[Anime/Book] ‘Shin Sekai Yori’ / ‘From the New World’: commentary and analysis

This post assumes prior knowledge of either the anime series and/or the original sci-fi novel. Discussions with spoilers after the jump.

The TV anime 'Shin Sekai Yori' was aired between Oct 2012 and Mar 2013. It is based on an award-winning novel by Yusuke Kishi published in 2008.

The TV anime ‘Shin Sekai Yori’ was aired between Oct 2012 and Mar 2013. It is based on an award-winning sci-fi novel by Yusuke Kishi published in 2008.

Suppose your were an alien who has just landed on earth on a mission to study mankind. If you see a man walking a dog, you may be forgiven to think that it is the dog walking the man. If you see a painting of the Virgin and the Child, you may be forgiven to think that the Virgin is the object of worship while the Child is but her appendage. When you look at TV listings for anime series, you may be forgiven to think that these are Monte Carlo simulations to predict the effects of possessing superhuman powers, the same way economists run Monte Carlo models to predict interest rates.

Shin Sekai Yori [新世界より] is a very thorough simulation running the span of over a thousand years. The sweeping scale of its philosophy is a match to this gigantic timespan. Below are a few highlights:

Fragile is the branch on which the brightest fruit of the tree hangs

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When I think of the story of Shun, the most intelligent boy with the strongest psychic powers among his peers, I could not help but be reminded of the word donkan-ryoku [鈍感力] which became popular in Japan with the publication of a book of the same name by the physician-turned-novelist Junichi Watanabe in 2007.

DonkanDonkan-ryoku means “the power of insensitivity”. Watanabe throws doubt on the idea that sharp powers of observation, reasoning and intuition automatically equate excellence in human qualities. Instead, he believes that, precisely because we live in a changing and unpredictable environment, the power to stay numb is the key to survival. In other words, to get on in the world, you just have to not react to things so readily.

To come back to the story, when Saki asked the matriarch Tomiko why she came to be regarded as a successor to Tomiko’s reign of leadership, Tomiko replied that it was because Saki had shown an incredible ability to stabilize herself after learning the shocking facts of humanity’s horrific past in the forest, which was not the case with her four other friends. In short, it was because she had donkan-ryoku. She was a stable person.

However, Shun is a clever, observant and introspective boy with powers to put two and two together to get five. At a time when even Saki had nothing in her head except affairs of the heart, he was already seeing through the facades of the controlling human beehive they lived in. Worst, he had the kindness to not share his thoughts to even his closest friends, who were still enjoying the innocence of youth. He must have felt like an old man among children. Dark thoughts gradually welled up in his heart and eventually consumed his soul.

Somewhere in the educational conveyor belt in our modern world, you have probably been told that if you are smart, work hard and be a good person, you will eventually succeed in life. Shun was such a model student, and he fell in the fastest, hardest and most tragic way. I got curious about the author’s outlook on life in general and searched for interviews with him online, and came cross this one here, where he said Shin Sekai Yori is probably his favourite among all his works, and a recurring motif among his works is that:

“What is stable survives, what is unstable perishes. It has nothing to do with good and evil.” [安定的なものは生き残り、不安定なものは滅びる。善悪の別は、何の関係もない。]

Power comes from having a long memory

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The matriarch Tomiko once said to Saki: “What do you think is the source of power? In the past, political leaders used violence, wealth and brainwashing to induce fear and thus gain power. But I have none of these at my disposal. The only gift I have been endowed with is time. I am just an average person without any spectacular qualities, but I have had a lot of time.” Tomiko then explained to Saki that she was 267 years old, and her particular kind of psychic powers enabled her to repair her own aging DNA. When Saki asked if it meant she could live eternally, she replied: “I wonder if I could live eternally. No one can say for sure what eternity is. Everyone I knew died, and only I remained. Only I and this vast memory of human history in my head. That is the source of my power.”

Power comes from remembering just a little bit more when everyone around you have short-lived memory. That’s not the sort of thing you hear in MBA classes.

This idea reminds me of the musing of a friend of mine. He was talking about The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, which is a scholarly work on memory techniques in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. “These techniques ended up being the guarded secrets of elite people like the Jesuits, and the Jesuits were scarily clever people, mind you. People like Mateo Ricci probably trained to have perfect, eidetic memory with these. And yet memory techniques are not taught in schools today. They may teach you many things at school, except the art of memory. And why should they? Populations with short and poor memory are easier to control.”

A lower species may prevail against a higher species

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The race of bakenezumi take to kidnapping human babies, because once these children reach puberty and obtain psychic powers, they can be used as “killing machines” against the human race. In other words, a lower race with less-developed technology and no psychic power may prevail against a higher race with more-developed technology and psychic powers by stratagem, wit and cunning.

In an entirely different context, another friend of mine once mused about psychic abilities in general thus: “Suppose a man suddenly wakes to psychic powers. I would strongly recommend him to not use these powers to, say, assassinate political leaders he did not like. Corrupt as these political leaders he did not like and noble as his cause may be, the blowback would be even greater. It would result in a witchhunt for psychics. And how can one judge if a person is psychic or not just from appearance? There is no physical mark or anything to say that you are a psychic. There are bound to be people who are wrongfully accused. Moreover, people have different degrees of psychic-ness. Almost everyone has had stories and experiences they cannot explain. So where do you draw the line? Let us suppose that the percentage of people with strong enough powers to become assassins may be very, very small, but the percentage of people they will drag into trouble of one kind or anything will be very great. To this day, historians are puzzled about the causes of the vicious witch hunts in the early modern era. For every cause you list, there are two or three arguments against it. Could it be, that those witch hunts actually began with veritable proof of either a single high-powered psychic or a small group of them, who happened to have rallied around some political cause, now lost to us in history?”

