The rest of the #anitwitwatches crew and I finished From the New World, and I have some thoughts.
Oh, boy. Do I have some thoughts.
Wait. You out there reading this may be wondering what #anitwitwatches is. It’s a project started by Jon Spencer Reviews where a group of us watch a show and tweet about it every Monday. A few of you out there on Twitter have seen the posts crop up as we’ve been going.
OK. Plug done. Let’s get to breaking this show down.
First, though, I will give you a spoiler warning. There are going to be some light spoilers in this introduction. If you’re one of those people who absolutely, positively can not abide spoilers stop reading now.
That said, I do think a couple of spoilers would make this show more enjoyable for you.
As I get deeper, there will certainly be spoilers.
From the New World is a 2012 dystopian story directed by Masashi Ishihama and with series composition by Masashi Sogo. It’s based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi, and judging by what I can see on Wikipedia, it follows the novel pretty closely.
Here’s what I mean by spoilers making the show better. If you understand that this is a dystopian story along the same lines as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984, it’s easier to see the patterns in the storytelling. This story is about exploring the society humanity built after they developed psychic powers and nearly destroyed civilization.
The show does a fair bit to try and obfuscate this fact and paint the society as not only good but necessary as humans are now effectively the equivalent of a nuclear weapon. While it lacks the thematic hook of those other stories, it basically ends with the idea that no matter how much you try to breed out the evil of people, there is still something fundamentally rotten in their core.
This obfuscation may be the best thing about the show, in a way.
See, when I finished the show, I was angry. At the time, I couldn’t tell why I was angry. There was nothing in particular wrong from a storytelling standpoint with the ending. In fact, everything had been leading to this conclusion, but just episodes ago, I had been rooting for the humans to survive.
The fact that I got emotionally co-opted into supporting the bad guys is what made me angry. The most “moral” character in this show is effectively the equivalent of a white abolitionist who believed that while slavery might be wrong, black people certainly weren’t equal to white folks.
I don’t believe I am exaggerating there, though I’m sure someone will think I am.
The short of it is that I felt tricked, but I believe that this was the highlight of the show. When a show can trick me into supporting the bad guys, I have to examine my own reactions and thoughts. Would I react the same way? Do I believe they are justified in their actions? How could I apply that lesson to my real life?
If the goal of art is to make you think, well, that ending accomplished that.
I just wished the rest of the show lived up to that ending.
The matter of perspective
So to address my main problem with this show, I have to do a bit of scene-setting first because there will be some arguments to my main complaint that I need to address.
When we talk about books, it’s pretty easy to tell the point of view a story is written in. If we stick mainly with one point-of-view character throughout a scene, but we use “he/him, she/her,” then we’re likely in a third-person limited point of view. If the perspective shifts mid-scene, and we have access to everyone’s thoughts, well, it’s likely an omniscient narrator. And if we use first-person pronouns and follow the thoughts of a single character, well, we have a first-person point of view.
It’s harder to make those distinctions in film. This is mainly because a “first-person” point of view will likely feel more like a gimmick than an artistic choice. Well, except for found footage movies, some of those could definitely be considered first person.
But that aside, most video stories are told using an outside camera looking at the characters. So by default, it appears to be in third person.
I’m convinced that is not the right way to see From the New World. This show is effectively told in first person. We follow a single character, Saki, as she explores and learns more about her world. We only know what she knows. We only see what she sees.
In a more standard show, we might move around between characters. We might have moments where we see an adult’s perspective or at least someone with more knowledge. The only moments we get like that are flashback scenes at the beginning of the first couple of episodes.
Not only that, but we get a first-person narration coming from somewhere in the future. So not only do we have Saki’s perspective, but we also have her thoughts.
This is important because the information that Saki has is often incomplete or wrong. She doesn’t have all of the perspectives. This society, Kamisu 66, is super secretive in a way that nearly ends up destroying it. This leaves even bigger holes in our understanding of what is going on.
There are several questions the show doesn’t answer. We can guess, but that is all we can do.
This also means that we can’t trust anything Saki or the other children say as “fact” until it’s been confirmed by an adult. This creates several potential red herrings out there. Conclusions that are wrong but never corrected. Or just never followed up on.
Now, I want to be clear that this in and of itself is not bad. Unreliable narrators are part of a lot of fiction. In this case, the combination of the militant secrecy and paranoia of Kamisu 66 and the children’s exploration creates tension in the story.
No. The real problem can be explained using mites.
The problem with mites and unused weaponry
At the beginning of episode 23, Saki and the gang are moving through the underground tunnels below what remains of Tokyo. The city has turned into a hellscape full of strange monsters that have mutated because psychic energy leaks out subconsciously and changes the world around them.
(I do want to say that this is a neat idea.)
Well, at about 2:40, a dark cloud starts following them through the tunnels, and their guide, Kiroumaru, tells them to drive it back with flames. Once they do that, Saki asks, “What is that thing?”
