The Unfulfilled Potential of The Promised Neverland Animeby Jairus Taylor,
When an anime adaptation of The Promised Neverland was announced back in 2018, I was pretty excited. The manga had caught my attention as one of the most uniquely exciting entries to Shonen Jump's line-up, and I was pumped both to see it gain a larger audience, and how its staff would translate its ideas into anime form. Three years later, and the anime has turned into a pretty major letdown for me, and unfortunately I can't say I'm the only one. While the first season of the anime was widely celebrated, its second season has more or less become the punching bag of the Winter 2021 anime season (aside from EX-ARM), experiencing one of the steepest declines in popularity that the anime community has seen in a good while, especially for a manga adaptation.
So what the heck happened?
Before we go deep into this, I'd like to make a couple of points clear. There's absolutely nothing wrong with anime adaptations (or adaptations of any medium really) differing from their source material. Changes should generally be expected if not advocated. The director and staff of any given anime adaptation are as much artists as the original creators, and even the most 1:1 adaptations tend to reflect the skill and creativity of the staff in how the material is handled. Changes often are necessary when translating a work between two mediums, and even adaptations that end up being radically different from their source material, like the 2003 version of Fullmetal Alchemist, are not only valid but can compare well to their original counterparts when handled with the right amount of care and vision.
Secondly, while I'm a pretty big fan of The Promised Neverland's manga, it's got its own share of shortcomings. Original author Kaiu Shirai's focus on narrative and themes over characters means that not all of the cast received equal amounts of characterization, and his writing style could sometimes be a little too on-the-nose at points. Also while he juggled a lot of really interesting ideas during the manga's run, the scope of his ambitions, combined with the constraints of a weekly serialization, could sometimes lead to some severe pacing issues that became especially apparent during the manga's last two volumes, making the final conflict and conclusion feel a little more rushed than was probably intended. Now having made that disclaimer: The Promised Neverland anime adaption is frankly pretty lame, and while the second season might have been the breaking point, it's had issues tracing back to season 1 and how the Grace Field arc was handled.
Back when the manga initially debuted in Jump, there were a lot of immediate comparisons to Death Note, and on the surface it's not hard to see why. Like Death Note's battle of the minds between Light Yagami and L, the Grace Field arc of TPN pits Emma, Ray and Norman in a constant battle of wits against not only their caretakers Isabella and Sister Krone, but also against each other as each tries to achieve their ideal method escape from the demon-run meat farm they call home. I bring up this comparison because when it came time to adapt it into an anime, series director Mamoru Kanbe (whose previous work included mystery and horror thrillers such as Elfen Lied and The Perfect Insider) and the team assembled at CloverWorks amplified that perception of the series as a mystery thriller.
The anime's approach to the Grace Field arc is chock full of tension, with clever camera angles to create the idea that the kids are constantly being watched. Moments of almost complete silence give an extra sense of dread, and the twisted fairy tale aesthetic series artist Posuka Demizu gave the manga was swapped for photorealistic backgrounds that make the area of the Grace Field House look significantly more real and grounded. In keeping with that focus on realism, Kanbe even stated in an interview that he intentionally cut down on nearly all of the monologuing from the manga in order to create a bigger feeling of suspense, and to keep the intentions of characters like Isabella and Krone shrouded in mystery. While this approach had its shortcomings, (changing most of Krone's internal monologues into her talking to a creepy doll just made her look unhinged rather than smart, and amplified her already yikes design even further) it made for a pretty solid season of television that was compelling enough to leave the audience curious where the story would be headed next.
The problem here though is that TPN was never really a mystery thriller in the way its earliest chapters suggested. It's a horror fantasy, and one that leans a little closer towards being a more linear version of Hunter x Hunter than the second coming of Death Note. In a similar vein to how Yoshihiro Togashi shifts the tone and genre of Hunter x Hunter with any given arc, The Promised Neverland also effectively changed genres to better support the needs of the narrative. The mystery thriller elements were vital to the Grace Field arc and filling in the blanks on the main trio's lack of information about the outside world; as that world expanded and the scope of the story grew more complex, Shirai tossed most of the mystery elements out the window. Instead, the post-Grace Field story shifts towards more literal strategic battles (with guns) and an ever-deepening dive into more fantastical elements, which range from the kids having to stave off sentient trees to Emma and Ray navigating a time-space cube in order to bargain with an Elder God that also doubles as a maniacal wish genie.
