Shinsekai Yori and True Heroism

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.

Anyway. Strengths!

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

Shinsekai Yori

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.

44 thoughts on “Shinsekai Yori and True Heroism

  1. Reposting from reddit, because I like the permanence and quiet here as well 😉

    Great write-up Bob. Guess I’ll have to put effort into a proper reply 🙂

    First, as I said several times, I agree with you. I think Shinsekai Yori is a great show (I gave it a 10), but it’s not one of my favourites, there’s just something you can’t connect to, can’t relate to, that leaves a distance between you and the show. I thought it was great, and I loved it, even if I didn’t like it, and I don’t know if or when I’ll rewatch it.

    the queerats express philosophical high-mindedness and self-sacrifice and dignity

    You make this comment, and it very much fits Kiroumaru. You called him a traitor earlier in the piece, but it serves to mention that while they are propped up as complete opposites, both queerats do what they believe is best for their colonies, for their people’s assured survival and success. Kiromaraou also tells the humans when they travel to the ruins of Tokyo that he’d been to Tokyo before, in order to try and find an ace to combat them and their superiority. Kiromaraou is noble, and he and his people do have dignity and engage in self-sacrifice. The self-sacrifice for the queen, not just the humans, and other examples.

    This is where I think you should’ve made some mention, however small, that your defense of Squealer is somewhat “in-character”. It pays to remember that Squealer is a nearly pathological liar, at least in what he tells humans. I had strong urges that his descriptions of democracy and a fairer society were lies. Perhaps if he won. But he did sacrifice many of his compatriots, compatriots he bred for his own purposes – mimicking humanity’s creation of the queerats. I felt his society was very similar to Stalinistic Soviet Russia, with a small amount of people at the top and the rest still slaving away.

    There are also parts in your write-up which are false, if taken not as a somewhat in-character defense of Squealer – he didn’t train Maria’s child to not kill the queerats, that was the death-feedback in effect (and also a source of a small hole in the story – where she kills Kiromarou’s soldiers.).

    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.

    Here’s a thought, these scenes aren’t there to make you care for the relationships, or the characters who are gone, but to care for the characters who are still here. That’s at best, at worst it’s to explain to you their state of mind, which does fall on the side of “telling rather than showing” which you’ve mentioned several times before.

    I am human!” – I know that you, like me, really liked the “I am human!” speech in Maoyu. I also know both of us watched Maoyu before Shinsekai Yori. Did you too have a strong urge to compare those two scenes after watching Squealer’s cry?

    About the world-building, unlike the characters that is full to the brim of things that are only hinted at rather than told. You know how after Shun destroys his “village” the area is marked off with white-rope? And all along the show we keep seeing such white-ropes in various places? You know how in the 200 year old flashbacks of the demon running loose we see what seems like a relatively big town/city? All these “villages”, all these white ropes mark areas that had been abandoned. What with the continuous culling of children that goes on, even after the demon’s decimation, the village had given up so much, so much territory. This is truly a setting of post-apocalyptic magnitude. 1k years ago, 500 years ago, 200 years ago, and every few years when they give up another section of their community, of their children, of their future and their past.


    Someone in an earlier thread described Shinsekai Yori as the “perfect show for fans of science fiction novels,”

    I believe it was this comment, by me.

    P.P.S. Yes, I so very much agree about writing versus *having written. It’s usually worth it when 5-10 years later I come across something I’ve written and go “Huh, that was very clever. I wrote this? Really?”

    • I feel like an important aspect of the show is how the queerats physical appearances were portrayed which might have made many audience to be bias and to be less sympathetic of them (ie. they look like monster ) . Firstly in regards to Kiromarou, in my opinion despite all his ‘honorable acts’ it could be considered that he has given up on queerats ( He stopped to fight for freedom after his failure when searching for weapons). This is further implied when he even accepted to sacrifice himself to save the ‘Humans’.

