This is one messed up anime! But it’s a great kind of messed up!

The art of horror at its best is rarely what we imagine of the horror genre. The Promised Neverland almost never shows blood and guts. It almost never has grotesque things jumping out of the shadows. On the contrary, the majority of the horror in this show is generated from our unawareness of what’s actually happening. Oh and of course that one really important fact we learn along the way!

This interesting storyline and decent quality characters and some often bizarre artwork, when all put together, make this show highly memorable. In the horror genre, this is probably a top 10 show, at least top 20. If you can stomach it (ahaha), it’s worth watching!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 7

You might not think this, but the characters are not the driving force in this show. As a result, none of them are very developed. While I would usually complain about this, in this case it works for a couple of reasons.

One, it goes without saying that there’s nothing unique or individual about each character’s past. All of the primary human characters, including the house moms, were all brought up the same way, in the same places, taught the same things mostly, and all for the same purpose. Oh yeah, they’re all bred as food. At this rate, the individual differences we discover in each character are interesting, but unsurprisingly limited. Not that you can’t tell Emma from Norman from Ray from Isabella, but that there isn’t much background detail on any of them. Sure Emma is tenacious, Ray is crafty, Norman is smart, and Isabella is…whatever she is…but that’s about the extent of their individual development. It’s believable enough given their situation.

Second, not knowing much about each of the characters individually adds to the mystery of the story. We don’t know how “related” or “unrelated” the children are. We don’t know always know where their allegiances lie. We don’t know if Isabella intends for all of them to suffer the same fate. This is a big part of what makes this anime engaging, and oddly enough it depends on a lack of character development, while at the same time pulling us in to each character individually. It’s pretty clever.

One thing I like about the character designs is that they’re never just magically or conveniently able to do whatever they need to do at the moment. They’re limited at every turn. Whether by strength, stature, knowledge, available resources, etc., nothing ever works as well as planned. Norman is conveniently smart, but at least that’s consistent throughout the story. And he doesn’t just know stuff, he thinks about things and sees multiple possibilities. He’s not a walking encyclopedia. Ray is a great tactician, able to improvise on the fly and foresee pitfalls in plans, but his questionable allegiance makes him somewhat unreliable. Emma is great at executing those plans because she won’t give up, but she rarely gets through them unscathed. So even if the children are being chased by a wild demon, you can believe not only how they got to that point, but how they ultimately get away from it.

I’d say the characters are satisfying. They’re easy to recognize and remember, and they let the story do its work. It would be a shame if they’d all ended up on the dinner table.

Artwork

Rating: 8

Here’s where this series gets a little weird. Oh really, it wasn’t weird enough just having kids for the main course? 

You all know what I’m talking about. Weird faces. You know how I always hammer Clannad as the stereotype for weird faces? These faces are both similar and different to that stylistic oddity. They’re different because they don’t have the giant, luscious eyes that stare into your inner self and absorb your being. They’re similar in that their mouths start where their noses end. We’ve all seen it, and most of us have laughed at the memes.

In my experience, this style is meant to add a bit of unearthliness or surreality to an anime. Clannad of course has its whacky story. School Days is a warped version of a school romance story. Most of us remember Ikaros from Heaven’s Lost Property, and obviously her role is otherworldly. So we kind of know what to expect when we see a face like this. 

But The Promised Neverland’s art isn’t exactly like any of those. If I had to compare it to something well known, I’d choose Neon Genesis Evangelion. The characters’ eyes in that show are fairly normal, but their mouths feel out of place just like in The Promised Neverland. You might say “That was just a popular style back in the ‘90s.” And you wouldn’t be incorrect. But your next thought should be this: NGE definitely has an otherworldly element. Perhaps that’s the goal with these kinds of faces in general.

Regardless of the goal, I think even the producers of this show were a little shocked by the result during S1. And probably the reaction from the public. Because this was way better in S2. The faces were shaped the same, but the mouths didn’t feel so awkwardly close to the noses. I think this was intentionally changed. But under that supposition, it doesn’t say much for the initial decision to make the faces so strange. I imagine the goal was to give it that odd feeling visually, but if they did indeed backtrack from that design in S2, then they would obviously lose that effect. Well, maybe they thought it was worth it, sacrificing artistic style instead of churning out new meme material.

