“With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew that they could not understand why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those.”
-The Giver, Lois Lowry
ajthefourth: One cannot go through life, as much as it may pain one’s perfectionist heart to admit, without being inferior to others in various ways. The inverse is also the case and, when comparing one’s self to others, one will always find something that they can best another in. Cliché though it may be, it is our differences that allow us to function as a society. It is the conflicts that arise from these differences that allow growth and eventual prosperity. Dystopian fiction is nothing new, and often aims to depict a state of humanity that has failed to navigate the treacherous balance between prosperity and self-indulgence through the presentation of a controlled, formulaic society. Shin Sekai Yori adds its own spice through the introduction of psychokinetic powers as the next step granted humans in their evolutionary process. Of course, this brings about its own bloody consequences, where select “PK users” abuse their powers, eventually resulting in the destruction and inevitable reconstruction of the current society that the series introduces its audience to.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver was one of my favorite books when I was younger, and its plot is also similar to that of Shin Sekai Yori (Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron also come to mind). Of course, I do not presume the two to be directly related, like Mawaru Penguindrum was to Night on the Galactic Railroad or Underground; however, the way in which both choose to address their themes through similarly-aged leads run parallel to each other, and perhaps The Giver can better inform one of what Shin Sekai Yori could explore from here.
The plot of The Giver revolves around the advent of adolescence for protagonist Jonas, who is about to, according to their society, begin his adult life at the ripe age of 12. At his public coming of age ceremony, where all of the 12 year-olds are assigned their respective career paths, Jonas is tasked with a special job: The Receiver of Memory. In a society where weather is completely controlled, people are bred to be color blind as to comply with The Sameness, and becoming a Birthing Mother is an actual career, people aren’t allowed to feel any sort of strong emotions. Thus, the memories of how cold snow is, what red hair looks like, and the love from when families were blood-related instead of assigned, all reside in one individual, who bears the emotional burden for the supposed betterment of society: The Receiver of Memory. The Receiver becomes a consultant of sorts for the social higher-ups when they need advice on important decisions.
As Jonas begins to receive the memories of what it once was to be human, including pain, happiness, and love, he quickly discovers just how empty his former outlook and feelings were in comparison. Together he and the former Receiver of Memory (the titular Giver) decide that the emotional burden of being human, and all that it entails, belongs to the hearts of everyone, not trapped in a singular person so the rest of society can stagnate in a state of supposed peace. Shin Sekai Yori is currently paralleling these ideas through the characters of Saki and Satoru, who find themselves on the same emotional precipice that Jonas found himself in when he discovered the color red, the tendrils of sexual feelings for his friend Fiona, or how barren his family dinners were when comparing them to humanity’s memories of birthdays and holidays.
Episode Four of Shin Sekai Yori marked the beginning of the paradigm shift for its intrepid leads. After stumbling upon an abandoned library, they are told emotionlessly of humanity’s bloody past, various genetic changes, and social laws enacted by the ruling class that changed the world into the society that they know– the most interesting of which is the idea of “death feedback” which is a forced genetic code that makes any PK user violently ill (to the point of death) if they attempt to harm another human. This is followed up by a surreal fifth episode where the audience sees both Saki and Satoru fumble earnestly with their budding sexuality and engage in violence, two things that are vehemently restricted and prohibited respectively, by law.
While Jonas only had his own emotions to tend to, leading to a few awkward social interactions, Saki and Satoru must now deal with the consequences of breaking the most base rules of their rigid society. Armed with not only the knowledge of the library but their actions from Episode Five, they are more than well-aware that they cannot go back to the time before the school trip. As evidenced by the vanishing Reiko – a PK user who had broken no rules but was unable to control her powers correctly – children who are clumsy and inept are treated equally to those who purposefully break the rules: both are considered unfit social members.
In the end of The Giver, Jonas found a way to release The Receiver’s knowledge and emotions back to society as a whole, for the eventual betterment of his world. It remains to be seen as to how Saki and Satoru will bring about change within their world, but now that they have seen the color red, so to speak, they cannot return.
vucubcaquix: In political terminology, Totalitarianism is a political system that seeks to control all aspects of society. It’s a mode of governing that, while not unknown, is sufficiently alien to us to have it featured in various dystopian works so that we may better understand the commentary that particular work seeks to levy. What interested me in Shin Sekai Yori’s case, is that the group which wields the power in this world is very distinctly Buddhist.
