Updated: Oct 10, 2020
From the very first episode of The Promised Neverland, the unexpected flourishes. The anime isn't how it presents itself on the surface, and while it sports an MA rating with a marketing homogeneous of an adult gore take on Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Labyrinth (1986), this episodic journey is unexpected, innocent and unsettling in such a unique way. Presented through a beautiful variety of animation styles and top tier voice acting, the first season is a deliciously binge-able delight, straight from the strangely mysterious mind of Kaiu Shirai. While it is a very slow moving series, and set around a very simple concept seen multiple times on the Hollywood stage, its complexity will take you into a world not only on screen but also into your imagination, dreaming up the unseen.
The story begins in what appears to be a perfect orphanage in the middle of a remote countryside village; full of trees and space for children to play and embrace country living. The children of the orphanage are well educated and appear to be very well looked after - such as they seem well feed and socialised. However, one day the smarter and older children of the orphanage (aged between 10 and 11) uncover the dark motives behind the facade when they pass over a forbidden small fence surrounding the orphanage's main grounds. Bit-by-bit the children uncover more truths about their home, recruiting the other (younger) children into the know-how as they begin to craft an escape plan to save all the them from the realities of their setting.
Crafting a immense world beyond the boundaries, full of monsters and creature swarmed communities, The Promised Neverland finds its feet by revealing very little of this greater world. Instead, it reveals just enough to keep you intrigued for 12 episodes, ending each episode with a cliffhanger designed to draw you further in for the next episode. While in each, very little actually happen over the 20 minute runtime and the same progress of the story may have easily been achieved in a third of the time but the bulk of the episodes aren't designed to keep the story going. As such. only the ends of the season (beginning episode and last episode) propel the story forward, and it seems the middle takes a different path - and does so very well.
The base of the season wants you to care about these children and overestimate them. It feeds you a very mature, and scary idea with the bulk of young characters responding very maturely to the ideas of mortality, good and evil. Through direction, you start to think they are older and wiser than they actually are, but then a subtle word or action reminds you they are in fact just children in a really messed up world. Time and time again we see stories where children are supernaturally smart and distance themselves from childish things, however The Promised Neverland embraces it and takes them childish things and turns them into tools to help the children's escape. It builds on their youth, rather than dismissing it. Playing tag becomes training, bottle rockets become tools, play time becomes resource gathering time and collecting. Their naive innocence allows them to move fast and adapt, giving them an edge in the battle for their freedom.
However, the binary and cliche approach to good and evil characters is scattered and evident, yet it is confronted and challenged in a way which is refreshing. The notion of who is bad and who is good is blurred, raising the discourse of 'Does doing things to survive make you a bad person?'. This is built well through the human management characters where you see and get to understand why 'people' do the things they do, even if on the surface they seem wrong. This conversation through subtext is ultimately transitioned to you as a viewer, revealing truths about yourself, 'What would you do if you were in that situation?' and not giving you the answer.
While predominately traditional anime style done beautifully, sprinkles of new animation techniques are throughout such as 3D computer generated sequences and slide-in video game style dialogue scene. This allows there to be enough variety in the visuals to hook the viewer without becoming distracting. The world around the orphanage is consistent and thoughtfully designed, and with each new room it feels different enough to qualify yet similar enough to make sense. The use of hyper-detailed close ups also add mystery and tension to some scenes while sometime misleading the viewer into thinking an unjust motive. As you get drawn into the world you are tricked and just as the story tells, what you see isn't always what you get. A cleaver contextual ploy which adds to the excitement of the reveals with each cliffhanger.
The Promised Neverland is a beautifully created piece of anime, nestled in a scary world you never get to see. It tells the story of a supposedly peacefully and happy orphanage in a country side setting, until a dark truth is revealed. While slow paced, cleaver animation and direction lures the viewer in for a ride into a both seen and unseen world where children challenge the status quo for their freedom. It A brilliant anime with re-watch value that can easily be recommended.