Existential dread is something that’s difficult to convey in anime. With main characters guaranteed survival and with the limitations in tension that animation has, actually having the audience invested in the latest show proudly wearing the horror tag is no mean feat. Having the terrors buried within presented at the audience in a certain form, rather than letting their imaginations warp them into something all too nightmarish to handle, usually diminishes the impact of dangerous situations; not so with Shinsekai Yori. No matter how easily scared you may or may not be, there’s something undeniably affecting about being burned into nothingness by an eldritch force– in an abandoned hospital.
If there’s one thing that it does right amidst its problems, and there isn’t just one thing, it’s creating an atmosphere conducive to drawing forward forms of terror buried deep within the human psyche. Where once it was the overbearing figure of cold, hard pragmatism hounding Saki throughout her formative years, now it’s the significantly more corporeal fiend that immolates people without a second thought, a flamethrower among moths dipped in kerosene. Unfortunately, Saki’s apparently next on his “burn right the fuck out of existence” list, alongside every other human in the tri-village area. It’s not the most complex plot with an undercurrent of existential drama, but its tightness of focus compared to previous offerings more than makes up for that.
There’s a very deliberate way that the fiend is depicted to make it all the more menacing. In contrast to the regular human fire cantus that burns like a normal flame, its own conjurations are purple and forbidding, with its presence perfectly designed to suck the energy out of the air, a lack of natural sound serving as a harbinger to any unfortunate soul that it comes across. The show plays with this silence extremely well, only allowing the characters’ breathing and the fiend’s purposeful movements to break it just when the pinnacle of suspense has been reached, culminating when Saki helps rescue a group of half-deranged people trapped in an abandoned hospital, narrowly avoiding poofing out of existence at the fiend’s hands. The fear that the characters have is positively gripping, using the full potential of the always-great atmosphere.
Speaking of the atmosphere, the episode makes great use of both shadows and dilapidation to make the hospital something of a nightmare. The unnatural roundness of the entrance, pulled into the shape by great mental strength, complements the complete disrepair of the rest of the building in strange ways. Even worse, it looks like it provides more tetanus and rabies than shelter, a fact certainly not helped by the way it seems to suck in your soul. It’s foreboding without exactly coming across as threatening, which is quite the feat when trying to use it to get under the audience’s skin, rather than outright freak them out.
I kind of doubt that the fiend is truly looking to harm Saki and her group; there’s as good a chance as any that it’s Mamoru or Maria trying to find their way back to her for what passes for a touching reunion in this show. Still, this is the closest that any recent anime has come to creating genuine, affecting tension that stays with the audience long after it’s gone. It’s the fear of something malign with abilities beyond your comprehension that can snuff out your existence in the blink of an eye. It’s a very strong, carnal fear and, quite simply, there’s nothing like it. I can only hope that the series keeps up this momentum. But if not, this was still a damn good episode.