The Fall 2017 Manga Guide
The Promised Neverland
What's It About?The Grace Field House orphanage exists in an idyllic forest, with a loving caretaker, and well-mannered children. Emma and her two close friends Ray and Norman score highest on the complicated tests they take each day. Sometimes they wonder what happens to the orphans that leave and why they never hear from them again, but Mama Isabella assures them that soon they'll have families of their own too. When Emma sneaks out one night to follow an adopted orphan to the loading area, she realizes that everything she's ever known is a lie and if she and her friends are ever to know happiness, they will need to plan their escape from Grace Field House.
The Promised Neverland is an original manga written by Kaiu Shirai and drawn by Posuka Demizu. Viz Media will release the first volume on December 5 for US$9.99 or you can catch up with the latest chapters at the Shonen Jump USA website.
Is It Worth Reading?
If none of your friends told you yet, the first three chapters of The Promised Neverland are available to read for free on Viz's official website. This is important information because you need only do two things today: read this review to the end and then immediately read the first three chapters of The Promised Neverland. Even more preferable is picking up a copy of the first volume. It is by far one of the best suspense reads I've thumbed through recently.
Relative newcomers Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu set our stage in the near future where an idyllic house in the woods is home to 30 smiling orphans and staffed by an equally serene “mom” named Isabella. The story lets us settle into the orphans routine of early breakfasts, daily testing, followed by games of tag and hide and seek. Eldest kids Emma, Norman, and Ray stick together while looking after their younger siblings. All of this seems a little too perfect until the narrative takes a sharp left, borrowing a twist from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The children are “the Eloi” but The Promised Neverland's “Morlocks” are even more sinister than what Wells conjured up over 100 years ago.
If cattle gained sentience, the first thing they'd try to do is escape. Thus begins Emma, Ray, and Norman's race to outwit the caretaker they've trusted their entire lives. The trio have to plot a way to overcome the logistics of evacuating an entire orphanage in broad day light, no small task by any means. This is where the manga loses that half point to keep it from a perfect score. The Promised Neverland suffers from what I dub “Weekly Shonen Jump pacing.” There's quite a bit of hand wringing, spoken explanations to the point of monotony, and early chapter plot retreads. The latter is common when manga first start serialization; it's a way to make sure late-comers can jump right into the story, but god is it tedious when you're otherwise on the edge of your seat. It's a delicate balance to walk the narrative edge of being a page turner or making your readers yell, “GO ALREADY!” at the page. Neverland leans dangerously close to the latter; but I'm also incredibly impatient.
Before I forget, I would be remiss not heap praise on Demizu's artwork. It's truly phenomenal. They have an amazing eye for physical detail especially when it comes to creating Isabella and Sister Krone. Both the adults are the immediate villains of the story and Demizu captures their duality of serene and cold, calculating demeanor perfectly. We see little of the manga's other monsters until the end, but they are truly hellish. There's also an above average sense of perspective and gorgeous background artwork to boot.
If you're in the mood for a real nail-biter, The Promised Neverland is a surefire hit.
There are elements of The Promised Neverland that will seem familiar to the avid reader of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, but the first volume brings these things together and infuses just enough heart and just enough of a unique twist to make it stand out as one of the better examples of such manga in recent years. The trappings of the orphanage invoke a historical atmosphere, but the reader soon discovers that's not the case. The contrast between the innocence and joy the children experience inside the orphanage and the world outside its gates is as stark and jarring as it needs to be to properly convey the danger these children are in, despite their obliviousness. Emma, Norman, and Ray make for compelling leads, as they each bring some individualistic talent to the table with wisdom perhaps beyond their years, though that can be explained by the futuristic “education” they all receive and their status as the orphanage's top scorers on the daily tests. “Mom,” the woman who oversees the orphanage, turns the loving caregiver archetype on its head as she proves to be an engaging antagonist, always one step ahead of the children in this game of wits they're all playing with one another—even if she doesn't know exactly who her opponents are.
Shirai's dark story is complemented by Demizu's art. Demizu effectively portrays both the purity and innocence of the children in their sheltered world and the harshness and fright of the world outside. Her designs for the otherworldly creatures are particularly inventive and memorable. She relies heavily on shading to contrast the light within the walls and the darkness without, which may be a little too on-the-nose, but it works, especially when darkness is discovered in a figurative sense inside the walls, too.
The Promised Neverland volume 1 shows promise right from the start and is sure to prove an entertaining cat-and-mouse game in the trappings of an engaging, if limited, setting. Although it tackles some tough subjects, most of the violence isn't depicted on the page thus far, so it shouldn't overly bother those who are sensitive to graphic imagery. The Promised Neverland is a mesh of riveting storytelling and dynamic visuals that promises to only get better from here on out.
Review: It's little surprise that The Promised Neverland stands poised to be Shonen Jump's next big success. Author Kaiui Shirai has a talent for complication, for building ever more elaborate systems of obstacles that hem in and trap his heroes like some organic, growing labyrinth that shifts shape at the very moment those lost within it seem on the brink of escape. There's a constant sense of building tension at playas the trio of Emma, Norman and Ray try to discover the rules of the deadly game they've been forced into against Isabella, their adopted mother, with details perfectly parceled out not just to define the limits imposed on our heroes, but to give the relationship between them and the rest of their adopted family a real emotional weight that makes the monstrous betrayal at series' heart all the more effecting.
It's also fun to play along with, a fact Posuka Demizu's art goes a long way towards selling: her expressive style gives the characters heart, while her cluttered-but-clear-confusing paneling and page composition supplement the series' oppressive atmosphere. Backgrounds may be too sparse to give Neferland the strong sense of place it really needs to sell Grace Field House as the orphans' home, and may be too empty to lend this harrowing game the sense of space it needs in a struggle where life and death can be decided by an unnoticed detail or a matter of inches, but at overall Demizu's art bolsters more than damages The Promised Neverland.
Where this introductory volume goes wrong is in trying to expand its scope beyond the confines of the boarding house-cum-orphanage our heroes call home. The Promised Neverland is a thriller, and so is at its best when it remains lean and focused, when it foregrounds the conflict between its trio of protagonists and the staff tasked with overseeing them. It is also a fable, one that recalls the dark worlds of stories we heard in our youth: its messages are simple, its morals cautionary and straightforward and meant to play off of primal concerns about betrayal and entrapment. If it seems abstract and ill-defined, that's for the good.
There is no need to sketch out the systems running the wider world beyong Grace Field House or to expound on the mythology underlining the demon' world. Doing so in fact detracts from the world immediately before us and effectively trivializes the dynamics at play. It makes more concrete what is most effectively upsetting in the abstract. What is best in The Promised Neverland is it pacing, its structures, and how easily it taps into certain primal fears: it begs for a focused, minimal length. What is revealed later here suggests a story that could span dozens of volumes over which those strengths will most certainly be stretched too thin. It's not a squandering I'm eager to follow.
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