The Promised Neverland is already turning heads all around the world, so it’s time for us to start revealing the ins and outs of its production – how the staff and studio are approaching the project and who’s responsible for the best (and worst) aspects of this adaptation. And don’t worry, no spoilers awaiting if you’re an anime-only viewer!
Key Animation: Aiko Komamoto, Shun Nishitani, Yasuko Takahashi, Ryosuke Sekiguchi, Kaori Henmi, Keiko Nakaji, Emiko Shimura, Hayato Seno, Yoshifumi Nakamura, Shinobu Mouri, Tomoko Fukunaga, Haruka Tsuzuki, Akihiro Sueta, Ken Yamamoto, Kenichi Yamaguchi
─ Seeing The Promised Neverland‘s first episode make this much of a splash is hardly surprising. The worldwide popularity of the source material is not to be underestimated, so a high profile adaptation was bound to attract the attention of countless fans and newcomers curious about what the buzz is all about. While this episode doesn’t quite condense the series’ thematic load, the introduction to The Promised Neverland was always designed as an immediate hook. First-time viewers have yet to see the actual message that serves as its backbone – although the implications of the final reveal are a good hint – but the narrative alone can keep them glued to the screen for now. And when it comes to preexisting fans, the delivery of all key scenes so far’s been impactful enough to make the idea of revisiting the series a compelling prospect. The result is that many fans are currently dying to find out as much as possible about this show and its production, without ruining future surprises for themselves. And that’s why we’re here!
─ Series directors personally storyboarding the first episodes is a very common practice and Mamoru Kanbe‘s approach to The Promised Neverland is no exception. Now while it’s still too early to judge his overall approach, there’s no denying that there’s already some Kanbe flavor to this adaptation; if you’re curious about his storyboarding quirks for one, look no further than the recurring layered compositions with an enlarged key narrative piece acting as the backdrop for the events. But more important than the director’s visual habits is whether he managed to grasp the core of the work – and for this episode, that means whether he was able to contrast the idyllic surface of Grace Field House with its wretched true nature, to make it look like a cozy family so that the twist has more of an emotional punch. All things considered, I’d say he dealt with that quite well.
─ The bright daily life at the orphanage is intertwined with increasingly more unsettling moments, as Kanbe expertly dials up the ominousness. I wouldn’t say his framing of those everyday scenes is all that inspired, but that’s where the robust animation team has his back; the morning routine in particular is bursting with energy, with ambitious crowd sequences that are densely packed with individual mannerisms hinting at the kids’ different personalities. Moreover, warm and friendly interactions that show how comfortable their lives are. Where Kanbe himself does shine, however, is in the tense lead-up to the first big reveal. His storyboard and episode director Hidekazu Hara are very specific about guiding the eye with racking focus shots and extensive depth of field usage. Admittedly it can go overboard here and there, but for the most part it does a good job at drawing attention… or even to detract focus from the characters, showing how insignificant the kids are when facing this world. This is all dialed up to eleven as they approach the truth – long tracking shots akin to holding the respiration, then quick cuts when the reveal hits them faster than they were prepared. There’s no getting off the wild ride now.
─ But if we’re talking about that reveal, there’s an inescapable name: Ken Yamamoto… whom you might know by his pen name Yoh Yamamoto, as Leaf, or simply by the emoji 🍁 – a trend I’d apologize for starting if I actually felt sorry about it. We’ve been covering his career for quite a while, but it bears repeating for those of you who only started following this site recently: Yamamoto’s been leading a bit of a double animation life, training as a new prospect at Production I.G while at the same time acting as a star alongside other exceptional colleagues from his generation in various sakuga milestones. His ability to use lower drawing counts to imbue character scenes with physical and emotional weight, the combination of evocative loose forms with IG’s tradition of physicality, quickly made him a perfect all-rounder. And now that he’s gone fully freelance, we’re about to see those skills applied to more interesting titles than ever.
─ Why does Yamamoto’s presence matter so much though, especially if you aren’t concerned about the whodunnit of production? The answer arrives after the late commercial break; incidentally, the lack of eyecatches makes that moment the most awkward transition in the episode, since the discovery of Conny’s body is followed by… a pan down the same shot. After that clumsy instant, though, arrive 60 cuts of uninterrupted excellence all by Yamamoto’s hand. The stylized designs are twisted in more detailed and angular agony, the desperation of the Emma and Norman becoming apparent in their furrowed brows and horrified reactions. Their hesitation contrasts with the otherworldly fluidity with which he depicted the monsters – a feeling that goes beyond technicalities, since they’re animated on the 2s while the characters oscillate close enough between 2s and 3s. Afterward, the ragged breathing after they escape makes their exhaustion and suffering all the more real. This amounts to nearly 3 minutes key animated by Yamamoto, spanning the entirety of the scene that’s resonated the most with viewers. Anime’s always the result of a collective effort, but he’s the kind of artist who can make a difference, so his continued presence in The Promised Neverland can only mean good things.
