Damn it, how does SSY keep making me think the episodes are 5 minutes old when the end credits run? Stop rooting around in my head, damn you! It’s a curious effect that I’ve never felt this strongly or with this much consistency with any other series, and I can’t completely explain it away merely by how engaging and well-paced each episode is. Every time that children’s chorus with the rock guitar backdrop kicks in, the rest of the world falls away and I’m completely hooked in for the rest of the episode, so maybe there’s something hypnotic to that tune.
As good as this series is, I think it gets even better when you reflect on just how beautifully conceived and plotted it is (and full credit goes to the novelist here). Starting with the way the truth about the human population was revealed – the “false minashiro” acting as the most brilliant expository device of the season – we’ve seen its words played out with brilliance and subtlety. First came the sex – the “bonobo gene” – then the violence, and finally the death feedback loop. Seeing the kids interact with the Queerats I’m reminded of a group of children looking at tigers captive at a zoo. The adults tell them what frightening beasts the tigers are, how vicious and bloodthirsty – and yet, how many billions of people are there, and how few thousands of tigers (and what was the cause)? SSY has done a great job of confusing the issue of who the bad guys are (right up through the episode this week) and it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t a lone rogue PK that started the chain of violence that led to the downfall of civilization, but a wave of violence from all of them. Are these children being protected from the world, or the world from them?
Before I get into the meat of the episode, I want to sing the praises of Hiroaki Hirata, who plays Kiromaru in this episode. Hirata-san is one of my absolute favorites when playing to type, with Mutta and Kotetsu being examples of his recent brilliance. But I confess I never guessed this was him, and his gravitas and presence here was quite remarkable – I respect the man even more knowing he can stretch in such spectacular fashion. Kiromaru joins the cast as the General of the Hornet Clan, the largest tribe of Queerats in Kanto with 20,000 members, and the most loyal to the humans. They ride to the rescue at the Robber Fly’s distress call, and make relatively short work of the Ground Spiders’ forces. But that’s really where the episode is just starting.
As always, the question of good and evil is a very vague one with this series. Kiromaru unquestionably saves the lives of Saki, Satoru and Squealer – but his prize is the enslavement of the Ground Spiders’ larvae, who will be condemned to the miserable existence that Squealer feared would happen to tribe at the hands of the Ground Spiders. And then there’s the matter of the children’s lives. This time it’s Satoru who cleverly fits the pieces together. Children disappear every year, and it’s now obvious that breaking the commandments of society is unacceptable. If humans can’t kill other humans, then who might be doing the children in, assuming such things happen? Why, the Queerats of course – and as the head of the largest and most loyal tribe, Kiromaru would surely be in contact with the elders at the village. So he convinces the reluctant Saki that this is the case and escapes, with Squealer covertly following close behind. Satoru and Saki meet up with the others after Squealer helps them get to their canoes, but Kiromaru catches them easily – fortunately for them, either from gratitude for their role in defeating the Spiders (and saving his life when the defeated Spider general tries to be a suicide bomber using blowdogs) or simple compassion, he seems to defy his orders and helps the kids, rather than kill them.
The sense of moral ambiguity attaches itself to Squealer, too – and to Shun as well, in my opinion. Squealer seems loyal and obsequious, but he also sells the children out to the Ground Spiders after he’s captured – an act he attributes to simple cowardice, but I’m not so sure. He’s just too omnipresent and too deferential these last few eps – something doesn’t smell right to me. As for Shun, he still strikes me as a little too perfect – like the way he remembers his own mantra through sheer force of will (though not how to return his cantus – Saki’s re-enactment of the monks’ spell is needed for that). Perhaps he’s just cleverer than the rest of them and as decent as he seems to be – but my mind keeps returning to the cautionary tale he told of the boy who was too clever for his own good…
I’ve said it before, but what makes Shin Sekai Yori a rare show for me is the fact that it’s able to connect on both an intellectual and emotional level on equal (and substantial) terms, something very few series – even those I really like – manage to do. While consistently giving us really natural and interesting character dynamics (I loved the way Saki and Satoru returned to their old bickering this week, but it had just a tinge of an old married couple affectionately jabbing at each other this time) it also manages to spin a complex plot, and ask a lot of extremely interesting questions. Two cour shows by good studios adapted from novels – it’s a winning formula, and one I wish we saw enacted a lot more often.