I don’t care one way or the other. Those weird faces have their artistic value. And I don’t particularly dislike the style. I think it looks weird, and I think it loses some of that anime beauty. But I also know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and doubtless some sizable group thinks the Clannad style is beautiful, so I can’t argue with it on that level. But either way, I don’t dislike it. Just this show was known for that initially, and for better or worse probably still will be remembered for that despite the adjustments in S2. 

Just a little too close for comfort. Noses and mouths should be good neighbors, but not that kind of neighbors.

The art gets a little fantasy-genre-typical in S2, losing some of the shadowy mystery of the aged, close spaces and forested undergrowth of S1’s environment. But that’s expected. It’s handled well enough when the main characters aren’t in population centers. I liked how the forest immediately outside their farm was full of mythical creatures. The creatures all looked marine, making the forest seem more like an ocean than a wooded surface environment. I liked that because it made it feel that much more foreign. The children had seen forests before, but not one like this.

Lighting is everything in horror media. The artists pulled off a tough combination for this story. You recognize pretty early on in the story that something is very wrong here, but what you don’t realize is that the artwork has already been telling you that. And it continues to tell you that once you recognize what’s happening. The artists mix idyllic, pastoral scenes with heavily shadowed still shots. The light sources are carefully placed, at times behind the individual, casting shadow on them as they face us, or off to the side, leaving large portions of the characters in light and the rest in darkness, or the iconic frontal lighting. It’s very well done, and supports the tenor of the story exceptionally. Some of this goes away in S2, as much of the need for these elements is lost now that we know the situation. But overall, it’s quite effective.

I love the choice of clothing in this show. I don’t speak much about clothing in anime, as it usually is made just to fit the character or the setting, etc. Also, I realize clothing is usually determined by the original author of the tale, often manga or light novels, so the anime itself usually has little say in the matter of clothing. And while that is the case here, I have to applaud the manga author. Similar to how the lighting portrays two very different feels that combine to add to the element of horror, so the children’s white clothes tell us two very different but eerily similar things.

Consider the idyllic side first. Their clothes are very clean; spotlessly white. They seem to take a great deal of care about their cleanliness. This speaks of purity and a peaceful family life in a caring environment. Mom cares so much about our cleanliness that we all wear white clothes, etc. etc. Now consider the flip side. Take one look at Emma staring through the bars at the gate and tell me you don’t think asylum! It reeks of forced internment and the complete disregard for individuality. The only way to make these two apparent incongruities in their clothing make sense is perfectly explained by the purpose the children serve. They’re raised as food. Of course we’d want them clean! Of course no one would care about their individuality! Of course they’re not free to go where they please!

It’s scary. And horror should be scary. It doesn’t have to be dark, evil looking things peering at you out of places they shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be dark rooms and basements and red eyes. Sometimes, it’s just the right choice of clothing. I must applaud Kaiu Shirai, the manga author, for his vision in this regard.

So the art does great work for the anime, even if it isn’t the center of everything in this show. It absolutely isn’t neglected. There’s lots of artistic elements to look out for. Like the mysteries themselves, these elements become more obvious over time and make perfect sense once discovered. You gotta love that kind of artistic care!

Story

Rating: 8

The best part about The Promised Neverland is how the story unfolds in S1. The idyllic setup leaves you wondering what on earth this story is about. I remember thinking this was going to be some new iteration of slice-of-life, taking place in an orphanage or something. But pretty quickly, something began to feel very wrong. Before episode 1 concludes, we see the truth of the matter. From there, we have several mysteries surrounding Ray’s loyalty, the technological matter of the tracking devices, Krone and Isabella’s motivations and movements, the wall and what lies outside it, and of course the children’s plots to escape and their preparations to that end.

This story relies a lot on us not knowing. Not knowing why they’re at the house. Not knowing why they’re raised as food. Not knowing why they’re incessantly taking tests. Not knowing who’s for them and who’s against them. Not knowing where the rope went, or who took it. Not knowing who or what these “demons” are, nor even particularly what they look like. Not knowing who William Minerva was. And above all, not knowing what’s outside the walls. This is a perfect method for the horror genre, and it’s executed very well in this anime.

Unfortunately, a lot of what made S1 great in this regard would inevitably be lost in S2. There wasn’t any way around this fact. The mystery of what’s outside the walls would be revealed. The full purpose of the farms would be discovered. It was inevitable that the escapees would encounter demons and learn about them, removing the horror element from them entirely. As much as I looked forward to S2, I knew that it couldn’t possibly imitate the successes of S1 for this reason. The mysteries were solved, or at least, we couldn’t avoid solving them. The fear of the unknown would pass from this series.

