Their Problem is Our Problem: The Promised Neverland, “Coronavirus,” and the Systems that Force Inequality

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.

Best Anime Characters of 2019

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Wataya Arata (Chihayafuru Season 3)

I’ve always liked Arata since the original Chihayafuru, but it’s in Season 3 that he’s really won me over. As the grandson of a former karuta master, Arata has lofty expectations that both positively motivate and burden him. He’s a super-rare talent who combines hard work, natural game sense, and unmatched memorization skills. In a way, this makes him almost too good a character, but it’s this recent season in particular that really builds on his story and shows the challenges that face even someone like him. Before, his setbacks had more to do with trauma and guilt, but here, we can see that even this genius still has struggles in his chosen passion. One of the key points is Arata trying to figure out where his responsibility ends and his dream begins, and that conflict is wonderful. Everyone has their own mountain to climb.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Emma (The Promised Neverland)

In detailing what makes Emma an amazing character, I once wrote that “In a world seemingly made up of constant dichotomies, she strives to find a third, fourth, or even fifth path.” What I mean is, as the heroine in a dark world where pain and trauma are commonplace, Emma stands as a shining example of the strength of compassion. Where others, even her closest friends, see happiness as a zero-sum game, Emma shows empathy and an unwillingness to accept sacrifice as the only way. Rather than holding her back, these qualities allow her to surpass her own limitations and encourage others to do the same. Emma is idealistic but not blinded by it, toeing a line that is supremely difficult.

MOST HONORABLE MENTION

Yang Wen-Li (Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These)

Given that much of my impression of Yang’s character comes from the previous anime adaptation of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I didn’t want to include him in the running. However, I wanted to make sure that Yang gets his much-deserved due as one of the greatest anime characters ever, and a figure almost unparalleled in being both a fascinating individual and a role model par excellence. As the series itself describes Yang, he is the master strategist who hates war—an oxymoron of sorts, but an essential description of a man who sees war as a blight but understands the need to operate within the system to ensure the best outcome. He’s also a staunch defender of the principles of democracy, and will defend it even to the detriment of himself. In a time when democracy around the world is under attack, he is a uniquely aspirational figure.

Final Thoughts

I think this year has been full of characters who are able to rattle the chains of history and who understand the need to think beyond themselves, but also don’t forget themselves in the process—and that includes ones not mentioned here. Whether it’s karuta, fighting a dystopian society built on greed and capitalism, or striving to find a balance between lofty ideals and the reality of a corrupt government, these characters are an inspiration.

Normally, this would be how I end the year, but there’s a bit of a twist this time: a final post deciding the best characters of the decade! Keep an eye out.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Why Emma in “The Promised Neverland” is a Fantastic Character

With the first season of The Promised Neverland anime over, and having personally caught up to the manga as it’s throwing around major revelations, I thought it would be a good time to write about why I think Emma is one of my favorite protagonists in recent memory. I’m going to keep details vague to avoid spoilers for both anime viewers and manga readers, so hopefully everyone can enjoy.

By virtue of being a female protagonist in a Weekly Shounen Jump manga, Emma is an exception in a magazine that is, at least on the page, overwhelmingly male-dominated. In this position, it would be all too easy to make her a passive character who supports others, but what she contributes to The Promised Neverland makes her the heart and soul of the series.

Emma’s character is cut from a more traditional shounen hero cloth: she’s idealistic, compassionate, prefers actions over words, and is unusually good at making friends. But while this attitude is often a surface point for a lot of characters, Emma’s attitude runs directly into the central conceits and challenges of her own series. To believe in “helping everyone” in a harsh world can seem hopelessly naive, yet that conviction is what gives her strength.

The important thing, however, is that as much as she seems to possess a “have your cake and eat it too” puppies and rainbows mentality, she’s not unrealistic or devoid of pragmatism. She understands that her path isn’t the easy one, but at the same time believes that being all too ready to sacrifice others “for the greater good” leads down a much darker path. In maintaining this view, she brings those who would otherwise dwell in the murkier areas of humanity into the light.

Because of her outlook, she somewhat reminds me of Eren from Attack on Titan, albeit with a relatively cooler head on her shoulders and less proclivity for violence. Emma, like Eren, prompts and motivates others to go beyond their comfort zones through her actions. Unlike Eren, however, Emma is motivated less by anger and more by love.

Emma doesn’t do the impossible. Rather, by pushing her own limits and maintaining her compassion, she makes clear to herself and everyone around her that their perceived boundaries (whether internal or external) can be challenged. In a world seemingly made up of constant dichotomies, she strives to find a third, fourth, or even fifth path.

Winter 2019 Anime Impressions

We’re a couple of months into the winter 2019 anime season, and I was asked by Johnny, one of my Patreon sponsors, for my thoughts thus far. Here are the current highlights, in my view.

The Promised Neverland

Based on a popular Shounen Jump thriller/psychological horror manga, it’s very notable that this adaptation is airing during the Noitamina timeslot–a space generally dedicated to appealing to older audiences. While I follow he original comic and thus know many of the spoilers, it’s still an incredible watch. If anything, The Promised Neverland is strong enough to carry the entire season by itself.

I was surprised to find out that the anime’s director is Kanbe Mamoru, who also directed one of my favorite anime ever, Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-san. Both shows have an amazing sense of almost palpable atmosphere, so maybe it’s not so unusual after all.

Boogiepop and Others

I recall the 2000 Boogiepop Phantom anime being amazing, but it’s been so long since I watched it that I barely remember what it was about. Thankfully, the current Boogiepop and Others (which is actually a prequel to Boogiepop Phantom) is plenty strong. It’s a bizarre occult mystery series where it feels like each discovery is just one small step in an infinite void of darkness. Even the characters themselves have this almost numbing quality that makes you want to sink further in. There are few characters I want to simultaneously know more and less about than Boogiepop.

Kaguya-sama: Love is War

Elite, super-rich schools are a fairly common trope in anime, from Boys Over Flowers to Ouran High School Host Club, and they can be pretty hit or miss. I was pleasantly surprised by Kaguya-sama: Love is War because while it’s pretty much a “will they or won’t they” romcom, the premise is almost backwards compared to expectations. Rather than it being about hopelessly oblivious teens not realizing their own feelings for each other, it’s about two characters who are clearly interested in each other but see romantic confession as a sign of weakness. Thus, they’re constantly playing a game of chicken to see if they can get the other to ask them out first.

I like to think of it as like a mirror version of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. The only thing is that while I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve watched, I wonder if the joke might wear itself thin eventually.

Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan

Adapted from a manga that ran in Monthly Afternoon, Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan is an eccentric series about a single woman living in Tokyo. The anime is made all the more absurd by a Pop Team Epic-esque approach, where each episode is animated and directed by a different staff. The after-episode interviews last a liiittle too long, but it’s almost supplemental so not a big deal.

Star Twinkle Precure

Does this count as a winter 2019 season anime? The year-long franchise always runs on Precure time (starts and ends in February), but I’m going to include it because the series is already awesome. It’s taking a different approach compared to its predecessor, Hugtto! Precure, but I appreciate that. The outer space/aliens theme is a welcome first that I hope they explore in greater detail. The main character, Hoshina Hikaru, fulfills the “energetic and enthusiastic lead” role like so many other central Cures before her while still managing to feel unique. The show is vibrant and fun, and I expect good things from it.

So what series have been catching your attention? Which have you stuck with? Let me know in the comments, if you’d like!

This post was made possible thanks to Johnny Trovato. If you have any topics you’d like to see on Ogiue Maniax, check out the Patreon.