Your Brain on Toons- Why The Promised Neverland is NOT the “New Death Note”

So I’m a really big fan of The Promised Neverland. It’s a pretty unconventional manga for something running in Shonen Jump, with its stellar artwork and equally strong storytelling making for an exciting read from week to week. However as it continues to grow in popularity and attract new readers, there’s been an ever increasing tendency to directly compare it with another unconventional Jump manga: Death Note. Given that Death Note is pretty much a cultural phenomenon at this point, and the manga is a series I still hold in pretty high regard (even if I don’t necessarily enjoy it for all the same reasons I did when I was 13) it’s not a totally unflattering comparison, but the deeper and deeper I get into Neverland’s run, the more it starts to feel like a pretty shallow one. Normally I’d just lay out the differences in genre and call it a day but that would be boring, so instead I’m here to talk about why TPN isn’t necessarily the “new Death Note” some people have claimed it is.

Before I start diving into the differences, it’s only fair that I point out some of the similarities first since it’s not like these comparisons are happening for no reason. Neverland’s writer, Kaiu Shirai has noted Death Note’s author, Tsugumi Ohba as one of his inspirations (alongside Naoki Urasawa of Monster fame, and Jojo’s Hirohiro Araki) and it’s pretty easy to see where that influence takes root. Both series employ “battles of wits” that are conveyed with all the intensity of a traditional battle manga, and both also share a love for being heavily detailed and analytical when it comes to conveying information. This gives both a pretty high level of appeal for those who are into those kinds of scripted layouts, as well as for anyone (like me) who prefers their shonen to have a clear sense of direction since the attention to detail means that both series have to be planned out pretty well in advance in order to work effectively. That however, is where the similarities end.

Thriller v.s. Thriller

 

We’ve already established that both series are “mind game” thrillers of a sort, but despite a few of the similarities I mentioned, the way in which they each choose the execute those elements is pretty different. Like I mentioned in a previous article where I briefly compared the two, Death Note starts out with Light having access to a notebook that can kill people, and by the time he comes across his rival L, he already has a pretty clear knowledge of how it works. This setup means that Light generally has to use his knowledge of the Death Note and it’s limitations to lure L and any of his other “opponents” into scenarios where he can easily dispose of them. Thus, most of the suspense in Death Note, comes from discovering just how far in advance, or how elaborately he or any of the other characters have planned ahead (all those “just according to keikaiku” memes exist for a reason after all).

Neverland in comparison, takes almost the exact opposite approach. Since it’s also a bit of a mystery series in addition to being a thriller, Emma and co, start off with almost zero knowledge of the rules and nature of their world. This means that rather than coming up with complex schemes, the characters are constantly on the search for new information and their wits are demonstrated not in how well they can plan ahead (though there are a couple of occasions where that factors in), but in how well they can piece together what they know, and how quickly they can learn from and adapt to unfavorable situations. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but as far as any direct comparisons go it means that whereas DN basically builds itself on long-term planning, Neverland is almost entirely unsuited to that approach, and is actually at it’s best as a thriller when the characters have to act from moment to moment.

Thriller v.s. Fantasy

 

I brought up the differences in genre earlier, and while it isn’t exactly the defining factor separating these two, it is a pretty big one. Death Note, in essence, is a thriller series with some horror and fantasy elements. The Promised Neverland on the other hand, is a dark fantasy/horror series with thriller elements. On the surface that might not seem like a particularly big contrast given that the same basic elements exist in both series, but that difference in priorities, makes them pretty different as stories.

In that respect, Death Note’s first and utmost priority is to be an entertaining thriller. While it does offer some musings regarding Japan’s views on capital punishment and vigilantism, most of that comes off as a byproduct how well constructed its thriller elements are rather than being the actual point. It’s also not particularly interested in exploring its fantasy elements either, as much of the lore surrounding the Shinigami realm from which the titular notebook originates is mostly just there to serve as a mechanic for how the rules of its thriller elements work, and matter so little to DN as a story that they could easily be swapped out for something else, and barely affect much of its goals. That heavy focus on thriller elements also carries over to how DN functions as an actual narrative since the basic setup for Light and L’s “battle” means that the story could only really end one of two ways (and made it pretty clear early on which of those two ways it leaned towards), so aside from having a couple of wrenches thrown in, the actual story of Death Note is more or less built on an inevitable outcome, and the most of the enjoyment comes from how crazy and elaborate each of its various setups are, rather then where they all ultimately lead.

