Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s sexless and totalitarian setting that ultimately results in war, torture, and betrayal along with the rewriting of history is the most well-referenced dystopian media — phrases from George Orwell’s novel like thoughtcrime or Big Brother are now common English phrases — but I’ve always personally been of the opinion that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a more accurate and easier method. The people in Huxley’s world are kept in line not by fear and violence, but endlessly distracted into compliance by drugs, sex, and entertainment.
One of the problems I often have with dystopian settings in anime (or any media) is a lack of in-universe consistency. Many anime series try an Orwellian model and fail to pay enough attention to detail to have it logistically make sense (last year’s Darling in the Franxx) while becoming distracted by introducing plot points at random (Guilty Crown). In other series, the dystopian setting is merely window-dressing for something else entirely (AKB0048, Shimoneta). The last hard dystopian anime that really impressed me was From the New World, which employed a similar model to Brave New World but focused on humans developing psychic powers as opposed to rampant capitalism and technology.
The Promised Neverland has similar echoes of Brave New World to keep the so-called orphans of Grace Field House from questioning their future or existence by keeping them happy, healthy, and entertained. They’re placed in a situation where they are fed good food, receive attention from a loving “Mom,” and after they finish their necessary tests, they can play tag or other games on the orphanage’s expansive lawn and forest. The only request that is asked of them is that they don’t pass a fence that circles the house or a large gate, both of which are said to be protecting them.
Due to this environment, the children question very little. Even a child as intelligent as Norman — the said smartest in their class of what is later revealed as the best and brightest — isn’t shown as someone who wishes to fight against the system. In the first scene of The Promised Neverland‘s premiere, the main trio of Emma, Norman, and Ray are shown slightly younger, looking past the gate. Emma repeats Mom’s words of caution. Ray says that they’re obviously a lie (a nod to just how much he knows at an early age). Norman simply wonders what the gate is protecting them from, almost as if he too suspects something is off about their setting, but doesn’t want to think badly of anyone.
This is the power of Mom and the Grace Field House orphanage, which is raising these children as food for monsters. Grace Field House is essentially a luxury meat farm. The cushy environment that Emma, Norman, and Ray enjoy is in service of two things: to keep them happy and entertained so they won’t question their setting and to improve the quality of their meat by giving them a comfortable life until they’re slaughtered.
We don’t yet know if all orphanages are like this. Some of them may be test-tube factories, especially if they’re not producing high quality meat for the rich like Grace Field House. Yet as The Promised Neverland slowly pulls back the curtain with each passing episode, certain details are revealed that make the series’ dystopian setting as impressive as it is horrifying.
As the series slowly drops hints about its setting and the outside world, Mom (Isabella) becomes more of an interesting character. She is always framed from a distance or in an extreme closeup. The latter is usually to convey her position of power over others — in conversations with Sister Krone, talking to Emma, revealing the stopwatch conspicuously to the group of children — and involves the camera moving in closer. The former paints her as in a similar situation to the children themselves. Like she, or someone, is always watching the children, Isabella is also watched in turn.
This is often done with the camera moving further away from her, often as objects enter the frame in the foreground, obstructing our view. The camera’s distance is particularly noticeable when she reveals her own number at the end of a regularly-scheduled check-in (73584) before a superior presses her to say that her children are ready to be harvested at any time. It’s one of the few times that a close-up of her face is used to show a flicker of true emotion underneath her façade, and the reminder of her own place in the existing hierarchy. There are also times where it showcases her subtle actions from a distance. When Isabella intelligently removes Conny’s drawing from the wall, removing a reminder of Conny for the other children, she briefly holds it to her chest. Isabella is complicit in the system, but there are glimpses that make her appear human and sympathetic. The Promised Neverland has recently moved to establish the same sympathy for Sister Krone, placing Krone trapped behind bars visually and showing her fear in the face of Isabella’s thinly-veiled threats.
The dystopian setting automatically pits Krone and Isabella against each other. Those in the know, working within the established system even if it’s only to survive, are not encouraged to help each other. Instead, they’re nudged towards undermining the other’s plans and fighting for as much power as they are permitted to have. These two were presumably once in the same situation as Emma, Norman, and Ray, only they chose to (or were chosen by others, perhaps due to their intelligence) live past their mandatory ship date of turning 12 years-old.
Through their interactions, we receive a preview of what is likely to come from Norman, Ray, and Emma. Ray has already been revealed as Isabella’s spy amongst the children. After telling Emma, she realizes, and informs us, that Ray has been hurting other members of the Grace Field House orphanage in pursuit of his own personal goal. Like Mom and Krone, Ray is trying the best he can within the system. Ray’s goal of escaping with only Norman and Emma (or possibly the three of them plus Don and Gilda) directly contradicts Emma’s insistence on saving everyone. It’s already been a point of contention between the two, and will likely be a flash point later in the series.
Due to his introduction as part of the main trio, Ray was already a sympathetic and relatable character. Despite having the most pessimistic outlook — likely due to his more informed viewpoint — Ray has also made it clear that he cares deeply about Norman and Emma, even as he tries to manipulate them in service of his own plans. He also, somewhat ironically, cares about being as honest as possible with others. It was Ray who was immediately angry at Norman about lying to Don and Gilda, giving them false hope. This is another hint that Ray is more caring than the dry-witted image he projects.