─ So far we’ve done nothing but praise the episode, as you’d expect when discussing strong material that’s been executed competently, even reaching exceptional highs like Yamamoto’s contribution. That doesn’t mean everything’s perfect, though, and there’s one weakness in particular that we’d been dreading for a while. The pushback against the decision to entrust Studio Musa‘s staff with all background art design and direction was loud among industry-aware fans, but perhaps the reason why people were unhappy wasn’t articulated well enough. Unfortunately, this first episode makes their case very clear. Exterior sceneries are forgettable enough to not be a factor, but the interior of Grace Field House looks like a sterile collection of digital assets rather than the utopian household it’s meant to be, while the supposedly more unsettling locations fail to elicit any strong feeling. Are the backgrounds functional? Yes, technically. Does The Promised Neverland‘s setting deserve better? Absolutely, especially when you consider the series pitches the characters against the world they inhabit. Not a deal-breaker, but a shame nonetheless.
─ The final point of contention isn’t so much a weakness as it is a reality about the scope of the production. Before the broadcast started, this adaptation was promoted as a first-class effort by CloverWorks, gathering the best of the best when it comes to character animators as they’ve done with previous Aniplex flagship titles. That’s partly true; chief animation director Kazuaki Shimada is an acting specialist who can adapt to any register and will attract some of his talented friends, in addition to the robust crew that the studio’s most renowned animation producer Yuichi Fukushima has gathered. After checking the staff of the first few episodes and talking with people involved, however, now it’s also clear that they’re not focusing on this as much as they did on the likes of Darlifra. The production’s being managed by recently promoted employees and people who’d previously been tasked with projects that weren’t quite as high profile. The obvious exception to that so far is the opening sequence, a genuine all-stars performance that had beloved production assistant Shouta Umehara at its core… but don’t expect that to happen again, as I confirmed that Umehara left the project after this opening.
─ Let me reiterate that The Promised Neverland by all means appears to be in good hands, before people take that previous comment to mean the show is somehow doomed now. All that means is that the scope of the production – which doesn’t mean its quality nor its artistic merit – is closer to the likes of Granblue Fantasy or Fukushima’s more modest titles like The Idolmaster SideM and Slow Start, so you’re better off expecting a smaller but capable and dedicated team, as opposed to a non-stop barrage of industry celebrities. Now I’m not going to suggest that those are all going to the upcoming Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, but since that’s the other title Fukushima’s currently producing, a simple process of elimination gives you the answer.
Key Animation: Kerorira (Kiyoki Rikuta), Satoshi Furuhashi, Keiko Nakaji, Yusuke Matsuo, Kohei Shimazaki, Moeka Kuga, Manami Umeshita, Shinobu Mouri, Emiko Shimura, Kojiro Terui, Sugoroku (Hayato Nishimaki?), Ken Yamamoto, Kazutaka Sugiyama, Kazuyuki Asaka, Masato Anno, Hiroki Itai, Yumi Kobayashi, Atsushi Nishigori
─ Since the first episode’s broadcast was accompanied by wonderful opening and ending sequences, we couldn’t put an end to this post without commenting on those as well. The aforementioned star-ridden opening lived up to the cache of its creators, starting with the director and storyboarder Atsushi Nishigori. Questionable song notwithstanding, Nishigori crafted a sequence that does capture both the mystery and the thrilling ride. The intense postprocessing he settled on might have been overbearing with a longer piece, especially when it comes to the chromatic aberration, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome within a short, intense sequence. Even the typography and motion graphics designed by uki are very much on point – the director credit being blasted away as the kids demolish the wall is a very neat touch.
─ And as it’s bound to happen when you gather that many talented artists, the animation itself is also excellent. We’ve got a few of YamaSusu‘s reliable troops, like Satoshi Furuhashi who animated the cut that draws the viewer into the action, soon followed by Shimada’s own mentor Yusuke Matsuo drawing Emma’s struggle – that silhouette is unmistakable. Umehara’s scouting is always a strong asset, so the opening also features the work of young prospects like Kerorira who handled the flame cuts throughout it (a very deliberate inclusion for reasons we’ll see later), and even Sugoroku, who’d only made his official anime debut last month with Black Clover #63. And of course, being a Nishigori opening means that most animators were regulars on Darlifra last year, so we’ve got the likes of Kazutaka Sugiyama handling Norman’s acrobatics. Many excellent guests gathered for this sequence… and yet, much like in the episode itself, the most impressive sequence was this BG animation cut to showcase Emma’s athletic skills by the hand of Ken Yamamoto. I wasn’t kidding when I said he can make a difference!
─ The ending is a much more laid back experience than the hectic opening, but not any less powerful. For fans acquainted with the tale it’s alluding to, it’s a touching decision, and for the rest of the viewers, it’s simply another showcase of Shouko Nakamura‘s bewitching aesthetic. I won’t deny that it sort of feels like she’s going through the motions with this one; you’ll recognize nothing but recurring patterns from her work like the flower imagery, the paneling isolating feelings, plus that idyllic and picturesque surface used to get uncomfortably close to painful memories, but why change something that works and is a perfect fit for this series to begin with? If this is your first experience with The Promised Neverland and you already love this ending as much as I do, look forward to falling in love with it further by the end of the show. And with my quota of teasing fulfilled for now, we can finally end this first post. See you soon!