      Squeeral on the other hand, disregard his own dignity to fight for the queerats. In his final speech we can tell that he knows that the acts that he commited were not pretty but ultimately I felt that with this awareness, he had the guts to go through it so that squeerats would no longer be slaves. I would like to point out that the acts in some ways of the ‘Humans’ actually mirrored his acts for example the ‘Humans’ genetically modified a WHOLE POPULATION (Humans who were incapable of Cantus) so that they could stay superior. They transformed them to this ‘monster’ looking being. They reduced them then enslave them. They stripped them of their identity ( which could be seen as emotionally killing them). They humiliate them to an extent where they publicly acknowledge them as a tier below them which could be seen in acts such as making the queerats doing the dirty work ( killing the feared children) and even making them sign an agreement if they were to go on war ( AND EVEN THE WAY THEY OBSERVE THEIR WAR ).

      As for the ending, even as it might not be the goal of the author, the message I kind of received was a reiteration of humanity’s flaw as portrayed across the whole of the anime. To the end, the humans still viewed the queerats as a lower being ( as seen by how Squeeral was treated in his trial). Saki does not help alot in this situation as with the final lines in which she only hopes for a better future. She did not change many things in their society even as she was able to succeed Tomiko. It can be considered as the society at the end was almost the same as the society as portrayed when they were in their childhood. Perhaps the writer was trying to make aware of how the majority of humans take things easy and hope that the future could be better which is totally random instead of doing what needs to be done. A small section that makes me feel that this flaw of Saki was further implied was that Maria actually told her that the society was flawed. Perhaps maybe if Maria had lived she might have made a change or maybe we could she her child as the radical manifestation of what Maria might have wanted ; to change the society however this is merely an assumption by me because this was denied by Squeeler’s killing of them which could be also seen as his fear of Maria and Mamoru similiar to how humans feared the children.

      Overall, I felt that Squeelar was the most impressive character in the anime, definitely one of the most impressive character in Animes.

  2. Bob,

    I really liked this post a lot. We are of different minds about the emotional strengths of the show, but I must leave that aside to address the claim that the queerats are “morally superior.”

    I hope you are not including Squealer in this class of morally superior beings.

    His sins are equal to those of any human in both number and severity (actually, his are probably greater in number than many humans). The society he builds has deceit, manipulation, and the conquest of other tribes as its foundation. Squealer wants queerats to be seen as humanity’s equals, but there is ample evidence of him treating his fellow queerats as means to an end, rather than his equal. Squealer wants humans to treat queerats with dignity, but he treats the queens with just as much cruelty as human beings show queerats. He used, -USED-, the life of a child as his plaything, treating her as nothing more than a mere tool. Squealer preached noble virtues, but he never had a relationship based on anything other than his desire to manipulate the other person for his own ends.

    The queerat leader uses a lot of rhetoric that we like, but, in practice, there isn’t much -moral- difference between his society and the PK users’ society. In the abstract, Squealer’s lofty goals are virtuous; however, he is willing to commit basically any action that enables him to reach them..

    • They do say that they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their causes. They know what is at stakes. They lived the same things that the children did but it was done to entire colonies instead (the difference being that they never posed much of a treat back then). I do believe that his manipulation was only towards humans, antagonising squealer and thinking that he may actually be an evil emperor doesn’t really suits the show constant portrayal of the fear of change (the humans were stuck in the past in fear of their powers/potential causing them a lack of reflection on their surroundings). He’s more of a grey characters, one thing that I would hold against him is that he actually seemed to force his goals upons others, by conquering colonies to reinforces his army. I do not agree 100% with such thinking but he was willing to go to extremes for the hope of a better future instead of staying paralyzed by fear like the cantus users were.

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  4. Belatedly: I don’t think that Kiromaru is quite as simple and bad as you present him here. I see Kiromaru as making a pragmatic judgement about saving his colony and his people, because if you really look at it Squealer is making a very long bet. Squealer is effectively declaring war against the entire Cantus human race (at least the Japanese-based portion of it) based on having a single Cantus human on his side. A great many things have to work out to make this work over the long term, while if they go wrong many or all queerrats are doomed. Not to mention that Squealer may not be very kind to colonies that have not historically been on his side and that he didn’t approach to support the rebellion.

    In light of this, backing the humans is actually not a bad bet on Kiromaru’s part. It might be better if he could stand back and wait for a clearer victor to emerge, but I don’t think he has that luxury for various reasons. And in the end he did achieve his goal.

