With a series as great as Shin Sekai Yori, endings are very, very hard. This was not something I was looking forward to, and that’s an understatement. In the first place the best series of the last two seasons is coming to a close, which is never a prospect to bring happiness. Then there was the obvious worry that – like so many fine shows before – it would struggle to craft an ending worthy of the rest of the series. Finally, this has been such a ruthlessly powerful story that there was every chance the ending would leave me shattered, even if it was a worthy one.
The funny thing is, my initial reaction to the episode was mild disappointment. I really felt I should wait a while before I even tried to put my thoughts down on paper, because I was having a hard time making sense of my emotional reaction. But over time, as I’ve thought about the ending and re-watched it, I’ve come to see it as something quite profound and in-keeping with the message of the series as a whole (mostly). I still have some issues with it, and there are still things from earlier episodes that I can’t square with what happened in this one. But in a landscape littered with the rotting carcasses of failed endings, this was a finale that will rank among the best of the year, for a series that will do the same.
Let’s start with something good, and there’s an awful lot of it. SSY observed the single-most important lesson that mediocre and worse endings for otherwise strong multi-cour shows teach us – you need to finish with a coda. Racing headlong to the finish with action just simply doesn’t work. It’s essential to have the climax of the main storyline come well before the actual end, because it’s the act of watching the characters come to terms with everything that’s happened that’s cathartic for the audience. In wrapping up the akki crisis in the first few moments of the episode, Shin Sekai Yori did just that. It might be argued that Kiromaru got short shrift or that the lack of an explosive final confrontation was an anti-climax, but I don’t see it that way. If what happened at the three-minute mark of this episode had happened at the twenty-minute mark, the episode would have been wholly unsatisfying.
Of course, SSY is adapted from a novel and as I’ve stated many times it, more than any series of recent memory, has been exquisitely paced. There was always a sense that we were watching historical events play out through an act of memory, never too fast and never too slow. So it’s hard to know just how much credit A-1 and the director and writer should get, and how much should go to novelist Kishi Yuusuke. But at the very least it’s no easy task to take a novel with perfect pacing and not screw it up by trying to make it more suitable for anime. No, if there’s anything that bothers me about the conclusion of the fiend storyline (apart from the fact that A-1 apparently did make the minor change of having Maria and Mamoru’s child be a girl, presumably for no other reason than to further fetishize Maria, which makes the fiend theory somewhat less plausible) it’s that killing the akki seems to invalidate all the soul-searching Saki has done over the last few episodes. Was there no meaning to Saki’s realization that the child was no fiend but merely someone who – in Saki’s own words – had “done nothing wrong” apart from a strategic one in figuring out how to kill it? And to further highlight the sense of tragedy? In the end, the akki that wasn’t is just another innocent who died for the sake of preserving what was left of civilization.
Indeed, there are a couple of elements that puzzle me in this fashion. I don’t really understand the quite obvious distance that was placed between Saki and Satoru after the final timeskip, given the fact that they ended up together in the end anyway. This is very odd, frankly, because what we got was a situation where there was obviously a deep personal bond and trust (even if it wasn’t romantic love) between the two of them at 12, at 14 and at the very end – and an inexplicable hole in the middle where they acted like strangers to each other. It’s also odd that Mamoru effectively disappeared from the timeline for a long stretch, never even being mentioned when talk turned to “the friend who died” and “Maria’s child” only to be remembered at the very end. The common thread here is Maria and an attempt to make her into a kind of spiritual focus of the series, especially when the change in ED is factored in. In the larger scheme of things it’s a fairly small issue, but it does represent the closest thing to a stumble over the course of 25 mostly brilliant episodes, and it’s probably coincidental neither that these are the most important changes from the novel, or that the character in question is the biggest name in the seiyuu cast.
In terms of Mamoru’s child and her death, I think perhaps the fault is with me – because I’m probably trying to project a redemptive quality to Shin Sekai Yori that it has no intention of shouldering. The meaning of this series isn’t in finding answers, it’s that there are no good answers. The sins that lie at the feet of the remains of civilization are grave and SSY has made no attempt to gloss over that fact. They’ve done terrible things to survive, most obviously the pre-emptive murder of countless of their own children. I don’t think Kishi-sensei is interested in absolving anyone of the responsibility of their crimes, only in showing us that decency does try to struggle on even in the darkest of times. The revelation that the Queerats are in fact humans doesn’t fundamentally change anything, in part because it’s something many of us have suspected all along. But it’s also just more fuel to the fire, not the flame that started it – further evidence that the remains of human society have committed more than enough crimes to make them undeserving of survival.
