1)The Promised Neverland (Yakusoku no Neverland)
Yes, an anime that I have spent all season teasing at, but never fully reviewing is my choice for the best anime of winter 2019. So much so, that I believed it warranted it’s own post on why it deserves to be the best in the season, and why it will now be the first anime to be added to the best anime of the year bracket. So let’s get into it. I’m about to tell you why I think The Promised Neverland is number one in my heart for Winter 2019.
The Promised Neverland was an anime that came into the anime scene strongly, having hype garnered around it since the first episode aired. Hell, even before that, I’m pretty sure the manga fans were hyping it to the extreme (which I get—I’d hype my favorite manga’s adaption too). But it was for this reason that I came at it with much hesitance. Surely something that had been hyped so much and whose hype built every week could never live up to expectations. So, I waited it out. I waited until the end of the season when the final episode came out, and only then did I give in and watch it. And let me tell you—it was definitely overhyped, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t AMAZING. The only thing that had been overhyped to me, was how terrifying the anime supposedly was. I’m a fan of a good horror story, but nothing really terrifies me, so the fact people kept calling it horrifying was what gave me pause. Was it really that terrifying? Would it really keep me up at night? Would it be horrific? Would mama truly be terrifying? The answers are no, yes, no, no. The Promised Neverland certainly had its creepy moments, but it certainly was a thriller and not a horror. So in terms of making me frightened, it certainly did not live up to the hype. However, everything else I had heard about it was true. It was a masterpiece.
The story alone is not much more than that of Chicken Run with children and demons instead of chickens and humans. But the way the story is approached and told is what makes this anime great. The children have to act normal around the orphanage despite all the truths they have learned about it. They need to be on edge around Mama, the character who they loved so much. But they need to do it in ways that won’t cause the other children to become suspicious that anything is necessarily wrong. And the mother, Isabella, also has to do the same. The three protagonists and Isabella are trying to silently outwit each other at every turn. It’s very clear that Isabella knows the kids are trying to escape, and while it would be easy for her to just kill them or ship them off, she instead lets them play their game. Which is where I started getting really invested. Sure, our protagonists were smart and seemed to be outwitting her, but were they? It was like watching a game where the other wasn’t waiting to win, but waiting for the other team to give up and lose. This thriller did not rely on action and chase scenes, but instead by the tension created by Mama’s inaction. I kept thinking “what is the bitch gonna do?” Then when she actually did start to physically and emotionally wreck them at the end, I was a little shook despite knowing it would happen. But more on that later.
Another thing that skyrockets this anime into grace, are the main characters who you will create a connection to very early on. The main characters Emma, Norman, and Ray are all hyper-intelligent for their age, they care a hell of a lot about each other, and they also have personalities that both complement and conflict with one another. We have Norman, the self-sacrificing genius. Emma, the heart-of-gold athletic one. And Ray, the sardonic tactical one. If the interaction of these three doesn’t make you immediately want to protect them, I don’t know what will. They are, at first glance innocent. But as the story goes on, it is clear that they are much more mature than you would think. At first, their escape plan seems pretty damn basic. It’s not particularly well thought out, despite how they seem to think it is, and it’s a moment where you think “yeah. A kid would think of this.” It’s very easy to underestimate them, but also WANT their plans to go their way. It isn’t until we near the end that we see that they truly have an elevated level of thinking. Emma, in particular, who always seemed too good and wholesome for the plan to truly work, becomes just as devious as both Norman and Ray had been shown to be. She and Norman had not only worked out that they had to leave a portion of the kids behind for the initial escape, but that they had to let the other kids in on the secret to properly prepare. Much like Isabella and Ray, I never suspected any of the others knew because I was so distracted by our golden trio. And y’know, just saying this as a side note: but The Promised Neverland really knew how to do twists correctly. Not only did I not see a lot of them coming, but they also weren’t preposterous. What I mean by that is that they made sense in the world, and it made sense that we didn’t see it. And honestly, that’s the best kind of twists out there. The ones we don’t see but that make perfect sense.
But okay, getting away from tactics and intelligence and what not, Promised Neverland also did a great job at showing these kids as not just brave faces. What I mean by that, is that it could’ve been very easy for the story to write them as these kids who always wore a brave face despite circumstances. Would that have been good? Well, maybe. But I much prefer it without that. Because if they had been fearless, I feel like it would’ve been really easy to see them as being older than they were, but instead there was a lot of vulnerability written into them that reminded you they were only children. Take for instance when Norman knows he is being shipped off. He collapses to his knees in fear, quaking, because he doesn’t want to die. Or Ray who shows just how little he cares about himself because he’d known about the farm all along and was planning to kill himself to atone for all the years of inaction. Or Emma, who when faced with both of those scenarios, sheds tears because she doesn’t want to lose people she cares about. These beautiful moments of humanity remind us how terrifying these situations are to an eleven-year-old and that they can’t just grin and bear it for the whole story.
