Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Promised Neverland
Emma, Norman, and Ray are three eleven-year-olds enjoying their final year at the Grace Field House orphanage. Their lives seem like veritable dreams, but all of that is about to change: when a child leaving the orphanage to be adopted forgets her stuffed rabbit, Emma and Norman discover that their world is actually a nightmare and their “home” is actually a farm for raising humans for demons' consumption. The three kids realize that they need to get out as soon as possible, but with thirty-four other children all younger than them who also need to be saved, is this even a possibility?
When Jonathan Swift published his satirical treatise on why the economic crisis in Ireland could be solved by eating children in 1729, it took him until the final lines to clue his readers in on the joke. The Promised Neverland takes a page from Swift's A Modest Proposal by beginning like any other story about a group of plucky orphans yearning for real families before dropping its similar bomb at the end of chapter one: just like Swift sarcastically suggested, these kids are being raised as food. Not for the wealthy of course, but rather for what appear to be a race of demons, who at some point after 2015 appear to have taken over the world and have an insatiable hunger for child flesh.
Obviously if the title of this manga led you to expect something to do with Peter Pan, you're in for a nasty surprise. The Promised Neverland's first volume sets up a brutal reality for Emma and her fellow orphans, pitting them not just against the kid-munching demons, but also against the few adults in their world, because the woman they loved and respected as their mother is very much in on the act. It's a sinister take on the usual “orphan fantasy” storyline, raising the stakes considerably, and once the truth is revealed, the story becomes a desperate battle between two sides who are trying hard not to let on what or how much they know. Mother knows only that two children found out the truth; she doesn't know which two. The kids know that she has ways of tracking them and that she's manipulating the situation to her benefit, but they don't know the details. This gives the volume a lot of tension as the sides play off of each other. By the time a third party, another adult brought in to help Mother but who has her own agenda, enters the picture, it's hard to put the book down.
Of course, if we look at J.M. Barrie's tale of the boy who never grew up in a darker light, we can see that this title actually owes a lot more it Peter than its darkness would at first suggest. While numerous suggestions have been made as to why Peter Pan initially decided to leave the regular world and head to Neverland in the first place, several darker modern twists posit that it was to escape the cruelty of adults and their tendency to betray children. “Neverland,” therefore, is the ultimate paradise, a land where children are not subject to the whims of adults and the only grown-ups are those they can manipulate or outsmart. Thus the “promised Neverland” of the title suggests a world where Emma and her family can live unmolested, just like Peter did. The fact that Barrie based the character of Peter Pan off of his brother, who died just before his fourteenth birthday, may also play into the story, since we know that twelve is the cut-off date for kids under Mother's care, killing them just around David Barrie's age.
Emma herself stands to be a very strong figure. Although Norman and Ray are more practical in their plans, Emma has the heart needed to get things done. She's the one who refuses to leave anyone behind, the one who understands that family is important, and ultimately the person who does the most growing even over the course of just one book. None of the three main child leads feel like particularly believable eleven-year-olds, but that's par for the course in a story where they need to grow up very quickly if they're going to survive. By the end of the volume, ten-year-old Gilda has clearly realized that there's something else going on that Emma isn't telling her, so it looks like they'll soon have an additional ally, which they're definitely going to need. To say that Emma is the ray of light in this very dark story might be understating things a bit – this gets very dark very quickly, and the tension almost feels like too much for how close to the start of the story we are. That means that this risks heading into overdrive if it tries to drag things out too much longer – readers can only stand so much.
Posuka Demizu's art nicely complements Kaiu Shirai's story by incorporating plenty of unsettling details into the backgrounds. While we as readers can almost immediately feel that something is off in Emma's cozy little world even before the Swiftian reveal, the fact that most of the hints are in the form of little hints in both phrasing and artwork makes the jarring truth hit that much harder. While the art isn't as clean as it could be, and I'm not entirely comfortable with how the second adult is drawn (she's a black woman with exaggerated features), it absolutely works to enhance the reading experience.
The Promised Neverland takes Jonathan Swift's 1729 joke and turns it into an all-too-real nightmare scenario. With its darker take on the orphan fantasy and its high-tension plotline, this stands to be a welcome entry into the Shonen Jump catalogue of English-translated manga. You won't be getting Barrie's Pan, but if you can stomach the concept, this is well worth reading.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : A-
+ Tense pacing, interesting literary connections, art and story work well together, strong plot and foreshadowing
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