Saturday, January 30, 2016

[Anime] Shinsekai Yori Review

"[People are] forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate...inequalities under a mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn." - John Stuart Mill

Shinsekai Yori – 9/10

Shinsekai Yori is an engrossing tale that merges the intimacies of a coming-of-age story with the grander narrative of a future society molded by the necessities of humanity’s new powers.

In the future, every member of society is telekinetic.  It is more than being able to move large objects with their minds: humans are able to affect the subtle structure of the world around them with subconscious desire.  It is a level of control over our surroundings that far surpasses anything humanity has ever experienced.  On the surface this sounds like a utopia, for humans no longer need fear the world around them.  However, this immense Power has brought forth a terrifying reality: humanity’s greatest threat is now itself.

The strange truth is that the description I gave above is surprisingly close to the current state of affairs for humans in developed nations.  Almost all of our stress and want come from the actions of other human beings, not the environment.  If we lack it is not because of the inability to provide, and more than ever our fate is in our own hands.  This verisimilitude to our current state is what allows SSY to surpass being a simple supernatural-themed series about telekinetic children and cut to the heart of what makes society tick when it moves beyond the subsistence level.

"All the problems we face arise from the human mind."

The Good:

The strongest parts, if it was not already made clear, are the setting and exploration of themes using this futuristic society as a model.  It is world building at its finest, taking real principles and exploring their implications in a novel setting.

Foremost, there is the moral logic behind their community.  Killing children is generally considered wrong.  Yet early on we are presented with a situation in which this society watches them so closely, and judges their actions so harshly, that they can be disposed of on the basis of seemingly minor transgressions.  How is it that this “advanced” society can see this as justifiable in any way?

To understand, we must take a step back and examine morality in light of human society.  In biology, cooperation is a delicate balance between self-interest and group wellbeing.  Humans are no exception to this.  We give up some of the autonomy of living singly for the benefits of living socially.  Our moral structure reflects this, with a mixture of individual and group values that are often in conflict with one another.  Our modern concept of “rights” is an attempt to formalize the line which societies cannot cross; rules of thumb rather than laws of nature.

In our 21st century democracies we have come to prize individualism more than any other group of humans in history.  We have this luxury due to the immense improvements science and technology have wrought; there is little need for any of us to sacrifice to ensure the whole survives.  But this was not always the case.  In tribal cultures, infanticide is commonplace.  This isn’t due to callousness or misguided superstition.  It is a response to necessity: if the tribe cannot support more people, then it risks starvation by supporting too many mouths that cannot feed themselves.  The needs of the whole must outweigh those of a single life, regardless of what “rights” they have.

A distant mirror.

The world of SSY bears a greater resemblance to the tribal condition than our own.  In this situation a single child with dubious qualities may result in a catastrophe.  Even a single failure can result in the annihilation of their society.  It is a risk that their own history has shown is not worth taking.  As repugnant as their behaviors seem to us, there is a strong justification for why it must be the way it is.  It is we, as 21st century viewers, who are misguided by our long acquaintance with individualism.  For the elders to pursue a sort of hopeful carelessness, praying that the worst does not happen, is far more inexcusable than the policies they pursue.

The presentation of this moral structure is another of SSY’s strengths.  The narrative pursues a purposeful misrepresentation of the situation through the eyes of the children.  We are so easy to trick, falling into the trap that surely the children must be the ones in the right.  After all, who doesn’t assume the little trip up the river, beyond the barrier, was nothing more than harmless fun?  Or that when the censorship of the past is discovered, that it was clearly unnecessary and malign?  And of course, we are all hoping that Maria and Mamoru escape the town and live happily, away from the vile clutches of the Education Committee.

Yet as it becomes clear later: these events are what directly led to Shun’s mental disintegration, the Monster Rat rebellion, and the Messiah fiend.  The adolescents, rather than seeing things in a clearer fashion, were dangerously ignorant of their world.  Their well-intentioned fumbling was the catalyst for disaster.  It was a testament to the quality of the series that it causes us to sympathize with the protagonists while having them in the wrong.  However, blended with the true faults of the society (its dehumanization of the Monster Rats, the miscalculations on the part of the committee) it is not a simple message about trusting authority, but a more nuanced insight into what drives them to do what they do.

Something's not quite right with this...

Finally, I want to end this section with a tribute to my favorite character of the series: Squealer.  Squealer is not a likable character.  His appearance is unattractive.  His behaviors are a mixture of servile groveling, cowardice, and vindictive anger.  Even his name is pejorative.  Clearly he is inferior, we think.  And yet, just like how we are misled about the nature of the society, so are we placated easily by our assured superiority.

Squealer is both intelligent and cunning.  He is not a brave warrior like Kiroumaru, but a driven and idealistic rebel who cares deeply about his cause.  More disturbing to us, his beliefs are not without merit: he and his race are subject to gross inequalities, both under their own queens and the lordly “true” humans.  Seizing the opportunity presented to him, Squealer hoped to better the lot of all Monster Rats.

I do not seek to justify his terror tactics.  Like many revolutionaries before him, he views the potential good of his cause outweighing any evil done in its name.  However, the desperation of his situation and the power of his arguments cannot be ignored.  In one of the best scenes of the series, Saki asks him to apologize for all the deaths he was responsible for.  His retort is simple: he will happily apologize, if only she will apologize first for treating his kin like chaff.  The scene ends with no response.  For a more thorough analysis, I would recommend this post.

The Bad:

As excellent as Shinsekai Yori is, it has a couple noteworthy flaws.  The first is the overall quality of the animation, which noticeably dips on several occasions (the backgrounds remain striking, however).  Episode 5 in particular looks to be done by a different studio, and is frustratingly incongruous with the rest of the series.  However, I don’t wish to spend too much time haranguing on this; it simply makes me a little sad that SSY wasn’t given a better treatment.

There are also plot points that feel slightly forced for the sake of the overall story.  Many of these occur in the early episodes of the series while the children are stuck in the wilderness.  I was incredulous about the ease with which they gained access to the wandering library, bypassing all regulations by the simplest of threats.  The explanation as to how the children got all their powers back was equally convenient.  Finally, the odd menagerie of mutants and technology (gas pumps) that the Monster Rats had access to seemed out of place.

The Tokyo segment also has a distinct sense of being unnecessary.  While it does give an opportunity to become more acquainted with Kiroumaru, the series could have resolved just as effectively by remaining in Kamisu 66.  Overall it felt like more of a detour than a natural progression of the plot.  This and other parts don’t individually sink the series, but it does make it feel flimsy at certain points.

However, despite these shortcomings SSY is a marvelous piece that seamlessly links intriguing concepts of social morality with a harrowing story of children growing up in this brave new world.

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