Then there’s the animation and sound/music. First off, the animation keeps up the spirit of the manga by giving the characters a wide range of rather exaggerated facial expressions. While normally animated beautifully, dramatic changes for intimidating faces, for horror-filled expressions, and even for shock or worry, make for wonderful details that make terrifying moments all the more, or that make not as serious ones comical. 3D animation is also used cleverly in this show. Where others would use it to make elegant battle scenes or intense skating one (looking at you Yuri on Ice), The Promised Neverland most often uses it to create atmosphere. Take for example when the kids are creeping up the stairs at night, the use of 3D animation is used to put us into the eyes of the kids and show us the stairway and how cautiously and quietly they sneak about at night. In fewer words, it creates tension in itself. The Promised Neverland also pays attention to the smallest details. Take, for instance, putting Sister Krone or Mama in the background of a scene but blurring them a bit to take away the attention from them. Of course, my favorite moment to appreciate the attention to detail in the animation is when we see Isabella’s flashback. In it, Leslie plays his mandolin, and where it would have been easy to do generic hand moving animations, instead great detail is put into his hand movements as he switches strings and strumming patterns. Now, if this were an anime about music, I wouldn’t be as in applause, but the fact that this is the only instance a character plays an instrument and they put such careful thought into it? I’m impressed. Moving on to sound, or lack thereof, The Promised Neverland really knows when less is more, and how to strategically use it to help set a mood. Take for instance episode one where Emma and Norman go to take Connie her bunny. As they investigate the gate, the most prominent sound is their footsteps. Underneath that is a gentle whirring that could be wind, but creates an unsettling feeling. The music doesn’t come in until Emma lays eyes on the corpse. Sound and music are played around like this fairly often in the show. A reveal often has a quiet backdrop, and the music only begins to play once a character begins talking (take, for instance, the reveal of Ray as a traitor). Oppositely, sometimes music is built up only to cut off in silence. Either way, the composition tends to compliment whatever tone the scene is attempting to set, something echoing uncertainty to certainty, but always in tune with the action. The musical score, while not perfect, is pretty damn good. Essential tracks from the OST manage to capture the emotion of the show perfectly. Examples being the main theme, Introduction, Tag, and Isabella’s Lullaby. The main theme creates a great sense of both happiness and hope. It almost feels like the embodiment of the fight these kids have. Introduction is made to seem more like a peaceful tune, but the ambiance and short notes give it a sense of unease like something just isn’t quite right. Meanwhile, Tag also manages to sound both like a typical playtime song but that has an edge to it that definitely has hidden energy to it that evokes the feeling of something being built. The musical score Tag, just reflects how they use the game tag to help build upon their plan and train the other kids for escape. Then there is Isabella’s theme. This is my personal favorite track. It’s a lullaby that is sweet, calming, but unsettling all at the same time. It uses notes that both work together, but aren’t what you’d expect in a lullaby, in this kind of ebbing way that just so beautifully creates a song that is both enchanting and also creepy when placed over the correct scenes. A truly fitting song for this show.
Now, the last thing that I absolutely LOVE about this show, are the villains. Sister Krone and Isabella. Where it is easy to write a villain who does villainous things and are genuinely bad people, it is hard to write a villain whose morality is grey. Both Sister Krone and Isabella are essentially doing bad things to the characters by wanting to be mothers. But in reality, they were just trying to survive that world. Which y’know, is bad in itself that they are choosing their survival over the kids. But at the same time, the backstory of each, while brief, make it clear that they are but products of the farming system. More importantly, each of them seems to have some kind of hope that the kids actually do escape. Sister Krone, for instance, not only ends up helping the kids by leaving them behind something important, she also wishes for their success upon her own death. All this despite her dream to become a mother as well, which would only lead her to raise children for harvest. Then there’s Isabella who is an extremely successful mother but who also claims to love her children. We see her do terrible things like break Emma’s leg and ship off Norman, but she insists she loves her children. It is in episode twelve do we see her backstory where not only is her best friend shipped off, but she tries to escape just like they did only to find there is none. That is when she sets out to become a mother instead where her aim is simply to survive. I don’t know about you, but it’s kind of implied to me that she honestly thinks that she is giving these kids a wonderful life and wants to because she knows when it’ll end. When it has to end. It’s not that she like she is intentionally raising them for slaughter, it’s just a given they will die and she wants it to be painless for them. More than anything, this demon-driven society has twisted her and she herself is trapped in it just as much as the kids are. The most poignant scenes that showcase this to me both happen in episode twelve. One is when Isabella finds out Ray is the child she gave birth to. Her expression is of horror and despair when she finds out because she knows that he can’t be an exception. He, like all the others, is going to die and there is nothing she can do about it. So she regains her composure. Then there is the moment where the kids escape. Isabella could’ve gone after them, she could’ve tried harder…but she instead asked them not to go, and when they did, all she did was wish them good luck. Maybe because she knew what horrors awaited them, but I like to believe she did it because she thought that they were able to do what she could never do. No matter what was beyond that wall, no matter how cruel, they had shattered through their destiny on that farm, unlike Isabella who was still trapped. I was amazed I could feel pity for a character like her, hell how I could even LIKE her a little bit within the course of maybe ten minutes. It’s just another aspect of the show that was handled incredibly well.
Which I think is just The Promised Neverland all together. It’s done incredibly well. At first glance, it’s a show that doesn’t seem all that promising (get what I did there?). But after watching the first episode, it’s clear that it is much more than it appears. It’s a show that reminds us that the world is cruel, and that leaving the realm of blissful innocence as a child is a harsh reality. It’s a show about survival, about tact, about the loss of innocence. It’s a show that is beautifully sad, wonderfully twisted, and one of the most interesting anime of the season. It plays with my emotions on so many levels, gives me reveals that are honestly shocking, and has left me with an extreme desire to protect not just Norman, Emma, and Ray, but all the children on the farm. The Promised Neverland was, despite my hesitance, the best anime I watched all season. I’m happy it’ll be moving onto the best anime of the year bracket, and I’m even happier that a second season has been confirmed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a manga to catch up on as I impatiently wait for season two.