Are we . . . the “bad guys?”
The short answer is yes, obviously. The lengthier one involves a surprising amount of nuance and one, specific moment in time.
From the New World‘s greatest strength as a production is its confidence. It knows what it wants to say. It knows the plot points it wants to hit. It knows what it wants you to think about as an audience after the fact. This is partially due to the fact that it’s based on a 2008 award-winning novel by Yusuke Kishi, but a lot of credit goes to director Masashi Ishihama and team for bringing it to life. Even with viewers’ gripes over the series’ visual style — most of which I personally disagree with, but that’s a post for another time — the sound direction and cinematography remain at a consistently high level throughout the series.
Upon rewatching it for my personal top ten anime of the decade, From the New World struck me as remarkably prescient in its themes and impressively detail-oriented. There are a lot of small moments that I hadn’t remembered or noticed while watching it for the first time since I was wrapped up in the vague mysteries of the world that were being presented. I was learning, alongside series lead Saki Watanabe and her elementary school friend group, the truth of their world at the same pace that they were. This pacing is another deliberate choice of From the New World, and one that changes completely when you rewatch it with prior knowledge of how the series ends and the structure of the in-universe human society.
For it’s first three opening episodes, From the New World cuts back and forth between a timeline at least 500 years in the past from the series’ current in-universe timeline up to 1,000 years prior to the existence of Saki, her friends, and the society they belong to. Saki and company are wholly unaware of their situation, or how their current society came to be. The truth of their history is not taught, it’s hidden between the layers of the things they are taught. This repeatedly shown visually through shots like the one above, where the children stand, firmly separated from the truth (in the form of a being they call the “false minoshiro”) that they seek by staging and an aptly-placed tree.
The series’ fourth episode is an information dump aptly titled “Bloody History” that was somewhat maligned when it aired for being an infodump. Yet there are a few moments that are particularly timeless and immediately struck me while rewatching.
Once they’ve cornered the “false minoshiro,” it admits that it’s a library terminal and repeats a monotone warning to Saki as she threatens to rip its antennae off. Repeatedly she returns to threatening it with violence. Saki isn’t a particularly violent person — we see her save a monster rat in a previous episode — yet this is what she resorts to under stress.
As the library terminal tells the children the bloody history of psychokinetic humans (PK users) — and this is just the history of one group of humans, the Holy Cherry Blossom Dynasty — enslaving non PK users, killing indiscriminately, the children learn of the bloodbath that was a precursor to their own comparatively peaceful society.
In the moment pictured above, the false minoshiro states this: “To end the chaos, the keepers of the technological civilization, who had remained bystanders, rose up and took action.”
First, the series cuts instantly to Saki and her friend Maria Akizuki’s visible relief. Saki begins to say “Then, are we?”
There’s a memetic phrase that often travels around all corners of the internet from the British sketch comedy That Mitchell and Webb Look where two Nazi soldiers realize that yes, they are in fact, the “bad guys.” Saki’s question is related to this, and also the more general perception of her existence. At the mention of the society that stayed out of the dynastic wars and slaughter that, according to the false minoshiro, cut the entire population by half, Saki and Maria recognize a lifeline. They don’t have to be descended from the murderous emperor who killed so many people that plagues of flies descended on cities that stunk of rotting flesh, they can instead be descended from the people who stayed out of it.
The question that they don’t ask, or think to ask, in their relief is whether standing by as tens of thousands of people are murdered for no reason other than the whims of a person in power in fact makes these keepers of the technological society “good guys” at all. From the New World recognizes this and just leaves the line to hang over Saki and Maria’s easing tension. When their friend Shun Aonuma realizes that something is still off about the whole thing — after all, their society has PK users including Saki, himself, and all of their classmates as well as their parents — they discover that a combination of education, physical and sexual intimacy, hypnosis and psychological repetition is used to weed out problem children who are then killed. On top of this, their genetics were modified to include something called the “death of shame” where there is a physical internal feedback to killing another human that kills the attacker in turn.
Later in the series, when Shun’s power leaks out of control, the world around him warps. He unwittingly modifies genetic material in other beings, creating new mutations of anything from an insect to his beloved childhood dog while doing nothing but existing. He tries to ingest poisons to kill himself but his body warps them to be non-toxic due to an unconscious desire to live. In the end, he kills himself with his PK power instead.
Throughout the series, the extent of PK powers and the lengths humanity goes to control them are revealed. From the New World asks a lot of questions of who ends up in power as the surviving people when civilizations collapse (people already in power or with some sort of leverage), who benefits from that collapse, and how the surviving society moves forward both in structure and how it disseminates information. Those in power will do anything to stay in power. In the end, the big reveal that an entire society of beings (the aforementioned “monster rats”) that were enslaved were in fact, human, is initially laughed at due to the fact that it comes from the mouth of a perceived tyrant who dared to rise up against his human oppressors. When the truth is fully revealed by Satoru Asahina, who studies the so-called monster rats’ genetic code, he simply states that their ancestors did it to protect their privileged status.
The question of From the New World isn’t “Are they the ‘bad guys?'” — the answer to that question is “yes” — but of what, if anything, can be done about it. None of this happens in a vacuum and in the end Saki and Satoru, two people who were raised in this society and now know the truth of it, are married adults with a child on the way. They obviously aren’t the first people to know the truth so the question is of how they’ll move forward with that knowledge and what knowledge will be passed down to their child.
“Were we able to change?” Saki writes in the closing episode. “You’ll know the answer as you read this, one thousand years from now. I hope that answer is ‘yes.'”