Anime Review: The Promised Neverland [Season 1]
The Promised Neverland was a horror, dark fantasy thriller which, across the course of two seasons, followed the story of 38 children raised in an orphanage surrounded by dense forestry and high walls. Although the series started off on a joyous and carefree note, this mood quickly took a turn for the worse before the end of the very first episode. Unfortunately, the quality of the anime mimicked a parallel decline after the end of the first season, culminating in an ending so disastrously unfaithful to the overarching story that it has gone down as one of the worst anime adaptations of all time- worthy of first place on our "Top 5 anime with Wasted Potential" list, had it ended sooner.
In this exclusive two part review, we'll take you though a detailed walk of the plot of the anime and explain just how an anime with such a masterfully choreographed first season could go so bad, so fast. The Promised Neverland has cemented itself as one of the biggest tragedies in anime (and we're not even talking about the plot yet) and even though it ended exactly one week ago, followers of the anime remain just as sour today and this is unlikely to change in the near future. That said, let's delve into season 1 of the chaotic catastrophe that was The Promised Neverland.
A spoiler alert is in effect for the rest of the article, so stop right here if you have plans to watch this show yourself! This week's article will review Season 1, but some light spoilers for Season 2 may also be present.
TPN took off with a resounding bang, gracing its viewers with a boldy charming art style, well fleshed out characters (*chuckle*) and a strong plot. The anime saw instant success in both Japanese and international audiences, garnering an abundance of well-deserved hype. The pacing was perfect and the setting was immersive; two cardinal checkpoints of any successful anime.
The show wastes no time in introducing its 3 main characters (the oldest children in the "house")- orange-haired cheery and caring Emma, the black haired, quiet and perpetually observant Ray and white haired calm and collected Norman. We are also loosely introduced to all the other children as they go about their daily activities, which essentially include playing games, studying and giving tests. All the children in the House are expected to follow this lifestyle until their time for adoption nears. Emma, Ray and Norman are the best performing students among all, as should perhaps come as no surprise since they're also the oldest.
The final major character to be introduced in the first episode is Isabella, fondly referred to by all the children as "mom". She is a kind, gentle and benevolent woman who sees to all of the 38 children and fulfills her duties as a caretaker with remarkable enthusiasm and efficiency. All of this happens in just the first 10 minutes of the show, cementing the events that follow on a firm scaffolding of thoroughly developed characters.
Season 1 only gets better from here. Conny, a 6 year old girl, is given news that a family is ready to adopt her- an occassion met with mixed emotions; the children are evidently happy for the little girl, despite their sorrow at having to see a friend leave. Nevertheless, it is astounding to note the maturity with which these children- all of whom are 11 years or less- respond to the news; this is an element which maintains itself throughout the course of the show, right down to the very last episode in season 2. The Promised Neverland, despite the gaping flaws that shall soon be discussed, has the distinction of being one of the very few anime that respects its characters enough to give them a strong element of maturity without compromising on the realism of any situation.
As Conny leaves the Home with Mom, Emma and Norman discover that the girl has left behind a stuffed toy and head off towards the disappearing child and caretaker to return the toy. To their utter dismay, once Emma and Normal reach the thick iron gates at the end of the House, the children are mortified to find Conny's corpse floating in a glass container. The children quickly take cover under a truck as they witness a demon emerge... along with Isabella. Norman and Emma's eavesdropping reveals that the House is actually a farm where human children are grown and harvested as crop to feed demons; Isabella is no more than a shepherd guiding these children to their slaughter.
Norman and Emma narrowly escape the encounter without being seen, but they make a critial mistake:
The next few episodes immediately see a dramatic increase in tension. Isabella, although not initially expressive of her suspicions, brings in another caretaker by fhe name of Krone into the fold to assist her in her duties. Norman and Emma share their concerns with Ray and the trio get to work on their escape strategy. It is at this point that The Promised Neverland showcases the best of its character development; the viewer is made aware of the sheer difference in power between the children and their scheming caretaker, and the flaws of each character quickly come to light as the stakes increase. Most anime have a tendency to detach the viewer from the villain as a means to make them appear shrouded in mystery, but TPN is unafraid to walk its characters on the ever treacherous tightrope between "what you know" and "what you think you know". This masterful exhibition brings yet another dimension into the actions of both the children and Isabella as both parties attempt to outperform the other as the plot inevitably draws closer to the impending finale.
Emma, Ray and Norman discover that the children have all been fitted with tracking devices in their ears, as Isabella is able to find them with ease if they stray for too long in the woods. They then proceed to train the rest of the children (who are still ignorant of the reality of the situation) on how to rapidly escape the House by playing games of tag during the day- in so doing, they discover the true bounds of their enclosure to be high walls and secretly make plans on how to scale them. As the children advance in their plans, the newly introduced Krone is shown to envy Isabella's position and the tension between both antagonists begins to make itself known, setting up yet another interesting element to the story that many other shows shy away from- even the villans aren't safe here.
