A Song of Light and Shadow

I can confidently say that From the New World might be the single most underrated anime I’ve watched. And unlike with other underrated anime, I can easily see why. How do you sell this anime to anyone without spoiling details and hence ruining their viewing experience? This is a general problem with most mystery fiction, but particularly so here. How do I go about writing this review?

In fact, if one has already decided to watch it, I would advise against reading any further. This anime is best enjoyed completely blind.

In From the New World, psychokinetic powers started to appear in human beings in the year 2011. The story is set over 1000 years after that, in a future Japan, where psychokinetic powers are the norm. We follow a group of children studying at a specialised academy for psychics. The story spans many years, starting with the characters as young kids, progressing onward through their teenage years, and eventually adulthood.

The future looks bright.

A lot of thought went into the setting. It is similar enough to our own world to be familiar (after all, it is our own world), yet the numerous differences are plain to see. Some of these differences are simply small details that make sense when given thought, such as the fact that no one seems to use many modern technologies (psychic abilities make them irrelevant). Others are interesting oddities, such as the unique flora and fauna that have evolved in the intervening time. And the least obvious of them are downright unsettling when given more thought. Why are these future human settlements so small? Where are all the cities and skyscrapers of today’s Japan? Why are there seemingly few people?

A waterwheel. In 3011 AD.

From the New World puts us alongside this group of children as they uncover more and more secrets about their world. What starts off as campfire horror tales the kids narrate to each other slowly begins to reveal itself as something bigger. The chilling intro to episode 1 is but a small indicator of what is to come. There are layers upon layers. This anime is extremely careful and methodical about how it reveals the secrets of its world.

It is a bit too careful, in my opinion. There is almost a sense of hesitance when it comes to revealing lore. Is it okay to tell the audience or not, it repeatedly asks. Many events or concepts are not even explicitly shown or spelled out, leaving it to the audience to piece two and two together (if even possible). Post-timeskip changes can at times be baffling. Expect to rewind and rewatch scenes multiple times.

There is also plenty of omitted lore that I would have loved to see. Such a missed opportunity. A few OVA episodes dedicated to expanding upon the world and its history wouldn’t have hurt.

The main cast, huddled around a campfire.

Both of these problems likely stem from the fact that the source novel is a 1000-plus page doorstopper, and the adaptation had to leave out several details expanded upon in the novel. This contributes to another issue: lack of coherence between story threads early on. None of the early plot threads are at all boring. These are important parts of the novel. But since the anime has a lot less runtime with which to connect these threads, to more smoothly weave them together, the transitions between individual plot threads can feel a little rushed. This makes the plot feel like it is being handed out in chunks, rather than neatly folded in together.

While none of this was a dealbreaker for me, I can see how many people will grow tired of it and drop the series prematurely. Which is truly a shame, for with time the plot threads converge together into one of the finest stories ever told.

Once all the pieces are in place, what was initially a problem — the secretive approach to the writing — becomes the anime’s greatest strength. It holds back information until it can hold back no more, playing games with the viewer who is left agonisingly in the dark. I found myself unable to stop clicking on the next episode. I absolutely had to know what was going to happen next. The tension was oppressive.

This tension wouldn’t have been possible if From the New World wasn’t the masterclass in atmosphere that it is. While the art isn’t the most consistent (especially when the occasional CGI is involved), the lighting and colouring is wonderful. It is able to establish the mood for a scene and pull you into it. It doesn’t hurt that large chunks of the story are set at night, further enhancing the effect of the light and colour.

Composition, lighting, and colour palette: all beautiful

Yet even such good art pales in comparison to the masterpiece that is the soundtrack. The novel was named after Antonin Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9, called “From the New World”. This second movement of this piece is used to haunting effect in the episode 1 intro mentioned earlier, with disturbing scenes set to lovely orchestral music. Love the contrast. I advise everyone to read up about how Dvorak composed this symphony upon completing the anime. The author of the original novel did not name it so for no reason. The rest of the soundtrack has great variety to quickly change the mood, going from soft ambient music for quiet scenes to frantic electronic music for sudden action.

