Oy, a show full of religious ideas and imagery. Well, thus far, anyway. I’m not a religious guy nor have I ever really been interested in such subject matters. It’s not that I can’t nevertheless enjoy a show like Shinsekai Yori, but to a certain extent, I’ll be missing out. Missing out on what, I’m not entirely sure yet, but it has to be something significant. Still, this first episode is definitely intriguing. As such, I’ll push on, knowing fully well that I’ll stumble plenty of times along the way when it comes to addressing some of the show’s more religious aspects.
I’m going into this series with no prior knowledge whatsoever of its source material. The only thing I’ve read beforehand is the synopsis on Wikipedia, which doesn’t tell me anything that the first five minutes of the episode doesn’t already convey. We know that the story takes place a thousand years into the future, and that everyone seems to have some sort of telekinetic or telepathic power. But what am I to make of the opening, which features a brutal awakening: a young child seemingly uses his telekinetic powers to murder scores and scores of (presumably) innocent people in (what appears to be) Tokyo?
When we first meet Saki, our main character, she is suddenly awaken by the stuff around her room mysteriously floating and moving by their own accord. When her parents finally react to her screams, they console her by telling her that she has just received her “blessing.” We then see her undergo some sort of “Buddhist” ritual just shortly afterward, though it isn’t entirely clear when this event takes place (Saki sheds a few tears for her mother afterwards, however, for what it’s worth). The priest (shouldn’t he be a monk?) refers to her power as a “cursed power.” The stark difference here between “blessing” and “cursed power” is noteworthy, I think. One other clue: the students learn from a tale that admonishes them not to venture beyond the boundary rope, i.e. to stay within the confines (and safety) of the village, but the Buddhist temple supposedly exists beyond the realm of the boundary rope.
So even though we are told that Buddhism has survived far into the distant future, the ideas being presented here remind me more of Christian ideas. The priest guides Saki in sealing her “cursed power,” an act that invites comparisons to the concept of original sin. Also, to purge it away with fire, i.e. healing through cauterization, is analogous to the idea of baptism. The characters even inhabit a seemingly perfect village — an Eden of sorts, if you will — and they are given the impression that the outside world is dangerous and forbidden. If these ideas are also present in Buddhism as well, then my bad, but I’ve prefaced this post with the fact that I don’t know much about religions. Still, in my mind, how does this all add up?
If I’m not already in a full-blown speculative mode, I will be now. I wonder if the opening scene somehow features the latest example in human evolution: telekinetic powers. And as always typical in stories of this sort, the first to awaken will always be misunderstood, picked on, etc. Maybe the mysterious kid in the opening got pushed too far, so he snapped. His savage rampage is a sign of something evil and twisted, and thus all this religious stuff about controlling one’s urges and desires because “[s]ins are within us.” The kids are even in something referred to as the Apotheosis Class. Apotheosis is the idea of revering something greatly, to exalt someone or something in an almost God-like fashion. But lest readers start to take me too seriously, again, I’m in full speculation mode right now. Your guess is as good as mine… unless you’re read the novel, then I guess you already know it all.
Still, there’s a rumor going about that those who can’t graduate to the Apotheosis Class will mysteriously disappear. How does one fail? Why is it bad to not receive the “blessing?” During Saki’s ritual, she is told to “[p]ut all of [her] cursed power and will into [a] human-shaped paper.” What is then so bad about telekinesis? We thus have a pair of very conflicting opinions on Saki’s ability, but who’s right and who’s wrong? What is the Education Board? How many children have Saki’s parents had before her? Questions, questions, questions….
I haven’t always been keen on shows from A-1 Pictures… actually, scratch that. I’ve never been keen on shows from A-1 Pictures, but this is a good start. Then again, a lot of their anime series have started off well before. Hell, maybe it’ll be like No.6, which is both good and bad. Although No.6 was a BONES production, for some reason, these types of sci-fi stories always end up developing in the most asinine ways (e.g. MYSTICAL LGBT BEE GODDESS).
Here are some other things that I liked, and some — admittedly nitpicks — that I didn’t like:
• What I liked: When Akizuki reads a passage from a book — a warning tale of sorts — I really liked the visual style being employed here:
It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but just making an effort to do something different is, in my opinion, worthy of note in a medium where a lot of shows tend to look a little too similar and a little too pristine (e.g. the character designs).
• Nitpick: On that same token, I’m not a fan of the random 3-D sprinkled throughout the episode. It’s jarring and doesn’t impress me. For the most part, the episode is rather well-animated since it’s A-1 Pictures. As such, the missteps stand out even more.
• What I liked: Despite spending a significant portion of the first episode “world-building,” for a lack of a better term, I didn’t find myself bored. I’m typically disdainful of any sort of world-building in anime, because the writers often approach the subject matter from the lowest common denominator (e.g. wasting my time by discussing the differences in how a Parisian and a Japanese person will eat breakfast). Here, they could’ve taken the telekinesis idea and done something totally mundane with it, i.e. the kids have super fighting powers. They may very well have super fighting powers in later episodes, but for now, it’s worth exploring what it’s like to teach a class full of telekinetically-gifted students.
One particular exercise that I liked involved the students learning to draw in a sort of Telephone-like fashion. For those not familiar with Telephone, it’s a game where you sit around in a circle (or a line) and tell a secret to the person next to you. He or she then tells the secret to the next person. The fun is in seeing how the secret morphs and changes by the time it reaches the end. Our students, however, seemingly have to duplicate a painting as accurately as possible.
• Nitpick: At the moment, I’m not keen on our main characters. Oh, it’s too early to outright dislike them or anything, but I’m usually not a fan of kids being the main characters. First, I just dislike their voices, which I usually find shrill and displeasing. But on a much deeper level, storytellers often take the easy way out by opting to portray kids because it gives them the excuse to be less complex in the characterization department.
Case in point, one of the boys is stereotypically arrogant about his newfound powers. I can’t wait to see his hubris bring about his downfall. Now, Shinsekai Yori may very well buck this trend, but we shall see.
• What I liked: The anime just doesn’t give us a giant infodump about the mysterious Waki Academy. Instead, they sit around and tell scary stories based off of rumors and hearsay.
The result is the same — you get a bunch of information — but the method is much more stylish. Plus, the audience is given unreliable information, i.e. it is up to us to determine what we want to believe and disbelieve. Just this tiny bit of audience participation, I think, is far superior to mere exposition.
• Nitpick: I know the anime is based off of a novel titled From the New World, so I guess I’m addressing the source material here more than anything, but using that Dvorak song (last seen in Mawaru Penguindrum) just feels kind of cliché. Ah, how do we juxtapose the peaceful, idyllic village with a certain sense of tension and anxiety? Oh, how about “From the New World?” — it’s perfect!