How racial inequality in From the New World mirrors the Black American struggle

By: Nubia Jade Brice March 19, 20210 Comments
A smiling boy and girl with a confused monster rat between them

Content Warning: chattel slavery, genocide, racism, systemic violence, police brutality, infanticide

Spoilers for From the New World

“Should not all intelligent individuals be given equal rights? That is what I read in the books of the gods. It is the core principle of democracy.” 

The answer to this question should be simple, but when Squealer, an official for the Monster Rat species, asks this of his human counterparts, he is only met with bewilderment and disgust. See, Squealer, like most people, makes the fundamental mistake of forgetting the underlying follow-up questions that seem to only apply to those who find themselves fighting for equal rights:

What have you done to deserve equality? What have you done to earn respect?

As a minority living in the US in the midst of so much racial tension, these questions often plague my mind. To see women like Breonna Taylor murdered in their bed and scroll through pages of comments asking what she did to deserve to be shot instead of asking what we as a nation can do better, is to imply that there are people out here inherently undeserving of even the simplest forms of respect. As if basic human decency is a privilege to be earned instead of something that should be required of everyone. 

close-up of Saki, in shock. subtitle: So they chagned those people into beasts.

To even vaguely mention tragedies like slavery or civil rights only evokes discomfort and deflection. Instead of acknowledging these transgressions for what they are—atrocious crimes committed in our country’s bleak history of discrimination—the facts are often watered down until they sound so tame, even an elementary school student can learn about them without feeling a hint of shame or remorse. 

The blatant disregard is enough to make you feel discouraged at times—as if the consolation prizes of desegregated schools or not having to drink from a colored water fountain are more than enough progress. When it comes to equality amongst races, minorities are often made to feel lucky to have come this far. “You don’t need more. You should be happy you’re here at all.”

When your cries are constantly dismissed under thinly veiled apologies, it can be hard to feel seen or heard, but that is exactly what happened when I stumbled upon From the New World, the anime adaptation of Kishi Yusuke’s novel by the same name. I ventured into the series expecting a casual sci-fi horror but was instead met with a much deeper allegory for discrimination that paralleled my feelings of being a minority in America. 

Close-up of a monster rat. subtitle: However, even we are not tools to simply be used and discarded.

Set one thousand years into the future, the series tells the story of Saki Watanabe and her friends living in Kamisu 66, a society where telekinetic powers (“Cantus”) are the norm. These powers allow users to do anything from levitation to repairing broken glass to creating mirrors in thin air. The only thing they can’t do is harm other humans, or their death feedback—an involuntary reaction where a user’s cantus causes their vital organs to shut down—will kick in. It’s the kind of power that can make a normal person feel like a god; and, to the monster rat colonies nearby, they literally are.  

From the New World tackles an age-old conflict: the haves versus the have nots. In this case, it’s supernatural powers, but in today’s society it can be anything from status to money, or even the right skin color. The need to feel superior often leads to a preemptive line being drawn in the sand, and what side of that line you’re born on often determines your quality of life before you’ve ever even had a chance to live it. 

A smiling boy and girl with a confused monster rat between them

In From the New World, the conflict begins as “those who have cantus” against “those who do not,” but as those without cantus are slowly eradicated, a new, lesser species must take their place at the bottom of the social totem pole. The eloquently dubbed “monster rats” are just that: a species of bi-pedal humanoid creatures descended from naked mole rats. 

They possess human level intelligence, some even smarter. They’re capable of speech. They have their own unique culture with laws and colonies, but none of that is enough to warrant them even basic rights. 

In all but appearance, they fit the criteria of “equal,” so why is it they find themselves as slaves? Saying it’s because they don’t have cantus is a fundamentally weak argument, but most times it doesn’t matter what the variable might be, because as people, we will always find a way to pervert and manipulate whatever we need into a status symbol to be used for power.  

two monster rats groveling on hands and knees. subtitle: God, God.

