The Promised Neverland

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Horror is one of the most under-seen genres in animation. Because audiences don’t follow flesh and blood people, it may be a bit harder to connect emotionally to the horror the characters experience than it would be with live-action. This often results in anime shows which rely more on gore or music for scares, or thrillers that barely dip their toes into horror – until The Promised Neverland.

CloverWorks studio’s adaptation of the manga with the same name wants to challenge the notion that horror doesn’t work in animation, with a story that is as terrifying as it is emotional and simply adorable (yes, we’re talking about Phil).

Writing about The Promised Neverland is tricky since the concept of the show itself is a such a big surprise that I’ll try my hardest not to spoil it. You should just know that the anime follows a group of orphans living together in the Grace Field House. They have everything they could want in life – they’re well-loved, well-fed, have an excellent education, and no cares in the world. But everything changes when two of the older orphans discover that there’s a terrible and deadly secret that awaits the children that get “adopted.”

From there, the show becomes a cat-and-mouse game of secrets and escape plans as the children uncover the sinister purpose of the orphanage. It’s a tense story full of cliffhangers, intrigue, and the most adorable 4-year-old orphan that will break your heart and have you worried for his true allegiance (yes, Phil, we still mean you).

What Makes It Great

The first thing to notice about The Promised Neverland is its fantastic animation. Usually when you think of anime scenes with outstanding animation, you probably think of action scenes like the ones found in My Hero Academia or One Punch Man – scenes with detailed choreography, fluid movements, and characters punching each other in the face. But there are no action scenes in the orphanage, as the kids have no chance of fighting what awaits them. Instead, the elaborate animation opts for subtle nuances and gestures of deep fear and horror. The children are drawn in ghastly manners, with sharp, angular shapes that will surely visit your nightmares. This is aided by an ominous art style and cinematography that sticks to showing things from the children’s perspective, clinging closer to the ground while dark and tall halls surround them.

Through only 12 episodes, The Promised Neverland manages to hint at a vast world, even if we only see a tiny part of it. Each episode reveals more about the orphanage, its management, and what exactly is out there beyond the gates. It’s a story full of twists and turns, relying on surprising cliffhangers that will make you eager to watch the next episode, without ever sacrificing what comes before the reveals. 

Of course, all of this only works because the characters are likable. Because the show focuses on atmosphere and the knowledge of what the consequences are if the children are discovered, the horror then comes from caring about the characters and their fate. From the orphans who are trying to escape, to the younger ones that are completely clueless about what’s going on (like Phil), we’re instantly sympathetic to their situation so that we feel what they feel: sadness, relief, or constant terror. Even “Mom,” the woman in charge of the orphanage and the fate of the children, becomes kind of sympathetic once you know her backstory.

What It Brings to the Conversation

The Promised Neverland isn’t just terrifying because of the monsters lurking in the shadows, but because of how it portrays childhood. At its core, this is a story about children learning that the outside world is bigger and crueler that they ever imagined, and trying their best to survive. Everything and everyone is out to kill them, and for every problem they solve, there are two more waiting just around the corner. When we start learning more about the adults in the orphanage, the show expands this idea to become about how our initial fears as children, our disappointments in the world, and our regrets turn us into what our younger selves would consider monsters.

There is also commentary on how much value we assign to things like perceived fitness even if a child is better at other things, and the perils of categorizing them. Sure, the dangers in this show may be more fantastical than what is out there in the real world, but it doesn’t mean that children can’t consider everyday problems and fears to be actual deadly monsters. 

The most frightening idea comes in the fear that the kids will ever give up hope, which is why despite the gruesome imagery, there is a big sense of optimism imbued throughout The Promised Neverland. No matter how dire things look, the orphans never stop trying to cheer each other up and look for ways to escape.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Because of the self-contained, mostly one-location nature of the story, The Promised Neverland is a great and frightening high-concept show that sustains its initial premise without losing sight of the intrigue and the characters. It’s a simple enough premise that is getting a second season and an inevitable live-action remake soon, so be sure to watch season one before that remake potentially sours you to the concept. This being October, why not give a horror anime a chance? And what better place to start than with an anime show that’s as disturbing and scary and it is relatable and full of likable characters?

Watch This If You Like: It, Seraph of the End, Death Note, seeing adorable kids in mortal danger

The Promised Neverland is streaming on Hulu.

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