What are we most afraid of? Simple answers include monsters or the dark, or more broadly various things that can cause us harm. Others go in a more abstract direction and say that it is the unknown. What lies at the root of all these fears, and what humans, or really any sentient being, is most afraid of is powerlessness, and rightfully so. This is the theme that is the core of Shinsekai Yori.
Shinsekai Yori is the tale of a girl named Saki and her friends throughout their lives. The story progresses in multiple ways simultaneously. On one hand, is their progression from young children to adults. Another is how they slowly come to learn their history and about the world around them, and come to understand why it came to be that way. And the last is the progression of the queerats, being that are sentient but ultimately weak and subservient to humans, at least at first.
The story begins with Saki, age 12, finally being ‘visited’ by the ‘spirit of blessing’, which essentially involves everything in her room beginning to float and fly around her. What this actually indicates is that, she has finally grown to have a Cantus, a mysterious power that all of humanity appears to possess that allows them to supernaturally manipulate the world around them. Her parents are incredibly relieved and send her to a ceremony outside the holy barrier, where her Cantus is sealed and then unsealed, which is to give her stronger control over it. She then goes to a new school, which all her other friends from Group 1 had already graduated to before her: Maria, Shun, Satoru, Mamoru, and Reiko. There she learns more about her Cantus and how to utilize it. Most of her group is reasonably adept, except Reiko. Reiko disappears and is never seen again. Everyone seems to forget about her.
Later, they go on a camping trip. They encounter what is called a False Minoshiro, which is really an encyclopedia in sentient form. They learn all about their history and the way society came to be. Long ago, when the Cantus first appeared, society collapsed. Those with the Cantus took control ruling as emperors and kings and treated those without it as ants. Eventually this system too collapsed. From it, scientists created a new society, where only Cantus user humans remained, where they would be conditioned from birth to be trained in how to use their Cantus, and where they would have a system called ‘death feedback’ installed into them that would make it impossible for them to kill other humans. The only two major threats that remained for this society were thus Fiends and Karma Demons. At this point, a wandering monk finds them, destroys the False Minoshiro, and seals their Cantus, and begins to take them to the temple to deal with them having heard classified information.
On the way, they encounter the warriors of a foreign colony of Queerats, the Ground Spider colony, that appears to have no qualms about fighting and killing them. The monk appears to have taken damage from ‘death feedback’ due to an illusion cast by the False Minoshiro, and is ultimately killed by the queerats, leaving the children to fend for themselves without their Cantus. They ultimately are split up, with Saki and Satoru being captured, and the other three getting away. Saki and Satoru eventually escape, and while being chased are found by another queerat, who identifies himself as Squealer, a member of the Robber Fly colony that is loyal to humans. He takes them to their colony, where they meet the queen and rest for the night, after which Squealer claims that he will take them to their boats. During the night, Saki discovers a way to bring back Satoru’s Cantus, and just in time to prevent a surprise attack from the Ground Spider colony. Under the pretext of making sure they are safe and taking them along a safe path, Squealer ends up tricking Saki and Satoru into again and again using their Cantus to damage the Ground Spider colony. However, only Satoru has his Cantus, and he is still a child, so eventually it becomes too much for him, and they retreat. Luckily they are saved by another colony loyal to the humans in the area, the Giant Hornet colony, led by Kiroumaru, coming their aid and crushing the Ground Spider colony. With that, they finally go home, and revive everyone’s Cantus, and ultimately seem to have gotten away from the situation unscathed, though that is hardly the case.
Two years later, everyone is getting in relationships. Saki is in a relationship with Maria, though also seems to be in love with Shun. Mamoru also seems to be in love with Maria. And Satoru and Shun are in a relationship. Shun randomly breaks up with Sotaru and disappears. They go in search of him. Saki ultimately finds him far away and discovers that he has become a Karma Demon. Ultimately every human slowly leaks out their Cantus, which slowly causes the world around them to change, and plant and animal life to evolve and change at a rapid rate. But some people have even less control. Their subconscious slowly puts out a Cantus that corrupts and destroys everything around him. These are known as Karma Demons. Ultimately, not wanting to hurt Saki, he seals himself away, presumably to his death.
