The Promised Neverland: The AniTAY Review

The Winter 2019 season has come and gone, but The Promised Neverland staked its claim in the anime community as one of the season’s best. Several members of the AniTAY community had a variety of thoughts on the show, proving it to be a show simultaneously well-loved, heavily debated, and interestingly divisive. Read on as Dark Aether, DilKokoro, Doctorkev, Koda, RedStripe118, and me, TheMamaLuigi, share what we took away from The Promised Neverland!

Note: This review contains fairly heavy spoilers for The Promised Neverland, so if you haven’t seen the show (and we recommend you do), continue at your own discretion.

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Dark Aether

The Promised Neverland marks an interesting shift in shonen storytelling in a time where several new series are starting to make a name for themselves by building on an established framework or carving their own path. Neverland firmly sits in the latter category, trading in large-scale battles and over-the-top characters (with a few exceptions) for a darker, emotional tale about a family of orphans just trying to survive their unusual circumstances.

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Over the course of the season, we get to know our three central protagonists and what drives them to push forward as their situation changes from bad to worse. Our main lead and heroine Emma fits a lot of the trademark shonen hero tropes we’ve come to expect while coming into her own by season’s end. Her character grows from an idealistic child determined to save all of her family against all odds to a “warrior” who takes charge and stakes her own life by the time the credits roll. Norman is the tactician of the group and often the voice of reason when disagreements break out. Though the most intelligent of the three, he is shown to have a softer, empathetic side, attempting to spare others pain or emotional turmoil. This is best exemplified by his determination to see Emma’s goal come true despite knowing the chances of success are slim. Rounding out the trio is the cool-headed and calculating Ray. A realist and logical thinker, he often clashes with others out of concern for Emma and Norman. In one instance, he calls out Norman for shielding the other kids from reality by omitting details, concerned this might one day become a liability.

Whenever I describe The Promised Neverland, I often compare it to a modern-day thriller/horror movie in anime form. The series is quick to establish the orphans’ mother, Isabella, as the central villain for this story arc, working behind the scenes to keep her children in line while establishing her authority as both caretaker and monster (continuing that horror analogy), all while maintaining that cold smile. It is the mother/children hunter/prey relationship that forms one of the most complex narratives of any recent anime as the children begin to understand the true nature of their supposed home and their mother’s role and motivations.

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TL;DR: With its memorable characters, tense atmosphere, and compelling narrative of finding hope in the face of despair, The Promised Neverland stands out as not just one of the season’s best new entries but one of the best new series in recent memory.


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DilKokoro

This isn’t a new take of mine by any means, but it can never be overstated how incredibly this show is executed. Every technical aspect is pristine and rivals that of any media - the direction is jaw dropping, the sounds make the atmosphere constantly tense, and the pacing is flawless. I found myself holding my breath for minutes at a time, giving audible reactions when twists occurred finally (something that I rarely do). Indeed, the narrative of The Promised Neverland is just that gripping.

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In a season filled with incredible series such as Dororo and Mob Psycho 100, it is saying something that The Promised Neverland can rise above even the highest of bars set by that dynamic duo. This adaptation must have been an absolute treat for fans of the manga to see faithfully and passionately adapted as an anime. I would not be surprised if we see this show be the entrance into the medium of anime for beginners in the very near future. With that said, there isn’t a better show to represent what anime done right can bring and how much emotionally charged imagination can be applied to a piece of art.

TL;DR Audiences will be hard pressed to find a series more well executed technically, with a narrative that is intriguing and terrifying all at once. This is a clear winner in a crowded season full of quality anime.

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Doctorkev

It seems you can never go too wrong with anime about suffering children. Grave of the Fireflies? Wartime horror and starvation - check! Neon Genesis Evangelion? Existential horror and self-destructive nihilism - check! Made in Abyss? Jolly adventure and brutal mutilation - check! Now, the Winter 2019 season hath unleashed The Promised Neverland with its bounty of child sacrifice, demonic child-flesh feasting, deep paranoia, and leg-breaking sudden violence.

