Content Warnings: Fantastical violence, including a guy magically choking a girl.
What’s it about? Neku wakes up in a parallel “Underground” version of Shibuya, Tokyo, remembering nothing about himself except his name. To survive in this strange “game,” he must partner with fellow player Shiki to use psychic attacks, defeat monsters called Noise, and complete one mission a day for seven days straight. But between the monsters, the mysterious player-killers called “Reapers,” and Neku’s own cynicism, can he and Shiki survive the full week together?
Based on a Square Enix action-RPG that came out a whopping 14 years ago, it feels like a minor miracle that The World Ends with You (or TWEWY, as it’s often called) is getting an anime adaptation now. The timing is likely intended to drum up excitement for the upcoming sequel—but hey, just because it’s a cash grab doesn’t mean it can’t be good too, right?
I played TWEWY around the time it came out, which was long enough ago that I remember basically nothing about it except “I enjoyed it.” This premiere felt both familiar and strange, like seeing someone at a 10-year high school reunion who you liked but didn’t keep up with after graduation. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happens to any of these kids, so watching TWEWY should be an exciting adventure for old and newcomers alike.
One thing I do remember, though: the game had style coming out of its ears, both with its memorable art design and terrific soundtrack. Fortunately, the anime works hard to preserve these elements. The color palette pops, the music slaps (some of it reused from the game itself), and you can tell a lot about the character’s personalities based just on their fashion.
The actual animation may be more hit-or-miss for folks, as it uses an intentionally choppy style to match the game’s animation. I found the jerky motions a bit jarring to watch, especially when coupled with the cel-shaded CG monsters during the action sequences. Still, I have a hard time faulting the staff for trying something different, even if it didn’t click for me personally.
The writing is… less effective, though I have hopes it will improve. You can really see TWEWY’s video game roots showing in this premiere, as it feels a whole lot like watching a tutorial. There’s a ton of world-building and battle mechanic explanations sprinkled throughout this episode. It feels slightly more natural given that the characters are literally playing a game, but still kills the momentum when it happens.
At the same time, though, we blaze through three days of Neku’s alleged week in a breakneck 22 minutes. The result is an awkward, almost paradoxical combination of expository scenes that drag combined with action and character scenes that feel like they’re over in a blink. It is both too slow and also way too fast.
My memory of TWEWY is that it has a tight, more-or-less linear storyline that can, in theory, transfer reasonably well to anime. That said, my other memory of TWEWY is that its character writing is one of its strongest aspects. The anime needs to slow down and give us time to get to know its cast if it wants to be an effective adaptation. Hopefully now that it’s established the premise, we’ll have time to do just that.
As quickly as we blast through these three days, though, we do get some inklings of the kind of story TWEWY is trying to tell. Neku’s unwillingness to trust and cooperate with others is immediately in conflict with a game where you have to partner with another player in order to fight the attacking Noise monsters. Our protagonist is a stark contrast to his partner, the almost unreasonably upbeat and magnanimous Shiki, although thankfully she proves to be a positive influence on him by the end of the episode.
The show’s handling of Shiki herself is… complicated. The action scenes do a nice job of having Neku and Shiki take turns helping each other, suggesting a partnership of equals. But I’m not sure how well that balances out against the violence a possessed Neku enacts on Shiki—and how easily she gets over her near-death experience. I think TWEWY can avoid becoming a “saintly girl saves cynical boy” type of story if it gives Shiki some motivations and conflicts of her own, but it’s definitely a concern going forward and something to keep an eye on.
That said, I do quite like the overarching ideas about the importance of community and teamwork that swirl around this premiere. Neku and Shiki’s developing relationship (as well as their tentative friendship with the show’s other duo, Rhyme and Beat) is presented as a positive force against the selfishness of the player-killer “Reapers” who seek to hurt others for personal gain.
A story about the importance of human connection is valuable regardless of when it’s told, but it feels especially potent now, given how isolated many of us have been for the past year. And I’m pretty much always here for narratives that encourage boys to let go of toxic self-reliance and learn to cooperate, trust, and be more vulnerable with others. There may also be a smidge of commentary in here about cutthroat corporate culture, but it feels too early to make that claim yet.
The World Ends With You: The Animation still has some work to do before it can claim the coveted, ultra-rare trophy of “good adaptation of a video game,” but this wasn’t a bad start by any stretch. I’m not ready to start throwing it at newcomers yet, but I’ll be around for a couple more weeks to see if it can slow down its pace and put some emotional meat on its stylish bones.