WARNING: THE PROMISED NEVERLAND MANGA SPOILERS
In Chapter 172 of The Promised Neverland, there’s a collage that’s rather conspicuous, given the actual pandemic hitting the world at this moment. As the heroine Emma is confronting an enemy leader about how differences in positions are the root of conflict, one of the images has a wall with the word “coronavirus” graffitied on it.
Up to this point, it’s been established that the main characters live in an alternate dimension from the regular human world, but there haven’t been direct calls to the reality in which we, the readers, live. I think this “coronavirus” page is a direct message from the creators of The Promised Neverland, Shirai Kaiu and Demizu Ponsuka, and what that message says is: “The ideas conveyed in this manga are not meant to be taken as mere vague abstractions about generally making the world a better place, but as very real criticisms of society.”
When The Promised Neverland first began, it was an interesting manga about a cat-and-mouse game and a battle of wits in a dystopian setting. Originally, the focus was on escaping an orphanage designed to turn children into food. Then, it was about surviving against the demons on the outside. Over time, however, the series has revealed a greater world where the real evil of the series is not scary human-eating monsters but how the corrosive desire to hold onto power at the expense of the greater good.
In order to survive, some children strive to become mothers—essentially overseers of the human farms, but also chattel themselves due to being the literal suppliers of the chain through giving birth. Mothers are told that the best among them can become a “grandmother,” supervising all the mothers, making them compete desperately too. It’s even revealed that the demons themselves have an oppressive class hierarchy. Eating human meat is what has allowed them to gain a high level of intelligence, but a steady diet is necessary because otherwise they’ll revert back to beasts. The rulers of their world get access to the best meat, and can thus maintain their already massive advantage. Moreover, there turns out to have been a way to permanently prevent the demons from losing their intellect, but the ruling class purposely and violently obscured that information to keep the masses dependent on those in charge. In other words, everything about society in The Promised Neverland is premised around pitting the lower classes against one another to distract from the intentional systemic issues imposed by those in power.
How does that apply to our own world? “The top 1% hold 99% of the wealth” is about how massive inequality concentrates all the power in a select few who inevitably enrich themselves at the expense of others. In regards to keeping the lower classes at one another’s throats, US president Lyndon B. Johnson famously said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Writer and lecturer Douglas Rushkoff even wrote an article in 2018 about how some of the ultra-rich are preparing for the apocalypse by figuring out how to save themselves while still wondering if it would be necessary to lock down their guards’ food supplies to force loyalty. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing how the very same types are retreating further into their massive safety nets, leaving those with less to struggle. It’s crystal clear to me that there’s a similar sentiment at work fueling the overt criticism of the disparity in power and resources in The Promised Neverland.
The fact that Weekly Shounen Jump comes out with brand new chapters of manga on a regular and consistent basis can be a blessing and a curse, but one advantage of the accelerated pace of a weekly manga magazine is how quickly it can potentially seize upon the relevant events of the day. What that “coronavirus” graffiti communicates is simple: the crises your heroes are facing in The Promised Neverland are not that far from the problems that plague the very reality in which you live. Emma, as the heart of this series, staunchly opposes false dichotomies that lead to zero-sum situations where one group can only “win” by sacrificing another. Perhaps The Promised Neverland wants us all to be allies in this struggle, and to be aware of the real problems that gave way to our current global crisis: racism, social inequality, intentionally massive disparities in wealth and resources, and an economic environment where those in power are encouraged to let the whole world burn if it means keeping their positions.