Neverland, again, is pretty different in this respect as contrary to a lot of the buzz surrounding it: it’s a dark fantasy/horror first and a thriller second. The suspense thriller elements aren’t completely inconsequential, and they do add a lot to its appeal, but they primarily exist to move the story forward instead of being the actual point. Much like how Death Note’s fantasy elements barely affect any of what it actually does, Neverland’s “mind game” thriller elements mean so little to its long term goals, that it abandons them almost entirely after the first story arc, and it very frequently handles its big revelations in a way that would that would be detrimental if it were only interested in being a pure thriller, but make perfect sense in the service of telling a larger story. Instead its focus is on exploring its fantasy setting, and the nature of said setting is directly tied to it’s core themes regarding hope v.s. nihilism, which are ultimately at the heart of Neverland’s goals rather than just being subtext. The lesser focus on thriller elements also allows for Neverland’s story to have a broader sense of scope, and while it still has a pretty linear focus in spite of that, the extra flexibility gives it more room to go into the things it wants to say, and makes the story’s ultimate destination, a little harder to predict in the long run.

Emma v.s. Light 

 

And now we’re down to the last, and perhaps most definitive thing separating these two: their protagonists. While that may not seem like it’d be as big a deal as anything plot-related, the elements that define a protagonist often reflect the values and ideals of the stories they’re attached to, and its there where you can really see how DN and TPN contrast. As far as all that’s concerned, Emma and Light Yagami are basically polar opposites, and so much so that they’d probably loathe each other on sight.

The elements that define Light as a character are his intelligence, arrogance, the ability to manipulate others, and his belief that the world is better off without those who he views as a hindrance. Seeing as Light is technically the villain of Death Note, its easy to make the argument that we’re supposed to hate every aspect of his character, but while it pretty much goes without saying that three of those four traits are bad news, (unfortunately not enough for some, but that’s a whole other debate entirely) the audience is at the very least, meant to be in awe of his intelligence and how effectively he can prioritize logic over emotion. The appeal of those final elements more or less carries over to the majority of Death Note’s cast in general, as personality traits are largely secondary compared to how “cool and smart” the individual characters are, with those who prioritize rationality being the ones who pull ahead, while those who are more emotional are generally dunked on.

Emma on the other hand, is generally defined by her empathy, willpower, and her desire to never abandon the people she cares about, even when it would be considered the “smart” thing to do. She’s certainly no fool, and her ability to read people is generally considered to be an asset, but her sense of compassion is at the core of what makes her a compelling character. Under the same token, while the story isn’t shy about challenging her idealism, it’s also continually shown to be in favor of it, and Emma is very much at the heart of everything the series wants to convey. All of this more or less puts Emma in direct conflict with the things Death Note values, as her emotionally-driven behavior is the kind of thing it looks down upon. Of course, Light wouldn’t exactly be at home in Neverland either, as pure rationality and putting oneself ahead of others aren’t stances it’s in favor of, and so much so that the character whose world view most closely coincides with that ends up having to realize how shortsighted that sort of thinking is in the long run.

Final Thoughts

So…yeah Death Note and The Promised Neverland are two different beasts. Both share a love for battles of wit and being heavily detailed, but their overall execution, characters, and themes, put them in pretty stark contrast with each other. There’s definitely things to appreciate in both series (as well as things in DN I kind of wish people didn’t appreciate), but as far as any direct comparisons go, it’d be nice if people could find a better point of contrast for Neverland than Death Note, because in spite of what’s been said it isn’t really the “new” Death Note. If anything, it’s the anti-Death Note.

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