Throughout the series, the discrimination is pounded into you. Regardless of how advanced they may seem, monster rats are beasts. They’re foul, savage creatures. They do not look the same and they do not act the same, so therefore they are less than. It must be acceptable to mistreat them. After all, killing a monster rat does not trigger a human’s death feedback. 

Much of this series hinges on how much easier it is to cause harm when you’ve justified it. Like the Three-Fifth’s Compromise laid out in the Constitution during slavery, the humans are willing to acknowledge monster rats as living creatures, but do not value them enough to consider them deserving of equal rights. If they’re lucky, they won’t anger “the gods” into decimating their entire colony without a moment’s notice. It is an incredibly shallow compromise that only serves to perpetuate the norm. 

Humans act as though their intervention in the lives of the monster rats should be seen as a gift. However, it is a very unwelcome gift, as humans are “saviors” to them in the same way that slave traders were to Africans and Europeans to indigenous peoples all over the world. It’s immediately evident their relationship isn’t about true salvation at all, but about control. 

cloaked figures looking at a caged naked monster rat. subtitle: We have allowed self-governance!

Which then begs the question: how does holding power over someone save them, especially when they did not ask to be saved?

The short answer is, it doesn’t. 

Exercising dominance over someone is merely a way to lessen your fear of what they may be capable of otherwise. Monster rats are not special in this sense. As humans living in constant fear of their own powers, the society in From the New World seeks to regulate everything around them to give themselves peace of mind. They hide their history away by limiting what books and information their civilians have access to. Children do not have rights until seventeen, making it perfectly fine to terminate them if they do not fit in. 

Young Saki repairing a glass bottle with her powers

The way their society is set up, it’s not unreasonable to assume the humans of this series want to be cautious. However, somewhere along the line, “caution” and “control” become synonymous, paving the way for morality and equality to take a backseat to discrimination and oppression.

Monster rats live in queen-based colonies and are mostly allowed to govern themselves. If they are lucky enough to become highly regarded or valued members of their society, they’re presented with human names. This is evident with Kiroumaru, a loyal army general for the Giant Hornet colony, and Squealer, who is promoted to Yakomaru for his own devotion. 

The idea of growth and advancement in the eyes of the gods gives the monster rats something to strive for, though in reality this is merely just another manipulative layer to the deep-seated control the humans have already instilled in them. They’re the equivalent of house slaves among field slaves, promoted in order to sway their devotion to their captors.  

side shot of a smiling monster rat. subtitle: Yakomaru, I am now called.

Like anyone, the monster rats seek betterment for their society. Over time they assume a more human way of life, moving from living underground to above ground. They develop factories for creating paper and concrete. They even restructure their society to resemble that of a democracy, with elected officials from each colony. Reminiscent of freed slaves, they adopt a “when in Rome” mindset and change their culture to adapt to the very society that cast them out in the first place. 

While this should be seen as progress to the humans, it only hinders their efforts and creates unrest. Saki’s classmate, Satoru, expresses his discomfort, saying, “I have the strange feeling they’re trying to replace humans. There aren’t any concrete buildings in Kamisu 66. When I saw their factories, I could only think that they are trying to claim for themselves the material culture that we’ve abandoned.” 

It’s evident that the monster rats are not to be taken lightly. They are just as capable as the humans they find themselves subordinate to and that realization is enough to stir unease, as if they were expected to remain complacent forever.

A factory on a snowy cliff. subtitle: This is a factory where we make many things.

This is the beginning of an almost Civil Rights-type movement for the monster rat culture. Yakomaru emerges as the would-be Martin Luther King figure, though he operates under a more “separate but equal” Malcolm X-adjacent ideology. Yakomaru’s too smart for his own good; too ambitious, even. He’s exactly the kind of being that humans should fear, because he proves they are in fact on equal footing. Think back to the rules against educating slaves. The fear that the slaves might become literate and speak out against their mistreatment made it illegal to educate them at all. 

