Anime Review — The Promised Neverland (Cloverworks)

Well I guess we don’t have to worry about Weekly Shonen Jump going away anytime soon.

It’s time to pick apart yet another inexplicably popular anime produced by one of Aniplex’s whipping boys, and boy do I have a treat for you guys today. An anime adaptation of yet another big Shonen Jump series, except instead of an action series or a harem series, we’re getting a horror series from that magazine. A really popular horror series too, as I’ve heard a lot of praise for The Promised Neverland long before the anime was announced, and you’d have to be Amish to not notice the huge amount of publicity this adaptation has gotten over the last few months. And with the announcement that it’s going to be airing on Toonami like every other big Shonen Jump series, this show is set to gain even more exposure over time.

I’m not sure if it’s going to be seen as a classic in the future since in this age of overblown hype, a lot of anime fade really quickly after being the talk of the town for a few months. You guys remember ERASED anymore? Or Hinamatsuri? Hell, I don’t think I’ve seen people talk about A Place Further Than the Universe ever since the last CR Anime Awards, and that was so big last year it broke Amazon records. However, I can say that quite a lot of people are trying to push it to Made in Abyss/Land of the Lustrous levels of popularity at the very least. Whether it deserves it or not, I can’t really say. Another problem with overblown hype is that my opinions ultimately don’t matter when it comes to the amount of passion a work produces.

That said, I will not hesitate to call out a work as undeserving if the reasons I’m given for people liking a product are not satisfying. For example, I can understand why Black Panther and Avengers Infinity War are loved because they do have some things about their narratives that are unique, but no one has been able to give me a good reason for why Dr. Strange and Ant-Man and the Wasp are entertaining. So what side does The Promised Neverland lean on? The kind of overhype that I get or the kind of overhype that I feel is not explained well? Or maybe I actually like the show and thus don’t care that its fanbase can be pretty toxic, like I am with those Danganronpa games?

Well it’s fun to pick on the attention that anime fandom can shower on a series at times, but at the end of the day, anime critics need to judge the actual anime, so let’s do that.

The Promised Neverland is set in the year 2045 and takes place in an orphanage called Grace Field House, which at first looks like the kind of orphanage that Oliver Twist wishes he had ended up in, but it quickly becomes apparent as the story goes on that what he went through is child’s play compared to the two-faced nature of this setting. Our main character of the series is Emma, an 11-year old kid who’s basically your typical idealist whose beliefs are challenged when she accidentally discovers the cruel reality of her situation whilst trying to return a stuffed rabbit to her departing friend. It turns out that the kids in the orphanage are being groomed to be fed to demons at the age of twelve, and their caring caretaker is actually in league with them, which isn’t exactly an ideal situation when you’re less than a year away from certain death.

As such, the entirety of the first season (which composes the first arc of the manga) consists of Emma and her two best friends, Norman and Ray, planning to escape from Grace Field House whilst not attracting the attention of Mother Isabella. However, Isabella quickly figures out that Emma knows the truth and thus keeps a closer eye on her than before with the help of another caretaker named Sister Krone. There’s more context like how Emma wants to escape with all of the kids despite the fact that doing so would be troublesome, whilst Isabella can’t harm Emma since the demons prefer their meal to be fresh, but the basic idea of the show is that it’s a battle of wits between the kids and the adults in regards to who will survive. In other words, it’s fucking Death Note all over again.

Yeah, despite the initial start where Emma sees her dead friend’s corpse and realizes her days are numbered as well, it doesn’t take long for The Promised Neverland to abandon any pretense of being a legitimately scary series and becoming yet another convoluted Shonen Jump-esque battle of the minds. Except the anime cut out all of the internal monologues from the source material, because apparently they really want the audience to take it seriously the same way the creators of Leprechaun thought the audience would be afraid of a tiny green man who can’t stop shining shoes when you throw them at him. I know it’s the guy who directed Elfen Lied and The Perfect Insider who directed this show, and while he isn’t untalented, I don’t think his style of horror directing matches well with the material. Was anyone really scared in the second episode when Isabella suddenly appears in front of Emma after a long scene of silence? Or was it just me who had no reaction to it?

As per usual for Japanese horror, their live-action stuff is great whilst their animated horror is impossible to take seriously, mostly due to how cartoonish everything comes across. I mean look at Sister Krone in that picture above. How the fuck am I supposed to be scared of a big black woman who looks like she’d be at home in a Tyler Perry movie? And it doesn’t help that she’s a pretty egoistic individual who wants to usurp Isabella’s position as caretaker because…I honestly have no idea. I don’t think the plot clarified if there were any real benefits to being head of an orphanage. Isabella herself isn’t scary either. Whenever she’s acting evil, she looks like if Julie Andrews just got a little upset.

Oh and the demons? Once you finally get to see them, you’ll wish that they had stayed unseen. Because dear lord, they look about as scary as a Xenomorph trying to line dance.