After some running, their guide Kiroumaru tells them that he doesn’t know what the cloud is, but it took nearly half of his expedition the last time that he was in Tokyo. So Satoru asks their portable terminal what those were. This is what we learn:
“Black Moss Mites. These carnivorous mites hunt in packs. They possess a fatal neurotoxin that allows them to kill most of this cave’s denizens then devour their soft tissue.”
And… that’s it.
We never see them again. Except for maybe in a travel montage.
There is a concept that I’m sure everyone is familiar with called Chekhov’s gun. It comes from letters written by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Probably my favorite quote from the Wikipedia article and the most apropos is:
One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889
The Black Moss Mites are a loaded gun brought into the scene, but it was never fired. We as an audience don’t need to know what the thing they ran away from was. In fact, we really didn’t need any dialogue there at all.
We wasted about a minute of the show on something that never matters ever again.
Now, if this was an isolated problem, then I would chalk it up to a writer being just a little bit too in love with their world or a director trying to pad for time. And that would be that.
But no, there is so much unused weaponry laying around that I can pull examples from every section of this show. Probably my favorite example of a rifle that never goes off comes in episode 6. This episode shows the confrontation between the Earth Spider Colony and Robbery Fly colony of monster rats.
As they are making their way through a forest, they are beset by archers. Saki tells Satoru to shake a tree and down drops this:
So evidently, some of the monster rats have turned into sticks. Let’s see what happens next. After stabbing it to death, Saki walks up to it and crouches. She asks, “What is this?”
Satoru responds by saying, “Don’t start acting surprised. When we saw them last night, they were an army of monsters.”
Saki says, “But … That means they can take any form? Why?”
Satoru says, “I don’t know yet. Well, I have a guess. We should be careful. Who knows how they might be camouflaging themselves.”
Then there is an exchange about whether they should turn back or continue to head toward the Earth Spider nest.
And… that’s it.
This idea that the Monster Rats could change their shape is never brought back. In fact, this section of the show is full of promises that are never kept. We see all sorts of weird monster rats when they finally challenge the colony, but they’re never mentioned again.
Then there is the question about whether Squealer was conspiring with the Earth Spiders later in the episode. We never get an answer to that either.
The show plunked down a whole armory in this episode and then ignored it.
Then there is the fact that the Monster Rats form a Democratic Republic or the giant light spirit that flies into the sky when one of the more powerful psychics dies.
Not a single one of these ideas pays off in any satisfying way.
I’m sure someone will make the argument that we, the audience, aren’t given all of the information. We have to figure stuff out by ourselves.
Look, if this was an isolated problem, then I would agree. My favorite show of all time is RahXephon, which has plenty of mysteries that aren’t given a thorough explanation.
The thing is that RahXephon never presents an idea that it doesn’t pay off in some way. Even strange shows like Serial Experiments Lain rarely offer an image or an idea that isn’t significant.
No, the problem is that From the New World has more than half a dozen of these ideas or images that get brought up only to vanish. This isn’t just about imperfect information. This is poor planning on the part of the writers. Someone was so caught up with their own brilliance that they presented a messy product.
The most frustrating thing is that all of these unused guns are entirely unnecessary. We didn’t need to see the mites. We didn’t need the monster rat to be a stick when it falls out of the tree. We didn’t need strange and mysterious Monster Rats at all. The Monster Rats didn’t need to form a parliament, and the ghost body, while pretty, is irrelevant.
The story outside of these elements was unusual enough. While I think it has some pacing problems, they aren’t drastic.
But any two or three of these ideas taken and expanded could turn this show from something interesting to something compelling. Instead, it ignores these ideas, and we’re expected to be wowed by this vaguery.
Consider me thoroughly, un-wowed.
Ranking From the New World
So after we finished SSSS. Gridman, back in March, I ranked all of the shows I had watched so far for #anitwitwatches. My rankings as they stand now are:
Girls’ Last Tour
The Perfect Insider
So I’ve spent a lot of time in this post beating up From the New World, but I don’t think it’s horrible. It’s well-directed. It has some striking visuals and neat use of lighting as a storytelling device. It certainly isn’t going down in the basement with The Perfect Insider or Kanon.
That said, this show is fundamentally flawed. Look, whatever complaints people might have about the top portion of the list, they are at least well-constructed stories.
So the first question is, does it go above or below Gridman? I’ve been wrestling with this for the better part of a week, and what we have here are two different types of problems. Gridman’s issue is one of ambition that gets in the way of a fun tokusatsu show. Where From the New World’s problem is poor planning that distracts from an otherwise fine story.
I think the issue here is one of intentionality. From the New World’s problems just feel sloppy. Where Gridman’s issues feel like the writers are overreaching their abilities. I’m inclined to give it to Gridman here because of that.
So the next question is, does it go above or below School Days? The answer here is going to sound really similar. School Days problems are a matter of throwing out logic in exchange for the theme. Its problems are a matter of intentional decisions.
Again, I have to give it to School Days here.
So that makes the new list:
Girls’ Last Tour
From the New World
The Perfect Insider
Judging by the fact that this show got an 8+ on MAL, I’m definitely in the minority on this one. For those that watched it, what did you think?
Now that I’ve finished raining on this parade, I’ll sign off.
And, as always, thanks for reading.