We’re presented constantly with shows that struggle with the mechanics of plot and character dynamics – the current schedule is littered with examples of good shows that can’t quite get the balance right. There’s too much mystery and not enough explanation, or too little depth to the characters, big ambition that isn’t matched with execution. Shin Sekai Yori is an example of a show that really nails it. I said once before (who knows, maybe more than once) that this was a series that gave the impression of a finished story about a real place that was being told to us, chapter by chapter. Some of that is the narration, but more than that it’s the remarkably consistent exposition and – for my money – peerless pacing. Within the episodes and in the series as a whole, SSY steams along at a steady and relentless pace that never wavers from the golden mean. It’s crystal clear that this show was beautifully outlined from the beginning, and it makes me wish (not for the first time) that anime would turn to novels for source material far more often than it does.
Lest we gloss over it, I think the series is still guilty of what I consider the one real misstep it’s made in 21 episodes – the oddly clinical nature of the relationship between Saki and Satoru when it should be at its most intense and desperate. The simple fact is, it’s not as though it got any better this week – rather, there was so much happening in this episode and it was so compelling that there just wasn’t much time to think about it. That saddens me a little but if that’s to be the way it is, dengana mangana. In the larger scheme it pales against the ledger sheet full of things Shin Sekai Yori is doing brilliantly, and many of them were on display in this ep.
Our much-anticipated battle of the century didn’t last long, as Shisei (as I certainly expected) proved no match for the fiend (I’m re-thinking calling him that, but I’ll get there shortly). There’s the matter of the death feedback certainly, which as Satoru (he’s just fine without a word of explanation, a trifle conveniently) explains effectively limits Shisei to non-lethal attacks. But more than that, I simply don’t believe his cantus would have proved any match for the little scamp, though I have no means of proving it. The nature of the death feedback, as I see it, is such that it isn’t simply a matter of a human dying if it kills another human – a human simply can’t do it in the first place. I’ve always leaned towards that possibility but the fact that no one in the village took out the fiend in a suicide run seems to be the final proof to me (that leads to some more interesting questions about the fiend, but that too I’ll get to shortly).
The fact is, it seems the humans have effectively disarmed themselves unilaterally under the assumption that no enemy would come along that would be able to turn that against them. Arrogance is a major theme here, and we certainly see it in the interrogation of the Queerat survivor by Satoru and Saki. They’re two of the brightest young minds among the humans, more experienced with queerats than just about anyone, but they’re guilty of the same ridiculous self-delusions that the security council was – all it takes is one human to wipe out every stinking queerat on the planet. They just don’t get it – they’re no longer playing the game they rigged in their own favor. Yakomaru changed the rules, and all those years of thinking that as long as they eliminated the enemy within everything would be fine have seemingly made the humans incapable of comprehending how to deal with a threat beyond their narrow world view.
There are no heroes here, really – not in the larger sense. The queerat being interrogated is right – the humans have treated another intelligent species (one they created themselves to boot) as a disposable slave, and that’s morally and ethically despicable. It’s no wonder that when Squealer showed up with a plan to change everything, he found willing listeners. The queerat sounded basically like a terrorist – an extremist driven to right legitimate wrongs with acts of barbarism. It’s a vicious cycle, and the humans are reaping what they’ve sown – an intelligent enemy with a secret weapon (not so secret now) and an army full of soldiers who have no qualms about dying to support the greater cause, even welcoming the chance. Does that really sound so different from the civilized world of modern humans?
There’s some irony, certainly, in the fact that it was the village’s decision to murder Mamoru (remember him?) that gave Yakomaru the key to his plan. As well, there’s irony in the fact that it was Kiroumaru’s act of mercy – giving the Robber Fly Colony a few of its infant spoils of war to rebuild themselves – that led to his own downfall (he turns up next week, apparently a chained prisoner of misguided and angry human survivors). As for the fiend, it’s obviously what most of us thought it would be – Maria and Mamoru’s (remember him?) child. Saki has an instant moment of recognition when she sees that fiery hair, but the face is as much Mamoru’s as Maria’s – and it cements the notion that those kind, lonely children likely met a grisly death at the hands of Squealer as soon as he could steal their baby. But the true nature of Squealer’s twisted genius only becomes clear when the escaping Satoru and Saki meet up with Inui-san at the temple. He reveals the most disturbing element of all we’ve heard – in the queerat tradition, Yakomaru is stealing the human infants as spoils of war. His intent, presumably, to create an army of PK child soldiers with which he can achieve his goal of wiping humans from the face of the Japanese archipelago – and maybe not stop there.
And that, finally, takes us to that “shortly”. The nature of the being that attacked the village – and indeed, of fiends themselves – is a fascinating one, and at the heart of the drama playing out in SSY right now. I’m not sure that Mamaoru and Maria’s child is, in fact, a fiend at all – is it not possible that simply raising a human child as a queerat, with a deep hatred of humans, might produce a being capable of doing what a fiend can do? I don’t know the answer, truthfully, but it would explain certain things. I don’t really understand how Yakomaru would be able to cultivate a fiend for starters, when it’s been exceedingly rare among the humans – and what makes him think he can make more of them with his prisoners. But what that wouldn’t explain is how a non-fiend would be able to avoid the death feedback simply by conditioning – I assumed it was a genetic flaw in fiends that managed to override their genetic engineering.
There are unanswered questions then, certainly, but SSY has done a remarkable job of giving us answers at a perfect pace, keeping us in the know while raising new questions at the same time. How many times have dramatic anime been undercut when the top boss’ master plan turns out to be lame? Yakomaru’s genius doesn’t just live up to the events of the plot, but it surpasses them – with each revelation a new element is revealed, like the layers of an onion. It’s a masterpiece of careful design, much like the series in which it appears – and A-1 is also demonstrating just how to make a visual masterpiece without throwing massive budget at it. Nimi-san’s death – a moment of true noble sacrifice amidst this morass of brutality – was nothing more than a pastiche of lovely shots of the landscape, with the “New World Symphony” playing in the background as Saki thought back on the memories that music triggered in her. Yet it was powerful for all that simplicity. A moment of terrible, beautiful sadness – and that’s the essence of why Shin Sekai Yori is a great series.