In Buddhism, Precepts exist as a guide and code of ethics for those wishing to participate in Buddhist practices. The number of Precepts vary according to which tradition you ascribe to, but there are five that tend to be generally agreed upon. The first one, known more comprehensively as Ahimsa, states that one should abstain from taking life and acting in violent action or speech to another.
The idea of a totalitarian Buddhist society is a fascinating one. One of the main tenets of Buddhism being nonviolence, it seems to be in direct conflict with our perception of how totalitarian regimes are enacted and enforced in our dystopian literature. How is this dissonance rectified? Through the extreme measures of eugenics. The inability to enact violence upon another human being is literally inserted into our DNA that manifests as something called “death feedback”. This is the Buddhist tenet of nonviolence taken to its totalitarian extreme.
The shape of the narrative for the first five episodes of Shin Sekai Yori implies that this may not be the end of its allusions to religion. The children we follow have grown up in a very measured and controlled society, not wanting for food or shelter, and buffeted against the perceived dangers of the outside world. For a moment they are left on their own as part of some rite, and they wandered about, experiencing what they could in their world. They happened upon a creature that professed to have knowledge of the world at large, and being as curious as she is, Saki stepped forward and bit. This is followed closely and more vehemently by her male counterpart, Shun.
Knowing what they now know, shame, fear, and embarrassment now dog their lives as the children were being set up to be removed from their society for being “corrupted” by knowledge. Not just removed, but stripped of their power as well so that they would be cursed to work by hand. And with that corruption, episode five thus shows the children engaging in activities that were looked down upon without regulation: violence, and sex.
This is a mirror of the Fall of Man that is discussed in the second and third chapters of Genesis. God proceeded to curse them by removing their power and having them work the land by hand, and to be violent with the beasts of the Earth.
The fifth episode specifically dealt with how some of the children were beginning to explore their sexuality, while simultaneously learning to be violent. This marks a turning point in the storytelling that is matched by the art shift.
ajthefourth: Whether the series is directly referencing the Fall of Man, or whether it’s simply a commonality born of humanity’s struggles with its own sexuality, the fifth episode of Shin Sekai Yori shifts in tone due to the knowledge gained in Episode Four and the awkward sexual tension between Saki and Satoru. This shift is marked by a drastic difference in art style, effectively removing this episode from the ones that proceeded it.
The episode makes good use of singular color palettes and filters to lay over nearly every scene in this episode. Certain parts are blue, others are red, green, or yellow depending on location and mood. What is important is not so much which colors appear when, but that they appear at all, casting a dreamlike pall over the episode. In addition to simplified character designs with bolder lines, Shin Sekai Yori aims to single this episode out from its counterparts.
Like Saki, the audience has been waiting through a slow buildup for something to happen. The series shows this to its viewers in the flashes of seemingly disconnected violence before moving on to the pastoral beauty of Saki’s home town in the first three episodes. These contrasting elements keep the viewer in suspense, like the undercurrents of doubt and whispers behind the closed doors of Saki’s home. She knows something is wrong, yet nothing on the surface appears to be amiss.
Viewers, and Saki, are awarded for their patience in Episode Four, where the ancient library explains to them the secrets of their world before they are caught and stripped of their PK powers by the monk of a nearby shrine. The absence of their powers is nothing compared to the shock that they are still dealing with from learning more about their own society. There is a numb sensation in the latter half of the fourth episode that, when followed up by the action and surreal landscape of Episode Five, effectively throws the series into chaos. Everything that has happened since the library doesn’t seem real, although it indubitably is. While they are still running away from immediate danger, they are able to suspend their shock long enough to survive. The more interesting piece of the story is yet to come: what happens when they must return.
vucubcaquix: What does the series mean to accomplish? Five episodes in and we’ve been given a literary and religious framework with which to bravely crusade forward in this new world, and the topics that seem to be at the forefront are emergent sexuality and the nature of conflict in humanity. One of my writers mentioned to me through conversation that freedom through—and from—sex is not a new theme in storytelling, but I hazard to say that anime is not the most adept medium at handling sexuality with maturity. Sexuality and conflict seem to be the central themes that Shin Sekai Yori wish to explore, and the totalitarian Buddhist framework highlights what nonviolence taken to its extreme may look like.
But as long as humanity believes that there is a right, and a wrong, conflict will be an inevitable part of the human condition. Removing the option of conflict has contrived what we’ve seen in the story thus far, which informs us what this show wishes to say with regards to how we address that, as well as the internal conflict that is our budding sexuality.
- Natasha wrote a wonderful post examining the Buddhist elements inherent in Shin Sekai Yori’s ending animation.
- You can watch Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World) for free on Crunchyroll here.