If you have any pretense to watching this show and haven’t done so yet, you should consider this your last warning. Part of the fun in great storytelling is seeing the themes that were subconsciously reinforced throughout your viewing experience bloom like a flower in the climax. And Shinsekai Yori does this in perhaps the most spectacular example of any anime.
Of course, at that same token, Shinsekai Yori (From the New World) is, truly, a series that DEMANDS multiple viewings to fully absorb what you’ve seen. So spoilers may not even matter all that much in this story.
I have said it in the past, and say it now: Shinsekai Yori is the greatest science fiction anime of all time. There is absolutely no contention on this point as far as I’m concerned.
This has been in my post queue for some time. But, recent current events have made it quite relevant. And the story’s messages are merely that “this is complicated”. Full of warnings, portents, and red flags about how we think, how we treat each other, and how we view the state and enforcement of order. But short on actual solutions.
The Old World
Over 1,000 years in the future, 1,000 years since humans began to develop mental powers, the world is a quiet, simple place.
Saki and her friends live in the small district of Kamisu 66. Saki is a bit of a late-bloomer, for reasons that make her parents fearful in private, but they assure her she will come into her own in time. Well, as Saki hits puberty, her own mental powers manifest, and she’s taken to the secondary school to learn about how she will live in the world as a super powered human.
Reunited with her childhood friends, Saki enjoys the new environment she’s been put in. She’s having such a good time that it doesn’t even occur to her to count up all the classmates who suddenly disappeared, never to be heard of again.
That is, until the field trip. Until Saki and her friends discover the False Minoshiro, and probe it for information. Until they learn some of the horrible truths about the past, and how their society came to be. And that doesn’t even cover the Bakenezumi, whom Saki will meet firsthand when the field trip doesn’t go as planned, who regard humans as their gods…
Culture of Fear
The Kamisu culture is one that idolizes fear and terror. It is a very powerful metaphor for our own nationstates which deal with similar questions about the individual vs. the group.
There’s a popular colloquialism in America that goes like this: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
Kamisu is almost a direct counter to this point. In Kamisu, the government is downright terrified of the people. It views its population not in terms of individuals, but in terms of how many potential threats exist to the survival of the Human race. Its response is a far more terrifying police state than anything we’ve yet dreamed up.
The threat faced by rogue humans can’t be denied. Demons and fiends are no joke. In school, children read stories of how people who become emotionally unstable commit suicide, much as we tell stories of our heroes fighting hand to hand on Iwo Jima or standing their ground against powerful forces at Thermopylae. Stories we tell generation to generation with the expectation that when we encounter a similar situation, we will follow in their footsteps, and live and die as heroes. The subconscious message in all these stories we tell to children is “when this happens, this is how we expect you to act.” And for Kamisu, that message is “if you ever feel depressed, it is best you take your own life.”
The School Board takes a heavy handed approach to this culture of fear, terminating children far before they’ve proven they passed the point of no return. Paranoia is the modus operandi, and no one questions the status quo for fear they will be labeled deviant themselves and face punishment. A delicious irony that they call it “The Board of Education” when, from all we see, education has nothing to do with their job: it’s eliminating children.
Perhaps most damning of all is how the society views children, but that’s heavily tied into our next point.
Many have levied accusations that Shinsekai Yori throws homosexuality at the screen as a shameless pander. That is absolutely not the case.
In fact, the story is crafted in such a way that the homosexuality in Shinsekai Yori COULD be taken as a moral repugnance.
On the one hand, yes. It is out there for all to see and it is totally natural, with parents encouraging the relationships between same sex youth. And in the case of the main character homosexual romance, that of Saki and Maria, Saki says many years later, as an adult, that Maria was the love of her life. And when the Shinigami member is killed in the first attack at the festival, his dying gift to his community is “May you see beauty”, and everyone sees their own image in the…soul fire, I guess…that he emits as he dies. And Saki sees Maria. This is evidence that Saki is definitely bisexual, and probably not warped by her society to think that way as many people -might- be.