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As an avid reader of the manga, this was my most anticipated anime of the season and it most certainly does not disappoint. In fact, in some places it may even surpass its source material. The manga at times is dense, talky, and oppressive, as the story requires. Many scenes are extended dialogues or internal monologues that would not translate well to anime. By obfuscating the characters’ internal thoughts, the animators require viewers to rely on subtle cues like body language, facial expressions, scene composition, and music. In less-skilled hands, this could have fallen completely flat; however, in this instance, every episode is a perfectly constructed and tense 24 minutes that moves the story forward, answering some questions and asking more.

Not that many answers are forthcoming about the world outside of the children’s home - the deceptively “safe” Grace Field House - but that’s okay. Those answers will come later. What is revealed is enough to provoke a profound sense of unease and raise the stakes for what amounts to “Prison Break: Genius Kiddie Edition”. And what prison break series would be complete without arson, self-mutilation, crosses and double-crosses, and the strategic use of coat-hangers to swing over vertigo-producing bottomless abysses?

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Emma, our primary protagonist, is chirpy, energetic, and smart - easy to root for. Her best friend Norman is even smarter but guarded and fragile. The secretive Ray is duplicitous and snarky but ultimately self-sacrificing. They make a fascinating trio that complement and counterpoint one another in increasingly complex ways as they grow, develop, and with mounting horror realise the magnitude of their situation. No eleven-year-old children could be so coldly logical in real life, but witnessing their improbable machinations is all part of the fun. Isabella makes a superb antagonist - outwardly loving but inwardly calculating and brutally intelligent. The final episode humanises her but in a way that does not diminish her earlier malevolence. We understand her villainous actions, and with discomfort realise if placed in her shoes, we might make the same choices. In losing Isabella as the main antagonist, I worry a little about how tension can be maintained in season 2, but as long as they keep the same staff, it will be in good hands.

TL;DR: Tense, dense, well-paced, smart and disturbing. If watching children suffer is your thing (you monster), then The Promised Neverland comes highly recommended.

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Koda

In the lead up to the start of the Winter season, The Promised Neverland was far and away the most hotly anticipated new series, only being surpassed by Mob Psycho 100 II for most anticipated show of the season overall. The funny thing with anticipation is it brings along expectations, especially when you have multiple people and publications readying themselves for what they claim is the next Attack on Titan in terms of popularity. Unfortunately for me, The Promised Neverland falls short of the lofty heights people were lifting the series up to as the season came ever so closer. To be certain, I still enjoyed the show quite a bit, but it never quite reached the sheer rush of excitement I got out of the expertly executed first episode. The three episodes that closed this first season out were thrilling in their own right, but just couldn’t match the level the show established for itself with its opening salvo.

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It didn’t help things much for me that the episodes sandwiched between the show’s first three and last three episodes felt like they were being deliberately paced out so this first season could end exactly where it did. I get that The Promised Neverland is, more than anything else, a thriller, at least in this arc, but that doesn’t really excuse this weird sense of pacing. There’s also the very large elephant in the room that is the depiction of Sister Krone, a topic that requires far too many words for this particular review format to give it the lengthy discussion it deserves.

However, for its many flaws, The Promised Neverland has several key strengths that absolutely still make the show worth watching. Chief among them being that the characters are overall fantastic. Prime examples of this are Emma, Norman, Ray, Isabella, and series meme/ensemble dark horse, Phil. They are incredibly well written and just a joy to watch, and the facial expressions in this series just help hammer home their effectiveness as characters.

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In addition, as a thriller, when the show finally does get around to reaching its key twists and turns, they are beautifully effective. Even if you manage to guess the broad strokes of future events, you won’t at all get the finer details pinned down, and that is something I love to see in my thrillers. Plus, it must be said, that first episode and overall set up for the show are just too damn good not to want to see how everything plays out. I greatly look forward to seeing what the second season has in store for us now that the pieces are now all in play.

TL;DR: The Promised Neverland doesn’t quite live up to the hype just yet, but for all its flaws it is still a rock solid and entertaining thriller that provides a new spin on shonen content. Also, Phil is just the best.

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RedStripe118

I expected that I’d like it, sure, but it’s remarkable even still: The Promised Neverland is not just damn good, but good in ways that anime often doesn’t seem to strive for, let alone excel at.

