Even in my self-admitted SAO fanboy head, I wouldn’t say A-1 Pictures has the best of reputations, and among the anime community at large they certainly do not. The essence of the common complaints I see lobbied at the studio is that they prioritize products over art, shooting for the lowest common denominator and pumping out the equivalent of shovelware rather than actually pushing the envelope of the medium. Now, other more popular Anitubers have done much better written and far better researched videos on A-1, so I won’t bother to reiterate their points here and instead encourage you to check those out for yourself, but suffice it to say that A-1 shows tend to be hit or miss for a fair number of people. Which brings us, naturally, to the topic of today’s review: Shin Sekai Yori, a series which for me feels in many ways like a polar opposite to the usual A-1 aesthetic, very unlike the Asterisk Wars and Aldnoah.Zeros you may associate with the studio. Now different doesn’t always mean better, but in this case… yeah, different is better.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
One thousand years in the future, the modest settlement of Kamisu 66 leads a simple life in the relatively remote Japanese countryside. The major immediate difference from our own society is that every man, woman and child holds the ability to wield “Power”, or psychic abilities. Although these abilities can vary wildly in strength and specialties from one person to another, even a child can level a small army with ease, with the sum total of the community’s Powers allowing them to do more or less anything imaginable, within reason.
The lives of these psychic peoples are simple, but not dull: raising children, fostering crops, improving their quality of life, with the partial help of the intelligent but ultimately harmless Monster Rats that make their burrows in or around town. Unfortunately, a peace like this seems destined to collapse. A group of five (or was is it six?) children, designated Group 1, unintentionally make discoveries about the nature of their world and their lives, discoveries that threaten to unravel the very fabric of their society, uncovering a lost history that certain parties wished to never be revealed. The resulting tale spans over a decade, illustrating this society when it is pushed to its breaking point, and asking what could be possibly done to change it.
If I had to place Shin Sekai Yori under a typical genre label, it would be a clash between a more laidback fantasy and subtle sci-fi. Our characters’ society is reasonably similar to those in literature like 1984 and The Giver, anime like Psycho-Pass, or even (for a somewhat strange example) Mother 3’s New Pork City, in that it is a fairly classic false utopia. Everything seems happy and dandy on the surface, and many citizens may even in fact genuinely be happy, but once you take a step deeper, there’s a lot of fear and tyranny behind the scenes, though the authorities may have convinced even themselves that this is not the case. I don’t want to specify the exact machinations of Kamisu 66’s society, since most of it is presented as plot reveals as the viewer continues through the story, but right from the beginning you will get a sense that there’s something not quite right. Shin Sekai Yori almost invariably keeps up a lingering atmosphere of unsettling dread, as if something is always off, and, in traditional fashion, this atmosphere is forwarded by the animation and the music.
We can start with what I alluded to in the intro, that Shin Sekai Yori (in my opinion) is a clear exception to the usual A-1 Pictures rule. When A-1 wants to make a good-looking show, they can make a damn good-looking show. For every Ace Attorney and Gunslinger Stratos, you’ll have a Your Lie in April, Seven Deadly Sins and Sword Art Online II (which, no matter how much you may hate the story or characters, is difficult to deny that it looks quite good). However, all those examples stand out for reasons that I wouldn’t say are exactly applicable to Shin Sekai Yori. The style we have here feels more rustic than all those others. It’s not something to particularly impress with its action cuts or literally vibrant emotional displays, but moreso a down-to-earth laid-back simplicity, playing things low and simple to draw you in and keep you calm, which you could argue is kind of how this society treats its citizenry. Shin Sekai Yori isn’t exactly the type of show where I vividly remember any one specific scene that visually went above and beyond, instead opting for a more consistent and mellower approach the whole way through. Admittedly, this is contrasted with a small but notable number of more abstract sequences, including the ending themes, which make much more experimental use of things like coloring and outlines, and could perhaps illustrate the cracks in the authoritative system.
In keeping with what I just said, in that the traditional two halves to a show’s atmosphere are its visual and musical styles, it thus falls on the composer, Shigeo Komori’s, shoulders to keep up with what the visual presentation began, which he does. The most notable pieces of the show’s soundtrack are tracks that include a small child choir, following a slightly ominous melody without any real words. Have any of you ever played Ico? Do you know that one vocal piece that plays in the HD collection’s menu, and at the end of the game? This isn’t a perfect comparison, but certain chunks of Shin Sekai Yori’s soundtrack kinda feel like that. Tranquil and even beautiful but at the same time somber and eerie (which is a solid parallel to the show’s society at large). That can actually be a difficult balance of emotions to properly musically maintain, especially in coordination with what’s happening on-screen, but Shin Sekai Yori pulls it off reasonably well, even with the EDs.