This ties into the evils that are revealed in the course of the series. We learn early on from the False Minoshiro that Humans have been augmented to be more like Bonobo monkeys (our closest relative, along with chimpanzees). They are overly sexual, and far more inclined to bisexuality as a form of social contract. I emphasize this because the sexuality we observe is kind of how we see children playing football at recess, or what have you. Current humans enjoy competition, and a fair amount of rough-housing/violence in our pastime activities. But these future acts of sexuality could be seen as filling that role. As the False Minoshiro states: It was designed as a way for the species to relieve stress, rather than more destructive means.
“Well that’s not so bad” one might say, “it’s a little odd to us, but that’s not really evil, Doll.”
But now you have to think about what comes ten episodes later, when we learn about how the Disciplinary Committee handles children. Children are not people. They are property, held by the state, until they turn 17, at which point they are given the rights of personhood. This enables the easy disposal of children, at least from the legal standard.
These homosexual relationships are not by happy choice. They aren’t experimenting with same-gender friends because that’s who’s available. They are doing it because you can’t risk a non-person getting pregnant and giving birth before they have been “cleared” to live as an adult, and possibly passing on defective genes. The teenage homosexual romances are another form of control, and another form of fear by the state. They are encouraged because they don’t have messy acts of procreation. And, it’s totally possible, anyone who does try a heterosexual relationship before their time is disposed of quickly. This is arguably part of what led to Mamoru’s disposal, the fact everyone thought it was so weird that he was fixated on Maria and didn’t bother to take a lover well past his time. It just added to this sense that he didn’t belong in the Kamisu world.
Further, when we learn in the finale the great truth of the Queerats, this can add to the class-warfare themes of the series. The overclass, privileged, powerful, ruthless, uncaring, and oversexed, overindulgent in their pleasures at the expense of the ones who get crushed beneath them.
So, yes, on the one hand, the series is fantastic that the homosexual relationships are simply done naturally. No attention is drawn them, and they are rather organically executed. But it is so full of the subtext of the work that it can be taken as a negative aspect of this society. Compiled with all the other things that Saki’s ancestors did to their race, as one of the great evils.
Marx Would Be Proud
Okay, this is it. I really mean the spoiler thing you don’t want this ruined for you if you’ve never seen the series.
When we learn the ultimate origin of the Bakenezumi, it sets up a number of very obvious themes. That of overclass and underclass, the privileged and the oppressed. And indeed, many of the struggles we see are because of this relationship.
Hey, he isn’t the first Squealer to fight for the working class.
The Bakenezumi are kept at a primitive level of technology, much as the humans are. But this is an artificial constraint. It takes Squealer very little time to push his people into industrialization. It is thus likely to be the constant warfare between Bakenezumi colonies for limited resources that keeps the relative technology level even. As soon as the chaos ends and stability introduced, Squealer’s empire proceeds very rapidly. It is implied he has hold of a False Minoshiro, and thus access to many forbidden texts of the Library, so this is certainly one way he managed to proceed so far so quickly. And also possible where he attained his ideas of democracy and self rule (though recent science might imply democracy is a biological urge). And, of course, if any colony were to develop too far, it would prompt a response from the humans to wipe out their colony, and for good measure, any colony associated with them.
This is likely why Kiromaru refused to side with Squealer, besides his notions of personal honor. Squealer’s ideas were grand, and we know Kiromaru would kill all the humans if given a chance. But risking the wrath of the Ethics Committee is too great a price. In this he plays the role of almost an Uncle Tom, trying to make sure no one worries the established order. Even if that order is based in fear and horrifying to contemplate.
The subtext is quite deep, as well. Such as Squealer’s installation of democratic rule, and the humans response to it. They find it adorable the Bakenezumi are trying out self rule, but keep an eye on them in case they need to be destroyed. The rich fat cats are fine letting the underclasses feel like they have some autonomy, but if they stray too far from the proscribed plan, they will be destroyed. Indeed, there is a strong argument that the series is told from the viewpoint of the villain. Though both sides are evil, humans are guilty of the worst of the hypocrisy and most mass murder of people.
