How ‘The Promised Neverland’ is reimagining the anime genre

Two anime characters stand in a dark room, on each side of an illuminated window, and look at each other.
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A barrage of new anime series is released every year, and while classics such as Cowboy Bebop receive the most amount of press and devoted fan following — shows that do not match their caliber are a dime a hundred thousand.

Under the fierce pressure of competition, the anime genre is often a site of high-risk, high-reward experimentations in storytelling. Unlike Netflix shows — which are perfect for 12- hour binges — anime is traditional in the sense that the episodes are released one by one every week. How can a series effectively grab a viewer’s attention and maintain a solid grip on it until the finale? Choice creators, vying for classics status, pull out all the stops to make a show to stand out — and stand out from the first episode.

A few modern shows, in anticipation of new story trends and modes of narrative, are overturning many established conventions in these animated serials — for better and for worse. Two themes from the lab are currently the most well-received: a minimalism in choice of details, and an emphasis on narratives of orphanhood.

“The Promised Neverland” — one of the most anticipated shows of the season — employs and exemplifies these two elements to create a flawless pilot. Two-thirds into the first season, the show has yet to disappoint. In a time of short attention spans and fickle trends, the pilot episode of a television show could be the defining factor of its success. Viewers are not likely to continue if they are not immediately hooked or intrigued in the first couple minutes.

Choice creators, vying for classics status, pull out all the stops to make a show to stand out.

The opening scene depicts three children — Emma, Norman and Ray — who all appear to be about six years old. They look past a large gate, commenting that they are forbidden to ever go past it and inquiring aloud what the gate is protecting them from. By posing such a big question at the get-go, the show manages to immediately pique the audience’s curiosity and encourage them to echo the children’s question in their own mind. The characters introduce a kind of enigmatic forbidden fruit which naturally arouses mystery and obscurity.

The children’s contrast in personality is also brought to light. The trio includes archetypal characters such as the stoic, calculating strategist; the naive but steadfast caretaker and the level-headed, vigilant genius. All three are extremely perceptive and intelligent for their age. These character types are not exactly unheard of: 2014 anime “Terror in Resonance” also makes ample use of the orphan genius trope as part of the emerging trend. However, the doe-eyed vivacity the children display makes them endearing. The fact they are orphans immediately makes the audience want to root for them as the underdogs. The children are essentially the bottom rung of the social hierarchy and their orphanhood is especially pronounced within this power struggle of awaiting adoption. They have absolutely no advantages in the game of life and death and their isolation is amplified by the muddled, unknown nature of their personal histories.

This scene also plays visually with the darkness of the tunnel behind the gate and the bright, grassy area of Grace Field House, the orphanage that the kids grew up in. The stark difference in aura and light foreshadows an abrupt breakage of the children’s sense of safety. Overall, the introductory scene establishes what the children know perfectly and the world that awaits them in the future.

And yet, the show is careful not to show too much. An element that is an essential part of an anime show is its opening animation, basically a window into the soul of the anime. As corny as that sounds, it’s amazing how much background information, clues and foreshadowing can be packed into the 1 1/2 -minute animated introduction — and anime often abuses that premise. A classic opening includes flash-by scenes of major plot points and spoilers laid over energetic, high-powered songs. While the opening in “The Promised Neverland” keeps the musical style in featuring “Touch Off” by UVERworld, the attentive viewer can infer that the element of fire will somehow aid or thwart the children. There is also a recurring motif of a budding red flower that makes its appearance in the opening, closing credits and later on in the episode. Unlike some anime openings, this one only depicts a symbol, further exacerbating the viewer’s curiosity and interest.

The episode continues past the opening song to show that the three children have grown a bit. After the timeskip, they are all eleven years old and the oldest children in Grace Field House, which contains 38 children in total and one “mother” named Isabella. The children are all incredibly happy and healthy. And their “mom” is seemingly the kindest woman to ever exist. As one of the younger children, a six-year-old girl named Conny, is removed from the house to be adopted, Emma and Norman follow after her in the attempt to return a stuffed animal she left behind.

Although they were warned not to, the duo wanders past the open gate and, to their horror, find Conny’s corpse with a flower growing out of her torso. While hiding, they witness a group of demons who speak about consuming human flesh. Next to these demons is Isabella, sporting a stone cold expression. The two children avoid detection and make it safely back to the house, now understanding that Grace Field House is essentially a farm for human meat.

They have absolutely no advantages in the game of life and death and their isolation is amplified…

Instead of bombarding the viewer with information through a fictional history recap at the beginning of each episode or cramming the script and making the on-screen characters explain every detail — two lazy methods in many anime series like “Blood Blockade Battlefront” — creators of “The Promised Neverland” include pithy visual or situational cues that convey a deeper implication without verbal aids. The power of this pilot does not lie in the information that is given. It instead lies in all the unseen implications. This is precisely how the magic happens: the mere revelation that the orphanage is a farm raises a plethora of unanswered questions, a perfect method to snag a loyal viewer by the end of episode one.

Keeping the perspective solely inside this farm maximizes the audience’s curiosity about what lies outside the walls. Who are the demons and where did they come from? Has humanity been conquered by a greater entity? What exactly was the flower that repeatedly appears? Is it a result of the death or the object that causes it?

Isabella, the caretaker of the children, is in on this farming business. The adults clearly have a role within the system, especially if the orphaned children are shipped out before they turn twelve. How do they avoid becoming commodities, and why are only children being farmed? Since children are a precious commodity, there is most likely a system of forced conception. Are women being enslaved for breeding, like in “Mad Max”? The implications that arise within the mere twenty minutes of showtime is numerous and all of them carry immense weight and importance. Each question is relevant in voicing current societal issues and power struggles.

The onslaught of questions that may plague the viewer also makes them eager to stick with the show and gradually watch it unfold. Already, the pilot episode has succeeded in accomplishing everything it needs to in order to entice the audience’s interest for the rest of the season. Let us hope that these adorable and intelligent children find a proper home.

The power of this pilot does not lie in the information that is given.

The premise of “The Promised Neverland” is not necessarily fresh or new. There have been plenty of anime, new and classic, that deal with the aftermath of a demon or alien invasion. Despite this, the show manages to ensnare the viewer by both representing orphans and offering a glimpse into the obscure and perilous world outside the home. It reflects a developing trend within the genre that is slowly crystallizing into the mainstream.

Both orphanhood and the withholding of details can arguably speak to a sense of lostness that permeates through this reinvented form of media — we don’t know exactly what’s happening, and neither do the characters. These children are so endearing specifically because they search for a truly safe home, a quest that many, if not all viewers can relate to. The new changes in anime seem to represent a sort of increased intrigue and desirability for the unfamiliar and the unknown, far from home.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].