The Promised Neverland
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Promised Neverland ?
“031145” is yet another perfect example of how stunning The Promised Neverland can be when it commits to its cinematic indulgences and takes full advantage of cinematography, sound design, music cues, and character animation to tell its story. The removal of characters' inner monologue has been a contentious stylistic choice for many fans of the manga, and I absolutely concede that some more fleshed-out character writing would have aided our understanding of characters like Emma and Krone. However, episodes like this one reaffirm my belief that all of that characterization is still there, it's just that the audience is being entrusted with more responsibility when it comes to interpreting characters' performances enough to understand them through less dialogue-driven means. It's a bold decision that hasn't been without its speedbumps, but when The Promised Neverland works, it provides the kind of top-tier visual storytelling that you rarely see in TV anime.
Seriously, how many series would make their most emotionally loaded and meticulously crafted sequence one where a main character walks down the hall to get a glass of water? Norman, who is reeling with the knowledge of his imminent shipment date, is doing his best to comfort Emma while she lays in bed nursing her broken leg, so he goes to get her something to drink. The camera follows close behind Norman, and we hear every thud of his steps as he winds through the hall. The clock ticks in the background. There is no music.
Norman's weary face communicates such a profound sense of pure exhaustion, and we see how much effort it's taking him just to hold himself together when the water from the faucet is enough to knock the cup from his hand. He collapses to the floor, more despairing than ever, and we can't help but feel his utter hopelessness. All of the kids have been fighting so hard in the face of such insurmountable danger, and Norman had his hopes snatched away while he was forced to watch the woman who raised him break the leg of the person he loves more than anyone in the world. In the manga, this scene is almost a throwaway, only a few panels long, and it's filled with narration that explains exactly what he's thinking and feeling; there's no room for ambiguity or interpretation. I often feel that anime can fall into the habit of telling instead of showing, whether because of faithful adaptation to a more text-based source or animation limitations. This approach makes sense in the static medium of comics, but it's heartening to see that Mamoru Kanbe and the artists at CloverWorks trust the audience to engage with the more cerebral elements of this story without needing to hold their hands.
Norman's despair is perfectly counterbalanced by Emma and Ray's refusal to concede their fate to Isabella and the demons. They're ready to break more bones and risk anything else at their disposal in order to realize the only vision of freedom that Emma has ever been willing to accept: nobody gets left behind, no matter what. The emotions in this sequence run warm and fierce, brimming with the camaraderie and optimism that fuels a shonen adventure, though the writing does betray some of the willful flimsiness that has dogged this arc from the beginning. Given how easily Ray manages to assemble his tracker-disabling gadget, I get the feeling that Kaiu Shirai was ready to just get things moving at this point. We also get a monologue from Ray where he reveals that he was never affected by infantile amnesia, which means that he remembers everything he's ever experienced from the moment he was born.
Frankly, this is a pretty clunky development, one of the only times the kids' preternatural intelligence has crossed over from being appropriately heightened to just plain silly. The only reason this even comes up is because it explains how Ray could know about the demons and how Grace Field House connects to the other facilities of the farm. It's pure narrative convenience, and it could have been solved any number of ways that didn't feel quite so lazy.
To make a long story short, the main gate can't be used as an escape route, because it would only lead to more demons and traitorous adults in their path. So the plan ends up involving Ray's tracker-deactivation gizmo, which Norman will use to hide in the forest after scouting the wall, while Emma recovers and Ray gets the rest of the family ready to climb over. Everything goes about as well as expected, and Ray and Emma are ready to stand defiant once Isabella loses track of Norman for good. But something happens once Norman makes it to the top, and it isn't long before he reveals the truth. He looks just as exhausted as he did before, though the resigned smile he wears somehow makes him look even more unnerving. Norman has been broken by what he found. He tells them that he has no plans of escaping anymore.
“It was a cliff,” he says. “Past the wall…is a cliff”. We cut back to Norman on the wall, who is shocked not by the seemingly endless miles of forest that stretch out before him, but the sheer drop into the crags of the earth that separate Grace Field's walls from the outside world. This is why there isn't any security on the walls. This is why children like Isabella were dissuaded from escaping time and time again. This is why Norman seems to have lost all hope. The kids might be able to run, and they might be able to climb, but none of them can fly. Whatever secrets are hiding in the note and the pen that Krone left for Norman to find, they had better be extraordinary, because these kids are going to need a miracle to pull them out from under the clutches of the Mama who loves them so.
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