So binary is our design, that in order to quell the innate anger, aggression and violence at the centre of our species, a failsafe was written across the infinite tides of our subconscious. This is the fundamental structure on which the tenuous utopia at the heart of From the New World is built.
The thematically dense and explicit exploration of the human condition was first novelised in 2008, before author Yusuke Kishi adapted it into a manga for publisher Kodansha. The inevitable anime followed merely months after, and set the story across 25 episodes, in an emotionally draining and inexplicable experience that retains the intelligence and intention of the source material. It was a story that served as both a discourse on human design, but also one of adolescence.
In the present day 2011, a tiny minority of the global population manifested psychokinetic (PK) abilities, lighting the touch paper of unparalleled chaos. In the 1,000 year gap following this evolutionarily leap – now termed the “prehistoric” – the population has dwindled down to almost nothing, and humans, all of whom now possess PK abilities, live in largely pre-industrial, agricultural communities. Kamisu 66 is one such district, overseen by the autocratic duet of the Education Board and Ethics Committee, who superficially prioritise education and harmony above all else.
Perhaps the most fascinating philosophical aspect of the series was the ‘Death of Shame’. It meant that no human could kill another without bringing about their own destruction. Such was the potency of this biological imperative that even attacking humanoid forms resulted in sickness and anxiety. But this alone was not enough to shackle the evolutionary drive of our species, one that retains its place – both ecologically and socially – through hostility and bloodshed. The village civilisation in From the New World instead relieves stress and aggressive impulses through sexual contact.
Despite her parents’ initial apprehensions, Saki Watanabe’s budding PK powers flourish and allow her to join her friends in Group 1 – Satoru, Maria, Mamoru and Shun – at school where the control and betterment of these abilities is encouraged and examined. We first meet this group at 12 years old, on the precipice of puberty, and as their physiology begins to change, so does their understanding of their surroundings and the powers that govern it. They set out on a summer camping trip, against an idyllic backdrop of lush nature and endless innocence. But their conversations turn to creatures like the Balloon Dogs, who are capable of causing themselves to combust, and the False Minoshiro, which is believed to bring death to all in its path. With typical juvenile chutzpah, the group locate and capture a False Minoshiro which, unexpectedly, begins to communicate with them. It reveals itself as a repository of books and information, like some sort of existential tour guide.
It’s from this captive being that the group learn their true and tumultuous history since humanity first manifested its abilities centuries before. It tells of a child, termed “Boy A” – the Adam for a new era of mankind – whose abilities meant he could open even the most complex of locks. He broke into the bedrooms of and assaulted 19 sleeping women, ultimately killing 17 of them. Even after his arrest, people continued to use their powers to commit crime. They became an avenue to support and enable acts of terror and aid in extremist campaigns. The chaos forced an already fractured society to divide into opposing political, humanitarian and ideological factions. The world plunged into a secondary Dark Ages and, for 500 years, was enveloped in war unlike any other before. During this time, the constant threat to PK users was so rife that it biologically hacked their evolution, forcing accelerated development of their abilities, and the human population plummeted to 2% of what it had once been.
Following these Dark Ages, the greatest concern became preventing humans from attacking one another. Stemming the threat of violence meant turning to education, an act that straddled the preservation of culture and indoctrinating the young. While this method proved effective, it was ultimately flawed in halting the true passionate nature of our species. Instead, studies proved that using a combination of psychological and personality tests could identify potentially problematic children with an impressive and fearsome accuracy. It became standard to pre-emptively “eliminate” any children which were perceived as dangerous. There’s a sense of the abortion argument to the decision, and more than a passing allusion to eugenics. Both comparisons are given extra weight with the fact that the Code of Ethics states that children are only permitted statutory human rights after they turn 17.
Science fiction narratives, particularly those concerned with the post-apocalyptic or dystopian, often explore the idea of children inheriting and shouldering the sins of their forebears. In From the New World, the children are largely pictured apart from adults who see them as something to be feared, to be scrutinised and examined for what they might become, in trepidation of repeating past transgressions. In seeing their children, the elders see themselves, or rather what the species had once been. It’s a society in which looking at a child is likened to staring down one’s own death, conjuring Nietzsche’s oft quoted Beyond Good and Evil – “And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”.
Yet what is it exactly that the adults fear? They are their children, after all. PK users are prone to becoming Karmic Demons or Ogres, and it’s children who are most at risk of developing these disorders, with their more rampant emotions and newly discovered abilities a fertile catalyst. As this typically occurs around childhood, the narrative is steeped in the inherent fear of the young, either killing us or surpassing us, physically or intellectually.
