The Promised Neverland: A Dialectical Analysis of the Antagonist
A dark fantasy thriller that reinvigorated its genre, The Promised Neverland captured the hearts of audiences with its unique narrative, metaphorical societal themes, and fascinating characters. This 12-episode anime, adapted from the manga of the same name, won Best Fantasy in the Crunchyroll 2020 Anime Awards 1 and ranked by IGN as one of the best animes of the decade 2. Needless to say, the anime does not hold back.
[…] the tone, the environment, and the message of The Promised Neverland is set with such an acute precision you could cut yourself on it. This is an allegory of the loss of innocence.Mike of Bonsai Pop, a content creator passionate about anime and Japanese culture 3
Beneath the surface, The Promised Neverland harbors many secrets, from its premise of child-eating demons and its tumultuous game of survival, yet the unveiling of its antagonist serves as its strongest surprise. Aki from akidearest, a channel that explores Japanese culture and media, illustrates, “She’s someone very clever and no doubt seemed as one of the most notorious mothers out there. 4”
In discovering the truth behind their orphanage, Emma (ID No. 63194), Ray (ID No. 81194), and Norman (ID No. 22194) struggle with the realization of their Mama’s malevolent purpose—Isabella is a human livestock breeder. “Mama is the enemy,” the children are quick to label (121045, Ep 1).
Especially by the end of the season, it’s clear that Isabella is the antagonist as Isabella blocks Emma, Ray, and Norman’s moves to freedom indirectly and actively. While an antagonist can take any form (person or entity), Gabriela Pereira specifies the role as the “protagonist’s worst enemy within the context of the story” 5. Within the boundaries of the Grace Field House, Isabella is the primary opposing force yet outside in their dystopian world, her power diminishes because of her true character to be discussed later on.
As an enemy, is Isabella then a villain? She can be. All villains, whose very nature comes from malice and power, are antagonists; however, not all antagonists are villains 6. It’s arguable to specify that Isabella falls in the latter and that distinction redefines her as a truly compelling character.
True enough, Isabella’s nuanced animosity earned her the award for Best Antagonist among the 2019 anime releases 7. This article will look into how The Promised Neverland reframes Isabella to become an antagonist whose true character is worth sympathizing using a narrative basis of her arc and an exploration of her dimensions, symbolically through Emma and Isabella’s Lullaby, respectively. By doing so, there will be spoilers only for the anime.
73584, Isabella: The Thesis
In his novel, Into the Woods, John Yorke introduces the dialectical basis of narrative that strips the common three-act structure to fundamental arguments—thesis, antithesis, synthesis 8. To understand Isabella is by breaking down her character arc through this dialectical structure. This aids in determining the aspects that urges the audience to view her antagonism with empathy rather than hate.
Firstly, the thesis involves introducing and establishing a flawed character. Enter Isabella (ID No. 73584). The children of Grace Field House see their Mama as loving, caring, and kind; perfect and she is. Even as a human livestock breeder, she is coveted by others for her high accomplishments. Yet Isabella is flawed because of her true character “expressed through choice in dilemma” 9.
Die or give birth? Mike furthers that Mama is just as “flawed, scared, and hopeless” 10, especially in a dystopian society where living is a gamble. Before she became the breeder, she was also one of the livestock and upon being given that choice in dilemma, she was afraid of that terrible fate, of dying. Isabella chose to live by joining the system and becoming a mother who commodifies children; her flaw resides within her own survival—her self-serving perspective.
63194, Emma: The Antithesis
This is reinstated and solidified through the existence and confrontation of her antithesis. Enter 11-year-old Emma, who symbolically opposes Isabella in two conflicts: internal and external. The former concerns their different views on family. Much like Mama, Emma, the oldest and one of the smartest children, adores her family at Grace Field House. She is loving, caring, and kind; always the big sister that carries the little ones. Emma represents the altruism that Isabella foregoes.
During the initial planning stages of escape, she consistently argues with Ray to bring everybody out despite the risks and convinces Norman to reveal the truth to the younger kids as a sign of trust. In opposition, Isabella perceives loving her children as giving them a full and blessed life before they are inevitably shipped out to their deaths.
On the other hand, the external conflict goes beyond the farm-orphanage to the dystopian world itself. In the system introduced within the 12-episodes of The Promised Neverland, Emma is valuable because she is intelligent and she is female, just as Isabella is. Simply put, they have a higher chance of survival because they can be Mama. When Isabella offers this recommendation, Emma declines and pushes her away; the choice in dilemma. Again, Emma’s selflessness perseveres, putting her family above herself at the cost of the logical route to her own survival.
