Sunday, May 11, 2014
Anime review: From the New World
Set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, Shin Sekai Yori, otherwise known as From the New World, depicts a society that has largely reverted to feudal era technologies. People rely on waterways as their primary means of transportation, live in tight-knit communities, and emphasize teamwork as schoolchildren are divided into small groups they are meant to stay with until graduation. While all of this may seem rather mundane, the biggest defining characteristic of the series is that all the humans bear some psychic powers that manifest in slightly different ways. Satoru, for example, can change the surface of an environment to be reflective, offering him a look down a long hallway without risking his safety. Maria can levitate her body, while others are capable of deflecting arrows or commanding fire, the latter being the trait most commonly exhibited by the main protagonist, Saki.
When Saki’s story begins, she is but a child, thrown into a group with five of her peers. As they learn about their psychic powers, referred to as their Cantus, they are instructed to take part in various challenges – some team-based, others independent. However, one of the children in Saki’s group apparently cannot harness their powers to as full or focused an extent as the others, and soon after the teachers take note of this, the child ceases to show up to class. Thus is the first of many scenarios which will drive Saki, Satoru, Shun, Maria, and Mamoru to question just what the motives of the adults are, how their society truly operates, and what exactly happened between the arrival of the first Cantus users hundreds of years ago up to present day.
One of the great dangers Saki and friends learn of early on is the Fiends, Cantus users whose powers run wild, their behavior turning animalistic. Or at least, that is what they are claimed to be. These Fiends supposedly appear on very rare occasions, and much of the information on them, as well as information regarding the rest of the old world ways, is restricted. Some of this knowledge is retained within small databanks that resemble small horse-like creatures known as False Minoshiros. During their adventures, Saki and friends encounter more than one of these False Minoshiros, but much of the truth of humanity’s past is not divulged until late in the series.
The children also make multiple encounters with a species that resembles large naked mole rats. These creatures stand around two to three feet tall, with rare exceptions like the proud warrior Kiroumaru standing as tall as an adult human. Different colonies of these rats bear different skin tones, facial structures, etc., but each colony is intelligent to the point of understanding human speech and operating on their own as they gather supplies to dig for resources underground. Squealer is the rat Saki, Satoru, and company encounter most frequently, and despite their confidence in the fact that these rats perceive humans and their Cantus abilities as god-like, they are ever-catious of Squealer as his behavior is sometimes suspicious.
The animals that inhabit this future world range from the aforementioned sentient naked mole rats, to giant cave-dwelling crabs, to ruthless hunter cats that the townspeople use to seek out and destroy Fiends – all bizarre mutations on real-world animals. Some of these creatures evolved on their own post-old world fallout, while others were designed by humans to serve particular purposes. Even the humans, with their mastery over psychokinesis, have restrictions worked into their gene pool. High tense situations force young adults to turn to physical interaction as a way to calm their nerves, sexual orientation apparently being completely irrelevant, as seemingly every character shows the capability of being attracted to both genders. Even more extreme is the Shame of Death, an involuntary reaction that will instantly kill a human should they attempt to kill another human. In theory, this creates a peaceful society that seeks only to benefit the whole, but as anyone familiar with dystopian media is well-aware, there are always ways around these restrictions, and what lurks in the shadows may seek to undo everything the humans have crafted these past many centuries.
From the New World weaves its story over multiple decades, throwing in themes of coming-of-age, piecing together puzzles from one’s past, the conflict of man vs. nature, and the strive to achieve one’s personal goals even as death and loss are prevalent around them. For this series delivers a number of plot twists and shock value moments, the biggest ones being at the conclusion of story arcs. The finale, while fitting and intelligently plotted, is not exactly what should be described as a ‘happy ending’. Saki and friends’ desire to expose the truth comes at a cost, and though these new world humans wield incredible powers, they are not all-powerful.
The way the five core characters are handled from the start of the series to its conclusion is human and practical, even if the society in which they live is somewhat removed from our own. The manner in which Saki and friends deal with emotional, physical, and moral challenges certainly paints them as rebels within their own time and place, but they are all the more likeable for that reason. As strikingly different of outcomes result from Shun, Satoru, Maria, and Mamoru's own personal journeys, the story always centers back on Saki, whether she is exploring the forests with her schoolmates, digging up information on the monster rats, or seeking advice from her elders on how to deal with newfound responsibilities. Truth be told, I don’t think the series would have been half as enjoyable if a character with less perseverance, someone who has not had to deal with a much personal loss, someone who lacked Saki’s quick-wittedness, had taken the role of main protagonist.
The soundtrack incorporates original tunes that emphasize classical string instruments, drums, and hauntingly beautiful vocals, as well as portions of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The character designs are rather typical of the contemporary digital animation style, though the way their hairstyles and items of clothing are rendered shows a curiously unique attention to detail. The colors of environments like green fields where breezes blow through, the dark and muddy caves of the rats, and the torch lit interiors of wooden buildings are distinctly different, but somehow all retain a consistent style – quite a feat, considering some of the bold places the anime takes its characters, as well as some of the stranger-looking creatures that line these landscapes.
Few series in this day and age dare to spend so much time exploring the world and its inhabitants as From the New World does. It would have been simple for the writers to focus on cool psychic battles and brush the multi-layered story to the side for the sake of pretty visuals, but that would have robbed us of such an intelligently-crafted tale. During the final story arc, the pacing does pick up a bit to advance toward the endgame trials, but this is after multiple timeskips and years of Saki preparing for her ultimate role in the tale, so it is largely forgivable. The final story arc is decidedly a bit more single-minded than the previous portions of the story, but it does well to bring all the intertwined plot points to a sensible head. From the New World is frothing with creativity, and with a smart and daring story to boot, once you get to watching, it’s hard to ignore just how much higher a quality and quantity this series provides during its twenty-five episode run than most any of its mainstream contemporaries.
My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)