So if you’ve followed me on Twitter any time within the last year and you’ve heard me talking about manga, odds are pretty good you’ve seen me dumping on Black Clover’s lack of originality, or talking about a little manga series called The Promised Neverland. The Promised Neverland, debuted in Shonen Jump a little over a year ago now, and caught my attention with it’s unique art and rather strange decision to center around a female protagonist, which is a pretty big rarity in JUMP for obvious reasons. Since then, its captivated me with it’s strong storytelling and equally solid worldbuilding, quickly transforming it into one of the most consistently enjoyable manga reads I’ve experienced in a long time. Now with the first volume of the series set to hit American shores very soon, I figure now is as good a time as any to why you should try to and get an early jump on this series before it becomes the next big thing.
Before anything else, I should probably give a brief synopsis, though that’s a bit of a spoiler in and of itself. Neverland follows the story of a young girl named Emma who enjoys a peaceful life in an orphanage with her fellow orphans and surrogate mother. However one day, she stumbles upon a dark secret: that her world is inhabited by man-eating “demons” and her orphanage is actually something of a meat farm, with her and her siblings being next on the menu. Thus begins a desperate battle for survival as Emma, alongside two of her other siblings named Norman and Ray, work to find a way to escape with the rest of their family. To give away anymore than that would ruin the experience (and the build-up to the revelation about the nature of the world’s setting is a strong hook in and of itself) so rather than going too deep into plot elements or characters, I’ll instead talk about the three major elements that really help to make the series work.
A World of Horrors
Well I might as well start this off by mentioning the biggest hook of the series, which is that it can be well…scary. Neverland’s world is one of constant dangers where one misstep could result in the kids becoming dinner and where hope can be as much of a luxury as it is something to strive for. All of this comes to life through artist, Pozuka Demizu’s fantastic artwork, which can be equal parts breathtaking and horrifying, helping the aesthetic of the series and creating an overall sense of atmosphere that feels more akin to a storybook or fantasy novel than a traditional shonen. Of course, despite the general stigma associated with the Shonen Jump “brand”, this series is far from the magazine’s first horror-related entry (it’s the same magazine that ran Hunter X Hunter’s Chimera Ant arc after all) and ever since Attack on Titan took over the anime sphere a few years back, JUMP has made more than a few attempts at trying to publish something that could compete with it. Where Neverland succeeds however, is in it’s commitment to maintaining a relatively grounded horror aesthetic. Similar dark fantasy or thriller attempts by shonen have often stumbled by reveling too much in their darker elements or being overly reliant on shock value to maintain interest, but series author, Kaiu Shirai, manages to strike a fine balance, avoiding darkness for the sake of being edgy, instead presenting it as the nature of the story’s setting in general and being careful not to go too far.
The Quest for Answers
Even though Neverland’s primary hook centers around its horror angle, it wouldn’t be much of a shonen if the characters didn’t have some method of fighting back. Rather than a traditional battle shonen setup though, Neverland instead opts for a battle of wits , where our protagonists have to stay one step ahead of their enemies, and sometimes each other to achieve their goals, and almost every member of the story’s core cast starts off with their own personal agenda. Though unlike say, Death Note , where Light Yagami starts off with a magic killer notebook and a pretty solid grasp of its rules, Emma and her fellow orphans know very little about the true nature of the world they inhabit. This makes the series’ battle of wits more a battle for information, and the kids have to make use of each new scrap of knowledge they acquire to better ensure their survival. This works wonders when it comes to the story’s worldbuilding as we learn new information at pretty much the same time the characters do, making for more natural exposition than similar series are usually afforded, and helps to create a natural desire to want to learn more about Neverland’s world and the many mysteries surrounding it. That search for answers also helps in Neverland’s effectiveness as an ongoing story as almost every new chapter brings new information that helps to make things just a little bit clearer while also building upon past events, as new revelations can drastically alter how you view them on a second reading. This all comes together to give the series a sense of forward direction that’s frankly pretty rare for a weekly serialization, and while the pacing an feel a bit slow at times, it never feels like Shirai is dragging his heels, and there’s almost always some form of payoff just over the horizon.
The Power of Hope
As strong as Neverland’s combination of horrors and mysteries are though, those elements alone can only carry it so far. After all if it were just a Gothic horror/thriller series that happened to be featured in JUMP, it’d basically just be another Death Note (and despite the numerous claims to the contrary, the structure of this series is about as opposite of DN’s as it gets, but that’s an article for another time). Like any good shonen, its core comes from its sense of heart, and Shirai himself has stated that his hope is that the traditional Shonen Jump values of “Friendship, Effort and Victory” shine through in this series, despite its unconventional nature. Neverland’s world can be dark and cruel but Emma’s optimism and desire to protect her siblings are ultimately seen as positive traits rather than something to smash into pieces (which, if I’m being honest, is a direction that I was worried the series might go into during its early stages). Even when things are at their bleakest, the story does a great job of making you want to see the kids continue to fight back against their cruel circumstances, and while this can at times, get a little cheesy, it instills the series with a sense of hope that can make it feel as triumphant as it is frightening, and helps to make it an immensely satisfying read.
The Promised Neverland has been a pretty exciting read for me thus, and hopefully there was something in my ramblings that convinced you to go check it out. It’s certainly not a flawless series (its biggest issue being how it balances the screentime of its characters) but it has a lot of interesting strengths, and it’s something that at times I’m still surprised managed to get greenlit in JUMP of all things. I’m glad its continued to find success despite how different it is for a shonen, and I’m hoping that success will carry through into an eventual anime adaption. The Promised Neverland’s first volume hits U.S shelves December 5th, but if you’re interested in peeking at the series beforehand, the first three chapters are currently available for free on Viz Media’s website, and new chapters of the full series proper are available each week through Viz’s digital Shonen Jump subscription. Thanks for reading and until next time: stay animated.