In this week’s episode of Shinsekai Yori, the characters forget who Shun is. This is the most I’ve identified with any of them all series.
Witty cheap-shots aside, it did take me an embarrassingly long time to realize that there had not, in fact, always been a member of their group named Ryou, and that the person they were trying to remember was Shun. I was supposed to find it strange that there was suddenly this new guy named Ryou in their group who seemed to have mysteriously taken Shun’s place, but instead I had completely forgotten who the main characters were, and thereby also forgotten who the main characters were not. While half of this can likely be blamed on my less-than-stellar name-retention abilities, it struck me as odd that I would be so slow on the uptake of this turn of events in particular – namely, the fact that the characters have forgotten Shun. It’s odd because in addition to the beautiful art style, Shun was the reason I was so impressed by last week’s episode. His transformation into a karma demon was one of the first instances of well-done character development Shinsekai has put forth so far. In all honesty, my favorite character before that point was Squealer. You know, the little rat dude.
I’m going to take a step back for a second and say that I do like Shinsekai Yori. It’s on my list of top five shows that premiered this season, and it can do a real bang-up job when it wants to. This is seen perhaps most strongly in episode four’s example of an infodump done right and in episode ten’s haunting atmospherics. It’s built up an interesting world with a rich background, and it’s got a lot of room to expand to in the future. But the fact that not even the characters themselves could remember one of their own hit me on a level so meta that I could not help but wonder what it is about these characters that makes them so unmemorable.
I mentioned before that my favorite character was Squealer. Could this be because his arc, which only featured two of the main characters, was given two to three times as much screentime as any other, more significant part of the series? Would all the extremely physical homosexual relationships in episode 8 have been less jarring if they hadn’t come completely out of nowhere and we had actually seen the characters come to like each other? Would I have realized sooner that Ryou’s presence in the group was strange if there had been more meaningful development of the people who actually are in the group? I suppose the limits of my memory are up for debate on that last point, but otherwise, I think the answers to these questions and others like them are a solid “yes.”
And this, I believe, is what makes the characters so forgettable: we are never given anything to remember them by. Poor name retention aside, do we really know anything about the curly-haired kid and the red-haired girl? Characters in a show like this are defined – when not by their hair color – by what they have done to impact the story or the other characters. Have these two ever performed any action of worth in the series? Because I totally forgot that Curly was even a character – I figured Ryou must have been him. The show could quite literally have carried on as if Ryou had always been a main character and I would never have known the difference. All I can recall about Red is that she is “Saki’s friend who gets touchy-feely with her sometimes.” I know they’ve had lines. A glance at Wikipedia reminds me that they’re the ones that found the Cats that were being sent after Shun. But these are all passive actions – they haven’t accomplished anything.
Even Saki and Satoru, who got a lot of screentime during the queerat arc, are barely passably developed – they aren’t immediately forgettable, but neither are they at all interesting. Satoru is “The guy who threw a bunch of rocks at the enemy queerats and had some intimate times with both Shun and Saki,” and despite being the main character, all I can dredge up about Saki is that she’s the one who discovered how to restore everyone’s Cantus and had unrealized feelings for Shun, who’s dead now. Otherwise she just kind of follows the story around wherever it leads. As much as I think the queerat arc lasted far too long, I concede that it, along with Shun’s episode, did the best job of giving the characters involved something to do besides sit around and wonder what’s going on.
It doesn’t help that none of them have any chemistry together either. If the show hadn’t shoved unusually detailed scenes of physical intimacy in our faces out of the blue, I would never have guessed that any of the characters had any feelings for each other.
I realize that the world is far and away the most important character in Shinsekai Yori. If the characters were nothing more than the eyes through which we saw the world, the limited development we have now would be fine. But if the show wants to use them for more than that, as seems to be the case, it has to at least put enough effort into them that I can tell when one has been replaced. Shinsekai still has a lot of potential, and while I think it’s too far behind at its halfway point to be able to become a truly great series, it’s definitely been a good watch so far. And now that it’s getting into the meat of the plot, if it can decide what to do with its excellent setting and flesh out the characters a bit more, it has the opportunity to be even better.(I wish I knew the source of that gif)