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Its style alone is to die for. The lives of the cheery Emma, the silver-haired genius Norman, the intense Ray, their adoptive mom Isabella, and the rest of the children at their orphanage are rendered with an idyllic yet lived-in touch that is lovely, if perhaps the faintest bit unsettling. It all heavily exudes a fairy-tale vibe—one that draws less from the Studio Ghibli tradition at that—which doesn’t just make it stand out visually from most of its anime peers, but also ties into its central reveal: that Emma and company’s carefree existence is built on a lie. A big, Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s house-shaped lie from which they’ll need to get away if they want even a chance at survival.

It’s in how the plan and struggle to escape gets depicted where The Promised Neverland is most noticeably exceptional. They could have gone the Light Yagami-esque direction of pulpy inner monologue thrill rides. Instead, they play it all out by heavily cultivating suspense and atmosphere.

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It should not be understated what a risky, tall order that is. Genuinely suspenseful anime are a rare breed; what was the last show that could legitimately claim that title? Erased in its best moments, maybe? Yet this show not only utterly nails the anticipation and dread needed to make it work, but manages it more frequently and consistently than Erased ever did.

Not to mention, it does all of this while still having wonderful character work. Isabella is an excellent spanner in the kids’ works, while Norman and Ray are both effective as cerebral, strategizing types. For my money, however, the clear standout is Emma. She may be the well-liked heart of the series in comparison to the boys’ brains of the operation, but several of The Promised Neverland’s best surprises come from its view on how her idealistic outlook affects the proceedings, along with how she evolves as the show carries on. She’s the one always standing front and center from everyone else—a living beacon of hope and persistence—for good reason.

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TL;DR: Not just for treading ground that so few other anime series attempt to take on, but managing to do so excellently, The Promised Neverland’s mix of style, suspense, and character dynamics is a potent accomplishment.


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TheMamaLuigi

Before The Promised Neverland aired, I read the first five volumes of the manga in a two-day long sweaty haze of stress and emotions as Emma and the rest of Grace Field House attempt to escape. The most remarkable thing about the anime is how, even after only having read the manga two weeks before it aired, it all still felt fresh, exciting, and terrifying. The Promised Neverland stands as an example of not only how to properly adapt a manga, but how to surpass the source material to create a work that utilizes the advantages of its medium.

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A large part of what makes The Promised Neverland so outstanding comes from its direction. CloverWorks have proven themselves more than capable of handling the animetic camera, mainly through Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai and (botched story aside) Darling in the FranXX. The Promised Neverland, though, takes this mastery to another level through its deliberate use of misdirection to manipulate the viewer. The perfection of the show’s first episode has been explored ad nauseum, but it bears repeating that the smash cut from an external shot of the house to Isabella holding Little Bunny is not only indicative of the show’s direction but stands on its own as a microcosm of its central ideas. Masterful art and animation mix with thematically appropriate music to accentuate the core idea of hope amidst despair – and then Norman gets shipped off and Isabella breaks Emma’s leg. Each episode revolves around twists that, though to some viewers may feel understandably overused and trite, ultimately work to heighten tension and place the viewer among the children, as helpless as they are. The Promised Neverland never treats its viewers as stupid; instead, it appeals both to attentive viewers who consistently predict its twists and those who revel in the surprises around every corner. It knows that the key to a great thriller is not cheap scares or unnecessary gore but effective atmosphere and characters who react believably to that atmosphere. Direction makes or breaks an anime (compare Revue Starlight to King’s Game), and The Promised Neverland’s direction stands among the best in recent memory.

Watch The Promised Neverland for Emma, Norman, and Ray as they grow and adapt to a world relentlessly changing and falling apart around them. Watch The Promised Neverland for Isabella, one of modern anime’s most finely crafted villains. Watch The Promised Neverland for its direction, art, music, and masterful use of the medium in which it exists. Watch The Promised Neverland.

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TL;DR: The Promised Neverland is an exemplary adaptation that matches and exceeds its source material through its use of music, animetic and filmic techniques, and an understanding of the importance of its relationship to the viewer. Anime of the Year finds an early contender in this masterwork.


You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.

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