Kaiu Shirai’s ongoing manga The Promised Neverland was most recently adapted into its first season as an anime, bringing in a new slew of fans to the story – myself included. Set in a world not too far in the future from our own timeline, this anime tells the story of the orphans living in Grace Field House and the dark secret of where they go when they are finally “adopted.” It’s an eerie, and yet still hopeful, look at human resilience in the face of gruesome power. While I can’t say The Promised Neverland did anything particularly groundbreaking in the realm of dystopian horror, I can assure you that I am looking forward to a second season on regardless.
Japanese Title: 約束のネバーランド
Release Date: January 11, 2019
Number of Episodes: 12 Episodes
Episode Length: 23 minutes
Recommended For: Fans of suspense horror and the vaguely macabre
NOT Recommended For: Someone looking for an action-packed or light-hearted story
Sumire Morohoshi as Emma
Maaya Uchida as Norman
Mariya Ise as Ray
Yūko Kaida as Isabella/Mama
The orphans of Grace Field House live an idyllic existence in an orphanage run by the children’s “Mama,” a gentle woman named Isabella who acts as their caretaker. Emma, at eleven years old, is one of the three eldest children currently living at the house. The brilliant and mild-mannered Norman and the more snarky but equally as intelligent Ray are Emma’s closest companions, while also being closest to her in age. However, unbeknownst to the orphans who eagerly await the day they are one day adopted and allowed to leave the rolling green acres of the Grace Field House premises, Isabella is not the loving protector they believe her to be. One night, Emma and Norman make a terrible discovery about the fate that actually awaits each of their siblings that have been sent away from the home. From this point onward, they resolve to formulate an escape plan before any other child is scheduled to be sent, not only away from the Grace Field House, but to their gruesome deaths.
The Promised Neverland is currently receiving a lot of hype, or at least it was when it was airing. As much as I think this anime definitely deserves to be talked about, I’ll admit I am a little surprised with how much it is being praised. That’s not to say I think the story is inherently flawed or unexciting, and I know I will definitely be tuning in to the second season. But I have to acknowledge that this simply wasn’t the shocking, gruesome, wholly original story I thought I was heading into. And I’m actually pretty much okay with that.
I was simultaneously reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go while watching this anime, which I say not to sound pretentious, but rather because these stories parallel each other in a remarkable way. Never Let Me Go showcases a world where humans have become complacent and accepting of the harvesting of live human organs (read: murder) to the point where even the victims themselves live their lives without resisting their impending doom. The children of The Promised Neverland are the antithesis of this – their eyes are suddenly opened to a horrible world and the death awaiting them and will do anything to prevent this. Their enemy is not larger-than-life and foreboding, but the woman who they had total faith and trust in before realizing her deception. It allows for all sorts of sneaky and underhanded dealings on both sides of the equation and watching Emma and her siblings go toe-to-toe with the seemingly omnipresent Isabella was a special kind of entertaining.
However, I will say that I don’t feel that the stakes are particularly high in The Promised Neverland, which may sound somewhat callous considering the lives of children are on the line. In reality, our cast of characters is noticeably small and our main trio even smaller, which made it so no one could realistically be killed off in the first season without removing a very fundamental part of the story. So while the small, isolated environment of the Grace Field House built suspense and mystery around the characters, I never really felt a sense of dread because no serious harm could befall these children at this point in the series.
It’s hard to build tension when the three main characters make up such a significant part of the entire cast of introduced characters. The only character to ever actually come to harm that we do feel sympathetic towards was killed off in the first episode. Even (SPOILERS BE WARNED) Norman being sent away early with the implication that he was killed and harvested felt very non-threatening to me. Firstly, because we never saw him actually die, which is the easiest way to tell the audience he didn’t. And secondly, because he is as much of the main character as Emma is and a fifty plus chapter manga doesn’t kill its main characters in the first season of its anime.
Despite being regretfully spoiled for the big reveal of the final episode, the first season did still manage to surprise me in smaller amounts on the way to get there. I don’t know if I’d necessarily call any of it shocking, or at least not in the way so many people seem to be hyping the anime up. It’s eerie and atmospheric, and the children aren’t nearly as predictable as their kind of paint-by-the-numbers surface level characteristics make them out to be. Any kind of development for characters other than our main trio comes notably late in the production – almost too late. But what this first season does set up remarkably well is the potential for so much more: higher stakes, a bigger world, more powerful antagonists. And there’s nothing I love more than a nuanced, morally gray villain, which Isabella certainly proves herself to be by the end of the first season. Even in what little was shown of her flashbacks to her childhood, it was clear how complex a character she was behind her perpetual smile and seemingly one-note murderous agenda. So I’m really looking forward to expanding not only on her character in the next season but the world in general.
Despite the dark subject matter, there is still something unshakably, undeniably hopeful about The Promised Neverland. I won’t say the premise isn’t gruesome, and there’s really nothing particularly enjoyable about watching children suffer to no end. But a story about children persevering and overcoming the odds against them to survive is something I can jive with. So I remain optimistic for both the expansion of the world and the development of this plot without it truly leaving behind some of its more twisted themes.
