What They Say:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The best horror stories don’t need scares to tell you they’re horror; you can tell from the very start. Though I’m told it later becomes more of a thriller, The Promised Neverland’s first episode is pure horror. It seems innocuous for the most part-just some children in an orphanage enjoying themselves and playing games-but you can tell somethings off from the very beginning. There’s the obvious points like how the children are told never to go past the fence and how they all have numbers tattooed on their necks, but the episode’s unsettling nature is more than that.
Everything about The Promised Neverland plays on the unknown. Close-up shots of the characters leave the backgrounds blurry and out of focus so the world around them seems hidden and mysterious, conversations feature rapid shot changes to close-ups before quickly zooming back out, and nothing about the world is really shown. Before it even gets into the story, The Promised Neverland already creates an uneasy atmosphere. Even when the first big scare comes with the demons’ reveal, Neverland still plays with our lack of knowledge to enhance its impact. We’re only shown pieces of the demons, either from close-ups or slightly obscured shots, and we’re never shown a full shot of what they look like. We see just enough to know how monstrous they are, with our minds left to fill in the rest of the details. Mamoru Kanbe’s only other major directorial credit is Elfin Lied, which has a…mixed reputation, but his work here is excellent so far. The visual execution alone makes this one of the best premieres of the season, and that’s not even getting into the story itself.
Though Emma, Ray, Norman, and the ill-fated Conny get the majority of the episode’s screen-time, it does an excellent job of introducing the cast as a whole. Within minutes we see how Emma has taken a kind of older sister-esque role to the other kids, and how everyone looks up to Norman but also resents him for his brilliance and slightly aloof attitude. All of this is shown through the kids just being kids. They play games, goof around, try to wrangle the younger ones, and generally act like real children. Even the way they play tag, taking it seriously as a challenge, is a strong reminder that they’re all just ordinary kids, which makes the reveal that they’re being raised as food for demons all the more disturbing.
Once we learn the truth, everything takes a turn for the darker. Conny’s death and the subsequent introduction of the demons comes off as a little heavy-handed with how much it’s clearly trying to disturb, but that’s pretty easy to forgive because of how successful it is. Thanks to the strong setup and Kanbe’s direction, the last few minutes of the episode become a harrowing experience, with more likely to come in the future. It might be a bit too much for those who don’t like horror (it was for me), but it’s undoubtedly effective.
Unlike most Shonen Jump anime, the kids here are going to have to use their wits to prevail rather than any special powers. Their only advantage is their intelligence, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the kids are able to survive in a world where they’re little more than food. The episode drops some hints that the strategies they used in their game of tag are going to be key, which makes sense since evading the demons is likely to become a deadly game of tag for them.
I had high expectations going into The Promised Neverland, and boy did it deliver. Though the horror can be a bit much at times, the compelling premise and top-tier direction help sell it and make this one of the best premieres of the season. If it continues like this, Promised Neverland could be one of the top anime of the season.