The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
To Your Eternity
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
To Your Eternity ?
What is this?
An omnipotent narrator casts an orb of light to the Earth, watching as this entity copies the shape of a rock and then, many years later, mimics the moss on a rock. When a wolf dies beside the moss, it evolves, taking on the creature's shape and gaining movement for the first time. As the wolf, the orb observes the dead wolf's owner, a young man who lives alone on a frozen tundra, and accompanies him on his journey to reunite with the rest of his townspeople, who crossed the icy wasteland years before in search of a more bountiful country. The time the orb spends with the boy leaves a mark on the entity as it observes, mimics, and bonds with the boy and then the other creatures it eventually comes across—all while transcending death and living for time immemorial. (from manga)
How was the first episode?
There's a curse when it comes to being a reviewer. You learn to break down and analyze every piece of fiction you digest and start recognizing common patterns. While this is vital when you spend a ton of time writing about what you watch, there's also a big problem: you can never turn it off. No matter how engrossed you are in what you're watching, there's always a part of your mind that is taking notes, breaking down plot points, and making connections to other texts even as you watch. And all too often it announces, “I know where this is going” and rips you right out of the story.
So the moment I saw that young boy in the ruins of his village, unbelievably happy at the return of his dog, I knew every single plot point to come in this episode. I knew he was alone and that he was going to head out into the cold to find his people—who were certainly already dead. I knew that he would fail to reach his destination, return home, and die. And I knew that the wolf would become the boy and travel on in his stead. But more than anything, I knew that the whole thing would be emotionally devastating to watch, and so the emotional part of my mind somehow checked out to protect itself, preventing me from losing myself in the story like I would have liked.
Now that's not to say this episode did anything wrong. “Predictable” isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a reason why clichés become clichés: they resonate with people on a deep level and so are used again and again (until, arguably, the effect they once had wears thin).
This episode followed its tragic pattern perfectly. The boy was supremely endearing with his optimism in the face of hopelessness and his willingness to risk it all for something better. It was an excellently performed one-man show—which made it doubly hard not to become emotionally attached to him and his struggle, even knowing he would be broken in the end.
But what really gets me right in the soul, despite my subconscious attempt to protect myself emotionally, is the extra layer of tragedy to the tale that comes in retrospect. The orb, while in the wolf form, only has the intelligence of a wolf. But the moment it transforms into a human—and can no longer continue his relationship with the boy—he gains human empathy and understands all that he has lost with logical and emotional clarity. As a wolf, it was unable to appreciate and make the most of what it had in the moment. And now, as a human, he must live with that knowledge in the eternity to come.
There was a precise moment wherein I knew that To Your Eternity's first episode had earned my total adoration. I had known since before it premiered that it was almost impossible that I wouldn't really, really like this show, having heard nothing but amazing things about the manga, and being very much on board with the general premise of a shapeshifting, immortal being that wanders the world and finds meaningful stories within it. Brains Base's fantastic production values did nothing to dampen my excitement once the premiere finally dropped, and I quickly found myself happily immersed in To Your Eternity's melancholy dreamscape.
I didn't want to fall head-over-heels in love too quickly, though. With more than a few years of professional criticism now under my belt, one of the lessons I've taken to heart is that it is surprisingly easy to assess whether or not a show is probably going to be terrible, mediocre, or good. When trying to determine whether something is truly masterful though, I don't think it's ever quite as simple as brute forcing a score out of the everyday kinds of – “The animation and direction are incredible!” “The music swells with such emotion as to bring the audience to tears!” “The drama and performances are tuned and pitched perfectly, and never once does the show's pathos feel forced, or manipulative!” All of these things are true about To Your Eternity's first episode, of course, but those are abstract descriptors, reasons that you have to come up with after the fact to explain what was, in the viewing of the thing, pure feeling. Great works – the best works – make themselves apparent when you have to get much more specific and personal in order to truly cut to the heart of the matter. Hence, that one particular moment that won me over entirely.
It happens exactly seven minutes and eleven seconds into the episode. The orb-thing that was once a rock and is now a wolf named Joaan has come to live with its boy, and the boy is utterly alone. His people, a nomadic tribe in search of “paradise”, have long since departed across the frozen plains of this corner of the world, while the boy has been left to wait. He etches crude drawings of the family he once had on the wall of his hut. He scrounges fish and other scraps from the frigid water underneath the ice. He is incessantly, almost insanely optimistic in his certainty that his people will one day come back for him.
At seven minutes and eleven seconds, the clatter of makeshift chimes gives the boy a start. He rushes back to the hut, Joaan watching curiously from just behind, and opens the door to reveal nothing but the same old empty home. He stares for a minute, the falter in his smile barely susceptible thanks to the incredibly subtle character animation, and then he sucks in his breath. In just a few moments, the boy will decide to take his not-wolf and trek across the wastes in search of his family. He will trudge through the snow, fall through the ice, and eventually succumb to the crushing despair of having to admit that he is well and truly the last one left.
It's that single moment of impossibly sad disappointment that got to me more than anything else did, that instance where the boy let himself believe that his story wasn't a tragedy, even though the curtains were already closing on its final act. Such a sparse and painfully human experience is incredibly difficult to capture in animation, and To Your Eternity simply counts it as one amongst many. And so, here I am, desperate to see where the being that has now inherited the boy's face will go next. It has experienced hunger, and pain, and confusion, but now it will take up the boy's quest and go in search of more things to feel and know. Whatever that may end up being, we'll just have to see.
