them no more than groveling slaves. They are assigned menial duties and fed table scraps, and a backwards glance at any human is punishable by death. When our ostensible heroes first come across Squealer, his colony is on the verge of extinction, pushed to the brink by the petty conflicts that plague his races’ societies. Forced to grovel for support, he cunningly uses the gullible human children to regain some measure of control over his society. From there, his platform as the show’s secret protagonist is established.
Though the humans have embraced a culture of systematic inhumanity towards both the queerats and their own children, Squealer dreams of a better future. Many obstacles stand in his way, but he does not give in to despair, as the far more powerful humans so often do. Instead, he sets to work. His first hurdle is the very nature of his species – through the inhuman machinations of human scientists past, his species has been damned to reproduce only through the birthing of a central, mentally fickle queen. Though he would undoubtedly have allowed for a more humane system if possible, his own queen’s tyrannical madness forces his hand, and results in the establishment of a system where queens are tragically relegated to brood mares, but all other queerats can finally live as equals. The queen-centric system is replaced by one of democratic representation, and Squealer’s society eagerly embraces the clues left behind by earlier scientists to establish a forward-thinking society both culturally and scientifically, rapidly leaving the stagnant human society behind.
However, in spite of all their complacency and inhumanity, the existence of Cantus still allows the humans utter dominance over the culturally and morally superior queerats. Squealer knows that as long as that advantage remains, the queerats have no hope of a future marked by dignity or equality. The uneasy peace this results in is only broken by the appearance of a gift – a pair of human adolescents who essentially stumble into his lap, desperately fleeing the inhumane society that was eager to kill them for their perceived failings. Once again playing his cards carefully, Squealer allows the runaways’ friends to believe them safe and enemies to believe them dead, and sets a ten-year plan into motion. He shelters the adolescents long enough for a child to be born, and then disposes of them, knowing his plan relies on molding this child as carefully as the human society has molded their own. Ultimately, the humans would be proud of his fatherdom – he teaches the child to viscerally reject conflict against any of its own kind (queerats, naturally), but to consider other races as no more than occasionally amusing but generally inconvenient insects. With this child as a secret weapon, and the hearts and minds of an entire downtrodden race behind him, he launches his attack, fighting for the freedom and dignity of all intelligent creatures.
His attack is executed brilliantly, and he easily outwits the pompous and complacent humans at virtually every turn. However, he is ultimately undone by a simple trick, one he should have foreseen – a sentimental traitor to the cause, a queerat still loyal to the humans despite all their trespasses upon anything resembling humanity, throws itself in front of the child, activating his trump card’s deeply-ingrained death feedback and bringing his revolution to an inglorious end. This does not temper his convictions – on the contrary, he is noble and defiant to the end, only expressing regret that such a fortunate gift to the cause of freedom was wasted, swearing to the justice of his beliefs, and promising that in spite of his own death, one day justice will reign. The humans laugh at this, and torture the hero with smiles on their faces, and return to their narrow, terrible lives.
Of course, Squealer isn’t actually the protagonist of this story. The protagonist is Saki – one of those bland humans I was complaining about. Ultimately, she takes pity on Squealer, and in her great benevolence sets his tortured but still-living remains on fire. And then she returns to her contented, barely-questioned life, and snuggles with her husband while hoping maybe things will be a little better for her children. The End.
…can you see why I’m a little annoyed?
I think the show’s ultimate point was supposed to be something like “yes, these people have done terrible things, but humanity always does terrible things, and you can still see the humanity of these characters.” And I actually can see their humanity… from an academic standpoint.
From an emotional standpoint, I actually wanted every single one of the humans to die horribly – the queerats express philosophical high-mindedness and self-sacrifice and dignity, the humans express… narrow-mindedness, paranoia, emotional vulnerability, and an ability to be led by the nose by the plot. I don’t think I’m supposed to feel like everyone alive at the end deserves to die – I think I’m supposed to somewhat empathize with their position, and reflect somberly on the inhumanity of man towards man. But that resolution directly relies on the successful personal characterization of the protagonists, and I feel this show was just too focused on worldbuilding and overt plotting to ever bother with enough of that to make me care. And as I said, some of the characterization was just directly ineffective – there were a huge number of scenes designed to make me care about characters or relationships after those characters or relationships had already died/ended, which not only didn’t result in me caring more deeply, but basically made me wish the show would just get on with whatever else was happening.
I actually love many things about this show. The world is incredible. The tone is fantastic. Mastery of genre, impeccable. Chosen ideas – bulletproof. And Squealer is one of my favorite characters in recent memory.
But the actual protagonists?
Eh. Let ‘em burn. Long live the queerats.
I give Shinsekai Yori a 9/10 for being an incredibly impressive work that succeeds on a remarkable number of levels, tells a more ambitious story than anime practically ever attempts, introduces one of the greatest secretly heroic villains I’ve ever seen, and unfortunately fails to make me give a damn about most of the characters I’m supposed to give a damn about. For me, this is a 9/10 in the school of Bakemonogatari – its flaws are actually significant, but it is so far ahead of the curve in so many areas that scoring it lower would be an injustice, even if I personally felt somewhat ambivalent towards it. It’s honestly great. Everyone really should watch it. Most people would probably like it more than I did, and I think it was very good. But goddamnit humanity, if you want me to sympathize with you, you’re gonna have to do better than that.
PS: A fair counterargument to my complaints here would be that Shinsekai Yori simply isn’t my kind of show. This is true! Shinsekai Yori’s first priority is worldbuilding and second priority is central narrative, and I personally feel neutral towards most standard narratives and indifferent towards worldbuilding. My priorities in stories are character and theme, and this show’s lack of focus on character made me think it kind of tripped up in its themes as well. Someone in an earlier thread described Shinsekai Yori as the “perfect show for fans of science fiction novels,” and in my experience I think that statement is absolutely, perfectly true, for better and for worse. Science fiction novels have a tendency to get lost in their invented worlds and the ideas they imply at the expense of any human focus – they make an entire universe, but only populate it with cyphers designed to go through the motions of the plot. Obviously not all scifi, but I don’t think it’s controversial to state it’s a trait common to a great deal of speculative fiction. And many people love that stuff, and that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not my kind of storytelling. The reason I felt my complaints were still valid and not just sour grapes here is that despite being a totally worldbuilding-focused show, Shinsekai Yori hinges a number of its dramatic turns and themes on the viewer’s connection with its central characters, and thus that characterization becomes a load-bearing pillar in the story. And I don’t think it can bear that weight.
PPS: This is honestly still the most chilling and resonant image for me in this series. The hope for a better future, shot down by a petty trick, all shown in Squealer’s exhausted, slumped pose. Just going back through this show for images has made me both like it more and feel even more upset by it. This is a very cruel show.