If you’ve been reading The Anime Annex, it should be apparent that I like psychological horror. During a horror panel last year at AnimeNEXT, the panelists brought up an apparently disturbing manga that had been recently announced as an upcoming anime. Obviously, this sounded intriguing to me. However, I wouldn’t classify this anime as horror, although some of it is certainly terrifying.
The Promised Neverland focuses on an orphanage which houses 38 children who range from toddlers to pre-teenagers. However simple that premise sounds, I am very happy that I didn’t know any more details before I watched. Though I haven’t read the manga, I’m assuming that the story moves to the horrific twist as quickly as the anime does. I’d like to start with a stronger spoiler warning than normal – do not continue reading if you are at all interested in the show. The final minutes of the first episode set up everything that follows, and it is imperative that you go into this anime with no knowledge of what happens. You have been warned (spooooky).
The orphanage in which this anime takes place is in a secluded location surrounded by forest, and ultimately a gated area leading to the outside world (…it’s not like a secluded house surrounded by forest sounds like the premise of a horror film or anything…). It has been instilled in the children that they cannot try to exit, but none of them know what is outside of the gates. All of the kids, however, are very happy and close with each other. The caretaker in the house is referred to as “Mom,” whose real name is Isabella, and she is a soft-spoken woman who constantly smiles, loves the children, and they all love her too. Three of the children, Emma, Norman, and Ray, are the main protagonists, and standard tests reveal that they are the smartest children in the orphanage. Emma is happy, active, and intelligent, though a bit naïve. Norman is extremely intelligent, polite, and reserved, and Ray’s intelligence seems to rival Norman’s, but Ray is very closed-off and curt.
Some of the kids have heard and read stories about the outside world, but don’t believe they will experience such things until they are adopted. One of the younger children, Connie, is adopted in the first episode and everyone says goodbye to her. Isabella walks Connie across the meadow toward the gate, but the kids realize that Connie left her stuffed animal behind (this happened to me once too, and I lost that stuffed dog forever). Emma and Norman rush to bring it to her, and this is where they make a terrible discovery. The gate is open, and they walk through it to peer into the back of a wagon where Connie’s lifeless body lay (alright my situation did not go this far…). Monsters enter and the two children, barely able to contain their terror, hide under the wagon. As the monsters talk with Isabella, it is revealed that the orphanage is a farm where children are raised solely to feed the monsters. Although Emma and Norman successfully escape back to the orphanage undetected, the stuffed animal was dropped near the truck. This lets Isabella know that someone has learned the truth.
This first episode accomplished a lot in just over 20 minutes (including giving me nightmares). The anime established unique, endearing characters and revealed just enough about their plight, but then unveiled an enormous twist. That simple but impactful twist implicitly revealed so much about this world without actually showing very much at all. Though many questions are immediately raised, the end of the episode establishes Isabella as a primary villain despite her friendly and warm façade. This was a huge and intense leap right into the world of The Promised Neverland. However, it is the three main characters’ complementary personalities and their relationship with Isabella that make The Promised Neverland so interesting. The remaining episodes contain failures, victories, and twists for the cast of main characters as they must figure out a way to escape.
Emma is very naïve, but her capacity to deeply care about all of the children in the house truly illustrates her good nature. When the three main protagonists begin to devise a plan to escape, Emma refuses to discuss any plan that leaves even the youngest and most dependent children behind. Furthermore, she proves herself as an asset, especially near the end of the season. Ray, for reasons I won’t spoil here, has information the other kids do not, and is a cold-hearted but sometimes sensible contrast to Emma. He is dark and easily agitated, but once you learn more about him, his faults are somewhat understandable (and he comes complete with emo-hair covering one eye). Norman is the smartest out of the three and almost never loses his composure no matter the situation. In this way, these three children are perfectly balanced, and even though they sound like simple character archetypes, their personalities, especially against the terrifying world in which they live, never seem boring or predictable.
Without giving many further spoilers, there are reasons the children cannot and do not all escape immediately. There are reasons that Isabella doesn’t just send all of the children out to be eaten immediately (maybe children are just very filling…sorry, too much?). Without relying on violence or constant fast-paced action, The Promised Neverland still had me on the edge of my seat. The psychological battles waged in the orphanage are the primary conflict, with the constant threat of death as the terrifying foundation. In this way, it is the characters’ calculated plans that serve to move the plot forward. There aren’t many physical altercations, nor are there many deaths – it’s the tension and uncertainty that makes this anime so captivating.
I typically try to find deeper meaning within stories, which should be evident from past articles in this column (I swear I’m going to get a PhD in anime studies). With The Promised Neverland, however, I found myself pondering different possibilities. Sure, there’s the obvious parallel to real animals and farms, but I thought of something different – this anime may literally be a metaphor for children growing into adults and being forced into labor and responsibilities by societal norms as dictated by the powerful.
As children, these “orphans” are completely cut off from the rest of the world and are therefore blissfully unaware of the dangers, conflicts, and true nature of life outside their very narrow scope. This is much like actual children’s lack of responsibilities and knowledge of the internal and external conflicts that they will likely face in life. The monsters in the show who use the children as sustenance symbolize the way in which the rich and powerful use subordinates as fuel to further their goals, whether in business, politics, or personal relationships. The children in The Promised Neverland who discover that they are going to be “eaten by the rich” propose an escape. Essentially, these kids refuse to abdicate to the powerful and will instead forge their own paths, not one predetermined for them. Isabella, as the adult serving the children to the monsters, parallels the parents in real life who don’t push their children to think or act independently and question why social or political norms are the way they are. All of this reflects reality, as many people don’t dream of office jobs or trades and would rather pursue non-traditional work in the arts, or simply refuse to live by society’s rigid standards. The conflicts in real life occur when their “old school” parents try desperately to cling to “the way things were” while attempting to forcibly instill dated “values” into their children, just as Isabella does everything in her power to foil the children’s escape and continue a long-standing tradition within The Promised Neverland.
Unfortunately, I do have a complaint about the show. The final episode of the season had its own wonderful twists, and in a way, was a nice resolution…except for the very end. The Promised Neverland will have a second season which will premiere next year, but the “cliffhanger” gives absolutely no clues regarding how the series may progress and didn’t feel very satisfying. Ultimately, I’m left with many questions and am excited to see how the next season begins, but it just didn’t feel like a great stopping point. However, that should not be taken as a huge strike against this show. The Promised Neverland tells a great story with great characters, and constantly had me excited to see what would happen next. I would recommend this show to literally anyone who likes suspense…but it is not for small children.