Beyond “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory”: The Promised Neverland

The Promised Neverland recently concluded in Weekly Shounen Jump, and it caps off a four-year run as perhaps my favorite dedicated shounen manga of the last twenty years. It both elevates and challenges the foundational Jump motto of “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory” by pushing far past simple power fantasies and the thrill of adventure. It dives deep into the territory of political thought as it tells an intriguing story about kids trying to both survive and make a difference in their world.

This is not the first time I’ve praised The Promised Neverland. I’ve previously written about the significance of its main heroine, Emma, and the fact that the series criticizes the entrenched systems of injustice that stay in power by pitting people against one another. Now that the series has crossed the finish line, I feel that my positive opinions of the manga have been more than justified. The Promised Neverland is a series that dares to say something about the world, utilizing its world and its characters to challenge readers to imagine a better world.

The Promised Neverland places a female protagonist front and center, gives her the agency to make changes, and emphasizes the idea that we don’t have to perceive the world as some zero-sum game of absolute winners and losers—a world where the first thing we ask is how we can save as many people as we can, and not how many people we need to sacrifice to achieve a goal. Here and now in the year 2020—between COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, democratic protests in Hong Kong, and countless other human rights and safety issues—these are messages we need. 

An opinion I keep seeing online is that The Promised Neverland was at its best in the first arc, when it was about orphans trying to outsmart their sinister and powerful mother figure in order to escape. And certainly, there was a kind of thrill to the “high stakes battle of wits” that defines the  early manga. However, I am so glad that The Promised Neverland evolved past that point. It would have been all too easy for this manga to simply be about the nerve-racking excitement, but it became a genuine piece of thought-provoking science fiction—the kind that encourages readers to imagine a different world, one that looks at concepts of utopia and dystopia, and asks how one could turn into the other and vice versa. 

There is another Shounen Jump series that I feel hits with a similar weight, though it’s a far different series in a lot of ways: Barefoot Gen, the story of two siblings who live through the bombing of Hiroshima and the pain of post–World War II Japan. No, The Promised Neverland is not couched in the trauma of directly experiencing a nuclear explosion, and its pain is abstracted through its fantastical setting, but it still looks deep into who we are as a collective people called humanity, and challenges us all to be better. 

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.