Colloquium: Literary and Religious Allusions in Shin Sekai Yori up to Episode 5

“With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew that they could not understand why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those.”

-The Giver, Lois Lowry

ajthefourth: One cannot go through life, as much as it may pain one’s perfectionist heart to admit, without being inferior to others in various ways. The inverse is also the case and, when comparing one’s self to others, one will always find something that they can best another in. Cliché though it may be, it is our differences that allow us to function as a society. It is the conflicts that arise from these differences that allow growth and eventual prosperity. Dystopian fiction is nothing new, and often aims to depict a state of humanity that has failed to navigate the treacherous balance between prosperity and self-indulgence through the presentation of a controlled, formulaic society. Shin Sekai Yori adds its own spice through the introduction of psychokinetic powers as the next step granted humans in their evolutionary process. Of course, this brings about its own bloody consequences, where select “PK users” abuse their powers, eventually resulting in the destruction and inevitable reconstruction of the current society that the series introduces its audience to.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was one of my favorite books when I was younger, and its plot is also similar to that of Shin Sekai Yori (Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron also come to mind). Of course, I do not presume the two to be directly related, like Mawaru Penguindrum was to Night on the Galactic Railroad or Underground; however, the way in which both choose to address their themes through similarly-aged leads run parallel to each other, and perhaps The Giver can better inform one of what Shin Sekai Yori could explore from here.

The plot of The Giver revolves around the advent of adolescence for protagonist Jonas, who is about to, according to their society, begin his adult life at the ripe age of 12. At his public coming of age ceremony, where all of the 12 year-olds are assigned their respective career paths, Jonas is tasked with a special job: The Receiver of Memory. In a society where weather is completely controlled, people are bred to be color blind as to comply with The Sameness, and becoming a Birthing Mother is an actual career, people aren’t allowed to feel any sort of strong emotions. Thus, the memories of how cold snow is, what red hair looks like, and the love from when families were blood-related instead of assigned, all reside in one individual, who bears the emotional burden for the supposed betterment of society: The Receiver of Memory. The Receiver becomes a consultant of sorts for the social higher-ups when they need advice on important decisions.

As Jonas begins to receive the memories of what it once was to be human, including pain, happiness, and love, he quickly discovers just how empty his former outlook and feelings were in comparison. Together he and the former Receiver of Memory (the titular Giver) decide that the emotional burden of being human, and all that it entails, belongs to the hearts of everyone, not trapped in a singular person so the rest of society can stagnate in a state of supposed peace. Shin Sekai Yori is currently paralleling these ideas through the characters of Saki and Satoru, who find themselves on the same emotional precipice that Jonas found himself in when he discovered the color red, the tendrils of sexual feelings for his friend Fiona, or how barren his family dinners were when comparing them to humanity’s memories of birthdays and holidays.

Episode Four of Shin Sekai Yori marked the beginning of the paradigm shift for its intrepid leads. After stumbling upon an abandoned library, they are told emotionlessly of humanity’s bloody past, various genetic changes, and social laws enacted by the ruling class that changed the world into the society that they know– the most interesting of which is the idea of “death feedback” which is a forced genetic code that makes any PK user violently ill (to the point of death) if they attempt to harm another human. This is followed up by a surreal fifth episode where the audience sees both Saki and Satoru fumble earnestly with their budding sexuality and engage in violence, two things that are vehemently restricted and prohibited respectively, by law.

While Jonas only had his own emotions to tend to, leading to a few awkward social interactions, Saki and Satoru must now deal with the consequences of breaking the most base rules of their rigid society. Armed with not only the knowledge of the library but their actions from Episode Five, they are more than well-aware that they cannot go back to the time before the school trip. As evidenced by the vanishing Reiko – a PK user who had broken no rules but was unable to control her powers correctly – children who are clumsy and inept are treated equally to those who purposefully break the rules: both are considered unfit social members.