Side note: It’s unspoken, but the implicit notion that Squealer lobotomized Maria and Mamoru in order to breed their daughter like he did the queens is probably one of the most villainous things in the series. After all, their internal anatomy is probably still mostly human.
And we can see how the society blinds itself to the truth. Perhaps one of the most subtle traits is how the False Minoshiro explains the past. “There were four nationstates on the Japanese mainland. Three were slave empires, the fourth were scholars.” But the truth is that there are four slave empires. The only difference is that the fourth forbade killing fellow supers and turned its slaves into another species. As much as Saki’s ancestors tried to convince themselves they were better than the slave empires, we see that ultimately they are just as bad, if not worse.
It is likely that this whitewashing occurred many years after the fact. The False Minoshiro states the slave empires simply collapsed and the fourth empire stepped in to fill the void. But one needs only look at our own world and events in Syria to see how power vacuums are filled. Saki’s ancestors may have preserved much of the ancient knowledge, but that certainly didn’t make them magnanimous. After all, they could not surrender their power. Supers are the overclass, and when they discovered how they could solve the problem, they refused to surrender that status. It probably never even occurred to them. They went to extreme lengths to engineer ordinary humans into the Bakenezumi, all that effort, just to hold onto their power.
Even the way Squealer takes Maria and Mamoru’s daughter and turns her into a weapon is a reverse of this class warfare theme: Squaler’s token black guy, as it were. He raises a human to be like a Bakenezumi, and sends it at the humans. Again this theory that Saki is the villain. In another show, what would Akki be? She’s a super powered human among normal humans who are oppressed, who are murdered if the ruling supers are in a bad mood. So when she gets her powers, she helps her friends and adopted family acquire the freedom that was stolen from them 1,000 years ago. Doesn’t that sound like almost any action anime protagonist?
What’s in a Face?
The Bakenezumi are inhuman because they look it. Reminds you a lot about what racists say of black people, hm? And the story almost justifies this: If humans saw Bakenezumi as people, they could not kill them. But they can. Likely because of the identity portion of the brain. Eventually the truth about their origins was conveniently forgotten.
And think back to the way the kids reacted to learning the truth about the past. They became physically ill at the idea of humans killing other humans. It never even occurred to them. Their world is so idyllic, so peaceful, that no one seriously thinks of it as murder.
That is the scary truth about it, and the scary way the series shows us the power of reason. REASON is a villain in this story. Because, to quote Star Trek, “That’s the scary thing; everyone has reasons.”
The colonies of Bakenezumi that were spared were only saved because Saki herself intervened. If she hadn’t, the mantra would have been “better safe than sorry”, and all of the “inferiors” would have been exterminated.
We have a somewhat heartwarming ending, Saki and Satoru are married and expecting child. They survived the doom and want to build a better society. Saki is even the leader of Kamisu 66. Saki expresses her desire to make her society a better one. Yeah! Power to the people!
And yet…we see Satoru raising the demon cat kittens. Cats that we know will be used to kill children. How very easy it is for humans to say “This isn’t murder…this is for the safety of the state.” Even our protagonists, who were not given the same personality engineering as the rest of their society, have begun to rationalize the acts of cruelty one by one.
But the truth of it is? What CAN they do? What solutions are there to the problems they face?
This is what makes Shinsekai Yori different from a lot of series. There is moralizing, but no solutions. There is only horror, and more horror down the road not taken.
Oh I Wanted More
Something I really wish had been continued was the flashbacks. Those brief peeks the first few episodes into the past, the bridge between our time and the time of the children. Some of that brilliant horror on the level of Akira.
It’s admittedly probably a budget thing. The animation was truly straining it in a few shots, but others came out gorgeous. It was a judiciously crafted series.
I do wish we’d had more of the Squealer manifesto, but I think some of the intent of wrapping him up so quickly was that Kamisu really didn’t give a fuck, he was going to suffer the most painful fate imaginable.
And of course more Maria/Saki makeouts.
…Hey don’t judge!
Our Worst Thoughts
So every human has super powers. Sounds like a comic book, don’t it?
But getting back to this message of human nature, Shinsekai Yori was amazing in how it subtly reinforced its themes.
