Anime Reviews: From the New World
Haunting and harrowing, From the New World honors its dystopian sci-fi heritage by using an engrossing coming-of-age tale to ask brutally difficult questions.
Title: From the New World a.k.a. Shin Sekai Yori
Production: A-1 Pictures
Series Length: 25 episodes
Air Dates: 9/29/2012 to 3/23/2013
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, mild language, suggestive content, very dark and disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In the year 2011, a very small percentage of the human race awakened to latent psychokinetic powers, and the world descended into chaos and bloodshed. Empires rose and fell, the human population shriveled to exceedingly low numbers, and strange new creatures began to emerge. One thousand years later, society seems to have finally reached a point of peace once again, now that every person has control over their PK abilities and lives a simple, idyllic farming life. Saki Watanabe, age 12, was among the last in her class to awaken to her Power, but when she joins her friends in Group 1 at the academy, disturbing questions about this idyllic society rise from the depths of her mind: Whatever did happen to all the other kids who never gained their powers? What are the sinister Impure Cats, and why did classmate Reiko see one before she, too, seemed to vanish from memory? What are the Monster Rats, why do people distrust them, and why are they so intelligent? And most importantly, how did this society come into being, and what was sacrificed to bring it to fruition?
The Good: Stylish visuals; thrilling narrative cloaked in oppressive atmosphere; classic sci-fi feel
The Bad: Mediocre and spotty animation; comparatively rocky start may turn viewers away
The Ugly: The more you learn, the bleaker it becomes...
Traditional science fiction, which primarily consisted of cautionary tales about the misuse of possible technologies, has fallen out of favor in the modern day, more coalescing around Jules Verne's branch of escapist sci-fi fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that, of course--I, too, love me some good old-fashioned Jules Verne adventure stories--but the dark, gritty world of sci-fi seems to have been relegated to the back burner. Movies like Blade Runner and RoboCop, which flourished in the 80s when the "gritty horrors of the future" branch of sci-fi was at its strongest, just don't appear much anymore, and when they do (like the super-bland RoboCop remake), the grit and the unease have all but vanished. Anime, likewise, used to be all about these kinds of dirty, harsh, dystopian storylines (if pop culture-shaping juggernauts like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Evangelion are anything to go by), but it, too, has taken to making its sci-fi sleeker and shinier nowadays. I guess people just got tired of grimy steel buildings surrounding cracked and polluted streets amid city blocks comprised of destroyed skyscrapers, so now they want their dystopias to be prettier?
Enter From the New World, considered by many in the anime community to be one of the sleeper hits from 2012, which seeks to deviate from that sleek and shiny mold of sci-fi and bring us back to a grittier, dirtier time. Heck, you'd be forgiven if you forgot that it was a futuristic dystopia at all, considering its setting looks more like the 1800s, because there are no shiny chrome skyscrapers to be found at all. This all hearkens back to a more old-school idea of sci-fi, in novels like "The Time Machine," "Brave New World," or "Fahrenheit 451," where the author was less concerned with dazzling us with high-tech wonders and was more focused on how society itself is warped by a few key changes that may or may not be technological. The people of From the New World's setting, like those in "Brave New World," have been altered subtly at the cellular level, where adjustments to human DNA have been made so that people will no longer feel any compulsion to attack one another, and if someone does manage to kill another human, their own circulatory system turns against them, triggering an influx of potassium into the bloodstream to cause a heart attack. This idea of Death Feedback, or the Death of Shame, sounds wonderful on paper, but the series also mentions a formidable threat that used to spring up in this history--the Ogres, humans who go on killing sprees because Death Feedback doesn't trigger for them--where the entire population is left defenseless due to this change to their DNA.
