Well, From the New World did it again – another of those 22-minute episodes that felt like it ended just as the opening credits would be finishing up in an average series. More than any recent series this one has impeccable pacing – there are no fits and starts with SSY. Every episode follows in logical progression from the one before, and advances the plot in a way that’s right in the sweet spot – not too rushed, not too patient. Once again I’m struck by the sense that we’re watching a story play out in a world that really exists, one that’s been handed down over the generations in its complete form and is being told to the audience around a campfire. The thematic importance of remembrance and storytelling in the series is no coincidence – it suits the mood perfectly.
Before I talk about the events of the episode, I want to call out what an amazing year Namikawa Daisuke has had. This ep marked the welcome return of Squealer (you can now address him as “Yakomaru”, thank you very much). Over the last year Daisuke-san has played Waver Velvet in F/Z, Hisoka in Hunter X Hunter, and Squealer in SSY among other parts. It would be hard to imagine three roles representing a wider range of requirements, but he’s pulled off all three brilliantly – and the latent menace in Squealer was really brought to the surface in this week’s episode. Squealer is a very difficult role, I think, and not just because of the sheer vocal manipulation required to voice a queerat – he’s also a very complicated character in terms of motivation. Not only does Daisuke have to get across both Yakomaru’s obsequiousness and his cunning, but he has to do so in the tortured grunt/squeal of a queerat – and he pulls it off. It’s pretty fabulous work.
In a funny way this episode reminded me of Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita – specifically of “The Faries’ Earth”. While the tonal approach was obviously very different, I don’t think the implied symbolism necessarily was. In both instances we’re talking about a post-industrial world where humanity has declined to a shadow of what it was, and another species of mysterious origin and nature has filled part of their old niche. And in both instances we’re seeing that “other” progress through cultural evolution at blinding speed (not as blinding in SSY, of course, but with the added wrinkle of accelerated physiological evolution as well). There’s the added twist that in both instances, the young humans interacting with the other species are revered as Gods – but in a manner that isn’t as straightforward as it might initially appear.
That’s what happens when really good writers let their imaginations take flight, I suppose – and thank goodness we have anime to make their ideas come alive on-screen. I can say that Satoru and Saki’s visit to the new and improved Robber Fly colony was both fascinating and chilling. As soon as Yakomaru uttered the word “concrete” I knew we were in for a dark ride. In the span of two short years the Robber Fly has grown to 18,000 members, and two broad alliances have formed in the local Queerat world – the Robber Fly and the O-Susume (giant hornet). And there have been massive changes in the Robber Fly social structure – the Queens of the allied colonies are now confined to a sort of maternity prison cell, and the affairs of state are decided in the concrete assembly building (heh) that towers over a maze of structures connected by underground tunnels. As for the Robber Fly’s own queen, she’s been lobotomized as a result – Squelaer says – of her megalomaniacal tyranny, and now exists as a vegetative baby factory.
What have the Robber Fly done here? Better buildings to keep the elements away. Democracy based on meritocracy instead of monarchy. That’s progress, surely – yet it’s a harrowing experience listening to Yakomaru justify the changes in their society. The most telling exchange is when Saki protests that the queerats can’t be judged by the standards of human ethics and Satoru – quite in the right of it – replies that “It’s how much they seem like humans that bothers me.” I can’t escape the thought that Maria and Maoru being turned loose among the queerats is really lighting the touch paper on a dangerous situation – but where are they? Squonk and his Goat Moth colony are one of the few unallied colonies left, and Squealer clearly sees this as an opportunity to use the “Kamisama” to force them under the Robber Fly banner – and indeed, he manipulates Satoru into destroying their exterior defenses. But Squonk tells the children that Mamoru and Maria have fled, “far away”, leaving only a letter behind to explain their absence.
This situation just continues to gather more and more of a sense of impending disaster to it. I don’t know where Squealer read about democracy – perhaps Satoru is right that they’ve captured a false minashiro – but Satoru’s suspicion that they plan to rise up against the Gods seems very realistic. I know Yakomaru would very, very much like to get his hands on Maria and Mamoru and try to extract as much as he could from them – their knowledge, and their power. We have a human society which preemptively murders its children and denies all human rights until the age of seventeen, and a rapidly expanding and evolving society of militaristic queerats – likely the descendants of the human muggles decimated by PKs.
There’s not much to feel good about in this world, but that’s what makes the fact that the kids we know are such sympathetic and believable figures so painful. Satoru has proved himself a reliable, practically clever and kind boy, and Saki asked no part of the great weight that’s been placed on her shoulders – yet this is the terrible world that they’re forced to inhabit. And Maria and Mamoru are either trying to survive alone in the harsh wilds are have already become tools of the queerats, a harsh fate either way, and they have no option to return home even if that were a good thing. Poor Shun has already paid the ultimate price – yet as an audience we’re forced to accept the possibility that what was done to him was the only possible course of action. Shin Sekai Yori is a harsh story both to its characters and to its audience – asking both to confront truths that it would be much less painful to ignore.