Karmic Demon is a term used to refer to those who have Hashimoto-Appelbaum syndrome and, put simply, are PK users who have lost control of their abilities. Sufferers of this syndrome have no outwardly hostility towards others, but they cannot control the darkness in their subconscious. Instead, their power leaks and penetrates the immediate environment and the people around them, both of which begin to mutate and die.
Ogres, on the other hand, are sufferers from Raman-Krogeus syndrome, or, more colloquially, “Fox in the Henhouse” syndrome. Its etymology is taken from two of history’s most infamous Ogres – Rahman and Kurogius, two boys from India and Finland respectively – who were responsible for the mass murders of tens of thousands of people. Like school shooters, Ogres show signs of violence long before they commit heinous acts, and while they are able to control their abilities freely, their subconscious is unable to dictate how they use it. This likewise means they don’t suffer from the Death of Shame. Both of these are apt metaphors for adolescence, embellished into grotesques.
To circumvent these occurrences, necessity dictated that we become a “society of love”, and the next stage in manufacturing humanity into a peaceful, pacifist species meant turning to the study of animals, in particular the bonobos – a great ape which rarely falls to conflict. Instead, they relieve stress with sexual contact, between mature and immature males and females, and between members of the same sex. In isolation, however, this too proved an ineffective solution for humanity, as even a single PK user could wreak havoc on an entire civilisation.
In order for a society of PK users to peacefully exist, a powerful restraint was needed to impede violent impulses and instincts. Genetic modification was the only means of closing the floodgates of hostility, sealing shut a fundamental, if undesirable, aspect of our psyche. It was comprised of two mechanisms retrofitted into the genome, the first of which was an aversion to harming one’s own species, using the wolf as a model. The second, and most potent, was the Death of Shame. It was the final part in the architecture of the new mankind, whose entire purpose, it seems, was preventing the creation of Karmic Demons and Ogres by any means necessary.
On hearing the truth of their society from the False Minoshiro, each of the kids experiences a different response. Mamoru breaks down into fearful tears, while Shun listens with a kind of morbid fascination. On the brink of explaining exactly how their community came to be, the False Minoshiro is killed by a monk. As punishment for listening to its “lies”, he seals the kids’ abilities, removing the truth and the trigger that might have created a Karmic Demon or Ogre. The monk, however, is killed by a Balloon Dog, leaving the kids defenceless as a feral group of Monster Rats (humanoid molerat mutants supposedly subservient to humans) descends on them.
Puberty is awash with the influx of new feelings and torrents of foreign hormones, which bring with them frustration and angst. In overwriting this response we’re left less than human. Saki and Satoru are captured by the attacking Monster Rats, and soothe their stress and fear through mutual sexual touching. The act of intimacy at this age is almost instinctual, the way a parent may calm a child, and so it is with these two. The Ethics Code discourages sexual activity between kids of opposite genders, instead encouraging intimacy between those of the same sex. In doing so, the governing body maintains a monopoly on breeding, denying natural change and robbing the next generation of bettering itself.
When the story moves into its second narrative arc and jumps ahead two years, this contact is more ostensibly sexual, as the characters begin to explore their sexual identities and act on their emotions. Characters have formed attachments with others, either as overt relationships, or longing from afar. As a more developed species than that of the bonobos, human interaction is loaded with much more nuance and need, and touch isn’t so indiscriminate. Even at 14, the network of relations criss-crossing the class are intricate and knotted. Saki, for example, has her love for Shun spurned when he begins dating Satoru instead. As if in response, she starts seeing Maria whom she believes is her soulmate. The latter’s depth of love isn’t reciprocated to nearly the same level. With such conflicting emotions, physical conflict notwithstanding, the kids are that much more prone to developing into Ogres or Karmic Demons. And this is exactly the fate that befalls Shun.
Navigating these complicated interactions is the presiding concern for the group, far above the events two years passed. They each thought the words of the False Minoshiro, the death of the monk and the attack of the Monster Rats to be long behind them, and that they’d hidden it from the adults. However, their elders had been watching all this time and, in order to maintain utopia, not only eliminated Shun in his physical form but also scrubbed him from his friends’ memories, leaving a faceless, if painfully familiar, presence in their minds.
As the narrative jumps forward again in time, a faction of the Monster Rats has conquered the others and set its sights on wiping out the human race, as if to punish us for our sins. Where once they thought of humans as gods, their new messianic figure is in fact an Ogre and the child of Mamoru and Maria, twisted and broken into a tool for destruction. The defeat of the Ogre and the Monster Rat hordes, ironically an act of significant violence, enables the betterment of human society.
At 36 years old, Saki and Satoru are married and expecting their first child. After the truth they’ve uncovered, and the change they have implemented, the child will be the first from the new world, free of the burden of history and circumstance and growing up not as something to be feared, inhibited or distrusted, but allowed to flourish.