Okay, so obviously I can’t take this anime seriously as a legit horror show. Is it at least good as a mind game thriller? Well there’s nothing outright bad about the series’ use of tension and it did keep me interested enough to see what plot twist the show would throw at us next like how one of the kids is actually a spy or the reveal that you can’t just jump over the wall unless you want to fall to your death. But there’s nothing really special about it either. It’s pretty basic cat-and-mouse stuff with the kids trying to find a way out whilst the adults act like cheat codes at the worst possible moment, and with the first season twelve episodes, it wears out its welcome way before the end.

There are two big problems that prevent the show’s premise from having much flavor. One is that the animation is absolutely terrible. The scene composition for this anime is some of the worst I’ve ever seen with the frequently cheap-looking CG backgrounds not meshing at all with the 2D characters, who have a tendency to go off-model, especially if they’ve got a big forehead chin like Emma. It’s hard to feel much dread from the setting when it looks like it was made with leftover assets from a horror game on the PS2, and said setting is devoid of visual metaphors or any semblance of deeper meaning other than “this nice-looking orphanage is actually a death trap”. Don’t even get me started on the fire effects. Even just thinking about them hurts my eye…

The other big problem is the lack of character development or growth from the main trio. Ray grows up a little from a guy who’s always looking out for himself into someone who’s less selfish, but Emma and Norman basically stay the same after the end of Episode 1. Even when their beliefs get them into trouble, they just double down and come up with a new plan. I’m guessing this is an issue that later arcs will fix since this is technically a long-running series after all, but when you’re releasing said series in twelve-episode chunks once a year, each chunk needs to be as standalone as every entry in the Phoenix Wright series.

Isabella gets a really good moment in the final episode that shows how conflicted she really is about her position, and we do get a good non-verbal scene that explains her past in the middle of the series, but those only compose a small fraction of her screentime compared to when she’s just an evil force sacrificing the kids to prevent being turned into chow herself. If the show had focused more on her internal struggles, especially when you discover her true relationship with one of the kids, I’d have an easier time understanding why the fanbase loves her so much. Everyone else is pretty forgettable in terms of personality except for Sister Krone, and what you see of her is what you get. Really did not feel sorry for her when she ended up getting written out of the show around the 2/3 mark.

So if the animation isn’t good, the characters are underdeveloped, the actual storytelling is barebones, and the horror aspect is an utter joke, then what exactly is there to make The Promised Neverland such a standout in the anime world? Hell, what is there to make it stand out from the other popular Shonen Jump series as of late, especially since they’ve mostly been more about tactical strategy than straight-up dick-size competitions these days? I guess the fragility of its incredibly youthful characters combined with how there’s no straight-up action? If that’s the case, I have a feeling the later seasons of this show aren’t going to be very well-received. It’s already common knowledge amongst the manga fanbase that the first arc is considered the best with only the last (and current) arc approaching its quality. I’m not going to spoil why, but let’s just say Promised Neverland loses something when the characters aren’t being trapped in a singular location.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t dislike Shonen Jump. I’m not a fan of the methods their stories tend to use, but a lot of their properties are big for a reason, and so many of their characters deserve their iconic status. And I don’t dislike The Promised Neverland anime in of itself, nor do I care about the reception it got, especially since it’s apparently more popular in the West than its home country anyways. Manga sales are good in Japan, but the blu-ray sales…well they’re not as bad as Megalo Box’s (which were almost non-existent), but they’re still pretty bad. Either way, I get people like it for its narrative beats and momentum combined with the anticipation that comes from weekly watching, and it’s not my place to judge whether or not that’s a legitimate way to enjoy an anime. Plus, they like the characters a lot more than I do and it’s still to be determined if people are going to remember this series after it’s over.

Honestly, I wasn’t even going to review this anime initially because at its worst, The Promised Neverland’s first arc feels like one of those first seasons used to test the waters in a lot of live-action dramas like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. Hell, My Hero Academia had a weak first season devoted mostly to establishing shit. And since we knew a second season of Neverland was coming next year that could improve things, I figured I’d hold off until more came out. I only changed my mind when I was informed that the series would be a bit different going forward and thus it was best to treat this first season as its own separate anime.

Got to say though, while I’m sure this arc is the best that Neverland has to offer in the manga, I don’t see anything but improvements in the later anime arcs unless the story goes absolutely retarded or something. Anime is just doomed to not do horror well, so I can only see improvements if the show just gives up the ghost and has the kids go full Rambo on these demons.

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  • So why exactly are intelligent kids tastier than regular kids to the demons? Do brain cells taste like chicken to them?
  • Also, I don’t believe for a second that a certain major character is actually dead. If it doesn’t happen on screen, it didn’t actually happen.
  • Still, I’m 90% sure I’m not going to be reviewing Kaguya-sama: Love is War.

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