「若葉の季節」 (Wakaba No Kisetsu)
“Season of Fallen Leaves”
I’m left truly gobsmacked. It has been far too long since an anime gave me chills quite like this, and the opening episode of Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World) had me completely immersed, from the hauntingly atmospheric start to its quietly sinister finish. I’ll tell you now folks, this one is going to be a keeper for the season. (Make that the next two seasons. Oh yes, two-cours!)
The adaptation of the Nihon SF Taishō Award-winning novel by Kishi Yusuke opens with a short scene of present day Japan, as boys awaken to psychic powers and use them to some gruesome effect, before bringing us forward to a world one thousand years into that future. We see a society that has regressed into the period ages, where religion and mysticism once again rule over the lives of the people. And in the secluded rural village we’re introduced to, these similarly conspicuous psychic powers have integrated into society as Juryoku. No doubt, there’s a connection between this current dystopian and that opening scene, but like any typical thriller, Shin Sekai Yori is keeping the cards close to its chest.
This isn’t the only question mark raised by the opening episode. We’re thrown into an established world without much context, going along with a storyline that simultaneously runs further into the past as it moves onward to uncover more about the world, and I admit I got slighty disorientated with the delivery. Still, the progression of events here as we follow lead heroine Watanabe Saki (Taneda Risa) entering Zenjin Gaki, the Unified Class, is reasonably straightforward enough upon piecing the scenes together. She’s the last of her peers to graduate from elementary school, upon being visited by a spirit of blessing in the middle of the night and gaining her Juryoku. Following that would be the mystical Shinto/Taoist-esque ritual that is then conducted under the context of a rite of adulthood in order to remove, or as what I suspect is more likely, limit the Juryoku extensively. After this, we are finally brought up to speed with the main storyline of her entering Zenjin Gaki and being reunited with the elementary school friends who went ahead.
Surrounding these events is a layer of mystery that feels malevolent in nature and largely embodied in the episode by the Nekodamashi, or Trickster Cats. Starting out as a fairy tale told to make children go home after dark, their nature quickly escalates into the spiriting away of kids who fail to show capability in Juryoku. It doesn’t strike me as the whole story, but there seems to be a certain truth to it, such as when late bloomer Saki caught a glimpse of one before she’s received her Juryoku, and when she overheard her parents’ panicked discussion about the matter. There’s a very telling statement here from Saki’s mother that she didn’t want to lose any more children. And to add more certainty, poorly performing student Reiko disappears at the close of the episode.
Considering the fact that this is supposed to be a science fiction work, there seems to be a theme of eugenics and societal experimentation running here. The seemingly enforced removal of non-psychics correspond with the dystopian interpretations of the subject. The name of the village, Ibaraki Kamisu 66, is equally conspicuous as well, indicating that there could be a broader societal system in place, while Saki’s father talks about a secret organisation with a higher authority than his position as a judge, possibly of the village. So then, running with eugenics in mind, could the village serve as a cultivation ground for psychics? Think Fallout’s vaults, or the village from well…The Village, and you’ll get my idea of what Ibaraki Kamisu 66 seems to be with its secretive nature, along with the historic tale of the barrier and the ogre in place to keep people from leaving. Saki’s disapproval of the subject could also point towards an eventual rebellious reaction to the uncovering of the truth behind the village.
The characters themselves, with the exception of Saki, are only given a short, measured introductions here, and there’s little to glean from aside from their archtypes at the moment. There’s Akizuki Maria (Hanazawa Kana) who’s a little hotheaded, Asahina Satoru (Tojo Kanako) as the classic impulsive kid, Itou Mamoru (Kudou Haruka) as the reserved kid, and ace Aonuma Shun (Toudou Mai) as a cool leader. What I really liked was what the episode did with their interactions, which as strange as it might sound, feels oddly age-appropriate for twelve year olds, from them losing their cool over someone toppling their cards to their small quarrels and the exclusion of Reiko out of “courtesy”. In these interactions are small touches that I really liked, such as Saki brightening up upon seeing her elementary school pals in the class.
Then there’s Saki, who we see goes through a range of emotions in the episode, and shows herself best with the anxiety and fears of a child going through a period of growth, specifically with her Juryoku. And at the same time, her world is expanding faster than she’s prepared for, as she starts uncovering more secrets about the reality she’s truly living in. Risa Taneda, while a relatively new voice actor, does a brilliant job as the confused Saki here, whose only solace seems to be with her friends.
While I’m really looking forward to see out the plot and characters play out, what really sold me on the show was its superb presentation. There are good adaptations, and then there are great adaptions, and Shin Sekai Yori feels like it belong with the latter. There’s a cinematic flair here that at once feels nostalgic and reminiscent of similarly atmospheric shows, where groups of kids dealt with the supernatural or unknown, such as with Bokurano, Ghost Hound and Another. (Before that went all Final Destination on us) And at the same time, it feels really fresh with the clever cinematography on display here.
The muted colors and the shifting palette, the brilliant art of the history tale, as well as the varied use of stylistic filters contributes immensely to the disquieting atmosphere achieved here. And then there’s the intriguing directing here that tries to unravel a singular layered story with its novel use of seamless transitions, between the different points in time of the plot. I loved how the separate events came together at these related points (such as with Saki glimpsing the Nekodamashi) and it kept the episode feeling dynamic, even if it did come off as a disorientating watch the first time around. It’s unclear if director Ishihama Masashi or episode/assistant director Yamato Naomichi should be credited with this. I cannot attest to having any familiarity with their works, but with this episode I’m looking forward to what else they and their team will pull out.
There’s also the score here, headlined by the haunting piece that opened Saki’s ritual, a score that elevates the imagery here to some truly chilling effect, and adding so much more to the incredible atmosphere of the Shin Sekai Yori. (Interestingly, the “going home” song that’s repeatedly used in the episode is Dvorak’s “New World” symphony.)
A-1 Pictures outdid themselves with the art and animation here as well. While the character designs might fall on the simpler side, the backgrounds are fantastically realised, and the great animation is decent with the sakuga, for those of you who watches out for this. Let’s hope they’ll be able to keep this up across the duration of the series.
With A-1’s decent track record in adaptations and a highly acclaimed story in Shin Sekai Yori, I had a lot of expectations going into the show, expectations which this premiere episode brilliantly met. It delivered an engrossingly atmospheric watch that displayed great, foreboding signs of what’s to come for its characters. I’ll say it again, this one’s a keeper.
ED: 「割れたリンゴ」 (Wareta Ringo) by (種田梨沙) Taneda Risa