Shin Sekai Yori is a rarity among anime in that it doesn’t actually have an opening, so the only real theme songs are the two credit themes (both of which are sung by members of the cast). What I remember most of the first is that it has this almost broken musical style, as if constantly skipping and repeating (again, kind of stylistically relevant to their society). The second ED is performed by Kana Hanazawa, and while I am a big fan of hers and can appreciate the meaning behind her character singing the ending… I didn’t care for the song itself. At all, really, which is a shame, because I did quite like the first one.
But putting the presentation aside, and returning to the story itself of Shin Sekai Yori, one of its more basic beats (but one that repeatedly held my attention) is that, whatever happens, time trudges on. It is the rare anime that lets you track the entire life of a character, from adolescence up well into adulthood, but Shin Sekai Yori does. That may or may not be inherently interesting to you, in that the show starts with kid school shenanigans and evolves up to moderate politics and societal strife, but what would likely be more interesting is how well it makes use of this long span of time, and I would say, it makes use of it very well. It doesn’t feel like a story that could have been properly told if the timeframe were any shorter. Spacing things out over several years allows us to witness the butterfly effect in, er, full effect, how throwaway actions years ago can give rise to dramatic consequences down the line, and how those dramatic consequences can stack up on top of each other to produce an effect that no one could have seen coming.
Although the show juggles a few topics throughout its run, it ultimately settles on questions of slavery and human nature, doing its best to warp the traditional perceptions of “good” and “bad”. Usually, in storytelling, we are expected to align ourselves with the main characters, and by extension their faction, but Shin Sekai Yori, very much by design, forces you to question how much good these people are actually doing. By the end I was finding the citizens and authorities of Kamisu 66 entirely unsympathetic, and though their enemies were not without fault of their own, they at least had reasonable cause for conflict.
This is unfortunately where it gets hard for me, trying to be a spoiler-free reviewer, because to adequately verbalize this point further, I’d have to give away things that occur in the last third of the series, so it will have to suffice to say that the antagonist of Shin Sekai Yori is a bit like Metal Gear Solid 2’s Solidus Snake. Their methods are a bit too extreme, and they may not have gone about their goals in the “right” way to go about them, but at the end of the day, their motivations are not only completely reasonable, but even understandable and, dare I say, just. You can have great villains that are pure evil, absolutely, but the best ones are often those that make you question if they’re really villains at all.
If I had to point out something I felt Shin Sekai Yori did poorly (which I will, since I mean, that’s kinda what I’m here for), it would without a doubt be the characters, with the exception of the antagonist I literally just mentioned. The main group of kids, Group 1, is made up entirely of largely forgettable individuals, which may be obvious since I haven’t named even one of them since the beginning of this review. Most people in Shin Sekai Yori’s story just aren’t particularly robust or memorable as people, from small side characters all the way up to our leads. I would have difficulty describing them or their personalities in any real detail beyond their position or what happens to them, how the plot uses them to meet its ends. They are inert, lifeless, unsympathetic beyond the basic sympathy that you would hopefully automatically extend to your fellow man. They don’t feel like characters, they feel like vehicles for the plot. Something like this can really drag a show down, if pure plot or atmosphere isn’t your thing. If you need to relate to the cast to really get into a series, Shin Sekai Yori makes you work for it.
Funny enough, my only other complaint is much smaller by comparison. Shin Sekai Yori’s characters, acting as narrators, have an annoying habit of making foreboding statements after an event or a supposed resolution, along the lines of ending a fairly happy episode with something like “we had no idea of the horrors to come” or “if only so-and-so hadn’t done such-and-such, so many lives could have been saved”. To be fair, this is not a tactic uncommon to anime or fiction as whole. It is often used to keep viewer interest, telling them that the crisis is only just beginning. The end of Boku no Hero Academia’s first season comes to mind as an immediate and recent example of such, but I felt these lines were frequent enough in Shin Sekai Yori to deserve outright mention. Not only are these dramatic observations usually somewhat exaggerated, in my opinion, they also diminish a degree of suspense in the story that would have otherwise existed.
A very common criticism I see of Shin Sekai Yori, that I have yet to mention in any capacity, is simply that the beginning is boring and slow, and takes a while to build to a point where it feels like it’s past the setup and things are happening, but for whatever reason, I myself never actually found the show to be all that slow. I was always interested, even in the early episodes, thanks to the drip feed of information it gives us about this new, strange society… but maybe I just have a high tolerance for that sort of thing, I dunno.
Regardless, when I first started Shin Sekai Yori, it vaguely reminded of a series like Haibane Renmei, which is just a snapshot of life in some surreal world, but to continue that analogy, if Renmei could be considered mostly setup, Shin Sekai Yori over time became setup, climax and eventual payoff.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S... it feels like I’ve been giving a lot of these lately, but I have to call ‘em how I see ‘em and Shin Sekai Yori deserves an A rating. It’s a definite shame that the characters themselves were so relatively disappointing, but the story itself was more than strong enough to keep things afloat, especially once everything ties together by the end.
Shin Sekai Yori is currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll and the Anime Network. It’s not all that long, only 25 episodes, so if this review has you intrigued, go for it. It has a reputation for a reason.
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