Anime Reviews: "From the New World"
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. 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. 1000 years later, society seems to have finally reached a point of peace once again. 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. 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 seemed to vanish from memory? What are the Monster Rats and why do people distrust them. 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 technology, has fallen out of favor in modern times. Most entries in the genre today are closer to Jules Verne's branch of escapist sci-fi fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that. I love me some good old-fashioned adventure stories. However, the dark, gritty world of sci-fi seems to have been relegated to the back burner. Anime also used to be all about these harsh, dystopian storylines. The medium now makes its sci-fi sleeker and shinier.
Enter From the New World, considered by many in the anime community to be one of the sleeper hits from 2012. It 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. This all hearkens back to when the genre was less concerned with dazzling us with high-tech wonders. It focuses more on how society itself is warped by a few key changes. The people in this anime have been altered subtly at the cellular level. Their DNA has been changed so that people will no longer feel any compulsion to attack one another. If someone does manage to kill another human, their own circulatory system turns against them. They are triggered to send 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. However, the series also mentions a formidable threat that sprang up—the Ogres. These are humans who go on killing sprees because Death Feedback doesn't trigger for them. An entire population is left defenseless due to this change to their DNA.
This leads to another classic sci-fi element in this anime; routine brainwashing. It is rarely shown but it is constantly hinted at. Everyone in Kamisu 66 has been the subject of hypnotic suggestion since birth. As a result, the population is subject to the whims of the town 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. This leads to them discovering grim truths about their society, kickstarting a series of events that brings their world to its knees. While our heroes aren't the greatest ever, they are certainly more than able to ground us and immerse us into their increasingly bleak society. They come off as feeling real.
The incredibly oppressive atmosphere of the show just crushes every ounce of hope and optimism you might have for their eventual fates. From the New World is one of the few examples I can think of where an anime incorporates horror elements and does it properly. Monster and Perfect Blue are the only other examples I can think of. From minor dangers at the start to the hell that erupts toward the end, there is not a dull moment in the story. The dread hangs over our heads the entire way, making this a very thrilling watch.
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. 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 rocks and tree roots. Next, you'll be in a metaphysical realm of neon colors and brushstroke artwork that matches the emotional state of the characters. Flashbacks of events from the distant past will be animated in entirely different ways from the rest of the series. I won't dare spoil the visual splendor of episode 10, but its art direction and shot composition is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, even in this glowing haven of stylish sci-fi goodness, there are a few drawbacks to be found.
The series may be smart and stylish about its direction, but it was definitely too much for A-1 Pictures to maintain. There are plenty of times where the animation becomes super choppy or scenes where the character art becomes flat and unimpressive. The director's vision was clearly too much for either the budget or the animators' skill. 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 the show can be. The voice acting is rock solid in both the Japanese and English versions. Sadly, the average animation quality is just mediocre at best. It's a demoralizing blow against what might've been a near-perfect anime.
Many fans 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 effects of the population being under hypnosis 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 issue, 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 was suppressed in that society. It is a small and quick aside in the grand scheme of the narrative.
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. 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 has been catching on to this little gem in recent days, and it deserves all the love and attention it can get.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Classic science fiction has fallen out of vogue in the world of anime and horror is barely present at all. From the New World stitches them together to weave an incredibly immersive bit of dystopian fiction. It has the right combination of artistic style, down-to-earth characterization, and an ominous atmosphere.