Imagine having the perfect life: You have access to friends who are close enough to be family members all throughout the day. You never have to worry about food or money. You are surrounded by natural beauty and can romp all you want outdoors during your free time. To top it all off, you’re looked after by a doting “Mom” who guides, nurtures and protects you as you grow up.
This setting hardly sounds like the orphanages of lore, but like all good stories, a dark secret, cleverly and deceptively disguised as the loving and supportive Grace Field House, slithers behind the scenes in Kaiu Shirai’s manga series The Promised Neverland.
From the start, readers will notice some quirky things about how this orphanage is run that they might initially dismiss. For instance, all of the children wear white and have a number stamped on their neck. They all started at the orphanage as babies and must leave by the time they turn 12. As the substitution for their schooling, children around the ages of five and up need to take a timed rigorous test that analyzes their intelligence every day. The children learn the concepts through test exposure, time pressure and daily assigned homework.
Other than the resources available to them in the library, they are cut off from the outside world. Although they are generally free to roam around the grounds, they are not allowed to go beyond a fence out in the woods or through a large gate leading to the outside world, a gate every orphan is taken through once a foster family is found for them.
The orphans never hear back from their friends after they are adopted, and as one child assumes, “It must be because the outside world is so fun they’ve forgotten about life at the house!”
Meet the main characters: Emma, Ray and Norman. They are the oldest and smartest children of Grace Field House. They always get perfect scores on their tests. As the oldest, they assist Mom with the children and help manage the chores.
Emma has great motor skills and the ability to learn things quickly. She is carefree, generous, thoughtful and prone to impulsiveness. Ray is more on the quiet side, introspective and highly knowledgeable with a phenomenal memory. He can often be found reading on his own during his free time. Norman is the smartest out of all the children with the sharpest acumen. His ability to strategize and predict everyone’s behavior is reminiscent to that of a general at war or a master chessman. These three children not only excel at intelligence but in athletics too.
Perhaps the greatest foreshadowing of what’s to come is shown through the following conversation amongst the children as they envy the trio’s skills and intelligence:
“What could they be eating to be so great?” one child laments.
“We all eat the same thing!” adds a fellow orphan. “Maybe their central nervous systems are made differently.”
“Basically, they’re monsters!” says another orphan. “Monsters that this house created! But ordinary people have ways to fight too!”
Being 11 years old, readers might assume Emma, Ray and Norman are unwanted by foster families due to their age, but the truth comes to light after the departure of Conny, a sweet and bubbly six-year-old girl who never did well on the tests. After leaving behind a precious stuffed bunny, Norman and Emma decide to run after Conny to return the bunny to her before she departs the gates.
To their horror, they discover the crumpled body of Conny tossed in the back of a truck with the stem of a rose sticking out of her chest. Hearing voices, they quickly hide underneath the shadows of the truck and learn to their shock about the existence of human flesh-eating monsters.
As they eavesdrop, they discover the horrifying truth: The orphanage is a farm, and the children are the livestock being raised to feed abominably terrifying human flesh-eating monsters. It is through this exchange that Norman and Emma’s reality shatter and fall to pieces as they find out that Mom is an accomplice and that their fates were soon to be sealed in the same way as poor Conny’s if they didn’t act fast.
Norman and Emma manage to escape from their hiding place, and with Ray in tow, they concoct a plan to escape and double-cross Mom, who had begun to suspect them. With her energy, Emma rallies Ray and Norman to undertake the impossible task of escaping with all of the children in Grace Field House.
Armed with the hideous truth, they notice things about the construction of the orphanage and the layout of the grounds (there are more “orphanages” beyond the walls) they had never noticed before, and they piece together the sinister reason behind the tests: Bigger brains meant tastier meat.
One of the great puzzles the children must solve is whether humans exist in society anymore and to what capacity. They need to learn what happened in their history that allowed monsters to feed on human flesh. They come to the realization that they know nothing about what the real world is like outside the walls surrounding the grounds, aside from the fact that it is the mid-21st century.
To further complicate matters, they also have tracking devices implanted somewhere in their body so that Mom will always know where they are. With all the odds stacked against them, Emma, Norman and Ray must try to out-strategize Mom, a veritable master at strategy herself, to escape with all of the children of Grace Field House.
Although the content is geared towards teens, it is surprisingly mature and is also sure to captivate older audiences with an interest in sci-fi, fantasy or just a plain old good story.
The manga does not disappoint when it comes to character development as it fleshes out, piece by piece, the back story of the characters, particularly that of Mom (don’t be surprised if you find yourself sympathizing with her), since it also helps the reader slowly put together the system that had been put in place.
Surprise discoveries are always around the corner, and things never seem to be as they appeared in the end. Readers will find themselves immersed and zip through its pages in no time, hungering for more as they wait for the next issue to roll out. The illustrations by Posuka Demizu will have readers admiring the artwork as Demizu successfully combines cute with sinister and darkness.
Currently, six volumes are available, the seventh one being released in December. An anime adaptation is set to be released in Japan in January 2019. Latch your fingers on a copy and be part of the growing network of fans today.