First Impressions – Shin Sekai Yori

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Fall 2012 kicks off properly with the first big premiere the show I was most anticipating – and it doesn’t disappoint.

I’ll freely admit that a lot happened in the first episode of Shin Sekai Yori that I didn’t fully understand – and I’m absolutely fine with that, because I don’t think I was supposed to.  It’s pretty easy to tell these days when an anime isn’t adapted from a manga or LN or even a VN, because the structural rules we’ve become used to just don’t apply.  There wasn’t a lot of standard scene-setting and character introduction here – just a very surreal and dark pre-open and a fairly quick succession of events, each cleverly contributing possible clues as to the nature of what we were looking at.  Shin Sekai Yori hit the ground running hard, and I think it served the larger purpose of establishing a tone before zeroing in on character and setting exposition.

This series is adapted from a highly-acclaimed series of novels by Kishi Yuusuke, and while it does bear some similarity to the way other novel-based anime have opened, the two shows I was most reminded of were anime-originals – Noein and Ghost Hound.  Original or adapted from full novels, either way a story is free from the constraints of the Manga and LN formats, and it really shows.  This first episode is extremely atmospheric in a creepy way, setting off some of same sense of disorientation and unease that GH did, and some of the art has a similar look too – very cute character designs and images from the dark side of Buddhism and Shinto.  As for Noein, that’s more of a general feel for me – the way the kids interact, and the sense that this is going to be a story with some real scope.  Given my feelings about those two series, I consider the comparison a big compliment to Shin Sekai Yori.

We know the show is going to have two major time skips, but for now the focus is on the core cast as 12 year-olds.  After a short introduction set in what looks like our time, where a series of gruesome acts of violence are perpetrated seemingly by a telekinetic young boy, we jump 1000 years into the future, and what looks like an idyllic rural country where five children are at play.  The first sign that something sinister may be afoot comes when the evening chime (actually Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, fittingly) sounds, and one of the girls suggests the kids need to get back home before the “Cat God” comes out.  It rapidly becomes obvious that this world is very different from our own when young Saki (Taneda Risa) visits a temple where the local Priest leads a fire ceremony to burn away her Earthly desires, including her “power of gravity” – and later, she has what seems to be a powerful telekinetic episode in the middle of the night, and her parents inform her that the “Spirit of Adulthood” had visited her. 

Spirit of Adulthood apparently means that she gets to move on to the next stage in this society’s social structure, which is a kind of school of magical mental powers called Zenjin.  Her childhood friends have already arrived, having been visited by the Spirit earlier.  Asahina Satoru (Tojo Kanoko) is brash and snarky, while ginger Akizuki Maria (Hanazawa Kana) is genki, and appears to be close to Saki, and Amano Reiko (Horie Yui) is the runt of the litter, falling behind the others in practicing her powers.  Little Itou Mamoru (Kudou Haruka) is a shy and timid boy, and then there’s Aonuma Shun (Todou Mai). He seems to be the key figure in the group – the acknowledged leader, peacemaker, and strongest at practicing the powers the children study every day at Zenjin – things like building houses of cards with telekinesis and painting sand pictures with their mind.

Again, it’s not exactly clear what’s happening here – but it is clear that something dark is lingering under the surface of this world.  The notion of a sinister Buddhist-Shinto cabal running society is an unusual take for anime, and rather creepy.  There are strong indications that the Cat God (or something perceived as such) “takes away” (fill in the blanks yourself) children who don’t show special powers – or more likely, strong enough powers – by a certain age.  Among the kids it’s the subject of “Seven Mysteries” style ghost stories, but children really do disappear – and Saki’s mother is clearly worried about that, and given that Saki overheard her mother fretting about “losing children” (older siblings of Saki?)  to her father, she’s extremely worried about it herself.  This worries come to fruition when Reiko disappears from Zenjin.

What we lack in clarity, we make up in atmosphere – which this premiere has in spades.  The BGM and sound direction are especially excellent (another link to Ghost Hound), the BGM a mix of drum-based ritual music and a variety of string pieces that convey mood wonderfully.  Again I think freedom from structural constraint is huge in why all this works – a novel can take more time to get where it’s going than a manga or LN, which too often jump right into the details and in the process lose the color and richness that comes from slowly drawing us into the world on the page.  A-1 Pictures and director Ishihama Masashi have two cours to work with here, and I’m very, very excited at the prospect of seeing this world created over the next six months.  You can’t tell too much from a premiere, but my sense is that Shin Sekai Yori has at least a chance to be great – and there aren’t many shows I feel comfortable saying that about, even after one episode.