Even after speaking with Yakomaru, Saki still dehumanizes him and belittles their efforts, saying, “However, the monster rats are just animals, right? They probably handle their emotions differently than we do. Most likely they felt cornered and took whatever steps necessary to survive.” It is safer to believe these beings are intellectually inferior, because not only does it make controlling them easier, but it also makes the oppression easier to stomach.  

cloe-up of Saki, fretful. subtitle: Isn't it wrong to assume human and Monster Rats ethics are the same?

Underestimation is quite common throughout history. Indigenous peoples in the Americas were thought to be nothing more than savages. African Americans were deemed unintelligent and therefore ideal for submission. The idea that they might rebel seemed implausible, so to watch Yakomaru lay the foundation for his rebellion like pieces on a chess board is inherently satisfying. In a way, he’s overcoming the odds.  

Yakomaru risks it all for what he believes in, and it is in taking such a risk that he ultimately fails. He leaves no room for compromise, realizing that if equality cannot be reached peacefully, he will have to take it himself, no matter the cost. 

In a plot he’s been carefully cultivating for years, he kidnaps a human infant and raises them as his own. By being brought up in a society surrounded by monster rats, the child has no reason to think of themself as fundamentally different. Still, there is an advantage. The child, like all other humans, can use cantus, but because they do not identify as human, they suffer no death feedback when killing them. Yakomaru essentially creates the ultimate anti-human weapon, while rubbing their own hubris and discrimination back in their faces.

The fact this child can be raised to believe it is a monster rat only further proves that the oppression built into this society is baseless. Believing the humans to be their enemy, the child goes on a rampage, mercilessly killing anyone they encounter. The humans are so ill-prepared that Yakomaru’s child is able to eliminate countless numbers of them before finally getting taken out by Kiramarou.

A monster rat staring down at a child's prone corpse

It’s the ultimate irony. Yakomaru uses his enemies’ own methods against them. Yet because he loses sight of his initial goal, it does not have the impact it should. The main focus is no longer the fight for equality, but the means used to try and obtain it. 

Driven to the brink by his desire for acceptance, Yakomaru strays down a path that deviates so far from ideals of what an acceptable equality movement should look like that it would be morally irresponsible for the series to allow him to win. He is no longer the savior, the would-be Dr. King or Malcolm X of his generation. This level of destruction and devastation completely discredits his movement, and Yakomaru ultimately becomes the same type of tyrant that created him in the first place. 

As a viewer, it’s hard to ignore the feelings of unease that arise watching this play out. There’s a certain level of disappointment, like watching a Black Lives Matter protest turn into a riot. No one ever wants to see these movements take such drastic turns, but at the same time, years of pent-up frustration at unfair treatment can only sit for so long before overflowing the dam. 

a monster rat in a poorly lit cave. subtitle: But Your demonic power strips us of our dignity.

When it feels as though no one takes your plight seriously, your rational thoughts often skew. Even Kiramarou, known for his devotion to humans, expresses his frustration, saying, “First of all, please look at this from our perspective. […] What exactly are ‘good relations’? By being loyal, obeying your every whim, and doing your dirty work, we are allowed to live. But all that can change in an instant. It is not unusual for entire colonies to be eliminated for no discernible reason.” Oftentimes, it feels like the only way for someone to understand your pain is for them to feel it themselves.  

To watch the monster rats fail at their uprising is not exactly as satisfying as the show intends, considering they are the antagonists here. The violence that ensues is both tragic and unacceptable, but to see the conflict have to come to that point speaks volumes about humanity’s inability to sympathize. In using their power to oppress monster rats, humans foster the type of large-scale devastation they were trying to avoid by creating this contrast of power in the first place. 

In a perfect world, this sort of mass devastation would lead to a discussion about how both parties can do better. As I watched, I hoped for an exchange or an understanding. I wanted to hear the type of conversations that should’ve followed the riots carried out after George Floyd. 