This leads to another element of From the New World's society heavily influenced by those classic novels: routine brainwashing. Very rarely shown but constantly hinted at, everyone in the society of Kamisu 66 has been the subject of hypnotic suggestion since birth, making the population subject to the whims of the town's leaders. Our main characters--level-headed Saki, impulsive Satoru, gentle Maria, anxious Mamoru, and contemplative Shun--seem to have more agency than the average citizen (perhaps because they're the main characters, or perhaps...?), which leads to them discovering grim truths about the society they live in, kick-starting a series of events that bring the very world to its knees. While our heroes aren't the greatest ever put onto the page (few characters ever are), they are certainly more than able to ground us and immerse us into this increasingly-bleak society, and they feel real.
And boy, does that ever help, because it allows the incredibly oppressive atmosphere of the show to just crush every ounce of hope and optimism you might have for their eventual fates. In truth, From the New World is one of the very few examples I can think of where an anime incorporates horror elements and does it properly. Actually, Monster and Perfect Blue are the only other examples I can think of when it comes to horror done right in anime, and that's not even the former's focus! From minor dangers at the start to the all-out hell that erupts in the series' final third, there is not a dull moment in the story and the pall of dread hangs over our heads the entire way through, making this a very thrilling watch, indeed. Just, right now, if you're a horror fan looking for an anime that even comes close to being horror, your three best options are right here in this paragraph. Go get 'em.
Though the world Saki and the others inhabit is supposed to be a peaceful and verdant paradise, one can't help but notice just how gray and brown the world outside of Kamisu 66 really is. And yet, the director knows exactly where to place the camera at any given time, and when a situation might become too visually-mundane to arrange normally, the art style will change drastically. One minute, you might be looking at a dark, muddy tunnel comprised of rock and tree roots, but the next, you'll be in a metaphysical realm of neon colors and brush-stroke artwork that matches the emotional states of the characters. Flashbacks of events from the distant past will be animated in entirely different ways from the rest of the series, and I won't dare spoil the visual splendor of episode 10, for its art direction and shot composition are a sight to behold. But, unfortunately, even in this glowing haven of stylish sci-fi goodness, there are a few drawbacks to be found...
From the New World may be smart and stylish about its direction, but it was definitely too much for A-1 Pictures to maintain, because there are plenty of times where the animation itself becomes super choppy or scenes where the character art becomes flat and, shall we say, unimpressive. The director's vision was clearly too much for either the budget or the animators' skill, and it puts a damper on the immersion factor. It's a shame, because the music is excellent, both ending themes ("Wareta Ringo" and "Yuki ni Saku Hana") are excellent showcases of how stylish and visually-impressive the show can be, and the voice acting is rock-solid in both the Japanese and English versions, but the average animation quality is just mediocre at best. It's a demoralizing blow against what might've been a near-perfect anime.
Another issue that can arise is that, in the anime community, many have complained that the first third of the show is a little slow and that some of its themes turned them off completely. One of the aspects of Kamisu 66's society is that part of the population's general hypnosis (in order to stave off aggression) is a predilection towards free love. Everybody's boning everybody! Apparently, this really got under a lot of people's skins. I did not have that experience whatsoever--I was glued to the screen from ominous start to haunting finish--but it is a common enough complaint that I felt the need to mention it. I just took it to be one of the many ways individuality is suppressed in this society (after all, what does having a unique personality matter if it, well, doesn't matter?), and it is a very small, very quick aside in the grand scheme of the narrative, so seeing people get hung up over it feels petty to me.
Naturally, From the New World has my highest recommendation. Yeah, it's a bummer that the animation isn't as ambitious as the overall presentation, but for my money, that's small potatoes compared to just how engrossing the story is. I absolutely adore anime that can nail that oppressive atmosphere science fiction used to be all about, and while Psycho-Pass did it fairly recently as well (and very effectively, at that), From the New World just had me gripping the arms of my chair the entire time. The anime community's been catching on to this little gem in recent days, myself included, and it deserves all the love and attention it can get.
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Classic science fiction has fallen out of vogue in the world of anime, and horror is barely present at all, but From the New World stitches them together to weave an incredibly immersive bit of dystopian fiction with just the right amount of artistic style, down-to-earth characterization, and of course, some good old-fashioned ominous atmosphere.