I have to comment again about the pacing with this series, though it seems like I do so every week. This wasn’t a perfect episode by any means, but it once again demonstrates that marvelous and infuriating ability of SSY to make 22 minutes feel like 22 seconds. I could hardly believe the episode ended when it did, and it’s going to be torture to wait a week to see what happens next. Though it isn’t hard to guess that it will be pretty awful for the humans left alive, and you don’t even need the preview to tell you that. As well, the cinematography continues to be really superb – this is not a lavishly budgeted series, but it is lavishly creative and filled with beautiful and terrible imagery and clever animation.
As for episode 20 itself, for me it was very strong at the beginning and the end (the last five minutes were really spectacular) but the middle section left less of an impression on me than this series usually does. I’m getting a bit frustrated that just when we should be seeing the most development in the relationship between Saki and Satoru, there seems to be less intimacy between them than ever. I’ve seen enough comments by novel readers (avoiding them is like trying not to see the score of the Super Bowl you recorded) to know that there seems to have been a conscious decision to tone down the feelings between Saki and Satoru in favor of Saki and Maria, and I confess I find it a bit puzzling. Satoru is alive and present, Maria is certainly not one and probably neither of those things.
Why is this an issue? We’ve seen Saki and Satoru go through hell together as 12 year-old innocents and 14 year-old nascent young adults, and both those arcs showed a level of emotional – never mind physical – intimacy between them that’s oddly absent here. As I said a couple weeks ago that their scenes together seemed oddly sterile – a rare failing for this marvelous series in my view, but an important one. Just as things are ramping up to a dramatic crescendo so they should be with Satoru and Saki – the only two people in the world who could possibly understand what the other is feeling. Even if it isn’t a romantic love things between them should be deeper and more intimate than they are, and that they aren’t robs their scenes together of some of the intensity they should have.
I confess I’m also a bit puzzled by the complete lack of concern for Mamoru. Admittedly he was always the odd boy out in the group, a fifth wheel – but there always seemed to be a strong level of caring among everyone in the group for each other. When Saki commented that “That’s not to say I forgive them for what they did for Maria… I can’t believe Maria is dead. And then there’s our other friend – the boy without a face.” it broke my heart – especially when Satoru had nothing to offer but agreement. If Shun is the boy without a face, I guess Mamoru is the boy without a past – because it appears that it doesn’t take meddling from the Board of Education to make Saki and Satoru forget about a lost friend. Is Mamoru so trivial to the plot that he’s simply being ignored, and so trivial to Satoru and Saki that they can’t spare a word for him? Whether this is the same in the novel I can’t say but again, this is a flaw for me – it makes Satoru and Saki seem somewhat cold and uncharacteristically heartless to abandon a friend this way, even in their memories. I admire Saki’s desire not to die without remembering Shun’s name, and it even has a touch of poignant poetry to it – but how sad for Mamoru to have disappeared from existence through nothing greater than indifference. It paints Maria in a much better light, knowing she was willing to leave her true love and her home behind to support him, simply because it was the right thing to do.
OK, enough ranting – because there was an awful lot I loved here, and most of it was a lot of awful. Goodness, things are bleak – Saki, Satoru and the surviving humans are truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis here with the Queerats on one side and a fiend on the other. Saki says that they humans “perhaps” underestimated the danger from the Queerats – and this may be the greatest understatement of the anime year so far. Yakomaru seems to have thought of everything – not only has he somehow tamed a fiend, but he’s been breeding mutants to use as weapon too – including something like a giant leech that can exhale gunpowder and then flame to cause an explosion. This was used to wipe out much of the village, which drained the canals to cut off the leeches – which in turn deprives the villagers of their main method of transport. Yakomaru is one step ahead of the humans at every turn, and the irony in his using mutants as weapons against them is surely not coincidental. It’s obvious that he’s been planning this war for many years – surely since his first encounter with the “young Gods”, and perhaps even longer.
After escaping the pursuing fiend with some mirror trickery and then barely surviving the explosion from the mutant leech (Satoru’s whereabouts and condition are unknown) Saki ends up back at the village. Along the way she meets a young survivor, a boy who to my eyes looks eerily like Shun, though I suspect this is a character design issue and not a plot point. There she finds a scene which is eerily reminiscent of the grainy black-and-white footage of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb – all buildings leveled and smoldering, victims burned down to their shadows, the wailing and pleading of the dying for water. It’s truly terrible and gut-wrenching, and all the credit to Shin Sekai Yori for earning the emotion these scenes elicit from the audience – this is not clumsy shock horror, but real existential dismay after we’ve reached this point in such a compelling and believable way. Even Tomiko seems to have finally reached the end of the line, with serious wounds her cantus magic can’t heal and the fiend on the way to the village, seemingly to finish the job of extermination. She chooses this moment to pass the baton of leadership to Saki (thanks a lot) and sends her off to the temple, where Shisei and the remnants of leadership are regrouping, and awaits her fate.
There doesn’t seem to be much reason for hope here, though to be honest there never really has been much reason. Shisei still lives, but there’s every reason to think Yakomaru has a contingency plan for this, too, since he has for everything else – and really, even Shisei would seem to be helpless against a fiend to begin with. As if that weren’t enough, there are hints in the preview that we have a karma demon to worry about in addition to a fiend – and even that it might be Satoru himself. If Saki weren’t narrating the story I’d be skeptical that any of the humans survived, though what sort of world she’s living in is another matter. Largely forgotten but possibly significant is that Kiroumaru still lives, and surely thirsts for revenge against Yakomaru – perhaps he’ll have some role to play in this tragedy before it’s played itself out.