Monthly Archives: October 2014

125: “From the New World”

The program notes from the UCBSO’s performance of Dvorak’s ninth symphony suggest that Antonin was a shrewd, at-least-not-oblivious composer who knew how to hawk a symphony when he needed to. This post does not attempt to address how “American” or “authentically from the new world” the ninth symphony might be. This is not an angry scrawl about how over-loved the second movement is. This has, in fact, almost nothing to do with the symphony itself. This post is my attempt at personal closure with the anime Shinsekai Yori (新世界より, From the New World).

From the New World is easily the most depressing anime I’ve ever seen. You may infer from my statement how far under a rock I live. I do spend a lot of time on the high-profile Ghibli films; therefore I do not gorge myself on the misfortunes and sadness of Japanese-animated characters. My idea of a satisfying weekend evening is watching Ponyo.

Ponyo is a serious film; it was produced on a sizable budget and while you could say it panders to a younger audience, I find it just short of operatic (in perhaps scope only). From the New World is a serious series; it is, however, entirely unsuitable for children. My assessment has nothing to do with the mild bisexuality sprinkled in there: others have covered this thoroughly, and I too find the tidbits with reversible sexuality altogether irrelevant. No, I am far more concerned with the crushing pessimism that pervades and terminates the series. Almost every episode is thickly fogged with foreboding if not outright menace.

This would all be worth it if the ending did something – anything – to really round off the tarring-and-feathering the watcher is forced through. It is not so. For that reason, and I think that reason alone, I find From the New World to be unconvincing. I’m not particularly attached to the humbug nobility of human spirit, but what on earth do you expect your viewers to feel when you higgledy-piggledy juxtapose the most strikingly draconian animated courtroom scene in recent years with beautiful music, house lights shining optimistically upon the future of humanity? There is something extraordinarily wrong, very very wrong there.

Accountability is the basis of justice: crime is met with (fitting) punishment. The juncture of malice and intent is criminal. Then due process is struck of retribution and sometimes tempered with mercy. The rat-behind-the-curtain, Squeera, is stripped naked and thrown on the stand, ringed by a room full of embittered, vengeance-hungry spectators. Something something hasty human emotion, something something wartime atrocities. So far, so understandable. The judge reads the charges to jeers and boos from the peanut gallery, fiercely and passionately overrides every one of Squeera’s protests. There is no dignity for this poor monster rat. The sentence is handed down swiftly and without consideration: an endless hell, the cruelest torture ever devised (in-universe).

Back the hell up. Punishment for a crime is very much a human thing, but this is far and away the least human thing in the entire series. If Genghis Khan stood trial tonight at the Hague, he would get off far easier than did Squeera. Genghis Khan actually has sections on the English Wikipedia devoted to positive, mixed, and negative opinions of about equal length. Squeera, admittedly, had a definitely less marked positive impact, but I refuse to believe his kill count was higher than (or even on the same order of magnitude of) Khan’s. The UN’s definition of genocide might be stretched to cover the European colonization of the Americas; estimates of this death toll go from 2.000.000 (Rummel) and 100.000.000 (Stannard). There were lots and lots of questionable things done in this time period. Imagine if the natives re-took the upper hand and put the conquistadors on trial for the terrifying massacre of their people. Even considering that they were (not all of them, not by a long shot) people who brought you literally heard-rending sacrifice, I find it hard to imagine them devising a punishment that would exceed Squeera’s in aimless cruelty. From the New World takes place thousands of years in the future. Ethics are supposed to have developed, not regressed past the Cro-Magnons. What the hell happened?

Squeera’s actions were horrible. He had to have been held accountable. But the endless hell? What? Where did the bar for humanity go? Did someone casually flip it off its perch and demonstrate defenestration? Or did they just casually bump it down a couple thousand notches and let it macerate in thorny cruelty?

I’m just horrified that the end of the series is considered an ending at all. The main freaking characters are powerless to effect meaningful change. A tragic hero (who by all accounts was depraved, cruel, and awful) was sentenced to a disproportionately cruel fate for his crimes.

I mean…my god.