Watching the first episode of To Your Eternity is a little bit like having your heart slowly fall to pieces while you keep pretending that it's still whole. The story follows a strange orb sent to Earth (or an Earth- like place) by a god, who narrates the story for us. The god wants to see what the orb will learn during its eternity on the planet, and we see it begin its life as a rock, then moss, then finally taking the form of a Reshy wolf: a large, dog-like animal. The wolf dies beside the orb, and when it takes on the wolf's form, it also assumes its journey – one that leads him to a mostly-abandoned human settlement in the icy tundra where a lone teenage boy remains.
If watching a child slowly lose all hope before dying in pain isn't your thing, this may not be the show for you, because that's what the real plot (in terms of action) is in the opening episode. We follow the boy's pet Joaan, or rather, the orb wearing Joaan's form, as it learns about things like eating, talking, and the various emotions, culminating in hope and sadness. It is utterly, completely depressing, and I cried through the entire second half of it – and while I may tear up easily, I don't actually cry easily. But this is like the depressing child of Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Little Matchgirl, and it is very, very effective.
It isn't easy to create something so sad without it feeling manipulative, which is the real triumph of this episode. Everything feels organic and natural, from the slow destruction of the boy's health based on one hope-filled decision to Joaan's learning process. Even if you can see where things are going, you don't want to, and the show allows you to have that same, groundless hope that drives the boy. The art works with the voice acting (pretty much all from the boy, which again is impressive) to give us the increasing feeling of sad emptiness: the eternally snowy landscape, the deteriorating houses of what was once clearly a village, the final, crossed-out trail marker, and the increasing redness on the boy's face and fingers all tell the story even if you don't want to see it. It is, as a self-contained episode, a triumph of storytelling.
It's also sad as hell, and that's really not something I enjoy, especially since crying and deviated septums don't go well together. But even without actively liking the storyline, I have nothing but admiration for the way it was told. Grab your tissues and don't miss this.
I'm at a bit of a loss for how to talk about this premiere, because it is very much not your typical anime intro. Usually 99% of the episodes I cover for this guide are meant to be introductions to long-form narratives or samples of the brand of comedy one can expect the rest of the show to deliver. But To Your Eternity spends its first 20-odd minutes doing none of that. We get a barebones, casual introduction to the high concept behind the show, delivered presumably by God as voiced by Kenjiro Tsuda, then spend the rest of this opening as witnesses to a tragic, heartbreaking tale of isolation and survival.
It's also hard to write about because nobody in this episode really has names. Our POV character is a nameless orb dropped onto Earth(?) by the aforementioned God that spends a while as a rock before encountering a dying wolf by chance and taking on the deceased pupper's form. Having just barely gained sentience it walks its way back to the original wolf's owner, a boy whose name we also never learn. And from there we simply follow the pair through their daily life, the sole inhabitants of the boy's abandoned village in the frigid arctic land around him, before his eventual doomed trek towards somewhere, anywhere, else.
That being said, “hard to write about” isn't the same as “hard to watch” because this is an absolutely enthralling story all on its own. The boy's tragic story alone would be engrossing, just following him as he decides to set out on his own to follow the rest of the other villagers to “Paradise” somewhere far over the horizon. But combined with the perspective of his otherwordly companion, this intimate story of humanity gains a layer of new significance. Watching a single, solitary lifeform try to conquer the elements before he ceases to be is not just sad, but a pensive contemplation on the nature of life itself. And it's all handled with such a casual gesture that it can feel deceptively simple until the story reaches its inevitable conclusion and the tears start flowing. Original creator Yoshitoki Ōima has only leveled up since making A Silent Voice, and every ounce of that skill is on display in this episode's climax.
It's an absolutely stellar first impression, and the only real issue I have is it's such a singular, complete story that I don't know where we go from here. This is effectively a brilliant short film all on its own, and any guess I can make about what the next story will be is total speculation. But “this is so great, how do you follow it up?” is about the best problem to have for a premiere. So I figure it's best to just wait and see what kind of journey this show can take me on.
I am on the record for enjoying things designed to grab you by the throat. Subtext is for cowards and I want my "entertainment" to shake me with emotional intensity, beat me over the head with raw feeling, and then demand I thank it for the experience. Sometimes my husband will walk into the room and, already knowing the answer, ask me "if I'm watching depressing shit again." The answer is always yes because I need, on a primal level, to see my sad brain reflected back at me. It brings me comfort, but others might find that To Your Eternity pulls on the heartstrings too much to tolerate. And that's fair, because as a manga reader I can assure you that it does not let up from here.
Our undying being (eventually named "Fūshi") takes up a well-trodden role of alien/unhuman being learning what it means to be human via connections with others. What makes this series stand out – and which this opening episode exemplifies – is how naturally the events play out despite the foreignness of everything around him. This world isn't "ours", but concepts like family, love, and hope are very much present. Ōima's original story also builds a fully-realized world, so even those less interested in the emotional drama that plays out on screen could find interest in the vastness of cultures and traditions fleshed out in the series. While this first episode represents a small arc (or "prequel") in Fūshi's travels, it's incredibly important. Every step he takes from this point on is in service of carrying on the boy's hope.
The anime adaptation sticks very close to the manga, and this is one of very few series where I'd agree that very little needs to be done to the story to ensure it resonates with the audience. Of course, it is able to build off its origin simply by being in motion and using color. The boy's journey across the barren arctic wasteland is even more effective in animation as we witness his fingers and nose become increasingly susceptible to frostbite despite him pushing forward out of sheer will. We watch as he uses Fūshi, who he thinks is his pet Joaan, as a representation for his own self-doubt simply so he can bury any inclination of giving up. It's incredibly moving.
To Your Eternity's first episode is a perfect example of telling a full story in the span of 25 minutes. I like to think the ending means that the boy did reach paradise and finally taste sweet fruit in his last moments. Now excuse me, I got some dust in my eye.
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