Afterwards, veryone forgets about him, or rather seem to replace him in their memories with someone else. But Saki has lingering doubts, which she conveys to her three remaining friends. Satoru shares similar doubts and hence agrees that their memories must have been tampered with by the village. Saki then begins to remember the other girl in their group, and then her sister who she also seemingly forgot. They come to the conclusion that the village gets rid of those that they deem may become a threat by having factors that may cause mental instability, such as being unable to properly use their Cantus.
Mamoru seems to be the most shaken by these revelations, which makes them incredibly worried when he suddenly disappears. They search for and find him far away, near where they camped long ago, being helped by a queerat from a different colony. He says that he had been marked for removal. That he had seen a tainted cat come after him, what the village used to get rid of humans due to the inability of humans to kill each other. He says that that running and escaping was something he must do because he wished to survive. Saki and Satoru go to the village to get supplies and a better idea on how to deal with the situation, but are captured by the Board of Education. Saki is questioned, and it seems that she would ultimately be sentenced to death, but Toriiko, the head of the ethics committee steps in on her behalf. She gives both of them three days, and says that if they can bring Mamoru back she can guarantee his safety, but if they run away they are guaranteed to die.
Saki and Satoru go off to search for them, and discover that he and Maria had moved from where they left them. They continue searching for them and end up with the Robber Fly colony again, where Squeler is now the commander. They discover that he has also grown to unite a large number of colonies under his control, and that the colonies are no longer rules by a Queen, but through a democratic system and by colony representatives, with the Queens being drugged and used solely for production of new colony members. Saki finds the situation disgusting, but with the more pressing matters of Mamoru and Maria, she asks Squealer to take them to the colony that the queerat that had helped Mamoru was from. Squealer tricks them again, and they end up pressuring the colony to join with Squealers coalition. But they eventually do reach their objective and find the queerat in question, who gives them a letter from Maria and Mamoru detailing how they wished to live, and thus had to go far away, and that they would appreciate it if they told the village that they had died. Squealer agrees to help them, and says that he’ll produce fake skeletons from dead queerat bones since the skeletal structure of tall queerats and young humans is about the same. They do so.
Saki is now 26, and works for the department of exospecies control, which essentially comes down to keeping track of the queerats. Two factions of queerats exist. Those united by a democratic system with Squealer at its head. And those working under the traditional system with Queens with Kiroumaru at the head. They ultimately go to war. Contrary to all expectation, Squealers faction comes out victorious. But not only that. It appears that they had the assistance of a Cantus user. It is decreed that the Robbery Fly colony will be exterminated for this, but life goes on for the humans as normal, until a surprise attack by the queerats. Many humans are killed due to the unexpected and nefarious tactics that Squealer uses, but queerats are ultimately weak, and so once things settle down, it seems obvious that humanity will succeed. However, then the queerats secret weapon arrives, a fiend. A fiend is a human for whom death feedback doesn’t apply, and thus they go mad with power. No other human can stop them, because their own death feedback prevents them from harming other humans. And thus the fiend massacres humans with immunity. Saki’s mother leaves her a letter describing a weapon called the Psychobuster that can be used to stop fiends, and she alongside Satoru, Kiroumaru, and Inui, a member of the queerat extermination team, go off in search of it.
This results in a long trek through the hellish caves of Tokyo, with the fiend and Squealer right at their tail, over which a number of events occur. Inui gives up his life protecting Saki. Saki finally remembers the name of the one she loved that she forgot, Shun. They ultimately find the psychobuster, and Satoru tries to use it on the fiend in a suicide attack. But Saki can’t bear to part with her last friend and ends up destroying the psychobuster before it kills them both. They escape, with Saki realizing that the fiend is Maria and Mamoru’s daughter, and she comes to the conclusion it isn’t truly a fiend, but just a naive child that doesn’t realize it is human being manipulated by Squealer, but that ultimately they have no choice but to kill it. They make a plan that involves tricking her into killing Kiroumaru, which activates death feedback in the fiend, killing her. Without the fiend, the queerats are powerless. All but Kiroumaru’s colony is exterminated, as per his requirement for taking part in the plan.