It's not exactly hard to see how a lot of that clashes with the relatively grounded tone of the anime. That grounded approach worked well enough with the needs of the Grace Field arc, but it resulted in an anime adaption that was ill-equipped to handle the story beyond the orphanage. The anime did a pretty good job delivering on suspense, but turning that into its main focus came at the expense of other elements that were vital to TPN's larger ambitions.
Aside from the aforementioned changes to the visual aesthetic of the series, a lot of the worldbuilding elements that helped to set up those later arcs took a pretty big hit. Some were cut out entirely, while others trimmed down so much that they feel more like exposition rather than explicit foreshadowing or major turning points in the story. Having all of the internal monologues cut had the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the characterization of figures like Isabella and Krone, whose motivations and deference to the sacrificial nature of the farm system is more directly contrasted to whether or not Emma will make a similar choice in abandoning the other kids. The fractured mother-daughter relationship between Emma and Isabella in particular (which Shirai stated as his reason for wanting the series to have a female protagonist in the first place) is given emotional context in the manga that is otherwise lost.
Even Emma herself is hit pretty hard by the anime's approach, and significant chunks of her character arc end up getting left on the cutting room floor. A lot of her growth throughout manga involves her gradually learning to adopt Norman and Ray's more pragmatic ways of thinking. She considers ways to apply them towards her goal of saving everyone, and often questions whether or not sacrifice is actually avoidable. Because the anime largely locks us out of Emma's thoughts and perspective throughout the story, a lot of that progression isn't quite there. Alongside the anime's added vulnerability, Emma ends up feeling less like the hero of the story and more of a participant. Arguably, the anime is more interested in casting Norman in that role, but that's a whole other discussion.
Most importantly is the effect these omissions have on The Promised Neverland's actual themes. While the concept behind the farm system and having a bunch of kids being put on dinner plates is obviously horrible in and of itself, it's an idea that has parallels to a lot of less outwardly insidious systems in our own world. This includes education and the ways in which “brighter” kids are deemed the most valuable, while kids who underperform are viewed as being of “lesser quality” and more disposable. However. TPN directs most of its focus on the kind of defeatist style of pragmatism these systems create in those suffering under them. It convinces unwilling participants that tearing others down to secure their own livelihood within it is their only means of survival, and that accepting that reality of continuously sacrificing others is the safest possible way to live.
Something we see this reflected in the jaded mentalities of Isabella and Krone after their years of subservience, and in Emma, Ray and Norman's conflict over whether or not it's worth their while to risk saving all of the kids, when it would be seemingly safer to escape on their own. This all isn't totally lost on the anime, but its doubled down focus on suspense ends up taking away from how bluntly Shirai expresses his contempt for the nature of these systems. Moments like Isabella's childhood, or Krone's demise while sad in the anime, lose some of the edge they originally had in the manga. The original asks readers not just to pity their circumstances, but to be furious at a system that continually demands these kinds of sacrifices in the first place. That bluntness is also what turns Emma's successful escape through working with the other kids, rather than abandoning them, into the most consistent ideal Shirai expresses throughout the story. He continually emphasizes a belief that our survival hinges on our cooperation, and that survival built on minimizing risk, rather than working towards a better outcome, is ultimately shortsighted in the long run.
This all finally brings us to the topic of the second season. Honestly even putting aside my own obvious bias here, I don't think it's fair to squarely blame the anime staff for its pitfalls since it's clear something happened to the production behind the scenes. We don't know if the anime going its own direction was something planned from the beginning, or some kind of compromise considering the manga has been long since finished. The show itself was airing on the generally sequel-averse Notimina block. Heck, even the extent to which Shirai was involved in the new direction of season 2 is unclear, as while he was credited as supervising the scripts, his name was omitted from the final episodes. It's possible something went very wrong on that end that caused him to opt out of it. There's simply too much we don't know and I'd rather not speculate too much on something that's way out of my own field of expertise. Regardless of what went down though, it doesn't really change the reality that the second season faceplanted pretty hard.