    (Kiromaru and his colony are clearly not unconditionally loyal to the humans and in fact would love to have found an effective way to rebel. After all that’s the entire reason Kiromaru came to the ruins of Tokyo the first time.)

    • I actually agree with you – Kiromaru’s an interesting character, and clearly has thought his actions through. That whole “Epic of Squealer” segment of the essay is kinda intentionally hyperbolic/told as if from the perspective of a hardline Squealer apologist.

    • Not to mention that Kiroumaru is probably still quite upset at Squealer for using his trump card to obliterate the Hornet’s army. He clearly values his colony first, and his race second. Despite the fact that he agrees with Squealer, as seen in his admittance of trying to overthrow the humans himself, his colony was still nearly wiped out, thus his decisions lead to the best possible outcome for his colony.

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  8. Shinsekai Yori was a very interesting show, as was reading your essay about it. Of course I agree about the world-building being the major strength of the show. That was perfectly done and executed with great care, sensitivity, and attention to detail. My favorite example: Explaining to the viewer how the humans in this world were genetically modified to seek human (and sexual) comfort in times of emotional stress, and then having us skip in time with everyone being all over one another and almost unable to take a single step alone, without someone to hold on to at his/her side – that was brilliant storytelling, showing, not telling. Instead of having the characters openly display feelings of angst or having them discuss how the world is such a terrifying place, we see them constantly hugging, holding hands, kissing, touching, and being completely unable to take a single breath alone, thus illustrating their great emotional and psychological turmoils in times of puberty and the feeling that something just isn’t quite right with this world of theirs.

    I also liked how the show wasn’t afraid to show the ignorance and cruelty of it’s main characters towards one another, other humans, and, mostly, the queerats. Satoru regaining his powers after having them sealed for the first time and his slight change of personality that came with it, embracing the power and violence, the way the main group acted towards their weaker friends at school, all very nicely done, and quite important for the development of the story.

    Although I really liked and appreciated the show as a whole, I did feel it was kind of “cold”. It didn’t reach me quite as much as other shows (the ones I like just as much) do, emotionally. The only characters I developed some sort of attachment for were Satoru and Kiroumaru. Saki left me completely indifferent, which, her being the heroine, isn’t a good thing. Squealer truly is the most interesting character of the show, although the “reveal” of the queerats being human will probably not come as a big surprise to the average SF-reader. Still, the way to get there was very interesting, ambitious, and fascinating to walk.

    I am a big fan of post apocalyptic settings that do something differently, and I love watching characters move through broken worlds and see how it affects them. So the setting was already very much my cup of tea from the start. While Shinsekai Yori did not really explore this affect on it’s individual characters (or, rather, the characters themselves stayed too much in the background to leave the stage to the world-building, as you said), it did explore the affect on humanity as a whole, and the ways humanity could loose itself on in the process. And those concepts and affects it did explore rather well IMO.

    If only they hadn’t spent so much screen on having their characters run through the woods and snow and given us more moments to grow emotionally attached to them, this could have been a 10/10 show for me, I believe. Now it’s still a good 8/10.

    • Agreed, the show really did waste too much time on the characters wandering around – and the show needed that time, because developing more of an attachment to the human characters would have made the ending hit so, so much harder. As is, Squealer and Kiroumaru both come off as the most sympathetic characters to me, and it isn’t even very close.

      Which is kind of an interesting effect in its own right, I guess? I know that when Saki was asking Squealer “how could you kill all those innocent people,” I was basically slamming my head into my desk, amazed she’d managed to learn so little from everything that had happened.

      • I felt that Saki’s continual blindness was one of the more interesting bits of SSY because it meant we didn’t have anyone to really be our flawless audience stand-in. Even the viewpoint character, the person we’d spent the entire show with, was shown vividly to be flawed and reflexively prejudiced. The show gave us no true easy heroes, just flawed people all around.

        (Similarly, in a different and more conventional show Saki would have challenged the existing terrible order and overthrown it in some way. In this show she became co-opted by the existing power structure and the most she might be managing is softening it a bit.)

