Synopsis: Emma, Ray and Norman are the three smartest children at an orphanage known as Grace Field House. Under the care and guidance of their caretaker known as “Mom”, the children live peaceful lives, with the one condition being that they are never to go beyond the gate that leads to outside of the orphanage. However one day, Emma and Norman discover the truth of what lies beyond the gate, and it’s one that will change their lives forever
*sigh* Welp. It’s finally here. Out of everything I was excited for and concerned with about Neverland’s anime adaption, the material covered in this week’s episode was pretty high up there, and in many respects how the anime chose to handle this material would be the definitive moment that would make it clear how well director Mamoru Kanbe and the rest of the staff at Cloverworks understand the core of manga writer, Kaiu Shirai’s story. Given some of the ways the anime has chosen to adapt certain story beats so far, I was honestly pretty convinced they were gonna drop the ball on this one pretty hard, and I came in with some fairly low expectations. To the show’s credit, the execution here is a lot better than I was expecting, and in many respects is probably the single most emotionally charged episode of the series yet, but it has also fully cemented in my mind that the anime staff doesn’t really get the material.
So before I get into my big beef with this episode, I’ll try going through some of the things I felt this one did right. First though, a quick recap. Following up on last week’s cliffhanger, Krone gets a mysterious letter from Isabella. Said letter turns out to be a promotion stating that Krone is being moved up to her much sought after mom position. However Krone realizes right away that this is a trap and that Isabella is trying to dispose of her. Krone attempts to plead with their boss, Grandma, that Isabella is up to no good, but it falls on deaf ears since Isabella is too important to her plans, and Krone is promptly killed off. From there we go back to the kids planning out their big inspection of the surrounding area, but Isabella has decided to stop playing games with them and heads out to directly confront Emma and Norman before they can get very far. She attempts to convince the duo to stop resisting her, but when they refuse to give up she ends up having to break Emma’s leg and tells Norman that he’s scheduled to be shipped out tomorrow.
Among my several nitpicks with the anime’s choices so far, one that I never brought up in my previous reviews, but still sort of bothered me was how much the show kept Isabella at arms length from the audience. This isn’t too dissimilar from the manga’s approach to her character at this point in the story since there was plenty the story hadn’t yet revealed about her, but the show cutting out the internal monologues has meant we’re never really privy to what she’s been thinking. Given that she’s been consistently sending the children she’s looked after to their deaths, a peek into her perspective is a pretty important piece in the puzzle in order to give this story any serious emotional weight, and this episode finally breaks that barrier a bit. Seeing Isabella display her “true self” to Emma and Norman, as she attempts to convince them that she does truly love all of them in spite how many of their siblings she’s helped kill, makes it clear that her psyche is a lot more warped than her generally business like attitude would suggest. This scene is well aided by Yuko Kaida’s acting, as the way she manages to shift gears between Isabella’s calm demeanor when she tells the kids she’s on to them, and the soothing, but unhinged motherly tone that she gives off when trying to “reassure” Emma everything’s okay after she breaks her leg, is equal parts engaging and chilling. Admittedly the camera work for this scene is pretty flat, which kind of took some of the wind out of its sails a bit, but it succeeds in what it needs to do, and helps in making the revelation concerning Norman’s fate all the more shocking.
And with that…it’s time to where this episode let me down: Krone’s death. I should note, that for all intents and purposes, this was one of the most well directed scenes of the show. The anime has been incredibly adamant on avoiding any flash backs and keeping the focus of the story squarely on the present for whatever reason, so seeing them finally cut those chains loose in order to shed a little light on Krone’s past was a good change of pace. Though we don’t get any dialogue for this scene, the visual direction here is strong enough to help communicate to the audience that Krone’s lived a very hard life, and makes her demise feel pretty tragic as her final thoughts (the first time we’ve gotten to peer into any character’s thoughts in the anime) are the hope that the kids can escape and tear down the farm system. It’s a really solid scene on it’s own, and I imagine that for first time anime viewers, it’ll suffice in having made Krone a somewhat more sympathetic character than her introduction suggested. My big issue here though is that while this scene is fairly sad, it’s lacking a particular edge.