However, Kamisu 66, like real life, is far from perfect. The power imbalance returns to favoring the humans. As if taken straight from the news articles and social media comments on my timelines, monster rats are painted as violent and disobedient, with their struggles disregarded completely. 

close-up of an exhausted monster rat. subtitle: Because we are not slaves.

Any monster rat attempts at a truce are met with violence. However, human violence, much like the police brutality of today, is immediately justified. In the end, Yakomaru is captured. The oppression remains and is even hammered down on, as all disloyal monster rat colonies are eliminated in their entirety. 

Still, the most devastating blow to my psyche came in the series’ last few moments. Despite being on trial, it’s hard not to sympathize with Yakomaru to an extent. As a viewer, when all you’ve ever wanted is to be seen as equals, you understand the risks he took to achieve that for his people. 

Given the chance to explain the reasoning behind his actions, Yakomaru exclaims monster rats are not beasts or slaves, but human beings just like everyone else. The laughter that erupts after should bring me satisfaction, but instead it crushes my soul. The only thing worse than failure is being mocked for what you believe in afterward. 

When faced when with the realities of their own transgressions, humanity does what it always does: rewrites history to make oppression more tolerable. Despite all the controlling tendencies that lead to this moment, humans keep their previous rules in place. The cause of these events is swept under the rug and everything returns to the status quo. It reminds me of the stark difference between what I learned about Black history as a child versus the realities I learned as I grew older and was exposed to more sources. 

adult Satoru talking to Saki. subtitle: That means the Monster Rats were based on a different animal

In its final moments, From the New World gives you one last piece of food for thought that really challenges how you feel about both the human and monster rat races. Through some highly forbidden research, our main characters learn that Yakomaru was right all along: monster rats are, in fact, human. In an effort to create the perfect society, those with cantus turned on their powerless counterparts and mutated them into beings they could easily oppress and control: 

“With the rat gene mixed into them they weren’t considered human and as a result, the aggression restraints no longer applied. The social balance could remain stable because they became animals and the humans with power could keep their privileged status. That’s why we’ve been taught to never think twice about killing them.” 

It’s the final, morality-questioning blow to both the characters and the audience. To learn that Yakomaru wasn’t fighting for what he wanted but for what he deserved sounds like an all-too-familiar story. Despite people being the same, years of conditioning lead some to believe that they are unequal. It’s a blatant metaphor for discrimination that makes me wonder why it seems so obvious in an anime about humans and rats, but in the real-world people can’t seem to find the fundamental similarity amongst different races.

Although From the New World frames it as a science fiction series with powers and monsters, the elements are all there. The themes shine through and its portrayal of how quick people are to bury their pasts shows just how complex the fight for diversity truly is. 

Kiromaru on the stand, righteous. subtitle: We are humans!

As someone who frequently escapes through anime and fiction, seeing a story so similar to that of Black people in American history was surprising. Seeing that same story end with no favorable resolution was just discouraging. There’s no perfect conclusion where true equality is acknowledged and implemented. Instead it’s pushed under the rug for a more favorable narrative. 

Despite having the knowledge to change the world for both humans and monster rats, Saki holds it to herself, writing it in a book in hopes that future generations might read it one day and be better. Considering the mass censorship of books in the series, this solution feels unlikely, as it is impossible to learn from a history you cannot access. 

It’s a passive choice that allows Saki to remain the hero of the story without becoming too political. She’s the friend who actively supports equal rights with you in private, but refuses to use her privilege to speak out against discrimination in public.

But then again, maybe it’s the more realistic ending that really resonated with me in the first place? It proves that the fight for equality is not a burden that can be shouldered by a single race or person, not if real change is ever to be achieved. In the end, From the New World remains a bleak reminder of how far we still have to come in terms of true diversity and understanding one another.

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