2018 was a somewhat disappointing year in anime for me. Despite finally giving me the Vento Aureo  anime adaptation I’ve waited so long for, and offering plenty of cute  comedy shows, there wasn’t really anything that blew me or the rest of  the anime community away, especially when compared to 2017’s standout  shows such as Made in Abyss and Land of the Lustrous. However, 2019 seems to be making up for this right out of the gate with The Promised Neverland, a 12-episode anime adaptation of the ongoing Shonen Jump manga of the same name.

The show covers the first arc of the manga and is directed by Mamoru Kanbe of Elfen Lied fame. Unlike its action-heavy Shonen Jump contemporaries, Promised Neverland has more of a focus on horror and mystery elements, not unlike the publication’s other popular thriller series, Death Note.  Add this with the anime adaptation airing on the Noitamina block in  Japan–which is usually reserved for more experimental adult animation  far outside the typical Shonen Jump demographic–and it’s clear to see that this series is quite unique for something that’s aimed at the same target audience as My Hero Academia and One Piece.

A Great Escape

Before describing the basic plot of the series, I’d like to preface that The Promised Neverland  is a series best experienced going in knowing as little about the plot  as possible. Most plot synopses for anime and manga tend to be pretty  vague about the premise, and that’s for good reason, since the story’s  main hook is the mystery and finding out where it’s going to go next.  However, I can’t critique the show without sharing at least a few plot  details. While I won’t be talking about any major story spoilers here,  you may want to read with caution if you plan on watching the show  yourself and want to get the full impact. I’m also reviewing this show  as someone who hasn’t read the original manga, so I won’t be making any  comparisons between the source material and adaptation. The anime will  be judged on its own merits and not by how well it adapted its source  manga.

Image from Crunchyroll

The series takes place at an orphanage named the Grace Field House,  where many children live a happy life at the care of their “mother,”  Isabella. The children are required to take daily tests to measure their  intelligence, but aside from that, they’re allowed to spend their free  time however they’d like, as long as they don’t venture out too far away  from the orphanage. Curiosity peaked in two of the oldest children,  Emma and Norman. They decided to venture out one day to see what lies  outside the orphanage. They soon find out that that the orphanage is  actually a farm that raises children for the sole purpose of being eaten  by demons and Isabella is the one in charge of selling the children  off. Now determined to escape their home, the two enlist the help of  their friend Ray to free all their siblings and finally see the outside  world.

If you’re wondering why the premise sounds bizarrely similar to the 2000 Aardman animated film Chicken Run,  that’s because it kinda is. Both feature a female protagonist and a  premise about a group of livestock trying to escape from being eaten in a  Great Escape-esque plot, so comparisons between the two are  neigh inevitable. It certainly doesn’t help that the two antagonists of  both stories have very similar character designs, but there’s far more  to Promised Neverland than just being a darker version of an animated classic.

If there’s one thing the series absolutely nails, it’s  unpredictability. The show has so many twists and turns that it’s  difficult to tell where the story’s going to go next. Just when you  think you’re able to predict the next big twist, something else comes  out of left field and throws you for a loop. A majority of the series is  spent on the children trying to execute their escape plan, which in  itself is entertaining to watch due to the clever ways the cast goes  about fulfilling their goals. It’s very similar to Death Note  in that there’s a lot of mind games at play and instead of focusing on  hand-to-hand combat like a lot of action manga, it instead focuses on a  battle of wits. Most of the tension comes from seeing how the cast will  outsmart the antagonists or get out of a seemingly impossible  predicament, which is great as someone who absolutely loves tense  thriller stories and finds them criminally underutilized in anime and  manga.