        • In a storytelling sense, I really like that, and I certainly wouldn’t want it the other way – but I think it would have been more effective if we’d been given more convincing reasons to like Saki as a person. And I assume the intent was to make the audience care about Saki as a person, so that scene would come as a revelation about how good people or people we care about will still come to this point given this world. As is, I just didn’t care about Saki, so her statements created an intellectual distance that wasn’t countered by the emotional understanding I assume the show wanted to provoke there.

  9. Just remember, the Cantus users did not create their own society. The scientist faction did it for them; presumably they were also the ones who came up with the queerats.

  10. Cantus users were depicted has dangerous to their environments and also very close minded and cruel. I also wanted to see the queerats win in the end. And the ending was so strange. I kind of hoped that she at least would understands why Squealer acted that way. But she was still asking all those stupid questions… Yet she did let out some signs of understanding from time to time but never really develop them enough. Seeing her still asking about the queen and the revolt at the end was annoying, even more annoying is how she didn’t do anything to make the lives of the queerats better outside of keeping a few alive. ”They are people deserving of respect and I hold an influential place in our society that could actually change things” ”Let’s do nothing about it and hope for the best” Maybe out of fear of others? I don’t really get how she could stay this cold after everything that happened. Also agree that all the main children were pretty much interchangeable characters and the adults were one dimensionals. Though I LOVED how the show handled its world building it’s regulation of superpowers and the queerats. Overall It was a pretty amazing show.

    • I still wonder if the show actually wanted me to feel angry that the humans won, and that they won without ever really understanding their own culpability in what happened. I think the show wanted me to care about the humans, and thus this is a “failing” of the show, but it’d be really something if the show just straight-up wanted to say “we are ignorant of the suffering of others, and that will always be true.”

      • I on the other hand was mad that the show wanted me to empathize with the truly evil Squealer.

      • “I still wonder if the show actually wanted me to feel angry that the humans won”

        Yes, angry or sad.

        The original sin is not the subjection of the queerrats, but wanting to keep their telekinetic powers. The limiting of who has powers and who is slave follows directly and inevitably from that. As I often put it, the source of “Us vs Them” is the Us, not the Them.

        The show obviously has resonances for Japanese nationalism, particularism, and cultural chauvinism and for the rest of our own varieties of those. In addition, there are a couple visual allusions in the last episode that make me believe that an allegory for nuclear nations vs non-nuclear nations, and 1st vs 3rd world is intended.

  11. One thing I thought was interesting about this show was ambiguity in moral interpretation. Sure, there’s the whole “well maybe the Bakenezumi have a point after all” thing, but clearly (actual) humanity would have been better off to wipe them out when they had the chance. Ultimately I hated Squealer and his kind and while I’m not fan of torture, I was at least glad to see him dead and would have preferred to see the humans wipe out 100% of the Bakenezumi rather than leave them to fester and rebel again another day. Even the “noble savage” Kiroumaru was ultimately a would-be genocidist and humanity is better off with him dead. Also I don’t consider the Bakenezumi human in any meaningful way. Which is probably not what the author wanted me to think, but hey.

    Amusingly, you could also interpret this show as being an allegory about how foolish gun control is. (Again, probably not intended).

    On a side note I feel like you underrate the character aspects a bit. Sure, some of the characters are a little thinly developed (eg Shun as you say), but I generally appreciated the relative subtlety (eg in Satoru’s maturation) compared to the general heavy-handedness of anime.

    • In general anime makes far too much of whether someone is technically, genetically/metaphysically, human or not (see also Valvrave, Madoka, etc). I’m far more interested in if you’re my enemy or my friend. My literal self is not a member of either faction (being neither a molerat-mutant nor a psychic) but given that I empathize with Saki et al the most, I see the Bakenezumi as an enemy to be destroyed before they destroy ‘us’ (as is their explicit goal).

    • By the way, it’s not like I can’t see where the Bakenezumi are coming from at all – it’s more that I don’t care. If you’re trying to kill me or those I love, I don’t give a fuck why. I still want to see you die.

      • That’s also the reason I was kind of cool on Princess Mononoke – I wanted Human Civilization to win, not some self-righteous nature barbarian faction.