In the end of The Giver, Jonas found a way to release The Receiver’s knowledge and emotions back to society as a whole, for the eventual betterment of his world. It remains to be seen as to how Saki and Satoru will bring about change within their world, but now that they have seen the color red, so to speak, they cannot return.

vucubcaquix: In political terminology, Totalitarianism is a political system that seeks to control all aspects of society. It’s a mode of governing that, while not unknown, is sufficiently alien to us to have it featured in various dystopian works so that we may better understand the commentary that particular work seeks to levy. What interested me in Shin Sekai Yori’s case, is that the group which wields the power in this world is very distinctly Buddhist.

In Buddhism, Precepts exist as a guide and code of ethics for those wishing to participate in Buddhist practices. The number of Precepts vary according to which tradition you ascribe to, but there are five that tend to be generally agreed upon. The first one, known more comprehensively as Ahimsa, states that one should abstain from taking life and acting in violent action or speech to another.

The idea of a totalitarian Buddhist society is a fascinating one. One of the main tenets of Buddhism being nonviolence, it seems to be in direct conflict with our perception of how totalitarian regimes are enacted and enforced in our dystopian literature. How is this dissonance rectified? Through the extreme measures of eugenics. The inability to enact violence upon another human being is literally inserted into our DNA that manifests as something called “death feedback”. This is the Buddhist tenet of nonviolence taken to its totalitarian extreme.

The shape of the narrative for the first five episodes of Shin Sekai Yori implies that this may not be the end of its allusions to religion. The children we follow have grown up in a very measured and controlled society, not wanting for food or shelter, and buffeted against the perceived dangers of the outside world. For a moment they are left on their own as part of some rite, and they wandered about, experiencing what they could in their world. They happened upon a creature that professed to have knowledge of the world at large, and being as curious as she is, Saki stepped forward and bit. This is followed closely and more vehemently by her male counterpart, Shun.

Knowing what they now know, shame, fear, and embarrassment now dog their lives as the children were being set up to be removed from their society for being “corrupted” by knowledge. Not just removed, but stripped of their power as well so that they would be cursed to work by hand. And with that corruption, episode five thus shows the children engaging in activities that were looked down upon without regulation: violence, and sex.

This is a mirror of the Fall of Man that is discussed in the second and third chapters of Genesis. God proceeded to curse them by removing their power and having them work the land by hand, and to be violent with the beasts of the Earth.

The fifth episode specifically dealt with how some of the children were beginning to explore their sexuality, while simultaneously learning to be violent. This marks a turning point in the storytelling that is matched by the art shift.

ajthefourth: Whether the series is directly referencing the Fall of Man, or whether it’s simply a commonality born of humanity’s struggles with its own sexuality, the fifth episode of Shin Sekai Yori shifts in tone due to the knowledge gained in Episode Four and the awkward sexual tension between Saki and Satoru. This shift is marked by a drastic difference in art style, effectively removing this episode from the ones that proceeded it.

The episode makes good use of singular color palettes and filters to lay over nearly every scene in this episode. Certain parts are blue, others are red, green, or yellow depending on location and mood. What is important is not so much which colors appear when, but that they appear at all, casting a dreamlike pall over the episode. In addition to simplified character designs with bolder lines, Shin Sekai Yori aims to single this episode out from its counterparts.

Like Saki, the audience has been waiting through a slow buildup for something to happen. The series shows this to its viewers in the flashes of seemingly disconnected violence before moving on to the pastoral beauty of Saki’s home town in the first three episodes. These contrasting elements keep the viewer in suspense, like the undercurrents of doubt and whispers behind the closed doors of Saki’s home. She knows something is wrong, yet nothing on the surface appears to be amiss.

Viewers, and Saki, are awarded for their patience in Episode Four, where the ancient library explains to them the secrets of their world before they are caught and stripped of their PK powers by the monk of a nearby shrine. The absence of their powers is nothing compared to the shock that they are still dealing with from learning more about their own society. There is a numb sensation in the latter half of the fourth episode that, when followed up by the action and surreal landscape of Episode Five, effectively throws the series into chaos. Everything that has happened since the library doesn’t seem real, although it indubitably is. While they are still running away from immediate danger, they are able to suspend their shock long enough to survive. The more interesting piece of the story is yet to come: what happens when they must return.

vucubcaquix: What does the series mean to accomplish? Five episodes in and we’ve been given a literary and religious framework with which to bravely crusade forward in this new world, and the topics that seem to be at the forefront are emergent sexuality and the nature of conflict in humanity. One of my writers mentioned to me through conversation that freedom through—and from—sex is not a new theme in storytelling, but I hazard to say that anime is not the most adept medium at handling sexuality with maturity. Sexuality and conflict seem to be the central themes that Shin Sekai Yori wish to explore, and the totalitarian Buddhist framework highlights what nonviolence taken to its extreme may look like.