A wonderful group of precious children

Of course, you can’t have a good plot without a likable cast of characters, and luckily Promised Neverland  has an incredibly solid cast. The three main characters; Emma, Norman,  and Ray, are each great in their own right and receive an ample amount  of development throughout the series. Even though Emma may come across  as a typical, ditzy, optimistic shonen protagonist at first, and not as  cunning as Norman or Ray, she really matures as the series progresses  and even starts to prove that she’s just as resourceful as her peers by  the end of the show. My personal favorite of the main cast is Ray, as he  has the most fleshed out backstory of the three and goes through the  most interesting developments. Even though I found Norman to be the  least interesting out of the three, he is the main source of the series’  escape plans and it’s still entertaining to see what he’s able to come  up with.

Image from Crunchyroll

Although not as deep as the main cast, the side characters are also  endearing in their own right and you end up rooting for them to escape.  The main antagonist of the series, Isabella, is also a surprisingly  well-rounded antagonist. Despite initially coming across as a  one-dimensional villain, it’s eventually revealed that there’s more to  her motives than initially thought, and by the end of the season I ended  up somewhat sympathizing with her.

If there’s one issue I had with the characterization, it’s that I  wish there was a little bit more time exploring the relationships  between the cast and how they ended up affecting the overall plot. From  what I’ve heard, this was something that the anime ended up glossing  over due to its limited run time, and the manga did a better job giving  context to how the characters motives relate to one another in the grand  scheme of things. Even though I haven’t read the manga, it’s easy to  see where some much-needed characterization moments were cut and how the  first season would have benefited from an extra episode or two of  runtime. Still, that doesn’t change how great the main cast is overall  and I can’t wait to see how they develop by the next season.

The CloverWorks redemption

The series is animated by CloverWorks Inc., a former animation studio  of A-1 Pictures, established in April 2018. It became its own separate  entity in October of that year. Since the studio has only been around  for less than a year, their portfolio is rather minimal and mainly  consists of A-1 hand-me-downs such as Persona 5: The Animation and the second half of Darling in the FranXX, neither of which inspire confidence in the studio’s work. Especially not Persona 5 with it’s… let’s just say less than stellar animation. Luckily, Promised Neverland  doesn’t fall victim to many of the shortcomings of the studio’s other  works, thanks to it being a high-profile project that wasn’t pushed onto  the production team last minute.

Image from Crunchyroll

Not only is the animation consistent throughout the entire show, but  there’s some nice dynamic cinematography that helps the show stand out  visually compared to A-1’s usual cookie-cutter animation. On the subject  of A-1, the varied character designs from the source material carry  over well into the anime. They help the series not suffer from the  dreaded “same-face syndrome” that plague a lot of A-1 shows, most  notably Sword Art Online and their other light-novel  adaptations. The only minor nitpick I had with the visuals was that some  of the characters’ faces are a bit to small compared to their heads,  but that was something I got over fast.

Visuals aside, The Promised Neverland’s soundtrack is absolutely stellar. The original soundtrack was composed by Toshiya Ono, who is best known for his work on Land of the Lustrous and Gatchaman Crowds, both of which also had phenomenal OSTs, and his talent certainly shows in Neverland’s  OST as well. Not only does each piece do an excellent job at setting  the tone and atmosphere of each scene, but they’re also fantastic songs  on their own. Some of my personal favorites include the melancholic, yet  inspiring main theme, the energetic and jazzy “Escape Theme.” There’s  also “Isabella’s Lullaby,” which is an incredibly emotional song that is  especially impactful in its use in the season finale. Very rarely will I  like an anime’s soundtrack enough to listen to it in my spare time, but  I found myself using Promised Neverland’s OST as the soundtrack of my writing sessions plenty of times since watching the show, this review included.

The only complaint I have with the music is in one particular scene,  in the latter half of the series, where the music clashed with what  should’ve been an emotional scene. Without going too deep into spoilers,  it was an irritating stylistic choice that completely robbed that scene  of any emotional impact it would’ve had otherwise. Despite being a  small gripe in the grand scheme of things, that moment in particular is  still a pretty noticeable blemish on an otherwise fantastic show.

Images: Crunchyroll

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