In order to give you an idea of what exactly it is I’m getting at here, I’m gonna need to step back a bit and talk about Sister Krone’s arc as a whole. I’ve made no secret that I’m not a fan of the anime’s choice to remove the characters internal monologues in favor of having their thoughts conveyed purely through speech or visual direction, and the consequences of that choice is most clear in how Krone is presented in the anime as opposed to the manga. While Krone is fairly flamboyant and over the top in both the anime and manga alike, she is generally treated as a much more serious threat in the latter, and as most of her scheming there is done in her own head as opposed to the whole talking to the creepy doll thing, she comes off as competent and calculating rather than emotionally unstable, and that makes it easier for readers to understand how she’s continued to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the farm system.
This ends up playing pretty heavily into how her backstory is handled in the manga as well, as we learn through one of her internal monologues that she had been taught by a very young age by Grandma that the only way for her to survive through this world was to compete against others. It means that for her, obtaining a position as a Mom isn’t just a means for her to live a comfortable life, it’s a matter of life and death. This revelation in her mindset not only works in parallel to her dynamic with Isabella, who enjoys the position of privilege and security that she’s after, but Emma as well, as Krone sees that Isabella is grooming Emma to someday take the Mom position rather than her, and that eliminating both is the surest means of her own survival.
All of this additional characterization, adds a few extra layers of meaning to Krone’s untimely demise and how it relates to some of the manga’s overarching politics. As I stated in a couple of previous reviews, the farm system is meant to serve as a pretty brutal takedown of Japan’s education system and the kinds of institutions in our society that dictate that success can only be found in competing with and sacrificing others to get ahead. As Krone has built her entire life around competing in order to live, her realization that she was never going to obtain a position of power because she simply wasn’t chosen for it, is a pretty direct condemnation of these institutions as the reality is that those who make it to the top often do so through privilege and opportunity, and that the struggle for competition only results in a cycle of people continually crushing each other. This is emphasized even further by Krone spending her final moments in the manga angrily rejecting the system that has failed her and while the anime leaves enough of Krone’s history in tact for audiences to potentially draw this conclusion on her character, choosing to downplay her desire to compete and making her feelings on her circumstances more sad than visceral, dulls the impact of this message and in some respects, actively harms it.
Frustrating as these issues with Krone’s characterization in the anime are from the context of the story’s themes, they’re even more frustrating when it comes to her depiction as a person of color. While I’ve consumed a lot of stuff in my many years as an anime fan, as a black man, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take issue with how we’re often drawn and characterized in anime and manga since the average Japanese person’s experience with black people is pretty limited, and the depictions can sometimes range from mildly insensitive to borderline racial caricatures. Krone’s character design is unfortunately, not really immune from this, and while it made me a little uncomfortable while going through the manga, those feelings were at least partially balanced out by how much I could understand and sympathize with the struggles she faced in doing what she could to survive through her situation, and how well it connected to some of the specific systematic hurdles that black people often have to deal with. Like Krone, a lot of black kids (especially black women, but I’m obviously far from qualified to go into that particular subject)are told from a young age, that they have to compete and stay ahead of everyone else if they want any chance of surviving in this world, but its a competition that’s often rigged, and no matter how well they might “compete” there’s always going to be invisible barriers of privilege that deny them certain opportunities. As such, seeing that Krone’s demise came not from her own failings, but because she was simply never going to be groomed for success in the same way Isabella and Emma were, gave Krone’s character a lot more relevance as a black character than I was expecting, and while I’d be incredibly surprised if any of this was intentional on Kaiu Shirai’s part, it certainly helped in making Krone a harsh, but all too true depiction of how black people are often failed and oppressed by the very same system that they’re told is crucial to their survival. Removing the aspect of competition from Krone’s character in the anime robs her story of that bit of subtext, and in opting to instead make her personality more unhinged, the issues with her character design are actually made a little worse.
So long story short: this episode was a pretty big letdown for me. I’ll again be fair in giving the anime credit that on it’s own it’s perfectly fine, and first-time anime viewers will likely never feel as though anything was particularly missing here, but for me, they dropped the ball pretty hard on Krone in terms of both her character and what she symbolizes(albiet to a slightly lesser extent than I expected going into the episode), and unlike some of the anime’s other changes it’s one that I have a much harder time letting go. If nothing else I’m at least glad the anime has continued to avoid making any changes that would prevent them from being able to handle adapt anything past this arc, but it’s pretty clear to me that Kanbe doesn’t really get the heart of Neverland’s material, and that makes me a lot less enthused for the possibility of this adaption having any future seasons unless the anime staff goes through a pretty big change in hands.