What makes The Promised Neverland so special?
After watching the anime and then picking up with the manga, making my way through the entire series as it exists so far, The Promised Neverland quickly became one of my favorite anime/manga of all time (potentially as high as second, behind My Hero). It was clear to me from the beginning that this was a very special series. In this post, I’d like to try and dig up a bit on what makes The Promised Neverland such an engaging and unique experience.
I’m going to try and break this up into two halves: a half that is non-spoilers for those unfamiliar with the series, and then a half which is full-on spoiler armageddon leading all the way up to the latest chapter released just a number of days ago.
First up, of course, the non-spoiler half.
As I was thinking about the series and what I love about it, there were three prominent themes that really shined through, three themes which can be connected to three other series that really exemplify those characteristics.
The first theme, which I talked about briefly in my first post on The Promised Neverland, is that of the mental-battle, a device used to create an extremely entertaining and dynamic relationship among the characters, as well as serving to twist and propel the plot in meaningful and surprising ways.
This, of course, is seen at maybe its highest level in Death Note. Death Note struck a chord with manga readers and anime viewers for its mature themes and cerebral story. While Goku or Naruto struck their opponents with their fists, Light Yagami and L were doing battle with their minds. This is very much at the core of what The Promised Neverland is. Even in the few “fight” scenes that it does have, the focus is always on outwitting the opponent. For Goku to beat his opponent, he sometimes may have to employ a new strategy, but more often than not he simply receives more power. In the world of The Promised Neverland, the enemies are far more powerful than our heroes, and that is not going to change. The hero must outmaneuver the villains, creating a suspenseful and captivating story, where one false step from the heroes could result in their defeat. This device, the “mental-battle” serves as a foundation to present its other two primary themes: freedom and grace.
The second theme of The Promised Neverland is freedom. Without saying too much for fear of spoilers, the children at Grace Farm are in overwhelming need of freedom — even when they don’t realize it.
And the show that most resonates with this idea of freedom is another of my favorites: Attack on Titan. AoT is focused intently on freedom and survival, each feeding into the other. We must survive so that we may one day be free, and we must free ourselves that way we will be able to survive. This relationship between freedom and survival is intensely present in The Promised Neverland as Emma, Ray, and Norman struggle against the antagonists (again, trying to the best of my ability to keep things vague here lol). This theme of freedom resonates deeply with human beings, which I think is why both of these shows have connected so well with myself and many others. I believe that human beings were created with free will, and so it is intrinsic to our nature to desire and long for freedom. Freedom is something honored and considered valuable far back into history, leading into monumental events such as the founding of America and the freeing of slaves in 19th century United States. Freedom is deeply rooted in who we are as human beings, and the focus on it in The Promised Neverland really makes the series something special.
Last but not least we come to grace. Grace, at its core, is to give to someone the good that they have not earned. It is very close to the traditional shonen-archetype of optimism. Even though I’m not strong enough— even though every odd is stacked against me— even though there is no conceivable strategy that I can utilize to defeat my opponents— things will all work out.
This concept of unwavering optimism is at the heart of nearly every traditional, wildly popular Japanese series. This is the heart of Goku’s character from Dragon Ball; this is Luffy from One Piece; Gon from Hunter x Hunter; Naruto from… Naruto. The culture of anime/manga has seemingly perfected this archetype of indomitable optimism. Another example of this theme is found in my favorite anime/manga of all time, My Hero.
The author of My Hero, Horikoshi, as is the story of so many authors, was discouraged and depressed, on the verge of giving up on his dream to be a successful manga author. He said that he decided to pour all of his happy thoughts into one last attempt — which turned out to be My Hero. My Hero Academia pulls off the unwavering optimism to great effect. From the beginning of the story, we are told the end: the worthless boy with no power would one day become the greatest hero of all time, and this is his story. It is a saga detailing a victory that someone like Deku should have never been able to achieve. But this is not just a bubbly story filled with happiness and devoid of pain — no, not at all. Quite the opposite. It is perched in stark contrast to deep distortion, dark waves of evil, and villains who sometimes make much more sense than the heroes. The optimism of My Hero is not just paired against darkness, but a very real and rational darkness. In other words, the dark side of My Hero is not some detached villain who we as the audience share nothing with, but someone who we can relate to on at least some level.
And understanding the one who stands across from you is the first step to grace.
The Promised Neverland takes the unwavering optimism of traditional anime and forms it in the shape of grace. I won’t say too much more on this side of the post, but my point is that The Promised Neverland utilizes the shonen optimism-archetype and brings it in a different, and beautiful, direction.
That is it for the non-spoiler section! This went on much longer than I was expecting so we are going to stop here. Part 2 will come out later this week, the spoiler side of things.