02:29, Isabella’s Lullaby: The Synthesis
Finally, Isabella’s synthesis parallels how her own theme, Isabella’s Lullaby—an emotionally evoking piece of score by Takihiro Obata—is played and hinted at from the very first episode but only fully realized by the finale. Just as this music can elicit contrasting emotions of grief and love, Isabella manifests her synthesis through her character dimensions that Robert McKee defines simply as “contradiction” 11.
Isabella is a self-serving mother and this is consistent through the 12 episodes. Isabella walks young Conny to her death, humming her lullaby, and with that same gentleness, she cradles the youngest baby in her arms. When one of the children got lost during a game, Isabella heads to the forest and with that same confidence, she pursues Emma and Norman as they scout for their escape.
She gave birth to Ray, confining him to a terrible fate and a short-lived life, because she wants to keep surviving. Isabella’s dimensions make her compelling because “contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration” 12. It exposes specific questions that the viewer can ask themselves but never truly answer. She explores what the protagonist cannot and therefore, what the audience is curious of. Die or give birth? Live freely under a lie or die knowing the truth? Isabella knows.
Calling back to the earlier question: how is Isabella an antagonist rather than a villain? In a confrontation in the forest, Isabella confesses to Emma and Norman, “Without knowing hunger, coldness, or truth, you can die with a satisfied feeling” (021145, Episode 8). Mama’s intentions do not come from a nature of blatant evil and misuse of power, as villains do 13. Rather she is driven by her dimensions of self-preservation (produce the highest quality product to keep her role as Mama) and motherly altruism (provide a good and peaceful life for her children until their death). And it is in that process that Isabella becomes the protagonist’s (Emma, who responds, “Even if I suffer, I will live freely!) worst enemy.
A product of those dimensions is Isabella’s Lullaby, which is also a section of the anime’s main theme. Quite literally in how Ray, her biological son, hums it himself and how the score swells when Emma and Norman first decide to fight for their escape—Mama’s presence within the children.
But it is figurative and more impactful in how Isabella injects her own memories of unadulterated love and innocence into the piece as it grows from her childhood friend’s simple composition. Even as Mama, the woman she’s grown to be, she continues to hum it to remind herself of her antithesis, the Emma she used to be. Isabella’s Lullaby plays for just two minutes and 29 seconds yet the emotion stretches the music to be as unconditional as Mama’s true love.
Her synthesis therefore calls to her dimensions: as a mother, accepting that her children are beyond self-serving and letting them go to pursue their own freedom. So when the Lullaby plays over the anime’s final scene, when Isabella offers, “I lost […] I pray that one day you can find true happiness and light,” (150146, Episode 12) to the retreating figures of her children, when Mama smiles from her side of the cliff and waves goodbye, the audience understands that she means it.
Mama is the Antagonist
Initially depicted as the dreaded and impending villain, the monster that watches, Isabella becomes a truly compelling antagonist that graces her audience. In exhibiting her flaw, she becomes a primary opposing force to the protagonists and their journey where her parallelism with Emma highlights her differences in response to conflicts that brings the audience to question.
At the final impasse, this ultimately urges Isabella to reevaluate her perspectives as a self-serving mother, musically reinvigorated by Isabella’s Lullaby, that allows her to move past her own flaws and think of her children. Isabella is a surprise that The Promised Neverland brilliantly executes, captivating and breathtaking, just as the sun rises for Emma and the children’s very first morning of their freedom.
- “2020 Anime Awards Winners”. Crunchyroll, https://www.crunchyroll.com/animeawards/winners/index.html ↩
- “The Best Anime of the Decade (2010 – 2019)”. Ign staff, IGN, 2 Jan 2020, https://sea.ign.com/attack-on-titan/156485/feature/the-best-anime-of-the-decade-2010-2019 ↩
- Mike. “The Promised Neverland is WAY Better Than You Think.” Youtube, uploaded by Bonsai Pop, 2 Mar 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sf7h6zgc6U. ↩
- Aki. “This Anime Horrified Me For Weeks -THE PROMISED NEVERLAND.” Youtube, uploaded by akidearest, 8 Apr 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XybieuZGoWk ↩
- Pereira, Gabriela. “Villains vs. Antagonists.” DIY MFA, 30 Aug. 2018, diymfa.com/writing/villains-vs-antagonists. ↩
- Thompson, Lauren. “What Is the Difference Between Villain and Antagonist?” Medium, Medium, 25 Feb. 2019, medium.com/@laurenthompson_2288/what-is-the-difference-between-villain-and-antagonist-988fa467b1f3. ↩
- Crunchyroll, “2020 Anime Awards” ↩
- Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story. London: Particular, 2013. Print. ↩
- McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. , 1997. Print. ↩
- Mike, “The Promised Neverland is WAY Better Than You Think.” ↩
- Mckee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Thompson, Lauren. “What Is the Difference Between Villain and Antagonist?” ↩
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