This has been a pretty dark couple of days in anime, what with the most recent episodes of Psycho-Pass and Robotics;Notes. But for my money there’s no series that can unsettle, disturb and terrify like Shin Sekai Yori. The sense of unease has been strong right from the start, even when the heroes were cute children and the setting was more or less idyllic – the disconnect between that and the mood of the series was striking. Now we’re pretty much in full-on fright and despair mode, and when you’re dealing with characters you really care about that’s not a very fun mode to be in.
There’s no question that the abandoned hospital is a horror cliché, and this ep embraced it fully – heck we even had Dr. Noguchi say “Run – he’ll be back!” without telling us who “he” was. But horror clichés (strange lights in dark windows, slowly turning door handles) are usually horror clichés for a reason – they’re scary. And given the realities of the world SSY has created, that’s all the more so here – and all of that was mined for non-stop suspense and horror, start to finish. This was one of the most white-knuckle, keep-the-lights-on anime episodes I’ve seen in a long time. Things started out bad – Saki and Satoru joining the survivors of another group that had lost three members for a late-night patrol to the hospital outside the village – and just got worse from there. The fact that there were queerats waiting in ambush was only the tip of the iceberg – there was far worse waiting inside the remains of that building.
It strikes me more than ever that all of the horrors that have befallen the remnants of civilization are of their own making – starting with the very existence of the queerats themselves as a slave race, the PKs have been hoist by their own petard. Of course we don’t know what exactly it was that ravaged the hospital (no help from the survivors, who never managed to get much past “he”) , but the most likely scenario certainly seems to be a fiend. And not just a fiend, but a fiend in league with Yaromaru and the Robber Fly colony – again speculation, but it answers a lot of questions if it’s true. Given what we know of fiends it doesn’t make sense to imagine them as forming alliances with anyone, queerat or otherwise – but it certainly seems possible that this fiend might have been the child of Maria and Mamoru. If that’s the case, it’s once again down to the PKs sowing their own destruction – if they hadn’t targeted Mamoru for pre-emptive elimination it’s likely neither he or Maria would have fled the village and fallen into Yaromaru’s hands.
What we see of the surviving humans in this episode doesn’t do much to make the case that they deserve to survive, either. They’re either arrogant idiots who refuse to believe the queerats are a real threat despite the evidence of dead loved ones all around them, or cowards so terrified at the prospect of facing an enemy that they’re willing to let their colleagues face the danger alone. The picture painted in the village since the news of the potential queerat war broke out isn’t much better – only Tomiko and Shisei seem to have any real sense, and they’re the primary stewards of the policy that led to this moment in the first place. Of course, Saki and Satoru are another matter – Satoru especially has proved himself to be an exceptionally thoughtful and practical young man when dealing with the unexpected and deadly. That just makes seeing the two of them in the situation they’re currently facing all the more heartbreaking.
The horror of what happened in the hospital pretty much speaks for itself – the implications not so much. Clever queerats under cunning leadership bent on the destruction of mankind is bad enough, but it doesn’t hold a candle to facing a fiend. I’m not taking anything as a given, though it seems almost impossible to believe what we’re seeing (including in the preview) isn’t the work of a fiend. A fiend aligned with (or enslaved by) Yaromaru explains his willingness to go to war with the O-Suzumebachi, the betrayal by the Spider Wasps, and his confidence in attacking “Gods”. But fiends don’t seem rational in the slightest – how exactly do you go about training one to be in your service? If Mamoru and Maria had a baby 9 months after they left Satoru and Saki behind, it’s possible that he’d jut be hitting puberty now if he were very precocious – and puberty seems to be a prerequisite for cantus, never mind fiend-ism. But how could Yaromaru have known he’d turn into a fiend – and how did he “tame” him? And why would a fiend keep survivors alive, cocooned in bandages like a fly in spider silk? There are too many things here that don’t add up – there’s at least one major piece still missing from this puzzle, maybe more (perhaps connected with the way the Robber Fly lobotomized and used their queens – though the implications of that are too horrible for me to consider yet, even with this series).
It’s remarkable that Shin Sekai Yori hasn’t become a chore to watch, given just how despairing it is. The tone is no surprise of course, as this course has been charted since the earliest days – but I’m not feeling the fatigue I get with, say, some of Urobuchi Gen’s especially bleak work. Maybe it’s because despite the fantastical premise so much of SSY feels unmistakably human – the lives of the five (now down to two) protagonists are so relatable and their relationships so realistic. No matter how far humanity has descended into the moral sinkhole, humanity survives in people like these kids – and maybe that’s why, despite my intellectual revulsion at what their society has done, I find myself rooting for the humans in their war with the queerats. I’m sure species chauvinism has something to do with it too. In a way, SSY reminds me a bit of Shiki – a show that I referred to as a tragedy rather than a mystery, because it gave the feeling of watching events play out inexorably towards a bleak and depressing end that was unavoidable. Like Shiki this is a series that takes a dim view of humankind, but unlike that show this one has an elegance and subtlety in the way it weaves you into it’s sad and terrible world – an iron fist, yes, but in a velvet glove. Watching it is not a happy experience, but it is an unforgettable one.