But as long as humanity believes that there is a right, and a wrong, conflict will be an inevitable part of the human condition. Removing the option of conflict has contrived what we’ve seen in the story thus far, which informs us what this show wishes to say with regards to how we address that, as well as the internal conflict that is our budding sexuality.

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Filed under Colloquia, Shin Sekai Yori

20 responses to “Colloquium: Literary and Religious Allusions in Shin Sekai Yori up to Episode 5

  1. I want to talk about the art shift a little bit. One of the elements of Shinsekai I had been most impressed by thus far was the sharp, detailed artwork, especially evident in long shots with lush backgrounds, and by extension the animation and cinematography that maintained the integrity of shapes through its various lighting and camera techniques.

    The latest episode looked very different. Dark lighting and color palette, flat shading, less defined shapes, and many more close-ups shots nearly to the exclusion of long or even medium length shots. Does this style work with the content? To an extent, yes. Generally, close shots enhance body language and emotions, and dark colors and lighting imbue feelings of isolation and uncertainty.

    But! The drawings, in comparison to the previous installments, and especially in the numerous close ups, looked like shit. There was no gradient shading, characters were constantly off model, sparse use of establishing shots, and very choppy movement, if there was any at all; hallmarks of attempting to hide budget constraints. It happens. It just happened to a show more in tune to creative visual direction than most.

    Yet I’m still impressed by Shinsekai’s visual techniques. It’s combination of mise-en-scene (to name drop a snooty film studies term) and cinematography makes even a poorly animated episode compelling. Of course the story and thematic topics aren’t slouches either. It enforces what a number of us have been saying since the first episode; Shinsekai yori is an uncommon combination of meticulous, thoughtful writing and superb production skill.

    I hope to see more colloquiums on this cartoon.

    • Alright, I’ll take this one, since I was the one who actually liked the art style. ^ ^

      Was it off-model, oh definitely. I’d also bet that the shift was inspired or driven more by monetary concerns than any sort of sudden creativity burst. After all, those lush shots that you described were probably more expensive than episode five as a whole.

      However, if they had to choose an episode to change the art style, this once was an excellent, if not the only, choice. I commend them for the foresight and confidence in direction to make this episode the one with the wacky, cost-cutting art. As stated in the post, it makes this episode surreal and distant from the previous four.

      As an aside, I liked a lot of the off-model looks to the characters, specifically the elongated necks in the nest scene. It reinforced Saki and Satoru’s uncertainty regarding their own sexuality and supposed sudden feelings for each other in that moment. Along with the choppy movement, it worked well in making the scene both genuine and awkward as hell.

      I don’t mind cost-cutting animation as long as the story, characterization, and emotional narrative remain solid. (As an aside, another example of a series that did this well was Mawaru Penguindrum, with its paper cut-out Ringo delusions, or Episode 10, which was an off-model mess, but had a fascinating color palette, good direction/blocking, and used sound direction well.) So, basically, we’re in agreement on this one. ^ ^ Thanks for the comment.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more colloquiums on the way. ^ ^

      • korol

        Rather than it looking bad due to a low budget (although this may have been a factor), this episode had a different animation director, and he was given the freedom to do whatever.

        • I’d say it’s probably a bit of both. ^ ^ Where I will give Shin Sekai Yori credit is for turning a cost-cutting episode into an artistically compelling one.

          Instead of elaborating more on the animation director, I’ll direct you below to illegenes’s comment in regards to the episode director: Shigeyasu Yamauchi. I’ll only add that the animation director for this episode was Junichi Hayama, who had worked with Shigeyasu on both Casshern Sins and Penguindrum, among other things.