One track stands tall above all others: “Traditional Song of Shadows”. This combination of atmospheric rock, chimes, and eerie chanting is probably the finest piece of background music I’ve heard in any anime. The studio makes a bold choice to do away with a traditional opening song and sequence, instead having this chilling, goosebumps-inducing track playing in the background, to great effect. This track is not overused, but has impact each and every time it plays. I will not be forgetting “Traditional Song of Shadows” anytime soon.

The strong script and voice acting carries these characters through this crushing atmosphere. The long progression of time aids in their character development. They unveil secret after secret, hacking away at the veil that covers their world, attempting to find the shadowy figures behind all this. You are transported into all this conflict alongside them; like them, you will be wondering whom to even trust anymore. Misinformation and red herrings abound.

And all of this allows the true villain to hide in broad daylight. Spoiling this would ruin the whole experience (I don’t even want to engage in any sly ‘wink-wink’ literary allusions), but suffice it to say that this is one of anime’s greatest villains, perhaps even THE greatest. The motives, the strategy, the cunning misdirection, the complexity: truly masterful.

Through the villain, the anime asks some very complex questions about racism, slavery, war, class conflict and inequality, the rights of individuals, and much more. This is the true purpose of the story. It seeks to probe these complex issues. And it does so through some complex, morally grey characters.

Welcome to the Upside Down

The escalation from the shaky beginning to this point is simply marvelous. You can't imagine how it all got there in the end. The ending is one of the most satisfying I’ve ever seen; it doesn’t put a single foot wrong, and is deeply moving. I regularly rewatch the final episode to relive it all over again.

There is nothing more I can say to convince you to watch From the New World. It may not seem like the most appealing anime out there, especially at first. But I urge you to patiently give it a chance. There are few works of fiction like it.


Art: A. The first impression of the art is a rather negative one: the apparent lack of depth. The characters look completely two-dimensional, almost like stickers. It’s an acquired taste at best. However, the light-and-shadow work is excellent. The colour palette for each scene is carefully selected depending on the mood. The art works best at night; daytime lighting accentuates the ‘sticker’ effect. I like the attention to detail on characters, especially their clothing: unlike in many anime, characters here wear a wide variety of outfits for different times, and these outfits even evolve as the characters age. Much effort went into that. A shame that not even a tenth of that effort went into the cheap CGI, which doesn’t blend in with the environments at all.

Animation: B+. Decent animation throughout, especially for psychedelic ‘dream’ sequences. Again, this falters only when the CGI rears its ugly head.

Music: A+. Bold decision to do away with an opening theme. It pays off, because an opening would have only broken up the tension. The first ending song, "Wareta Ringo", is quite nice, with interesting visuals to accompany it; it went on my playlist pretty quickly. The soundtrack does a lot of work when it comes to setting the mood: good variety, and can quickly change. “Traditional Song of Shadows” is an unforgettable piece of music.

Voice acting (Japanese): A. The script is very good, devoid of unnecessary exposition dumps and other problems that typically plague the sci-fi genre. There are no standout voice acting performances, but no weak ones either; as a whole, it is quite competent. The delivery is typically restrained, turning more dramatic only for the emotional high points. This makes these moments more impactful than they'd otherwise be.

Voice acting (English): A. It’s great to see that the voice acting is equally good in either language. The more restrained voice acting in this one, as opposed to the more colourful and ‘uniquely Japanese’ style seen in many other anime, lends itself well to dubbing. I might edge in favour of the Japanese, since the anime is set in Japan, but you can’t really go wrong in either language.

Story: A+. A brilliant and often disturbing look at the direction humanity has taken after the advent of psychic powers in people, and the moral quandaries faced by this society. After a slightly incoherent first act, From the New World mesmerisingly weaves together mystery, horror, and sociopolitical commentary to produce one of history’s greatest TV series.

Characters: A. The slow progression of time allows the characters to flourish and develop, although there are some stumbles with each of the timeskips. There are no truly good or truly evil characters, and characters you hate at the beginning will probably grow on you with time as their motivations become clearer. While none of the protagonists are individually what I would consider truly memorable, the antagonist is one for the history books. What an amazing character.

Overall Grade: A+

Be prepared to sacrifice your sleep once From the New World starts to hook you in. It is the kind of work of art that keeps you awake at night.

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