One of the most talked about anime from the Winter 2019 season is The Promised Neverland. There are many people who’s interest in otaku culture begins and ends with anime, so source manga and light novel spoilers are a non-issue when watching. This doesn’t matter for all anime; there are many shows who are incredibly good even knowing what’s going to happen beforehand. But for some anime, going into the show completely blind actually enhances the experience, especially for anime that rely on shock value and mystery. For The Promised Neverland, both mystery and an element of surprise are heavily relied upon. Because of this, there will be some major spoilers ahead, so don’t read any further if you aren’t OK with that. Let’s continue.
Our story focuses on the lives of several children who are living in an orphanage located on rolling green hills in the midst of a forest in the countryside. They’re provided clean clothes, good food, a proper education and plenty of physical exercise, all overseen by a doting house mom who tends to their every need. It’s the ideal orphanage, giving these children a veritable utopia in which to mature until a permanent home can be arranged. However (you knew this was coming), there is a dark secret to this orphanage.
The children are being raised as food for monsters.
This secret is tipped to us in the very first episode, revealing that this mystery anime isn’t necessarily focused on the “why/what” (though there certainly are a few minor “why/what” moments), but the “how.” How will the children escape their fate? It becomes clear early on that the orphanage is a prison in the middle of a stronghold, with caretaker “Mama” acting as a sentry to both keep the peace and properly cultivate the food. The children must both successfully elude her as well as figure out a way to escape the walls surrounding the complex.
It would be a simple task for our three main protagonists to escape by themselves; at close to twelve years old, they are much older than the rest of the children currently living in the orphanage (some of whom are still too young to understand the importance of stealth in an escape). But the moral compass of the older children dictates that no child can be left behind to be slaughtered for food. And so their plotting begins.
Time and again The Promised Neverland relies on the ability to surprise and wow the audience with dark twists and mystery to maintain interest. While not every twist goes for the strong shock value that the pilot brings, they do still need audience ignorance to maintain the strong punch that they’re hoping to achieve; this is a mystery and thriller anime, after all.
Many of these mysteries are quite clever in their setup and delivery. Nothing ever seemed so far fetched that it dulled my enjoyment of the series. Even my biggest curiosity (why would a human agree to raise other human children as food for a race of monsters?) was answered satisfactorily. If nothing else, time and again they prove their riddles were well planned and worth discovering.
Unfortunately, this gimmick does carry with some innate weaknesses. One weakness is, of course, the level of enjoyment you can get out of it in a repeat viewing. For some, this isn’t an issue; with all the anime in the world, it almost feels like a waste to rewatch shows rather than discover new content. But for those of us who enjoy reliving our favorite moments and stories, it becomes hard to place a show like The Promised Neverland into that category. The tense feelings of suspense can never truly be relived. The closest we can come is to experience that euphoria vicariously through a new viewer.
Another weakness is simply spoiler control. Chances are, even if you haven’t seen the show yourself, some of you reading this are aware of one or two of the major plot twists in The Promised Neverland, especially if you are plugged into any large communities such as the Reddit anime community. And the longer you wait, the more likely you are to discover a spoiler, accident or not. Does knowing these secrets completely ruin the anime? It doesn’t. The Promised Neverland is still strong enough to stand on it’s own, even if you know one or more major secrets. But it will diminish the impact.
At it’s heart, this anime is a people drama existing in a world of horror and mystery.
As I said before, the story is still strong, even knowing some of the twists. A temptation for an anime like this would be to rely on the story to sell the anime. Dancing on the edge of acceptable levels of depravity for entertainment is often used to draw in audiences. But The Promised Neverland doesn’t give into this temptation. Instead, it builds the most important elements of the story into the characters, protagonists and villains alike. At it’s heart, this anime is a people drama existing in a world of horror and mystery.
I enjoy stories that aren’t afraid to flesh out the villain. Life is rarely black and white, and that includes villains. Mama has undeniably evil actions, but when the anime digs into her past, you can see that her ultimate motivation isn’t all that different from what is moving the children to attempt escape. She’s human and therefore vulnerable. While that obviously doesn’t justify who she has become, it further paints the picture of hopelessness and desperation that is ruling the lives of the children. Mama is flawed, but you can empathize with her plight.
It isn’t perfect by any means, but the combination of mystery and horror with interesting characters give it a solid foundation and execution. It’s just unfortunate that the mystery elements are pervasive enough to make it feel like something is missing in a rewatch, much like repeat viewings of The Sixth Sense never feel the same. But experiencing The Promised Neverland at least once is something I do recommend.