It can usually be hard to determine whether you’ve watched one of the best shows of the year when it comes out as early as January, but sometimes you can tell right away that you’ve got a hit. Such was the case in January of this year, when The Promised Neverland began airing on Japanese television, followed soon after by its American release on Toonami in the following April. Based on the popular Weekly Shonen Jump breakout title, the series was an instant success in print and was finally able to bring its unique brand of suspense and thrills to life for its first season.
The series’ plot is one that is likely experienced better knowing as little as possible, as one of its main draws its ability to keep you guessing at every turn, but the scarcest description is that it follows the lives of three orphans, Emma, Norman, and Ray, as they learn more about the threats creeping around their orphanage that may cost them their lives if they make one wrong move. Each of the kids, as well as their later allies, are certainly smart, but are tested at every turn and are saved by their intelligence as much as they are punished for their lack of it, and every step could mean the difference between life and death.
Being originally published in Weekly Shonen Jump, that brings inherent expectation regarding the genre of the story, or at least the tone. Though while I would say that it would be accurate to still identify it as a “battle” anime, as most of Jump’s more recognizable titles are known for, it follows less in the steps of Dragon Ball or One Piece and more in those of Death Note and Bakuman as a “non-battle” battle anime. The fights, as it were, definitely take place, but are more those of the mind than through physical ability. Each of the kids is fighting for their lives at any given moment, needing to evade captors or divert attention in order to obtain a certain goal. And more often than not, the situation is nail-bitingly intense, but the payoff is mind-blowing, especially when one side or the other reveals a strategy come to fruition that had been laid several episodes in advance.
The cast is pretty sparse, given that this is only a twelve episode season, but is used to great effect in balancing each other out in chemistry and dynamic. The main three kids, Emma, Norman, and Ray, all provide an important perspective when it comes to their ongoing situation, with Emma being optimistic but naïve, Norman being calculating but sometimes detached, and Ray being a realist but massively cynical. Likewise, the two central antagonists of the season act well as foils for each other and the kids, with their priorities constantly shifting between maintaining power and the deeper meaning in the positions they hold in relation to the kids. And there are plenty of minor characters that can end up falling into the background but end up as instrumental in major scenes, leading viewers to keep an eye out for them upon rewatches.
The story also plays on themes such as family, love, freedom, deception, and what it means to care for someone in order to drive home the complexity and multiple layers many of its characters possess. Many of the characters go through multiple stages and perspectives on each of these concepts as their worldviews are constantly tested and warped in response to major shifts in the story. Allies and enemies switch places at certain points, keeping both the characters and viewers on their toes in regards to who is out to save or harm whom. And when it comes time to explain the mindset of the main antagonist, it can become difficult to not sympathize with them, even after all the abhorrent acts they’ve committed.
Overall, the first season of The Promised Neverland is just about as close to an objective success as one can get on the first try, with impeccable writing, pacing, characters, acting, and direction. It is a series that is best entered as blind as possible, but is able to provide the same level of intensity and enjoyment after knowing the surprises, if not more so. And luckily, the second season is planned to premiere early next year, though likely with a drastically different direction. I don’t know what else to say other than beg you to check it out, so get on it.