In thinking of this from the perspective of Satoru and Saki, it’s easy to say that their crimes are mitigated by the fact that they didn’t realize that in killing Queerats, they were killing humans. But when one stops to think about it, they certainly did realize that they were killing intelligent creatures with self-awareness, fully capable of reason, compassion and seemingly the full range of emotions they themselves were capable of. In this sense Squealer is exactly correct – the Queerats were treated as worse than slaves. Their very existence depended on the whim of their overlords, who often wiped out entire colonies over perceived transgressions. What Saki and Satoru did seems like self-defense, certainly – but in the end, can one truly blame Squealer for trying to seize the opportunity to turn the tables on the humans with the “wicked power”? As seemed likely all along, it’s not so much a question over which side was in the right as of everyone’s hands being stained with blood.
What does one make of the ending itself, then? I suppose “hopeful” is a word that might fit, in the sense that as long as there are those that wish to make things better, the hope exists that they might succeed. “Do you think we’ll be able to change?” Saki asks her husband. “We have to.” Satoru replies. But as adorable as it is to see him playing with tainted kittens (so damn cute – kittens with heels!) and as inspiring as it to see them sharing a dream that their unborn child might face a better world, those are just words. And the words on the paper – “Colonies Spared” – are the sinister proof that many more colonies weren’t spared. In looking for happy endings, we’ll have to take solace in small scraps of decency – a promise kept to Kiromaru, probably the noblest character in the cast, and ultimately in Saki’s act of mercy towards Squealer. I suspected that it might be coming, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entirely right and proper that it happened. It’s a tiny, bleak gesture against a tidal wave of cruelty and an ocean of atrocities by both sides – but it’s a start.
I’m very glad the series chose to end the way it did, by recalling the faces and voices of those that came before, and reminding us of everything that had been lost. I’m glad to that all this happened to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”, because – apart from being an indescribably beautiful piece of music – it perfectly frames the mood of sadness and loss spiked with just the hint of hope that defines those images. I especially admire the choice to end the series with the images of the empty hallways where the children who became the tragic figures of the series once laughed and played, with the faint echoes of that laughter lingering like ghosts in the air. “The power of imagination is what changes everything” seems like a fitting epitaph for the children who died, a cautionary note about the nature of the human animal, and a wistful dream of a better future all rolled into one – and as such, could hardly be a better message on which to end.
If Shin Sekai Yori ends up being my pick as the best series of 2013 it certainly won’t surprise me – it wouldn’t have been last year, but there are years where it would. You know why I love this series, because I’ve been telling you for six months – but it bears repeating that it’s a wonderful work of art that stands as proof that commercial succes is the worst measure by which to judge art. With certain series – Tsuritama and Seirei no Moribito come to mind – a clear love of the work practically leaps off the screen, and SSY is such a series. The care and craft which went into this series is obvious in every episode, from the animators to the seiyuu to the artists who contributed the music.
I must say one more time that it really stands out just how much this series was able to do without a particularly large budget. I’m put in minds of scenes such as the aforementioned final montage, or the beautiful moment when Satoru confirms the terrible facts about the Queerats as he stands bathed in sunlight, while Saki stands in darkness. But it wasn’t just in the final episode – there are beautiful images in every episode, of strange and wonderful landscapes which were familiar yet alien, dark and terrible images that communicate the horror of events on screen with art rather than effects. In its way Shin Sekai Yori is like a great independent film, a testament to the work of director Ishihama Masashi and the various animation and art directors who made the series spectacular with the use of backgrounds, cinematography and pure imagination. The choice of Dvorak’s opus might seem obvious in hindsight but it was still genius, and Komori Shigeo’s background music – especially the haunting children’s chorale composition “Kage no Denshouka Daichibu” is some of the best and most in-context anime music in years. And Ozaki Chikara and Inaba Emi’s “Wareta Ringo” is justifiably praised as a truly great anime ending theme that’s likewise perfectly suited to the material.
A word or two should be said about the cast here, because it’s filled with standouts in large roles and small. Namikawa Dasikue’s work as Squealer is especially astonishing considering the other sorts of roles he plays, and Hirata Hiroaki – who pretty much always seems to strike brilliance these days – projects an awesome dignity and nobility as Kiromaru. It’s hard to find a foot being put wrong anywhere by this cast, including Kaji Yuuki as Satoru – I’m by no means his biggest fan, but this is far and away the best work of his career, in my view. And then of course there’s Taneda Risa, who alone among all the cast had to take their character through all three major time frames, portraying Saki from the age of 12 through to 26 in brilliant fashion.
As I look back on the past six months with Shin Sekai Yori, it’s almost hard to believe it’s over. I’ve spent a lot of time with this series – watching it, thinking about it, writing about it – and those sorts of shows leave a pretty big void in the consciousness when they’re gone. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the kind of series that makes me love anime – a glorious explosion of imagination that would never see the screen in any other way. It’s intelligent, perceptive, relentlessly challenging and unforgiving – quite simply, Shin Sekai Yori is art. It’s a truly wonderful series that reflects the talent and commitment of everyone involved, and a testament to the possibilities of this medium when risks are taken in support of works with true ambition.