What is it?

So I had my doubts about a successful S2. And mostly I wasn’t wrong about this. The show changed feel a lot moving into S2. It became more suspense and adventure, and the children’s situation didn’t feel nearly as dire. The mysteries were explained away one after another as they children learned about the world they found themselves in.

But it wasn’t a disaster. This show could have spiraled out of control, having lost a lot of what made it work in S1. Instead, the authors created a decent storyline, getting the children from the forest to areas populated with demons and finally to their ultimate goals. Throughout all that, we met a little bit of mystery and definitely some moments where everything was really critical. So it worked okay.

I thought the William Minerva thing was a little weak. That was a big mystery that presented a good opportunity for S2, and it ended up being rather mundane and a little convenient. The Evil Blooded demon was a little too convenient also, but it served its purpose for the story well enough. Isabella’s switching sides to serve her interests was a little predictable, given the final events of S1, but it works out well for her. She’s a bit of a strange character in this show, and perhaps a good example of why trying to develop the characters too much in a story like this might be a mistake. You feel like there’s a lot more to her than we’re told, but it never amounts to much more than uncertainty where her loyalties lie.

One thing the writers utilized to give some undercurrent to the story in S2 was the element of competing species or races. We get enough of this in the real world already, regardless of what you think about all that, and I always promise to avoid real-world topics here. Plus lots of other sources will discuss it at great length, and I would only be adding to a growing list of examinations on that subject. So I’ll simply note that it’s there, and it’s important to the story, but is handled effectively without overwhelming the story.

So the story unfolds nicely even through S2, and everyone ends up happy and well off. It’s a quick wrap-up at the end, too quick perhaps, but we’re glad to see everyone well after all they’ve been through, regardless of whether it’s all a bit too convenient. We’re left wondering why humans are even living on the other side at all. I know they try to explain that, but it still left me unsure. Oh well, it all works out in the end, and it’s very engaging all along the way.

Overall: 8

Some of you maybe have read through this and are questioning why I keep categorizing this show as horror. Not everyone agrees on this. The lines between suspense, thriller, and horror are not always clearly drawn. This understandably leads to genre confusion in shows like The Promised Neverland.

Hence, over time, as people attempt to adequately distinguish one genre from another, “horror” has become synonymous with darkness, blood and guts, and heart-stopping moments of terror. Many a bespattered grease mark has been left on the ceiling from flying popcorn impacts during horror stories on TV. But I agree with those who believe the horror genre is broader than that, and also more specific. Think about this show. Maybe it doesn’t scare us exactly, but it does give us a chill as we watch it. It’s very uncomfortable. If you had to characterize the experience in one word, both for the children and ourselves, many of you would easily choose the word “fear.” Fear of the unknown. This is what gives this show power, and also helps to define the horror genre. We don’t get to see the demons much at all in S1, beyond brief moments we feet or hands. We can’t see outside the walls. Closed doors are a huge part of this show, something I liked that they tried to revive at one point in S2. So I argue that horror is less about extreme visceral reaction than just visceral reaction in general, often prompted by less-obvious methods. This show is fearsome, and therefore is horror.

Or you might simply agree with how I first describe this show to someone when I discuss it with them: it’s creepy as hell! No matter what you say about individual characters, storylines, or the artwork, it all contributes to one big, weird ass, creepy anime! So even if I didn’t approach the subject academically, we can all pretty much agree that the show is horrific in that sense.

One question probably hanging over a lot of minds about this show is whether there’s some connection between this show and the famous Peter Pan tales. I will leave that to minds more inclined to answer that. I don’t see anything obvious to connect the two, but the word “Neverland” obviously begs the question. As of this moment, I don’t know of any relationship between the two, nor am I too concerned about it. Feel free to enlighten me as to otherwise. 

Good horror is hard to come by. Most of the time it’s overdone and trite (blood and guts). This show tries to be different, and tries to utilize some classical horror methods to prompt that blood-curdling feeling in its viewers. For that, it’s very successful. S2 hurt this image a little bit, but the effectiveness of this in S1 causes most viewers to just be happy with the outcome of S2. It makes any deficiency in that regard more palatable. So overall, a great show. I wouldn’t go around recommending it to everyone—we are talking about eating children here! But I will hold it up as a good example of how horror can be different and exciting. It’s a nice piece in some of the darker halls of animedom. 

Freedom is worth a lot.

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