Brief warning: SPOILERS AHEAD (mostly just details about the pilot)
The Promised Neverland is an anime television series that aired from January 11 to March 29, 2019 on Fuji TV. It was recently picked up by Netflix in the beginning of September this year. Though The Promised Neverland consists of only a single season with 12 episodes, what this show is able to accomplish in that short amount of time is monumental and awe-inspiring. The show takes its viewers on an emotional journey that is relatable, heartbreaking, hopeful, and memorable.
A description of the show’s premise is as follows: Set in the year 2045, an 11-year-old child named Emma and her two genius best friends Ray and Norman live in an orphanage with a bunch of other children under the age of 12, where they are under the watch of their caregiver Isabella, whom they refer to as “mom.”
In the pilot, the characters seem to have a happy and loving family dynamic within the orphanage. The children are not allowed to venture out past the boundaries that have been set around the grounds that separate the orphanage from the gate that connects to the outside world. They wonder what’s out there but are also content to remain in the orphanage because of the happy life and loving family dynamic they have.
But there is a horrifying twist.
It begins with a child in the orphanage named Conny being prepared to be shipped away from the orphanage because she is being adopted by a family.
The rest of the children congratulate her and say their goodbyes as she leaves with Isabella to go to the gates. Conny was previously seen in the episode holding a stuffed toy, which she forgets to bring with her as Isabella escorts her to the gates of the Orphanage. Emma and Ray notice her stuffed toy back at the orphanage and run to catch up with her and Isabella. When they arrive at the gates, Conny and Isabella are nowhere to be seen, as all that’s there is a car. They look around and Emma’s soul nearly leaves her body as she discovers what’s in the back of the car. She immediately drops the stuffed toy. Norman notices her and comes to her side and is extremely startled to see what’s in the back of the car.
Conny’s dead body.
The viewer (us) is as shocked and horrified as Emma and Norman are, but the surprises are not over yet as Emma and Norman hear someone approaching, so they hide under the car. They are confused and disturbed as they hear a conversation between two people referring to Conny as meat, and referring to the orphanage as a farm responsible for producing high-quality human flesh to be consumed by the rich. Emma peeks from under the car to see an ugly, animalistic face on a demonic body, and she nearly screams. They are shocked to see the demons in conversation with Isabella as their view of the mother in their life is shattered. They escape the gate and run back to the orphanage and have to deal with the bleak news they have just received.
So after just the first episode the protagonists lives are turned upside down as the only parent figure in their life is giving away their brothers and sisters to be killed and eaten by demons. It’s clear that the show is set in a dystopian future as demons are kidnapping children to deliver them to the rich, but the details of the outside world are still a big mystery as the show is only set in the orphanage. Emma and Norman not only have to deal with the significant psychological trauma of seeing the dead body of Conny, whom they considered a sister, but also the fact that the woman they call mother is actually taking such good care of their family in order to prepare them as “high-quality meat” to be consumed by demons. We immediately want to root for them because they are in such a hopeless position and are still worried about the wellbeing of their family and even their mother, who is the antagonist. Norman assures a dejected Emma that they can escape if they stay strong and use strategy to outsmart Isabella.
Norman is in many ways the heart of the show. He is an exceptionally smart, young child who treats his family with love and kindness. He is the balance between Emma, who is an emotional, fun-loving optimist who always sees the bright side of things, and Ray, who is an independent, cunning, bluntly skeptical, and loyal child. These three protagonists face the nearly impossible task of escaping an orphanage, where they are constantly monitored, to an outside world they have no knowledge of. Each protagonist has such a strong appeal which makes us as viewers want to root for them in their quest to escape.
Emma is the main protagonist, and she appeals to our sense of hope, optimism, and loyalty. In the face of unimaginable adversity, Emma remains positive not only for herself, but for her younger siblings whom she feels she has an obligation to protect and care for. Even after seeing that Isabella is giving away members of her family to be consumed, she still shows compassion and mercy to her.
As previously stated, Norman is in my opinion the heart of the show. This is because he balances out Emma’s hopeful yet sometimes blind optimism and Ray’s blunt realism and stubbornness. Norman always puts on a smile when with has family, no matter how dire the circumstances may be. This is because along with caring for the wellbeing of his family, he is also aware of the effect he has on them, as they all respect him and look at him as a role model. Norman’s appeal lies in the fact that he has exemplary character traits that draw respect from all of those around him, including his enemies.
Ray is the introverted, independent one of the trio who prefers a good book to spending time with others. Like Norman, he is brilliant and always scores perfect on the tests taken at the orphanage. Ray appeals to our sense of independence and rationality. Not everyone is as social and vibrant as Emma or even Norman. Ray appeals to those who take a shyer approach to social interaction and those who analyze things with a skeptical and rational point of view.
Emma and Norman decide to tell Ray about the situation and there is an ethical dilemma that they have different opinions on. This isn’t an ethical dilemma that is simple, non-important, or one that we don’t care about. The ethical dilemma is important to the story, has real stakes, and is completely valid. The ethical dilemma is whether in their escape, they bring all of the children at the orphanage, or not. Emma, Norman, and Ray all decide to escape, but Emma wants to bring all of their younger siblings at the orphanage to save them, since leaving them would ensure that they are “sent away” and killed by the age of 12. Ray believes that escaping with all of the children is impossible since there are too many younger children they have to attend to, to be able to escape with them. Ray feels that the younger children who can’t look after themselves will be a hindrance that will make the escape impossible. As viewers we obviously root for Emma’s point of view because we know what happens if they leave the children at the orphanage. However, we also understand Ray’s point because it’s rational. They are children themselves, and expecting them to be able to care for themselves and younger children and babies while escaping is unrealistic. Watching to see how the characters deal with this ethical dilemma keeps us on the edge of our seat, seeing the decisions they make and the consequences.
Throughout the season, there is a scary feeling of impending doom whenever the children find moments of quiet to confer on their plan of escape. There are also new characters introduced as roadblocks to make the escape more difficult, and at times it seems hopeless.
Mystery is mixed in with horror in the way that the scenes are animated. In scenes where characters are going behind other characters’ backs, the camera is placed in a way where it looks like our point of view as viewers is of someone who is secretly watching and listening in on what the characters are up to. The choice of music also helps build tension and suspense which keeps us hooked. Each episode intentionally ends with a cliffhanger because the writers of the show intended for us to be on the edge of our seat, needing to see what happens next.
Another example of the subtle brilliance of the show is the contrast between light, happy themes and heavy, dark themes. The situation and big picture are without a doubt very bleak for the children in the orphanage, as they are destined to die before the age of 12. However, the show does a fantastic job of balancing out the heavy moments with moments of joy, fun, and love. The lighter moments come from the children’s interactions with each other in the orphanage during times they’d play with each other and have fun.
In conclusion, The Promised Neverland is an intricate, well-made show that doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand by over-explaining the plot, and it makes sure to entertain and elicit emotion along the way.