Live-action anime adaptations are a very tricky affair, with a less-than-positive track record doing little to inspire faith within the community, especially when it comes to Hollywood-helmed projects that take on a westernised spin on things (Dragon Ball and Netflix’s Death Note, anyone?). On the Japanese side of things, the notion is perhaps more optimistic, buoyed by the likes of Rurouni Kenshin, Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice), and Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, but the difficulty of such an undertaking remains a constant – to what extent should a live-action anime movie introduce original content?
How does one strike a balance between canonical elements and narrative freedom?
Yuichiro Hirakawa’s The Promised Neverland isn’t quite bold enough to explore an alternative plot or setting, instead choosing to adapt from the source material, and retains the core parts of it. The result is a faithful, respectable adaptation of its manga-slash-anime counterpart of the same name, topped off with a great music score and impressive cinematography, that’s unfortunately weighed down by issues of racebending and errant miscasting.
Mirroring the events in the first season of the anime, The Promised Neverland stays true to the overall plot of all 12 episodes, which covers the discovery of an orphanage’s deadly secret to the execution of a grand escape plan. The story is driven by three protagonists, Emma (Minami Hamabe, Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, Kakeguri – Compulsive Gambler), Norman (Rihito Itagaki, Alice in Borderland), and Ray (Jyo Kairi, Erased), who along with a cast of orphans, lead happy lives together in Grace Field House, an orphanage run by Mother Isabella (Keiko Kitagawa, The After-Dinner Mysteries, Let Me Eat Your Pancreas). One fateful night, however, leads to Emma and Norman stumbling upon the truth behind their home: the children are being raised to be sacrificial food for demons, with the orphanage’s front disguising its purpose as a farming ground.
Realising that they have limited time before they, too, meet their demise by the hands of the demons, the duo seeks help from Ray to device a scheme and help everyone escape. With Isabella throwing a wrench in their plans and newly-recruited caretaker Sister Krone (Naomi Watanabe) standing in the way, the trio finds themselves banding together to overcome various stumbling blocks and outwit the adults in this race against time.
Having minimal creative and narrative deviation from the source material means fans will sit through the 119-minute film with a strong sense of familiarity and deja vu – an advantage the team uses to great effect. Every plot twist, surprise development, or unexpected reveal was executed with fine surgical precision, and held to a balanced blend of suspense and emotional flavour. The Promised Neverland is far from being a perfect adaptation, but it’s, at the very least, a respectful homage to the original story.
Its stellar musical score and technical prowess only serve to breathe more life into specific parts of the movie. Scenes that run high on tension were accompanied by tight crescendo notes leading to explosively-rousing highs, while emotionally-charged moments carried a soulful concoction of stringed chords, notes, and passion. When action or the lead-up to a scheming endeavour kicked in, the score picked up its pace to intensify the sense of edge-of-the-seat anticipation and exhilaration.
Cinematography in The Promised Neverland is no less impressive as well. Lighting and framing techniques were pulled off expertly, from wide shots of the orphanage’s idyllic fields and the dangerous alleys of the demon’s feeding ground to the subtle introduction of a background subject within a tight shot. The smooth transitions between lighthearted, hopeful scenes to serious, climactic events are particularly noteworthy, with the sudden jump making for an effective and surprising revelation of story twists and deep secrets. In two specific cases, the use of a cut-to-black sequence also proved to be rather strategic, for it leaves the characters’ fates open to interpretation without giving anything away, which sets up the stage for a future plot point in the manga (if you know, you know).
Packing a story-rich 12-episode run into a single movie, however, comes with inevitable compromises, and there are a handful of them here. The pacing for the lead-up to the first major revelation was a little too rushed, causing Emma’s and Norman’s discovery of the orphanage’s dark secret to lose a fair bit of the shock factor. Subsequently, attempts to convince the other children of the truth were met with little resistance, which isn’t quite logical: considering their view of Grace Field House as their home, the reality should have taken more time to sink in.
Because of the hastened plot development, certain characters were unable to meet their fullest potential as well. Mother Isabella, in particular, bears the brunt of this – between her truncated backstory and a brief last-minute redemption moment, she does come across as one-dimensional, despite the well-rounded, complex characterisation of her manga counterpart. With little glimpses of her relationship with Emma in the past, the latter’s affection for her felt underdeveloped and lacking in reason, too.
On the note of characters, the creative decision to feature an aged-up cast is a bizarre one. The original premise of The Promised Neverland was especially interesting and fascinating because having 14-year-olds outwit a bunch of grown-ups and live through everything made for a thrilling good time. Yet, some of this charm is lost with an older Norman and Emma, whose mature air is at odds with the childlike innocence of the remaining members. The age difference isn’t very drastic – both of them are still teenagers in the adaptation – but it doesn’t exactly fit well into the overall context of the show’s setting.
What’s more problematic is the casting of Watanabe as Sister Krone, who is originally a woman-of-colour in the anime and manga. Colourism not a new issue in the Japanese film scene, with the Attack on Titan live-action title also sporting an all-Japanese cast despite having a non-Japanese character, but that doesn’t mean racebending attempts as such should be given a free pass. In fact, the errant casting comes at a bad time, with a recent Nike advertisement on diversity drawing backlash and anger from the Japanese community. It’s unlikely to be due to a lack of options, either: the orphanage featured a good mix of ethnicities and races, so finding a Japanese-of-colour to play Krone shouldn’t have been an impossible task, even as Watanabe excelled in her stint with her quirky idiosyncrasies, comedic expressions, and impressive imitations of her character’s ambitious, power-hungry personality. Under different circumstances, the star would undoubtedly be a good pick; it’s just that the decision isn’t the most respectful or appropriate with regard to the original work.
The characters of Emma, Norman, Ray, and Isabella are, likewise, brought to life through their respectively capable and apt talents. Hamabe demonstrates great skill in recreating Emma’s robust energy and optimism, sharp wit, and undying determination, while Itagaki impresses with his delicate portrayal of Norman’s cunning intellect, innocent admiration for Emma, and characteristic gentleness. Kairi, meanwhile, imitates Ray’s deadpan humour, piercing acumen, and calm demeanour expertly, with Kitagawa topping everything off with a standout performance – the acting veteran easily navigates between sending chills down one’s spine as the scheming, formidable Isabella, and evoking a conflicting mix of emotions during her moment of redemption.
As far as live-action anime adaptations go, The Promised Neverland is a decent shot at bringing a beloved series to the silver screen, exhibiting a grounded sense of dedication and loyalty to the original. It takes audiences on an adrenaline ride of top-class cinematography, excellent music, great acting, and edge-of-the-seat action that surpasses the average expectations for the genre (not that they were high, to begin with). The height of its potential, however, remains out of reach due to inconsistent pacing and questionable casting issues – and that’s a pity, for it could have set a new benchmark as a tour de force.