Content Warning: threats of sexual violence, fanservice, post-apocalyptic imagery, incest joke
What’s it about? Tokio and his friend Mimihime have always lived inside the walls of their compound, where they are well-fed and receive an education. One day, he starts receiving mysterious messages on his device that ask him if he wants to see outside the walls. Simultaneously, a boy named Maru is escorted through a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by monstrous beings and people just as monstrous by a girl named Kiruko, or Sis. Their goal is to make it to a mysterious “Heaven.” Does it exist? Or is it a delusion?
It’s hard to write about Heavenly Delusion right now, because what we got doesn’t feel like a full episode. It ends on an enormous cliffhanger, where we are just starting to peek into the menace of the world. It’s even more challenging because what we did get was largely a beautifully atmospheric mood piece, punctuated by only minor intrusions of gender nonsense. It also didn’t help that Disney bungled literally every aspect of the show’s rollout–using the romanized name rather than the localized name that has been used for years in the official manga release, having a severe delay with the simulcast on Hulu, and then communicating exactly nothing about either of these problems to the fanbase. It’s been a mess.
The best thing about this show by far is the atmosphere. This is in no small part to the design work combined with inspired direction and beautiful animation–the camera angles often place the battered still life directly in the foreground, with you seeing the characters through shattered windows or behind rusted kettles. In one particularly evocative shot, we see through the diaphonous curtains in an open window Kiruko and Maru looking down at something somber. We then are given a glimpse of the hands of two dead bodies, holding each other in love and death.
The music plays no small part in building this atmosphere. Composer Ushio Kensuke has long been a master of apocalyptic malaise. His skills are put to good use here, with a sense of sparseness that communicates both the bleakness and wonder of the world Kiruko and Maru have always lived in. His music works particularly well in all of the post-apocalyptic exploration scenes for this reason.
I would say overall the characters are enjoyable. Kiruko and Maru in particular have a fun dynamic, with Kiruko filling the roll of the “messy gremlin with a dark past” that I so enjoy from anime characters. This enjoyment is marred, unfortunately, by a spoiler that I will get to later in the review. Maru largely serves as a straight man for Kiruko’s nonsense, as well as an audience surrogate who can ask the questions of her that the puzzle box form of the series creates. The main intrigue with Maru is the fact that he looks basically identical to Tokio, so it will be interesting to see what the show does with that.
Now, unfortunately, I have to get to some of the nonsense. Some of it I can talk about without spoiling much of the show, so I’ll do that first. At one point, a gang comes across Kiruko and Maru and threatens to rape them, thinking them both girls. The presence of this sexual violence seems realistic in the post-apocalypse, but also goes essentially uncommented on by the show. This, combined with Maru looking in while Kiruko is preparing to urinate as well as some fanservice of Kiruko’s body, makes for some unfortunate gender dynamics at points. It never goes in the direction it threatens to; the rape doesn’t occur, Kiruko doesn’t urinate on screen, but the threat was concerning. There is also one incest joke, but it is very short-lived.
Before I get into the spoiler territory, I think I’ll just leave those of you who don’t want spoilers with this: Heavenly Delusion is quite good, and I recommend it with only small caveats if you like atmospheric puzzle box shows in post-apocalyptic settings.
Spoilers for Heavenly Delusion Manga
So, here’s the spoiler: it turns out if you read the manga that Kiruko is a boy in a girl’s body, done through literal brain transplant. This clarifies a lot of the problematic moments, such as Kiruko insisting that he too is “not a girl” when the gang talks about raping him. It also clarifies the moment where Kiruko is about to kiss himself in the mirror naked, and is admiring his body in a way that seems sexual. Unfortunately, it adds a lot of new problems. It makes it so he himself is the audience surrogate for the fanservice, which is weird! It leads to larger questions of how the show will handle the gender dysphoria inherent to such a storyline. And while it is clear that Kiruko is not a trans woman, because of that fact combined with the fanservice problem noted above the story has the potential to reinforce narratives about trans women regarding “autogynephilia,” or the idea that trans women transitioning are just men living out a sexual fetish. On the flip side, reading Kiruko as transmasc is equally complicated by the fanservice–not all trans people experience dysphoria, but having him regard his body as a fetish object rather than an obstacle or complication to being regarded as a man is….troubling. It is hard to know exactly what to do with it, especially as a trans viewer.
All of this is nowhere near enough to ruin the show for me personally, but I can definitely see some viewers being turned off by it enough to want to drop the show. In general, I think this show is likely in the same territory as Made in Abyss–worth checking out, but definitely will not be the thing for everybody because of these hairy elements.