Squealer is then put on trial by humanity. When asked about why he did what he did, whether he had anything to say about what he did, he said it was because they were equivalent to the humans, that they were humans, and deserved to be free of tyranny. Squealer is sentences to hell on earth, where through the power of Cantus he is to be continuously hurt and healed for the rest of time. Shocked by this statement, Satoru breaks a number of rules and laws and does an analysis of the genetics of the queerats and discovers that they are part human part mole rat. He conclusdes that the scientists must have made it so that all those without Cantus would turn to queerats, so that the effects of death feedback would not apply from killing them, thus keeping the Cantus users on top. Saki too breaks various rules and laws, and eventually ends Squealers suffering.
The series ends with Saki and Satoru married, with Saki pregnant, and them hoping for a better world for their child.
A system so tightly control will inevitably be fragile to what it can’t control. But trying to control things is a must. Especially when such great power is involved, as was so clearly shown. Hence the nature of the horror in this anime. The fear doesn’t come from any beast or individual itself, but rather the fact that there is an absolute lack of control in dealing with them. Whether it be the department of education making children disappear leaving no evidence of their existence. Whether it be the fiend that cannot be fought back against no matter what it does. Or even whether it be humans that can exterminate your colony at a whim. This anime tried and succeeded in showing all facets of this fear very well, in that it showed that it was a core motivation of everyone.
The general story and the world itself were fantastic. They were original and not only thought provoking but well thought out as well. The tone and style fit perfectly, and it came together very well. However, beyond that there were a number of issues. One of the key parts was the relationships between the various characters, but unfortunately this was a miss in my mind as they felt very bizarre to me. For example, at one point Saki is going out with Maria, is in love with Shun, but had spent almost the entirety of the show with Satoru. And then later on, it was revealed that she thought of Maria as her soul mate, and that Maria felt that way about her too. Still, she abandoned her for Mamoru. Ultimately, it didn’t make sense, at least not with the progression that was shown, and hence it didn’t really resonate. I know there were major time gaps and that can serve as an explanation, but that doesn’t really help much in terms of the emotional impact. It should be made clear and fleshed out through what’s shown. Due to this, overall the characters profiles themselves felt a bit weak.
This does not mean there was not progression. Beyond the romantic relationship aspect the character development was great. Everyone grew as time went by, as is expected of children growing to adults. But Saki’s growth especially was interesting. Ultimately, she came to understand everyone, friend and foe. At first she resented those that made children disappear and drove out Maria and Mamoru, but after the encounter with the fiend, she come to understood why they did so. That they were afraid. That with their power, they felt a responsibility to prevent tragedies and the despair that came with powerlessness should karma demons and fiends arise. She was originally horrified by the system put in place for Cantus users in its entirety, but she too understood, that they did the best they could do to protect humanity and create a stable system. She even came to understand the queerats, that were essentially humans, but that were yet looked down upon and at the mercy of humanity. Being understanding is a powerful personality trait. However, understanding without perspective is dangerous. Saki seemed naive, even at the end, though things still very much managed to work out, the culmination of her character left me feeling both hopeful for her, but also scared for her. This fit in perfectly with the ending as a whole, which was both optimistic, and chilling.
The anime had an art style pretty different from most anime, which combined with the soundtrack managed to hit the tone they were going for perfectly. However, the animation was still noticeably weak. There wasn’t an OP at all, which was a unique choice and helped with marathoning, which this anime is perfect for in a way due to how heavily story focused it is and how it flows. Though it wasn’t perfect in that regard either, because it felt dreadfully slow at times. The ED was decent and fit very well.
Shinsekai Yori is one of those animes that’s mind blowing with an incredibly amount of depth. It has its faults, but its still incredibly solid.