  2. I like the comparison to the Giver. Such a good book. I’m not so optimistic that this show’s ending will turn out quite as optimisticly. At least I hope not. :)

    As vuc mentions the Fall, it’s interesting to note that the show’s take on the fall comes closer to gnosticism than traditional Christianity or Judaism, since the “God” of the garden is actually evil and the snake (that librarian thing) is actually the good guy, who presents the children with the fruit of knowledge to save them from their ignorance and slavery to the false god.

    Also, I’m not sure I would agree that this society shows the idea of non-violence taken to its extreme. This society in fact makes of use of *collective* violence to enforce individual non-violence, by removing people from society. We also have those rat things who are slaves. And enforcing non-violence through eugenics is itself a use of violence. This society is simply attempting to absolve itself of any individual responsibility for these acts of extreme violence.

    So I think that this society is based on the trappings of Buddhism but not its essence.

    • I like the possible connection with gnosticism, but the only work I know of that explicitly dealt in gnostic themes and ideas was a manga called Eden: It’s an Endless World! Though man, it is a downer of a manga.

      When you talk about collective violence and eugenics as a form of violence, I think that delves into deontological versus consequentialist ethics a bit. The deontologist would say that without doubt, this is a violent act. It treats people as a means to peace, rather than the ends in and of themselves, and thus this is immoral. The consequentialist however, is a bit more iffy.

      Consequentialists place the moral weight of an action on the namesake of their school of thought, the consequences of any given thing. If eugenics in this world results in less slavery and violence and overall social harmony, than it may not be viewed as a violent act in itself, and certainly not an immoral one.

      Reading up on Ahimsa I see that the Buddhist precept of nonviolence doesn’t preclude self-defense, which so far has been the extent of the depicted on-screen violence by an adult in the far-future society. Everything prior to that, time-wise, happened during states of social flux where those currently in power did not have the influence they do now. And yes we have the bakenezumi slaves. But given how the events of this week’s episode played out, it seems to adhere closer to a patronage/serfdom system where they seek the protection of the human community in exchange for their labor.

      As for trappings? Well, it certainly is inundated with Buddhist trappings. I hazard to guess how we can measure the essence of its portrayal without years of study, but two of the Five Precepts have been addressed in earnest, that being the abstentions from taking life and sexual misconduct. Perhaps if it explores more of these themes such as the abstentions from stealing, lying, and uncontrolled drinking, we can revisit the notion of whether Buddhism’s essence is in the show.

      Although I kinda doubt that drinking one, since minors and Japanese censorship and all…

  3. I really like how Shinsekai is doing its world-building so far, juxtaposing Buddhism with the brutality of natural law? And how it enforces this through the use of some great animation effects, such as the graininess method, or the imagery (the floating lotus, the ‘nests’ of the queerats).

    Kadian has already talked a bit about what I was going to say, but I think this week’s animation was great! I understand it was different on many levels, but the one who was in charge of this week’s episode was Shigeyasu Yamauchi, who is actually quite a fascinating director. His most notable work, as far as I’d say, is Casshern Sins (he also directed Episode 18 of Penguindrum) and you can definitely point out the similarities between this episode and that show. I personally enjoyed the animation myself, as I’m quite the Shigeyasu fan, but I also think that his unique style served a very important purpose in this week’s episode, which was very different than the previous episodes. Whereas the first four episodes of Shin Sekai Yori were focused on the dissonance of a society that seems to be peaceful but has horrific elements to it, this episode was much more focused on the relationship and interaction between Satoru and Saki, as well as the new world that they have thrust themselves into.

    A lot of Shigeyasu’s work focuses on certain camera angles and close up shots of the character’s faces (especially their eyes); this week’s installment had a lot of that, and it was meant to make us feel like we’re seeing the world from Saki and Satoru’s point of view rather than a narrator’s point of view (notice how there was no narrator in this episode?). Thus, there aren’t many ‘distant’ shots as there are close ups. But I personally find that refreshing, because Shin Sekai Yori has been so distant from its characters to the point where intimacy, between these two and between the audience as well as the characters themselves, is sorely needed. The first four episodes made us feel claustrophobic in an atmospheric sense – here, that’s contrasted with the claustrophobia in a visual sense. I also think that the focus on hands and legs, which were stressed in this week’s episode, was also important in contributing to how these children work around each other in times of stress (see: the whole near-sex scene), but also to really feel the ‘mechanical’ movement of the episode. This week we had a lot of running and the camera angles and focus on the feet (in Casshern Sins, Casshern does a lot of fighting and Shigeyasu also focuses on his extremeties as a way of showing how elegant he fought despite the chaos he brought as a way of contrast/balance) and hands was interesting to me in expressing how desperate the situation was.

