There are very few of humanity’s baser fears that can’t possibly be assuaged by calm, rational explanation. Darkness can be, because it’s easy to rationalize that there aren’t spindly monstrosities and murderers hiding in the darkest recesses of our collective basement. Death can be, because it’s an inevitability that most of us will have to deal with at some point in time, and in a cosmic sense it’s easy to come to terms with that. But if you tell a person to get the fuck over their squeamishness over crossing a pit of bat shit and toothy creepy crawlies, then you’re only going to get high-pitched shrieks and hysterical babbling in response. That’s the defining moment of this episode of Shinsekai Yori, and man it works well.
I like to think of myself as an individual that isn’t easily given over to my fears when they don’t relate to the cold, dead stares of dolls and other malign, human-like shells. Even so, this episode’s journey through Tokyo’s subterranean environs, and the various unfortunate encounters with the local fauna, tickled that primal sense of “Fucking hell what the fucking fuck is that?” that usually only rears its scared head whenever I attempt to sit through an episode of Queen’s Blade. The caves host all kinds of grotesque creatures, ranging from everyday bats that shit everywhere to giant slugs that bleed people dry, because why not? Also, again, a pit of bat shit and creepy crawlies that must be traversed ankle-deep. You may freak out about a spider in the corner, but this had might as well be fighting World War II by yourself for how intimidating a prospect it is.
Watching the episode elicited feelings similar to Dante’s Inferno, in that both are journeys through inhospitable realms playing host to creepy fuckers that exist to torture any soul unfortunate enough to wander into their waiting jaws. Cloying warmth, eerie lighting where there isn’t just darkness, and horrible abominations are present in both, so much so that I half-expect Shinsekai Yori to follow up with a boiling river of blood. This feeling is further reinforced by Saki quipping after each section “that was hell”, followed by Kiroumaru’s repeated response of “No, that was heaven. Hell’s just ahead.” It may be a little on the nose and just a bit cheesy, but it only serves to make the retrieval of anthrax spores the potentially life-threatening task that it just wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Unfortunately, even though the atmosphere evokes paranoia similar to that of having brown recluses nesting in your hair, the science doesn’t hold up /quite/ as well. I don’t mean the plan to use modified anthrax to kill the fiend and thwart Squealer’s grand plan to exploit child labor for the good of his people; after all, they only just learn of the weapon’s properties after arriving at Tokyo’s ruins, and they understand that it’s a last resort that could potentially wipe everyone out. However, the fauna of the caves is just a little off, at least as far as the predators go, by which I refer to the giant fucking slugs. Unless there’s bigger prey deeper in the caves suspiciously similar to humans, which could very well be the case, their size and means of feeding don’t serve a purpose other than wigging out the audience (though to their credit, they pull it off with raging success). Also, there’s not much of an explanation for them sounding like seagulls when they die, but at this point I’m just nitpicking; they’re still as disconcerting as ever, inexplicable bird noises be damned.
There’s not much else worth talking about here. It’s all fairly standard exposition, just with some creepy moments in creepy caves to make it more interesting. If the giant fucking slugs do hint at larger prey deep down, I think we’ll be in for more skin-crawling moments, and I’d certainly love to see what other demented, preferably non-arthropod life forms this show’s willing to throw at us. And if not, staying ahead of Squealer will be tension enough. Still, this world-building is what Shinsekai Yori does best, unburdened by trying to disguise Saki as anything but an audience-insert, and it sure does an admirable job.