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OP: “Wareta Ringo” (Cracked Apple) by Risa Taneda

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34 comments

  1. A

    Wait, it's two cours?

  2. Yes, confirmed two cours.

  3. F

    >favorite character killed at end of first episode

    Whelp.

  4. s

    From the ss, I guess you're following Hadena's sub, right? Well, no prejudice against Hadena but my past experience with the group is full of broken English and wrongly translated lines. Maybe they have improved, I don't know, but I guess Commie or UTW is still a safer choice…

  5. First past the post, in this case. And yes, they've gotten better, to some extent.

  6. F

    I've meant to bring this up before, but you really shouldn't watch Hadena's sub. Watching stuff raw is more useful.

  7. A

    I can attest to this having watched the episode 2 times; once with Hadena's sub, the second with UTW. UTW is a vast improvement with its fansubbing. The first time, not only did I not understand the world, I coudln't even understand what they were talking about (too much confusing terminology). UTW does a great job clearing it up.

    Back to the episode, my impression is the same as yours ENZO, that this cat apparition either removes or devours those less gifted in the psychic arts. However, I will take a guess at what the first scene was trying to show was not just 1 boy but several children experiencing this mutation that drove them insane, hence why there was a flame ceremony in the beginning. The removal of their initial powers prevents them from going off on massive killing sprees, perhaps?

  8. H

    I had about the same impressions as Anonymous above me: Multiple children have previously latent powers come to strength uncontrollably and wreak havoc.

    I took the flame ceremony to be the effort to get rid of the uncontrollable powers, and allow for the replacement with controllable ones. I also am speculating that the people who don't get those initial powers controlled or exorcised in time become the "Demons and Fiends" outside of the barrier.

    And yeah, I watched UTW's subs too. I do realize that you are first out with reviews, Enzo, but if you're watching content that confuses you, it can seriously cripple your analysis.

  9. e

    Well, as the one new series I've decided to follow this season this was good (that bgm at the crossing of the barrier! I've been waiting for it since the trailer. Also, Dvorak. I like the mix) and I'm a very happy and hopeful-for-greatness grasshopper.
    From what I gathered about the novel source this should be right up my alley too.
    Visually speaking, the first moment that really hooked me were those violet and purple-imbued rice fields scenes just after the opening flashback. Colors, scene layout, mood: great.
    I quite agree with your Noein and Ghost Hound vibe mention, to that I'dd also add a bit of Dennou Coil 'Other Side entities' looks-wise… going also by the trailers, the way the fiends looks and move in SSY immediately reminded me of them.

    I went with the unlimited translation workers for this ;p, and some of the key terms are indeed different. I wonder who nailed the tl better. And how the CR version will fare.

  10. Oh, I have no doubt UTW did it better. But also a full day later, and time is an issue for me.

  11. e

    P.S.: I'm also really enjoying Saki's seiyuu performance. Very emotional ( the way her voice cracks as she stops Satorou's scary tales ) and a pleasant singing voice. Clear but not cutesy.

  12. A

    Alot darker then I thought the show would be. I was reminded of the book "The Giver".

  13. L

    One hell of an opening ep, that's for sure.

    Definitely with you on the whole Noein & Ghost Hound vibes this has got going for it, and I truly hope it's as good as those two. Would also add a bit of Dennou Coil (another great series, btw) to it, as elianthos stated above, and I stated in the comments section of your previews post.

    Also with you on the atmosphere. It was just oozing out of my monitor throughout the ep. Doubt the studio will be able to maintain this much quality throughout 20+ eps, which is unfortunate. Hoping it doesn't drop off too much.

    Wasn't expecting it to be this dark, though. I'm always a bit apprehensive of the whole "kids in dark settings" thing, cos if done badly it'll just end up like that bad comedy that was Another. Also a bit apprehensive of two cour series, since a lot of those tend to contain useless "filler" type eps. Let's hope that's not the case here.

    Need to watch this again, now that UTW has a release out. First sitting was with a raw and didn't quite get everything.

  14. A

    I unfortunately was not able to enjoy this premiere episode as much as you did.

    In the context of modern-day anime, it feels fresh. But that's only because most modern-day anime are so by-the-numbers that the bar for exceptional anime is set pretty low.

    In the context of dystopian stories, it feels like I've been here before. It feels like a mix of Lois Lowry's "The Giver" (with SSY's idea of a perfect society with dark and sinister secrets hidden from its younger generation and its idea of eliminating weak members of the community) and M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" (with SSY's use of a monster, or at least rumors of one, to scare people into conformity and obedience).

