The Promised Neverland – mastering the art of a ‘crafted’ Shonen series

I want to talk today about The Promised Neverland – a series currently running in weekly Shonen Jump, and to be completely honest, what I most look forward to in the magazine every week at the moment. Launching last year, the series quickly emerged from amidst a swathe of mediocre ‘Jump Start’ series to a privileged position where it is not not only at least three volumes-worth into its run, but an average rating of 8.53 on MAL, as well as being the 7th most popular series to launch since the start of 2015. Not bad at all.

I recently wrote about how we shouldn’t necessarily worry about Shonen Jump’s current seemingly brutal tactics of shuttering so-so series, or those that have been running overly-long (Toriko, anyone?) – and The Promised Neverland is the flip side of the equation; the fruits of the experiment, as it were. If we are to see the magazine’s current tactics as part of an orchestrated and planned series measures to refresh its readership and plan for a future where the big three no longer exist, and ‘fresh blood’ are needed to bring new life to sales figures, The Promised Neverland is a marked example of that ‘planned’ approach – a series that feels like a neat medley of everything that makes great manga ‘click’.

I recently finished reading Jojo’s author Hirohiko Araki’s excellent how-to manual Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga. In this book, Araki lays out a clear route toward what he calls the ‘royal road’ of Shonen Manga – a specifically ‘designed’ type of manga that nails certain characteristics in order to achieve maximum appeal. And while I don’t think The Promised Neverland necessarily fits into this model – in many ways it represents a kind of ‘anti-shonen’ story – what I do think it represents is a model exercise into a very consciously ‘crafted’ type of manga.

What do I mean by this? For starters, it comes across clearest in the sheer clarity and lean-ness of the story and pacing itself. Each chapter of the manga operates around a very clear principle of cliffhangers that consciously pushing the narrative forward via slow-release of information. Each chapter functions as a self-contained plot beat – something so many other manga currently running in Shonen Jump could take a lesson in – where readers are just ‘expected’ to be up to speed on everything, and hold the information pertaining to the series in their heads, week on week.

The Promised Neverland feels different – its minimalist story style falls back on age-old storytelling tropes; almost fairy-tail/children’s bedtime story type accessibility; aided in the fact that the majority of its core characters are, indeed, young kids. While shades of moral grey undoubtedly exist, the bulk of the manga’s core drive exists around a highly black and white distinction of good and evil – driving the focus of what the kid’s have to do; namely, escape. Motives are mostly clear cut and to the point, resolving quickly and without fuss – paired with clear, unfussy visuals that direct the reader’s eyes exactly where they should be. In a magazine that is often full with cluttered, impossibly dense panel layouts full of hefty text bubbles and a cacophony of visual information, The Promised Neverland again stands out as refreshingly lean.

I think a great deal of its appeal also stems from its visual identity as ambiguously non-Japanese – much like Attack on Titan, with which the series shares many of its larger narrative themes of walled communities and fear, the aesthetic is rooted firmly in an ambiguous world that could be the American south or perhaps olde-timey England/Europe. It is, distinctly though, non-Japanese – the kids have Western names, and even the art – at times – feels more in common with Western comic books than manga. There’s an elasticity and scratchiness to it all that feels it could spring into some low-key American indie movie, as opposed to the glossy sleekness of other current Jump Start series like We Never Learn or Robot x Laserbeam. Both the artist and writer behind The Promised Neverland are, as far as we know, industry newcomers – and there’s a freshness and vitality that comes across plainly in their stylings – albeit one tempered with the aforementioned ‘craftedness’ that recalls the editorial meetings between Jump staff and the young protagonists of Bakuman.

At the current stage of its narrative, The Promised Neverland is a few chapters into what we could broadly term the start of a new arc. After thirty chapters of so, the kids have achieved the initial goal of ‘escaping’ the house they lived in up until that point. The plot is now shifting into new locales, and it remains to be seen if it can maintain its clarity amidst this. But so far, the element of mystery surrounding the world of the manga remains a core element of its appeal – much like Attack on Titan compelled people that were even only partially ‘into’ the series to stay on board to find out the mystery of ‘what was in the basement’, The Promised Neverland understands that keeping its cards concealed is crucial to the air of intrigue that can make or break the weekly serialisation of a story.

Aside from this, we also have several points of distinction marking the series out from others running in the same magazine. For a start, in Emma we have a striking female protagonist that functions as a fascinating subversion of the typical ‘energetic boy’ we’ve seen hashed out in countless Shonen narratives. It’s interesting in many ways to ‘read’ Emma as a boy – the short haircut certainly helps – but to then counter that with the understanding of her as feminine – in doing so creating a striking vision of how potentially radical she is as a character. I found this especially thrilling when the manga – roughly twenty or so chapters in – directly engages with the concept of her gender via a powerful confrontation between her and series antagonist ‘Mother’.

Going further – there is the inherent darkness of the story; arguably the darkest by far of anything currently airing in Shonen Jump (sorry, Hunter x Hunter, you don’t count until you come out of hiatus). From the way the ‘demon’ characters are drawn to the implicit psychological threat of the core scenario, The Promised Neverland constantly reminds you that it is written as something willing to ply the line that separates what we term as ‘shonen’ from more ‘adult’ fare.

At the moment, the sales of the collected manga volumes are still relatively small – but as we saw with My Hero Academia – I’m of no doubt that when and if an anime version of The Promised Neverland is announced and aired, those sales will rocket up as the wider anime fandom viewership are exposed to the intrigue and cliffhanger pull the manga readers have already been experiencing.

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