OP: 「Touch off」 by UVERworld
Sorry for the relative lateness of this post. The Australian government has been making my life difficult.
Back when I dabbled in American comic books there was this one guy called Mr Miracle. His backstory was that he was once a kid named Scott Free and imprisoned in a nightmarish orphanage run by the ironically named ‘Granny Goodness’. There, Granny used torture and brainwashing to turn her children into supersoldiers for some evil god-emperor. Scott eventually escapes and becomes a superhero, because that’s what they do.
The ‘evil orphanage’ is a rather old and surprisingly common trope. Sure, institutions in general have always been slightly unnerving to us, because of the inherent loss of control. Mental asylums, hospitals, prisons — all great places to set a horror story. Therefore, we don’t even need clues like sinister brands or pragmatic cynicism about characters being too happy to suspect that there’s more to the House than meets the eye. In particular, though, we seem to have always had a special place for bad things happening to abandoned children. I blame, as I do for all things, the Brothers Grimm, who basically made a career out of it. They immortalised Hansel and Gretel and now eating children is du rigueur. And so the hapless state of fictional orphanages: if they’re not burnt to the ground early in the story for emotional impact then they’re secretly horrific Soylent Green factories. Either way, the kids don’t do very well (though, from the stories I hear out of Cambodia they don’t necessarily do better in reality compared to fiction).
Not only is Yakusoku no Neverland a show about children suffering, on its surface it could actually masquerade as a children’s show if we just look at the pleasantly round character designs. It’s a similar aesthetic/subject matter dissonance as, say, Made in Abyss. When that show was around people were referring to it as a ‘trap’ anime, in that despite its child-like guise it was not appropriate for children as well. But, again, stories that scare children is an old and valuable tradition. Don’t think of it as traumatising the innocent, think of it as helping the next generation build character. It’s a view that the late Roald Dahl, who had an interesting childhood himself, was certainly a proponent of, with books like Matilda and The Witches that share Yakusoku no Neverland‘s themes about kids secretly oppressed in uncomfortable ways. Yet, despite his works being beloved children’s classics even today they also often attract the eye of the censors (and, surprisingly, not because Dahl was something of a racist (to be fair, he was British)). Even the relatively positive James and the Giant Peach attracts protest from fussy parents now and again just because the protagonist’s parents gets eaten by a rhinoceros and later murders his (abusive) aunts with a mutant fruit. Bunch of prudes, I tell you.
I don’t know if Yakusoku no Neverland intended to emulate Dahl and how close it’ll hew in the future; I’ve kept myself deliberate ignorant of the source material because I prefer blogging fresh experiences over old ones. But even in this pilot we can see some of the DNA, with the mundane joy of childhood juxtaposed with the grotesque and horrible. I have yet to decide if this is a good thing. Mind you, this was a perfectly good pilot. It looked fairly good; Emma gave us lots of expressive faces and we got some interesting compositions. The exposition was a tad clunky (‘Let me tell you things we both already know!’) but at least it tried to be organic and we got a lot of work done establishing the setting and character dynamics. And it all built up to a fairly tense twist twist that was engaging even though we all saw it coming (is this not the face that raised a thousand death flags?). But I wonder whether Yakusoku no Neverland is trying too hard to shock and thrill us. It at once embraces the absurd and the grotesque (i.e. actual children-eating bogeymen) yet also wants to frame itself in realism and have us take it completely seriously (in contrast to the sadistic yet whimsical humour of Dahl). The two don’t necessarily mesh very well. At worst it becomes unintentional comedy, making us laugh where we’re supposed to squirm, which ruins the effect of the horror. At best, it’s still leans rather hard into pulp fiction, which is completely fine but requires a love of penny dreadfuls to fully enjoy.
We’re still just at the first episode, though, so the most important thing is that we have a promising show and that is definitely in order. No matter how Yakusoku no Neverland proceeds I’ve got my popcorn ready for a bumpy ride.
Full-length images: ED 01.
ED: 「絶体絶命」 (Zettaizetsumei) by Cö shu Nie