    • Your stance here seems to require completely dehumanizing the Queerats – seeing them as creatures completely unworthy of empathy or respect. That seems kinda crazy to me! I can see siding with the humans, but it’s hard for me to imagine completely discounting the value of the Queerats.

      And actually, gun control-wise, I saw this show as kind of demonstrating the opposite case – it is clear that Cantus makes human society incredibly unstable, and that humanity would be much better off if nobody was given that power. Thus, if we’re going with this metaphor, no-one should really have access to guns in a civil society.

      • It’s not so much a matter of completely discounting their value, though I don’t see them as human either – last I looked I wasn’t born from a hive queen. At any rate they’re literally trying to enslave their opponent’s children in order to slaughter 100% of them. Even the Nazis weren’t that bad. Basically if I value the humans as X and the Bakenezumi as Y, then for me X is much greater than Y and even though Y is not 0, the long-term expectation value may be maximized by killing all the Bakenezumi before they can get another chance to do the opposite. I guess it comes down to whether removing Squealer and other leaders would have been enough to allow the possibility of reform, but given that two independent groups (including one seemingly trustworthy one) both actively tried to wipe out all of humanity within the same short window of time this seems rather risky. I mean I can see why someone would empathize with the Bakenezumi as the down-trodden underdogs, but ultimately I don’t like underdogs so much that I want to let them kill me.

        The gun control thing was that the show seems to demonstrate the “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” argument (given that they can’t/won’t get rid of Cantus entirely – even heavy gun control societies still have some guns). By stopping normal people from using their powers aggressively, anyone who metaphorically “got their hands on a gun” could slaughter with impunity. If others could fight back, fiends wouldn’t be such a big problem. (I don’t necessarily completely agree with this but I found it an amusing take on what was happening). Also, the entire creation of the Bakenezumi in the first place (which was clearly ethically dubious whether you like them or not) was a ridiculous work-around for the attack inhibition problem. There must have been a better way.

        Anyway I think it’s funny how we have pretty similar taste in Anime despite having wildly differing politics and in some cases interpretations – another example is that you apparently see the ending of EoE as positive whereas I see it as extremely dark/cynical. I wonder if that means that interpreting the meaning of stuff is more of a kind of rationalization about things that we actually judge based on more fundamental quality factors. (And there’s also simply the fact that political polarization can exaggerate actual underlying differences).

        • It’s not just a question of politics. See, you identify with the humans with powers; but if you actually had lived in the world of this anime, you’d be a Queerat — simply because you weren’t born with powers, so you would be part of the group of humans that were genetically altered to become the Queerats.

          And if this happened, wouldn’t you then switch sides and defend “yourself” and “your people” against the oppressive humans?…

      • Yea the show society was pretty much: what if everyone was carrying a nuclear bomb on them at all times ? And it delivers a great environment built on this constant fear and paranoia. (Parallels to our world are easily made on various scales, gun control, war on terrorism etc.) They are so focused on their own problems that it made them completely blind of what is happening to others around them or IF they do care they do not act! (a parallel with how we treat third world countries? They are humans but we successfully dehumanised the idea, or try to ignore it, were fine to use them has work force though!). (obvsly it isn’t that simple but the comparison is fair I think)

        So with put on a bigger scale the resolution with the queerats can make sense I guess?

  12. There is far too much analysis that could be done on this anime; it is possibly one of the most well crafted in all of the genre. The reason I say this is that, well, honestly I doubt I have to say why. So many people before me have figured it out and elaborated on it, and there is still so much more; so, so much more. Anyways, I mostly wanted to say three things.

    For one, your review, and subsequent reviews, are all excellent. Thank you for putting in the work, and it was a pleasure to read.

    Two, this anime is essentially a more fantastical form of “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, and if you have never had the pleasure of reading that, please do.

    Third, while many of your sentiments about the lack of depth and personalization of the characters in Shinsekai Yori are entirely spot on (though they probably could be accounted for by the length of the anime), you would do well to understand where they come from in terms of understanding and willingness to accept the truth of the matter. It would actually be harmful to the anime if the characters, especially outside of Group 1, actually reformed their ideals by looking at their past etc. to understand the appropriate worldviews and humanity of the queerats. For the most part their society was not open minded, had no need to being open minded, and was not even capable of being open minded. The fact that they reject the humanity of the queerats is more than plausible: it is the only reaction that makes sense given their upbringing.

