Ou-topos, not Eu-topos
I still remember my first read of Sir Thomas More's pioneering work of sociopolitical satire that was Utopia. Yes, the subtle sarcasm almost never lands (though otherwise it is packed with some great gags), and the references to the real world are either too obscure or completely superficial.
Still, that book was the first time I read satire intending fully to consume it as such. Before this, so much insightful literature of caricature had sped past me, spoon fed to me by my schooling as "children's books" (what did you think Gulliver's Travels was?).
I finally came to realize, through Utopia, how hollow the very concept of the book rang. I understood how true perfection is little more than an absurdist joke. Or so I thought.
It turned out that I needed an anime a full decade later to hammer home this depressing point indelibly into my psyche.
From the New World blew me away from the get-go, despite the many apparent faults it possessed. It is an excruciatingly slow burn across the first four episodes or so. The pacing was off, the timeline of events were highly jumbled. Any attempt by the viewer to extract the slightest semblance of plot from the almost slice-of-life nature of events was to absolutely no avail. Wait a while, imbibe the ambience a lil' bit, FtNW seemed to be saying. Patience.
Thankfully, I was intrigued by these initial episodes for some wholly different reasons: the visual and audio experience. FtNW has a way of tugging at your heartstrings in very simple but effective ways. The scenery almost regularly invoked vague, visceral feels of nostalgia in me, which wasn't helped by the captivating score.
(That the animation reeled me in is quite ironic - later on, I came to detest massively the inconsistency of its quality. Then again, it was apparently left with only a fraction of its original budget because Sword Art Online was a thing)
And it wasn't all landscapes and horizons — FtNW took great advantage of the lack of plot and used all that extra space in the runtime to create some fantastic world-building. Every element of fauna — be it the Tainted Cats, tiger like creatures that invoke an almost mythic fear, or the Queerats that look like overgrown moles — felt so alien and yet strangely appropriate for the setting. If only they'd stayed in this lulling wonderland for longer...
Then — BAM! — came the big reveal, finally divulging how society turned around after the distressing events shown in the beginning. What mankind evolved to be. What the world at large evolved to be. The very concept of psychokinesis, and the deep divide that it created.
And yet, even with all of that exposition, and some more that we continued to get throughout its run, the anime never let us forget that we knew but a trickle of what the true narrative was, all the way till the very end of the 25 episodes.
This is where I think FtNW reached its peak, solely with the plot. It managed to completely engaged someone as fidgety as me with a blinding flurry of twists and turns making sure that it was completely unpredictable. A generous helping of a uniquely gripping antagonist(s?) towards the end of the series also made sure that all of the build-up that it achieved thus far could be realized into a credible crescendo.
The massive, crushing final reveal came after the resolution of conflict, just when we thought it was all over. It drove home the essence of its philosophy with a lot of success - that victory through strife is always hollow. In fact, most of the show delights in exposing this very principle of 'hollowness' - every element of society that the people of this world have been used to is torn down with terrifying alacrity, with no respect to how attached you may have gotten to them. Man, by the end of this ride that my emotions had been subjected to, I was thoroughly F-bombed.
That it not to say it was all a bed of roses; far from it. The characters, from the very outset, frustrated me to no end just by how they were full of nada-juice. These protagonists had absolutely nothing going for them, not one detail that would help them stand out from their peers.
While later exposition helped me partly excuse them for being so one-dimensional and emotionally repressed (psst- it's to do with the creation of an idealistic society), another contradicting piece of exposition (how our heroes have been 'specially endowed' with free will) only exacerbated my difficulties with accepting them.
However, all things considered, From the New World still managed to successfully trouble my intellect with its mind-boggling amount of philosophical concepts. In chief, it was super effective in bringing back to me the memory of that satire I'd read all those years ago...
You see, Sir More titled his book Utopia on purpose, fully intending it to be a play on words.
Utopia derives itself from Eu-topos, ancient Greek, meaning "good place". However, it can be very easily confused with Ou-topos, which means "nowhere" or a place that doesn't exist. For More intended his audience to realize, by itself, that as long as humans abound, Utopia will never truly be attained.
I think, for me, FtNW very convincingly promoted this discourse of humanity being too intrinsically flawed to build an ideal society. It presents a situation ripe for the creation of such a utopia and displays how a vastly improved on and much wiser mankind still messes the job up in spectacular fashion. In the end, among a community of individuals that are fundamentally different, perfection is only obtained through subjugating the weaker ones. And the only result is a promised land that never got off the blocks in the first place.
Humanity was thus always doomed to fail in its efforts. Best case scenario? Our endeavours at one simply fail and we go back to square one. Worst case? We create a dystopia instead, blissfully ignorant that it is only a pretender until the oppressed rise against tyranny and brutally expose its fallacy.
Strong Nine. Any plot-holes notwithstanding, what an absolutely poetic narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the lore, not so much the pacing of the plot.
(Japanese): Light Eight. I didn't really find any standouts throughout all of the show, apart from a certain [REDACTED] antagonist and another grey(yes this is a pun) character. But it would be very unfair to say that the actors didn't do a satisfactory job.
(English Dub): Strong Seven. The dub works surprisingly well with the OST, and to an extent, actually nails the traits of the starring characters like the original VA.
Light Seven. Look, I'm trying to find ways to make peace with the intentional choice to make the protagonists as mediocre as possible. Even then, simply accepting defining characteristics of each individual, especially the 'bravery'(read inability to feel any strong emotions for more than five seconds) of the heroine Saki without a shred of explanation is a bit of tall order.
Decent Eight. Again it falls under a very generic aesthetic, even if very pretty to look at. That is most of the times. There are moments where just the entire shot just clicks and explodes into visual delight. If only there was more of this.
Light Seven. I sincerely hope Sword Art Online never existed. A-1 studios missed a trick here, focusing on the wrong anime.
Decent Nine. I mean, the anime gets its name from Dvorak's 9th symphony, II movement. However, the score is this high not just because of this serene composition, but because of the suspenseful strains that are so omnipresent in the show. The way they build up anticipation and foreboding is just... chef's kiss.
Overall Weighted Score: 8.53
From the New World offers a look at an anime staple - a dystopian future - and might seem very run-of-the-mill in its premise. Do not be fooled, it is nothing of the sort. Find yourself picking your own brains, cogitating over what the anime's true message was well after you're done watching it.
Binge-worthy? I'd suggest you watch maybe a maximum of three episodes a day, to make sure you can fully immerse yourself into the viewing experience.