    I would have been fine with this had the pacing actually been good, but unfortunately the pacing was so bad that I had to pause the episode 3-4 times when I watched it yesterday, taking Internet browsing breaks in between. I usually have a strong attention span, but this show seriously bored me. I don't mind so much the unconventional, non-straightforward narrative, but I don't like the way it's currently being directed.

    The unremarkable designs of the main character are also a turn off for me.

    On the other hand, I agree with you that the show has a great sense of atmosphere, which is helped by its atmospheric soundtrack.

    I'm still going to give this the 3-episode treatment, but so far it's been off to a slow and somewhat disappointing start.

  15. A

    I got The Village vibes too with the cat to remove the less gifted in that Spartan sort of way.

    I hate it when people use the word "pacing" however, as if they know what they were talking about. It sounds to me that you ruined the pacing of the episode for yourself by taking all those breaks. If expository dialogue is what bores you, then I recommend you staying away from Sci-Fi in general because they usually dole those out in spades.

  16. s

    I'm not sure "pacing" is such an important issue for a first paragraph. Usually, one only talks about "pacing" in the context of a number of episodes or a series as a whole. I think you have bored yourself out by being too bothered by its similarity with other dystopian settings, which I think is a bit of a hasty judgement considering nothing much has been revealed.

  17. I also think that problems with the pacing could be a result of holding it up to a standard of what we expect in anime, nearly all of which these days are manga or LN adaptations. In other words, it's an issue of conditioning and expectations, not the episode itself.

  18. s

    Ah by "paragraph" I mean "episode" XD It's certainly true that the common perception of pacing is in line with that of manga and LN, which makes this series certainly refreshing (while Hyouka is also adapted from a novel, its stories are more like character-driven stand-alones, while Shinsekai Yori is one big single plot-driven story).

  19. x

    Wow, it surpassed my high expectations. A very mental Mystery Supernatural Sci-Fi, tight packed with a lot of information.

    It's easy to relate to the children because you also feel like one of them in this strange world. You, as a viewer, are taught to respect the boundary rope and to fear what's beyond it through a tale. Which is probably the most ancient way to teach children some rules.

    Humanity appears to be in decline. They don't seem to have much control over their own fates. If you are not talented with those powers, you are bound to disappear/be removed? What the hell, what kind of future is that? Are humans being harvested by something as Saki felt? They even call their first surge of power a "blessing". Not knowing why the rules are like this makes it far worse, what pushed humanity to this state? Where are the electronic devices? Are they really subsisting over farm products only? What is this village disconnected from? That far future world is truly frightening.

    Saki got her power sealed because she was fascinated by it. That would make her last "worldly desire" her power itself. Then, it is not that everyone go through the same ritual and have their power sealed. They only burn their "worldly desire", whatever it may be, by visualizing it into the paper through their power.
    So, Saki was an odd case. The priest said they would need to give her power back again with a new blessing, that's why she can use them again. I don't know if this is why the extend of her abilities did not remain the same, she seemed to have a hard time using her power. I mean, maybe she does have a good measure of talent, but the new power she was given wasn't as good as the one she got by natural means.

    Saki's parents have gone through all this already. They know each other from very young age, and talked about the class activities as something everyone goes through. Maybe people don't move a lot anymore. They stay in the village and marry whoever they grew up with.

    Next, the Education Board her mother was talking about. It's independent, free from a Judge's authority. I'm suspecting they are the ones taking the kids away, and it's not something people can have a word on. What do they do with the kids that fail? Why is society ok about that?.

    And last question: What is it with 2012 and all these amazing titles?

    _______

    On Fansubs: I'm going with Commie on this one. Their encode isn't as good as UTW, but their edition (how well English reads) is a tier above UTW's.
    Also, I don't agree with how UTW is translating the terms (they are working with EveTaku staff on them). They choose "Cantus" to name their powers just because it sounds cool in English (from the word in'canta'tion, one of the literal meanings of 呪力). Actually, "Cantus" is a Latin word that means "Singing", so I don't see how that's a good TL to a term that means "incantation".
    Commie's TL actually read the novel, so I'm going to trust that guy on this series.

    Enzo, don't go Hadena on this series.

  20. e

    @Richard: actually cantUS in Latin is a noun and can mean both 'song' and 'incantation' – checked on my Latin highschool dictionary right now just to be sure. Gotta love the Italian liceo classico and its humanities courses – 'singing' would require a different suffix if anything (cantare [infinitive 'to sing' <—'singing' if you go the verb-used-as-noun way], or cantatus [past participle, 'sung']) .
    Etimology-wise is also quite appropriate imho in this series context and I'm really digging it. It's not like the power of song/words/sound (song being the union of both) having magical and reality-shaping qualities is a novel concept either in fiction or past and present RL cultures either.
    Here they just went the Classic Latin route, seeing also as incantation does contain the CANT bit both in spelling and actual origin. Quite clever really.