To come back to the story, the bakenezumi race “witch-hunts” the psychic human race. Of course, we learned at the end that bakenezumi were actually genetically altered human beings, and they themselves had been “witch-hunted” by the psychic humans in the past. The psychic humans also “witch-hunt” children who turn out to be non-psychics within their own communities. As far as simulations go, these are all plausible scenarios.

Shin Sekai Yori has been a particularly thought-provoking story to me. It was my gateway drug to the addictive novels of Yusuke Kishi.

RELATED POST:

[Book/Anime] Occult aspects in ‘Shin Sekai Yori’ by Yusuke Kishi

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6 thoughts on “[Anime/Book] ‘Shin Sekai Yori’ / ‘From the New World’: commentary and analysis

  1. So glad to see you post about this series – it has become one of my all-time best.

    I like your idea of simulations – I wonder why indeed anime and manga come back to the theme of humans obtaining superhuman powers again and again, ad infinitum. What do you think?

    Shun’s death was the most powerful lesson for me in the series. Have you seen Subeta ga F ni Naru? I think it’s the sort of thing you may like. There is a quote in it that goes something like: “Every human being is born a genius. Gradually they become mediocre. You can do work and engage in empty chatter with others, precisely because you have become dumber.” When I read your background info on the Makoto Shichida Method and think about all the human potential stuff in Shin Sekai Yori – well, it’s a heck of a lot to sink in.

    Let’s talk more on this series. It is always my pleasure to pick your brains.

  2. @cortez

    >> I like your idea of simulations – I wonder why indeed anime and manga come back to the theme of humans obtaining superhuman powers again and again, ad infinitum. What do you think?

    Well, it’s a question that has been on my mind too, and somehow I am reminded of the story of Tezuka Osamu producing Astroboy / Mighty Atom. I can’t remember where I read it from but in one interview in his later life, he mentioned Astroboy / Mighty Atom as the work he liked least because he did it for money and this sponsorship came from Higher Powers who wanted to push through plans to build nuclear plants (in a country prone to earthquakes large and small…) and launched propaganda efforts to rebrand anything “atomic” as cool and sassy (in a country that got nuked with two atomic bombs not that long ago…). So you get a cute, heroic mascot character called… Atom!

    It’s not just superhuman powers but anything you see repeatedly in anime (or on TV in general) probably had a political agenda besides commercial motives. Certainly I had this feeling when I watched “The Wind Arises” – the heart, the alchemy, the magic typical of the old Hayao Miyazaki are just not there, and of course a lot of people have already pointed out the controversies of the subject matter… As with Astroboy / Mighty Atom, you may never hear the truth (or something approaching the truth) until many, many years later.

    When you watch a show, neurologically speaking you are being put into a light trance, which makes you less resistant to subliminal suggestions. Just remember that and always ask yourself – “why am I watching this?”

    I have seen “Subete ga N ni Naru” and it is on my to-do list. Just stay tuned. 🙂

  3. Shun’s death was also the part that hit me the hardest in the show. Reminds me of people I know, actually. I call them “SSS” – scary smart and suicidal. I suppose being bright in itself also comes with “tail risks”… either you succeed spectacularly or fail miserably. And I am talking about the kind of smartness that is different from having enough brains to get into med/law school or being able to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a different kind of smartness altogether and I don’t know how to describe it, until I watched this show and came to call it “SS” or Shun’s Smart. 😉

    What do you make of Shun’s nasty look when he works on hedging that egg of his in class?

  4. @ vv

    I think they probably overdid the nasty look a bit in the anime version compared to the book. I would have preferred a more subtle way to show it and leave more to the audience’s imagination. As it were, it feels like the animators were rushing some production schedule and did not really think it through…

  5. I’m still fumbling with Japanese and apart from English, I only know German and Greek, so it’s always a delight when you bring insight from other languages and combine your commentary with interviews.

    Shinsekai Yori is among my top 5 anime of all time. Saki is an anime figure I greatly admire. I sympathise with Shun a lot since I feel I could be in his place in such a society. There are actually studies that have proven a correlation between depression and being clever and sensitive -I need to find good examples later. By a quick googling I found Shun’s case to be something similar to existential depression. But I guess that’s also why Jesus said that happy are the ones who are poor in spirit. They are blessed with the ignorance coming from simplicity. Complexity stresses people and that’s the reason the look for binaries in their lives.

    About Atom Boy and power: that’s a really interesting reveal, byt I don’t think it’s always the case. Mainly this has roots in human greediness imho

  6. @ Ayame

    I have my share of these SSS people around me, and one hack I have discovered is that one can always invent different persona to deal with different aspects of life. Yes, you can have your high-IQ persona at the right time and the right place, but you can also use your average-IQ persona to interact with society at large more smoothly. You can have as many persona of as many different levels of IQ as you fancy. Think of life as a role-playing game and you are shape-shifting character.

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