Only a show I love as much as this one is capable of making me rage so much about its flaws, but that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t real. This ep did so many things right – the pacing (as always), the choreography, the music (that remixed children’s chorus number at the end – spine-tingling). I’ve rarely seen a show that could impress so much with presentation with so little budget (obviously) to work with. I sense the “labor of love” quality to Shin Sekai Yori in the same way I did with series like Seirei no Moribito and Tsuritama (though they obviously had more money, in Moribito’s case a lot more) – it’s very clear that the people behind SSY care very deeply about delivering a quality product because they believe in the material.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t missteps, though, and because the standard is so high they really stand out for me. Let’s start with an obvious and easy one – the ED. It was a mistake to change from the brilliant “Wareta Ringo” to the thoroughly mediocre “Yuki ni Saku Hana” in the first place, and one than has the stink of crass commercialism to it. In addition to the huge dropoff in the quality of the song itself, while “Wareta Ringo” was as thematically perfect for a series as an ED could be, this one has felt misplaced and disjointed from the start. But now, as we’re getting to the agonizing final moments of the story, that ED popping up is practically a travesty – it diminishes everything that’s come before it.
That’s a straightforward issue, easy to fix (just drop the ED for the final eps) and not a deal-breaker by any means. There are two other, subtler yet more troubling issues bothering me though. The first, as discussed, is the oddly sterile relationship between Satoru and Saki. It should have been the payoff for 20 episodes of buildup, but as adults their relationship is bland and lifeless. The tragedy is that pairing off Saki and Inui in this episode really plays up just how off things are with Satoru, because she and Inui are much warmer to each other and their relationship has much more emotional depth despite the fact that they have no history to speak of. It almost feels – and I admit I’m completely guessing here – as if the anime writing staff was afraid to show any emotional bond with Satoru because it would diminish the implied links with Shun and (especially) Maria.
The other problem is one I’ve mentioned briefly, but it’s been growing and really hit home this week, and that’s with Saki’s characterization itself. For whatever reason she seems to have more and more been slipping into a damsel-in-distress role, and this road trip with the boys and the beast has really highlighted that. It’s not as though Saki’s reactions aren’t “normal” for anyone enduring what she’s enduring. But Saki isn’t supposed to be normal, for starters – she’s the exceptional figure Tomiko-san picked to succeed her. And it’s troubling that Saki is repeatedly shown to be so much more traumatized and frankly useless in a pinch than pretty much every male companion she’s had of late – Satoru, Inui, Nimi-san. Saki was always more “normal” than some of her more exceptional colleagues in the sense that she has understandable reactions of fear, sadness, and anger, and what was exceptional was her ability to keep her sanity and soldier on – and to be fair, Tomiko did point that out. But it feels as if things have gone too far lately, and she really performs no useful purpose (so far) on this latest expedition apart from someone needing rescue.
I honestly worry about sounding too negative here, because even with issues like these, SSY remains my favorite show of the Fall season and a dead-lock cinch to be in my 2013 Top 5 list. And it remains totally riveting, viscerally thrilling with an exquisitely crafted plot that’s screaming towards a finale in splendid fashion. I thought the first line of the episode – via Saki’s narration – was an exceptionally interesting one: “The people living in Japan consider Tokyo to be a hell on Earth.” Aside from the amusing subtext, it’s the word living that interests me – is this a sly foreshadowing that the ending of SSY is something other than a total victory for Yakomaru’s plan? It also illustrates that Saki in the “present” is clearly remembering more and more of her time with Shun, as she speculates that it might be cantus leakage causing the bizarre mutations beneath Tokyo. In addition to cockroaches (sly humor here – they haven’t changed at all) we meet more huge slugs, truly terrifying “shadow mites” that consume the innards of their victims as they hunt in a giant cloud, and a giant worm with a surprisingly human face (many of the creatures of SSY have suspiciously human faces).
All of this is encountered on the way to find the psychobuster, which is apparently hidden somewhere near Exit 19A of Roppongi Station (for the record, the real one has no Exit 19A). Shun is making his presence more and more of a factor, intruding on Saki’s thoughts, and he basically confirms what we’d more or less guessed – that the “fiend” is no fiend. We’re also getting more and more evidence that Kiromaru is in fact double-crossing the humans (a heartbreaking development, if true) – Inui offers as evidence the fact that he seems to know far too much of what to expect in Tokyo, and has been less than forthcoming about his reasons for being there before (and being willing to sacrifice 1/3 of his army). That being the case, it disturbs me that Inui would be so willing to follow Kiromaru’s suggestion that the party split up when they reach a dead-end and need the submarine to continue, and to let Satoru go off alone with a queerat he’s convinced is a traitor. I also find it puzzling that when Saki finally locates the psychobuster in the safe of what looks like the station manager’s office (thanks to Inui-san apparently sacrificing himself rather ignominiously) , along with a note – she apparently never reads the note. Maybe this is a narrative trick and we’ll discover the contents next week, but if not – that seems like a seriously odd thing to do. As for the buster itself, it appears to be white powder inside what looks like a Rosary or similar – confirming the likelihood that it’s some sort of super-anthrax designed as a last, desperate countermeasure against PKs.
Whatever issues I have with characterization (and that ED) in terms of plot, this is setting up as a truly compelling finish. Despite the evidence of the last moments of this episode I don’t believe Shun is truly alive, but rather that he exists more in the manner he describes, as a kind of fragment of Cantus in Saki’s heart (a rather beautiful and symbolic notion) and that by finally remembering his name, she’s projected an image of him as a physical manifestation of what she imagines he’d look like if he’d been allowed to grow up. If indeed Kiromaru is part of Yakomaru’s master plan (and what a plan, if so, implying that Kiromaru’s entire colony was willing to sacrifice itself to defeat the humans – a kind of ultimate terrorist mentality), he’s been angling to get the psychobuster all along. Why? Either because he believes queerats are immune to it and he can use it to finish the job of exterminating humans, or because he wants to use it as his method of disposing of his own pseudo-fiends when he’s done with them. Perhaps most interestingly, I strongly sense that Saki is going to resist the notion of killing Squealer’s “fiend”, but rather to try and “turn” him – and what a weapon against the Queerats he’d make. I don’t know if this is possible or practical, but in principle I think she’s absolutely right to want to try – he’s just a little boy who’s been groomed from birth as a weapon, not a fiend at all. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony of Shin Sekai Yori – that while humanity may have lost it’s humanity by way of its willingness to pre-emptively murder its own children, it might be redeemed by Saki’s willingness to risk it’s survival by saving one innocent boy. And one who’s already committed the acts whose prevention was used as justification for the murder of those other children.