The whole reason this society exists, every precaution taken, is for one simple fact: When left to its own devices, the human mind will do the wrong thing.
Not just for the prospective fiends and demons, but for the society itself.
Tokyo was a great example of this. As established, all the negative energy from the joryoku is channeled outside the town limits, and other towns likely have similar barriers. Tokyo is no man’s land, the spot where in everyone’s mind the map is marked with “Here there be dragons.” So all that negative energy, all that fear, pours into this one spot, turning it into a deathtrap. Kamisu may be quiet and peaceful, but all the engineering, brainwashing, and reinforcement in the world cannot remove that taint. Those dark thoughts persist, and it’s only luck that they figured out a way to purge that energy, otherwise it would sit and fester.
Look at Squealer: Driven by high ideals. He wants democratic rule and self determination for the masses. He wants to free Bakenezumi from the fear of humanity and oppression of their queens. Very high minded, and we’d even call it enlightened. But, Squealer’s mind is still a human one, and he sees nothing wrong with suicide attacks, kidnapping children, lobotomizing the bakenezumi queens (and suggestively, humans), and slaughtering any other bakenezumi who don’t see things his way, all in the name of the cause. Fitting that his namesake is a metaphor for Stalin, because Squealer, in an effort to save his people, becomes their greatest butcher in generations.
The same goes for what I said about Saki and Satoru at the end. They’ve already begun the process of normalizing horrific things.
This can be a message to our own real-world problems. That no matter how much progress we make, no matter how comfortable we may make our planet, we cannot stop being vigilant. If we let slip, the darkness will seep right back in.
Our Favorite Victim
Maria is my favorite character by far. She was a rather aggressive girl. Indeed, she reminds me of the element of fire. She was passionate, driven, mystical, and ultimately, above all, wanted to be left alone.
Though certainly all the main kids have their tragedies, Maria’s were the ones I sympathized with most. Maria was a maternal figure for the group, trying to see to everyone’s needs and safety. She doesn’t talk down Saki’s plans to unravel the conspiracy because she doesn’t want to know, but because she knows Mamoru is a sensitive type. Indeed, Mamoru is the most like an “ordinary” child from all appearances (beside his love for Maria). Maria is sensitive to this, and tries to keep group harmony going. She doesn’t care about the adults, the rules, the traditions, or the stories. She just wants to have her friends with her.
I think this is why I sympathize with her most. Maria’s needs were rather simple. Indeed, while she did hope to catch the eye of some prominent career, the only thing she truly seemed to WANT was her friends and Saki. She leaves with Mamoru, from the sounds of things, mostly out of obligation. She must protect him because she’s the only one powerful enough to (you know, now that Shun’s dead). Her selflessness is above and beyond the call.
Perhaps of all the characters she has the most claim to being “natural homosexual”. While everyone is certainly bisexual, in a lot of instances it’s difficult to say if behavior is simply going along with the conditioning, or because they truly want to. Certainly with Mamoru it didn’t take. And while Maria will pair with Mamoru (by means of, he’s THERE), her actions throughout their childhood would indicate she didn’t really view him as a romantic partner. Saki seemed to struggle with it more. Indeed, in the book she has sex with Satoru, pretending he’s Shun (Satoru admits to doing the same. Awkward). But Maria always seems straight and true towards Saki. This is probably emphasized more by that “desire” thing. All Maria wanted was the girl next to her, and even this small thing would be taken away by the wretched society she grew up in.
In Short, It Must Be Seen
I’ve spent over 3,000 words on one little thing alone. And I’ve only scratched the surface of all the issues that the series raises in its narrative.
The story is incredibly complex and multilayered all while achieving the business of getting the plot done. Never does this feel like a “message show”. And other than perhaps the False Minoshiro episode, never do we really feel like we’re bogged down by the exposition, and there is a LOT of it.
So please take a look at the series, or finish it up if you fell off. It is speculative fiction at its finest, asking some tough questions about what it is to be human.
That was Number 3. The two finalists are closing in. What will number 2 be? Well I cannot tell a lie. But it’s a secret that you can’t share. So, will you sign this contract?