    • Huh, yeah, I can that “The Giver” comparison. I’d say they’re still very different works, but there are definitely parallels.

      And yeah, I’m not really faulting the majority of the humans here – the show made clear that they were trained/raised to be followers, and we don’t really know them as people anyway. It’s really the show’s efforts to humanize its human protagonists that I see as a problem.

  13. So much debating holy moly. Well in my opinion I am able to understand or accept the weirdest things and also has the ability to have a connection with their characters. I feel like they all have a good amount of personalities. For an example, the way I see it, Saki is a girl who had a wonderful childhood with her friends and knows nothing about the real world. She has a crush on Shun who feels the same for her. When she learns about the reality she starts to feel confused and is unsure of what to do. She grew to be the person who is strong and tries to do the best for everyone. Even though she gets slightly crazy (seeing Maria as a kid even though she’s dead), she moves on. I might have left some of my other parts of this out since it’s been a long time and my memory is crap. But I respect your opinion, must’ve been hard work trying to type this all right? I do feel the same since the anime feels slightly unfinished and they could’ve done better. But it is how it is. Good work btw!!! 🙂

  14. I think you’ve got it a bit backwards. In the second part with Squealer, I think you’re suppose to sympathize with him in a look of how would it be if humans were made to serve. That’s why the main characters aren’t personable, because they’re actually suppose to be seen as the kinds of beings that we aren’t.

  15. The show suffered because they took a 1000+ page novel and turned it into 25 episodes. If they had expanded the series is would have been a much fuller experience. Still wonderful, but sort of a waste of a great story..

  16. I do agree that Shin Sekai Yori doesn’t do the best job of conveying emotion or making characters directly relatable at first glance. But I think the show chooses a different, more indirect route to tackle this issue.

    The creators want us to connect with the characters on a more ideological and psychological level.
    The show discusses themes like human ethics and the definition of humanity, and creates creatures like Fiends and Demons that suggest the instability of the human mind. Shin Sekai Yori allows us to connect with the characters on a more universal level than empathy established through character development would allow.
    And those brief moments of abstract and psychological imagery connect us on a deeper level with the characters and convey empathy through more primal emotions like fear and uncertainty, rather than love or sympathy. I think this is similar to how Neon Genesis Evangelion uses surreal imagery to convey human weakness and loneliness, evoking pity from us indirectly.

    Although that could just be me. I tend to empathize much more with universal themes rather than individual trials and emotions 😛

    Amazing essay! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it 🙂

  17. With all due respect, I do feel there are a few things wrong with this analysis:

    1 – Squealer is the leader of a long-awaited rebellion against Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Legitimate, since the Queerats have been oppressed for centuries. However, he was no more humane. If I remember it right, he wasn’t above enslaving.

    2 – Most of the Humans in the show act like prejudiced idiots… because that is the way they were brought up to be. No different from the Antisemitism of 1930’s. Does that allow for indiscriminate killing? No. This is the classical war situation where both sides are blood-stained. Many human children were hurt by the system, so I have an equal amount of empathy for both the queerats and the human children.

    3 – About Saki… What Else Could She Do? She can’t bring revolution overnight. She is to work in the system she hates and finds atrocious… because that is the only way she can do anything. I dislike it as much as you do, but it’s actually fairly realistic in that regard. In that sense, comparable to Akane from Psycho-Pass.

    • Afair he was all about being safe. Humans could do anything to them at whim with no consequences. Humans were against technology progress as well, since they wanted to stay dominant and safe, war was coming either way once Squealer started using false minoshiro.
      Most of Humans in the real life act like prejudiced idiots. Human childrens were hurt because humanity had no other solutions to all “magic” problems. They would be happy to change system, but they don’t know how it can be done.
      I tend to think she changes nothing at all, for above reasons and that she relieved. She helped her friends, but that made everything only worse. While Psycho-Pass is close to current reality and have possible alternatives visible to viewers, shinsekai yori tries to tell you for whole its duration that nothing can be really changed.