    The introduction of monochrome also creates some dynamic and varied moods of the setting (from the lush, green, forests to the cool blue and mysterious caves), as well as the soft shading in the near-sex scene (reminiscent of Apollon’s shading, if you ask me). I think this, like both AJTheFourth and Kadian have already pointed out, was there because mood depends so much on color use, and while Shinsekai was very vibrant so far, and used plenty of light/shadow/contrast in the silhouette scenes, I personally feel that it….was pretty for the sake of being pretty at times? The saturated purple scenes always felt awkward to me, especially when Shinsekai’s color use was dependent on gradients, not single color. This episode did mostly the latter, so it could establish a very strong undercurrent of ‘singular’ moods with some bizarre, surreal imagery. There’s a reason why this sense of distorted reality is established, but I won’t spoil why, as you’ll find out next week! But I think that distortion ties in very much with what Saki and Satoru are feeling as they are separated from balance and head into chaos. And we, as an audience, experience those emotions through the use of color and camera angles. Of course, each to their own! So I do understand how this change in animation might have been jarring or weird/uncomfortable to others.

    • hikoboshiandorihime

      vucubcaquix: Good call on the lack of narrator this episode, that had totally slipped my notice. Nothing gets past Emily though, steel trap, that one is.

      I’m a bit out of my element in discussing theories of Natural Law, but from conversations I’ve had with my philosophy teacher I do know that folks like Thomas Aquina, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and a bunch of other dudes talk at length over what Natural Law means, and I do know that Hobbes’s Leviathan discusses at length how common people operate in a State of Man, versus how kings and royalty operate in a State of Nature. Exploring how Buddhism interacts with that would be an interesting road…

      ajthefourth: I love your breakdown of the art style in this episode, especially with what you had to say about claustrophobia. ^ ^

      The only thing that I will say is that I really liked how, in addition to a focus on the hands and legs, there was also a focus on the neck (an erogenous zone, and of particular erotic focus in Japanese culture) when the two were fumbling around in the nest. All of the necks in this episode were just slightly elongated, and it really stood out as a design choice.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  6. 2DT

    A little late, but here’s another allusion for you.

    The foreign tribe of bakenezumi is named “Tsuchigumo.” The origin of the word is intriguing, going all the way back to the Nihon-Shiki which described a group of people exterminated by the Yamato Clan:

    This may be a story about dominance, and the protean nature of historical narrative. Who really are the ancestors of their little village?

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  8. thoughtcannon

    I’m not sure about the whole sex as an act of rebellion thing. The library made it clear that the society attempted to mimic that of the Bonobo which resolves conflicts with sex. If anything I would say Saki’s rejection of Satoru is what would be the actual act of rebellion. That’s not to say they don’t have any feelings for each other but, my interpretation was that Satoru’s actions were mainly the results of eugenics ala “the death of shame” that encourages him to get all hot and bothered when he’s stressed. Of course this is the only time that sex has really been depicted in the show thus far so the whole trying to mimic the bonobo could just be a lot of hot air. Saki seems to be able to rebel somewhat against these speculated genetic instincts, thus she says “We are not monkeys”.

    • I don’t think that the sex was a conscious act of rebellion, more that it *is* an act of rebellion simply due to the rules of their society. The awkward fumbling in the nest I would definitely attribute to something like what you said. It’s not active defiance, but becomes defiance when framed within the context of their social upbringing, which is nearly impossible to completely ignore, even in the heat of the moment. What I’m looking forward to the most from this series is the moment that the children return to their village and possibly have to deal with the consequences.

      Thanks for the comment.

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