Speaking of characters and their development, let’s talk a little bit out our main trio of protagonists. Emma is the headstrong, cheerful, athletic member of their little group of 11-year-old orphans. She doesn’t let the fact that she is the least book smart between her, Norman, and Ray deter her from working hard to earn top scores on the exams the orphans are forced to take. Emma is also the most nurturing of the bunch towards the younger children and the most fiercely defensive of them and their survival. I did like her as the focal protagonist, as she has this spunky little girl attitude that works on a character that is an actual child. Despite this seemingly unfailing optimism, she proves herself to be a realist as well, which I loved even more than what her character archetype is initially established as.
There’s something a bit suspicious about Norman to me, in that he’s quite honestly perfect. He’s miraculously intelligent, athletic, compassionate, and puts all others before himself. Any character that’s faultless is either hiding something or just poorly written. For the sake of The Promised Neverland‘s reputation, I hope it’s the latter. I will say, however, there was a moment when Norman broke down after learning he was the next orphan to be sent away (read: killed and eaten) that showed some cracks in his sparkling clean facade. And I did find that his cheerful mask came across as a little uncanny at times. So I have hopes that he will return in the second season more complex than ever before.
And now, Ray. Of the two boys playing the second wheel to Emma’s main protagonist shtick, Ray is certainly my favorite. He toes this strange line between belligerent and apathetic, and his mindset of the world has been perpetually warped from growing up conscious of the knowledge that the children around him were being sent to their deaths every time they were “adopted.” Much like every other character below the age of thirteen in this story, he is still rather self-sacrificing despite his efforts to appear anything but that. And yet he is much less trusting of others’ capabilities and was fully willing to abandon the smaller children if it meant it increased the chances of survival for Emma and Norman. It almost comes down to the question of: “If a train was barreling towards you and you could save either your best friend or two strangers, which option would you choose?” There’s the utilitarian response and the highly emotional human one. So while Ray is a bit callous, I can’t really hate him for it. In fact, I just might like him all the more because of it.
One mildly funny comparison to come out of this series gaining popularity is Ray’s similarities with Sasuke, which I can only assume people make because Naruto also features a trio of two boys and a girl as main protagonists and Ray fits the brooding, dark-haired character archetype. That’s about where the similarities end, however, as Ray seems to be already growing out of his egocentric thinking and penchant for running away from people that care about him. But that’s neither here nor there.
As for the other children in the cast, I wish I could say more about them. The best thing I can touch on is that they have potential. Potential to grow, to show how clever they are and really expand beyond being the clueless sheep they were portrayed to be for most of the first season. It’s clear that these precocious children are anything but that, so I’m interested to see how these roles will change if we focus a little less on the main three protagonists as the anime continues.
I can, however, talk about our villain: Isabella or “Mama,” really, as she’s known by the children. Isabella is a fantastic character. A terrible person, maybe, but not an irredeemable one. And that’s what makes her such a compelling antagonist. She is wicked smart and able to maintain the deception that the house she runs is truly an orphanage, and not a livestock farm until she decides the facade is no longer worth the trouble for the older children. Watching her casually break Emma’s leg with a smile on her face was chilling, especially if you really consider how she is essentially a surrogate mother for these children. From the little bit of context about Isabella’s past that was shown briefly in the finale, I really want to see more of what shaped her from the child that was not unlike Emma into the woman she is today. I do so love a multi-faceted antagonist that may not end the series as an antagonist at all.
The story of the Promised Neverland doesn’t demand carefully choreographed, dynamic battle scenes – and that works to its advantage. The most action you’ll see is some running sequences through the woods, but then again, it’s not the inherent excitement of fast-moving figures that people are watching this anime for. With the budget and time not needing to be spent on these kinds of scenes, a lot more careful precision can consequently be taken to break down a character’s emotions and expressions. There are some great moments, most of which involve a very unhinged Ray, that showcase the full scope of this emotion. The sheer amount of detail taken on composing these tense emotionally wrought scenes truly was impressive.
I will say some of the younger children look a bit uncanny given the strange glassiness of their overlarge eyes, but there’s at least a variety in character design there. Overall, I thought the animation style was suitably similar to the manga’s own distinctive art while being able to present this heavy sense of foreboding in its use of stillness and exaggerated facial expressions.
UVERworld performs the OP for The Promised Neverland, a song entitled “Touch Off.” Which is rather fitting given that the OP is stronger, dark, and surprisingly uplifting for a series with such a bleak concept behind it. But I think that sets the tone of the show not as a story of misery and predicated death, but the hope for a better future for these children. Setting the thematic material of the OP aside, however, it’s just a great song regardless.
More than the soundtrack, I want to talk about sound and how it is used in The Promised Neverland. Or rather, how it’s not used. The show is almost entirely devoid of music outside of the opening and closing themes and the rare moments where Isabella will either hum or sing. Her song is never paired with any sort of musical accompaniment, and that in itself makes it sound all the more sinister. Otherwise, the most notable “instrument” that features as the main soundtrack to The Promised Neverland is the steady, ominous ticking of the Houses’ grandfather clock. This relentless rhythm created this looming sense of some kind of approaching deadline, some unavoidable fate on the horizon. So besides an outstanding OP, the overall sound design of this anime deserves some major kudos as well.
As far as the horror genre of anime goes, "The Promised Neverland" is a decent venture into a macabre futuristic world without ever losing its noticeably hopeful tone. I recommend it for anyone looking for an eerie, atmospheric anime that perhaps won't shock you, but will entertain nonetheless.