In the world of The Promised Neverland, it's eat or be eaten.
In an attempt to sabotage the children's attempts to escape, Isabella recruits Ray as a spy, but Norman is quick to thwart her plans and wins Ray back onto the trio's side. The children also confide in two other characters: 10 year old Don and Gilda, who- despite their differences- still manage to follow suit with the trio's plans. The dialogue between the characters is shown to be very carefully picked and the children's personalities are showcased to full effect.
It is imperative at this juncture to break off from our narrative and appreciate just how multifaceted these character interations are turning out to be. Far too often in anime do we see the cliche of the cheery character's naivety land everyone into trouble, but Emma proves herself to be no fool. Even though Ray is arguably the most selfish among the three children and prefers to save only himself and his two best friends, Emma remains adamant at every opportunity to not leave any child behind. Norman finds his niche as the balancing party between both extremes, and is often the glue that holds the trio together- he settles heated disputes, thinks with a cool mind and always has a compromise ready. Don and Gilda, despite not having nearly such strong personalities as the main trio also readily prove themselves to be morally sound characters and displays exemplary courage whenever put to the test. All of this interwoven complexity in character interactions makes the first season of TPN the absolute masterpiece that it is.
Krone takes the show's plot to new levels when she confronts the children about their knowledge of the farms and offers to help them escape, if only as a means to usurp Isabella as the mother of the farm. The children discover clues left behind in the library by an unknown entity calling himself "William Minerva", and further their plans to escape... unfortunately, Isabella's time to unravel her plans has come.
Isabella informs Krone on short notice that she will be shifted to another farm; the unsuspecting woman is lead behind barred gates, where she is confronted by the Grandmother and shortly thereafter killed by a demon. Her rivalry aside, Isabella now focuses her crosshairs on Emma, Ray and Norman. She breaks off her deal with Ray, locks him in a room and goes out to hunt Emma and Norman, quickly tracking them down with her radar. A confrontation ensues whereby Emma attempts to hold down Isabella and shouts at Norman to scale the wall with ropes. Isabella acts instantly, breaking Emma's leg, thwarting Norman's escape and presenting him with news that he will be shipped out the very next day.
The ensuing interactions between the children as they realize that they have been thoroughly outmaneuvered constitute some of the best interactions that the show has to offer. The utter desperation in Emma's attempts to come up with a plan for helping Norman escape, coupled with Ray's utter sense of failure and Norman's calm dismantling of all of Emma's proposals bring out the darkest moments of the show in more shades of despair than any other anime has offered. Ray reveals that he has known the true happenings of the farm all along and Norman's utter selflessness makes itself evident when he refuses most suggestions to escape with the reasoning that security would be tightened for all those who may attempt to follow. Norman finally yields after continued pressure, but to everyone's despair, returns in the evening and is shipped off that very night. He tells his aghast friends that beyond the wall lies a deep precipice separating the farm from the forests beyond, claiming that an escape is impossible. Emma and Norman's farewell easily goes down as one of the most emotional moments in all of anime:
The season finale approaches fast and hard, advancing to the climax with relentless pacing. For the two months after Norman's departure until the night before Ray's 12th birthday and the day of his own shipment, the mood is sombre. Everyone has admitted defeat and all sense of resistance has been mitigated... until the end of episode 10, when we are greeted with a smile from Emma. While the viewer instantly understood that this signalled the start of something unexpected, the events which followed took even the most observant viewer by surprise.
Ray attempts suicide by trying to set himself ablaze in the middle of the house, but is stopped by Emma, who reveals to him that Don, Guilda and herself have been making preparations for an escape all along. They set the room on fire and Emma cuts her ear off to remove her tracker; she fools Isabella into believing that Ray had attempted to set himself on fire and leaves the confused caretaker to take the bait while the house is evacuated. Isabella quickly realised that she'd been fooled:
Too little, too late.
It is revealed that the kids have all made a plan to leave and that a compromise has been reached to leave all those below 4 years of age behind. Ziplines fashioned out of ropes tied to rock weights are stretched across the precipice and the children swing over to safety in the forest beyond... until only Emma is left. Isabella reaches just as Emma prepares to leave, but it's too late. Emma swings across and the lines are cut to halt all persuit. Isabella is left standing on the wall, and it is revealed in a memory that Ray is her son.
That concludes Season 1 of The Promised Neverland, and what a note to end a season on! The ending is vague, since we still don't know what lurks beyond- but it is relieving to see the kids leave the clutches of the Grace Field farm and make their way out into the world. It is truly unfortunate that the second season went downhill just as fast as season 1 built up to the brilliant work of art that it had become renowned for. Next week, we'll explore the second season of The Promised Neverland and cover just how the anime went downhill. Catch you at the bottom of the staircase!