  21. L

    So, at the end of the day, whose subs would you end up recommending to the average viewer. By average, I mean someone who doesn't care how flowery the language is, but wants to understand the actual plot. From what I can tell, Commie are "Latinifying" or "Englishfying" some of the language. For example, they translate words like Nekodamashi, Hitogata and Minoshiro to "Faze's Cat", "Human-shaped Paper" and "White Slug", which, while somewhat accurate, I'd have prefer they left untranslated, partly because it flows better untranslated, and partly due to the symbolism.

    Maybe it's because I actually speak reasonable Japanese that I find it uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, I actually preferred my first sitting with the raw. Only reason I downloaded a sub was for the Shinto and Buddhist stuff which I'm not that good at, and for the signs and plaques since I've forgotten most of my written stuff.

    The other reason is rhythm, or lack thereof (I talked about flow above). The rhythmic/modal value of the dialogue in Japanese kind of gets butchered when you read it back "out loud" in your head. Yes, I realize this can be the case with even the best translations out there, simply due to the differences in languages, but Commie's one was particularly bad on that front this time around. I know the translator is trying his/her best, but it almost seems like he/she is translating directly from the novel here, rather than the anime.

    How do UTW's subs work in that regard?

  22. Generally speaking, I prefer UTW's subs to Commie's. They tend to be more faithful and less interpretive.

  23. H

    Litho, I prefer UTW's to Commie's as well. Commie also has a tendency to put in colloquialisms that take me out of the setting (for instance, while I'm glad they picked up Hagure Yuusha, I really don't think Queen Listy is going to say the words "cruisin' for a bruisin'"). They do lots of good work, getting lots of shows out in a good time frame, but sometimes their style doesn't click with mine.

  24. If CR's latecast turns out to be an actual simulcast, it's going to be a moot point for me.

  25. C

    It's a Brave New World out there.

  26. H

    I enjoyed the show, and really wasn't left feeling confused about what was happening. I hope it doesn't turn too dark, but the initial episode was just about right. The CopyCat threat, as well as the demons outside the barrier, gave it an ominous but not oppressive feel.

    I'm excited to see where it goes from here.

  27. B

    When the first scene played out with the death scenes, I was bewildered. I didn't like how it blurred in and out of scenes. It felt too fast for me; however, when I rewatched the episode with my sister, I got a better picture what was going on. I had to rewatch the previews, and it helped a bit to understand. Damn… there was alot of s**t going on.
    Animation-wise: looked great. Not sure I'm feeling good about the seiyuu for Satoru. Sometimes, I could hear a female voice from that "boy."
    I'm guessing because one of the kids are missing, they're going to cross the line, in connection to what the farmer did, to search for the missing kid.

  28. J

    I'm just confused about the 1000 year time skip…it seems unlikely that those kids stayed the same age for 1000 years, but I wonder why they showed the time skip AFTER the brief introduction to the characters lol

  29. P

    The time skip occurs after the killings. I think time skip was announced later for better effect?

  30. N

    Very impressed by this episode. The way they went about detailing this new world was just fantastic. I loved all those literal cultural things they kept throwing at us throughout the episode, especially the Buddhist ritual.

    Though, I admit that I'm not all that versed in dystopian stories, so I'm probably finding it more impressive than it actually is.

  31. j

    I can see where Shinto might well be used for social control, but I have a harder time grasping the Buddhist angle. Am I missing something?

  32. A

    "visits a temple where the local Priest leads a fire ceremony to burn away her Earthly desires, including her “power of gravity”"

    There's no such thing has power of gravity on the script,you should watch another sub instead of Hadena.

    and

    "and later, she has what seems to be a powerful telekinetic episode in the middle of the night, and her parents inform her that the “Spirit of Adulthood” had visited her."

    It wasn´t later, but before the ceremony. This episode direction was very similar to LOST, showing Saki present and past, like the conversation of her parents, I am prety sure that was also in the past before the awakening of her powers.

  33. A

    I don't think this is anything like LOST. The episode flows toward a specific topic, in which they flashback to an older conversation (Lord knows SAO should have done SOMETHING remotely like this instead of the boring straight progression, but I digress…)
    The show flows better with a second viewing and/or better subs that's not Hadena.

  34. And indeed, a second viewing (with UTW) did reveal some interesting nuance.

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