  18. I strongly sided with Squealer too. There are two sides, but they aren’t anywhere near equal. The Cantus users literally corrupt the world around them with their powers and this is on top of the enslavement, the prejudice, the genocide and the general hell that comes with them. At the start of the series most of the humanity is already dead because of Cantus users. Squealer was right to do whatever it took to get rid of them. Even if he turns out to be 3 foot Hitler it would still be better than Saki and Co who regularly commit ethnic cleansing, are slavers, and have their whacked out mind powers turning entire chunks of the earth into a living hell.

    Nothing can coexist with Cantus around, not on earth and not anywhere else. Saki and her friends were fun, but they sure aren’t worth this crap. Oh, and those 1930s anti Semites deserved a bullet as well, at some point you have to take into account the damage you are doing and they sure as hell weren’t worth it either.

    • The Cantus users were /born/ with that power. It was stated that they corrupted the world around them on an entire subconscious level. They had no control over it. And, seeing as they are an extremely isolated community where only a few of the higher-ups have the clearance to excess all of those “forbidden” information, it is highly likely that the majority of the population have no idea what they are doing to the world outside the Holy Barrier.

      It seems like you’re viewing the conflict between the humans and the Queerats as purely black and white but I feel that this anime is truly extraordinary because it is painted in such beautiful shades of grey. There is truly no “right” side, just as there is truly no “wrong” side in this story. Yes, humans have committed genocide, mass enslavement, et cetera, et cetera. But are the Queerats any different? In the earlier episodes, it was already mentioned what Queerats do to the losers of inter-colonial wars. Enslavement. Not only that, but in the later episodes it was noted that Squealer does not plan eradicate the human Cantus users. He took their babies away, planning to raise them as Queerats so that they’ll have no problems slaying humans but their ingrained “death feedback” would kill them the moment they slay a Queerat. And what would he do with that army of Queerat-raised humans? What has he already done during the war? With his strategies and surprise attacks as well as what is undoubtedly his trump card – the Messiah – has he not killed many humans and sent his comrades off to suicide missions as well? Don’t tell him that Queerats don’t do enslavement or genocide. I’ll laugh in your face.

  19. I’m surprised that you didn’t talk more about Maria. She definitely seemed like the emotional core of the group and her murder at the hands of Squealer and his lackeys is what pushed him over the moral event horizon (granted, this may be due to the bias of my male gaze not wanting the yuri relationship to die off, but still). He definitely seems to live up to his (possible) namesake of Squealer from Animal Farm with his originally well intentioned actions spilling over into violent tyranny that made him no better than his oppressors. It’s ultimately a little hard to claim a moral high ground when your plan involves slaughtering your enemies to a man, then kidnapping their children to use as your own personal superweapons. Now this isn’t to say that the humans were blameless, but for the first time it seems like there could be a real chance for reform with Saki in charge, especially considering how she was taught how to regenerate her telomeres. She has potentially centuries to reconcile the sins of the past on both sides, if that’s even possible.

    • While Squealer can be seen as immoral so were everyone else. Forcing big changes cost a lot, you can remember many revolutions being bloody in human history, Squealer did what he could and i actually think he did it for his kind freedom from humans. Its not black and white, war is always terrible and devastating, didn’t even stand a chance fighting fair.

      As for Squealer and Kiroumaru they both trully care for their race, but are very different. One is radical revolutioner, another is trying to find legal ways. Can even compare to normal people, where one is protesting against ruling elites and other is cop shutting down protests, both think they are right.

      Looking at the ending i actually thought Saki would rebuild completely same society as it was before war, since she seems to agree with previous leader overall after going through whole thing and isn’t rebellious at all, even though she knows more than anyone. Sort of “natural” dystopia where they can’t find other solutions and the only possible thing is keeping everything same.

  20. Sometimes, an author makes characters difficult to sympathize with intentionally. I think it would feel disingenuous and cheap in this show for the humans to somehow be vindicated as heroes after all of the atrocities they’ve committed. So, for me the ending worked quite well.

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