It's hard to say why the decision was made to completely skip over the Goldy Pond arc of the manga, but it really sucks. The arc is a pretty good read, and it's where TPN comes the closest to being a more traditional battle shonen, right down to Emma and Ray going through a mini-training arc. Emma leads an armed rebellion against a group of demon nobles who hunt children for sport, turning it into the series' own spin on The Most Dangerous Game. It's also where the series is coolest, featuring some pretty killer monster designs, and centering around two of the manga's best characters, while also giving Emma time to shine as an actual action heroine. Still, if you were looking at TPN as a whole, it is the least directly important to the plot and the story's overall themes, so if the goal was to trim down the manga material in order to be able to adapt the final arc, I can at least sort of understand the logic behind why that choice was been made. Still, just because the Goldy Pond stuff wasn't directly important doesn't mean it didn't have an impact on the story, and the events and development Emma experiences throughout the arc add a lot more weight to the story as it heads toward the finale. The anime frankly never compensates for this.
The story's evolution from the kids staging an escape to staging a revolution feels like it's missing a few steps, and that certainly bleeds into season two's execution. The final arc itself was pretty controversial even in the manga, but I appreciated how it built off of the previous ideas from the Grace Field arc and how it takes Emma and Norman's conflict over whether or not to go through with demon genocide or achieve liberation through less violent means. It goes without saying that this is some messy subject matter to tackle, but the manga manages to pull some pretty meaty commentary out of it as it explores the shortsightedness and clear dangers of Norman's extremism while still being sympathetic to the ways his experiences have affected him.
More directly, it challenges Emma's idealism while still managing to stress its importance. That conflict is also balanced by the greater evils enacted by the demon nobility and the Ratri Clan. They are the primary targets of Norman's crusade in the manga, and for as nice as she is, even Emma isn't against throwing down with the nobles if they refuse to negotiate. While Ratri Clan and the demon nobles' own circumstances are explored and their warped mentalities are pitied, Shirai comes down significantly harder on them, and it results in some of the most unsubtle and timely “eat the rich'' messaging to ever grace the pages of Shonen Jump, given the global events that occurred during the manga's serialization. It was heavy and the story suffered a bit for it when it came to coherency, but it managed to cross the finish line just safely enough that its finale feels earned.
Obviously if you've sat through the second season of the anime it goes without saying its version of events is considerably more simplified and off-kilter. Taking the time to talk about every aspect of where the anime went wrong would frankly take too long, but it mostly boils down to two key problems. The first is obvious enough: the anime was taking material that was already suffering from some clear pacing problems and actively made them worse. A lot of the arc's most important elements were boiled down to bland info dumps, and the narrative tried so desperately to reach a conclusion that ideas were either flat out abandoned or pulls stuff out of nowhere (seriously, what the heck was it the demons told Isabella to get her back on their side in the first place?).
The second is that the changes straight-up affect the story's own messaging. Diminishing the presence of the demon nobility in the plot and having Norman direct his crusade on some random demon town makes him look simultaneously dumber and less compelling as an antagonist, while both he and Emma get the rougher edges of their characters sanded off in order to bring their conflict to a swift and tidy resolution. The result ends up turning some of the manga's sharpest commentary into a more generic fantasy racism metaphor. The anime's version of events spent considerably less time diving into the cycles of self-serving pragmatism that landed these kids where they are. Stuff like Isabella making a stand, or Emma offering Peter Ratri a chance at escaping his position despite how much she hates him, not only lose their importance to the story's themes, they come out looking like total nonsense. That's frankly an even bigger slap in the face to its source material than boiling its resolution down to a slideshow montage (though that does come pretty dang close).
So at this point it feels pretty safe to say TPN's anime adaption was a total disaster, and it's hard to imagine it won't be living in infamy for quite awhile. Again, it's hard to know who exactly to fault here, and it's hard to know how much of this could have even been prevented, since there's no way of knowing how much of this was clearly planned. If the anime had chosen not to skip anything it could have still faced problems since it was arguably poorly equipped to handle anything past Grace Field. Either way, the end result here is really disappointing, because while it certainly wasn't faultless, The Promised Neverland manga was easily one of the most interesting and thoughtful entries to the Shonen Jump lineup. It's a shame that its anime counterpart failed to live up to its potential.
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