By Yayoi Kawatoko / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterGiven the title and cute, airy-fairy drawings, you might at first think “Yakusoku no Neverland” (The Promised Neverland) is a heartwarming manga. In fact, any such preconceptions will be destroyed by this shocking story.
Serialized in Shueisha Inc.’s Shukan Shonen Jump weekly manga magazine, this work tells the story of a group of children — raised to be fed to demons — who fight their destiny and try to break away. The manga is also available in book form, with the first eight volumes out now.
Kaiu Shirai, the author, and Posuka Demizu, the artist, spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun, offering insight as to how this thrilling, unpredictable work came about.
Eleven-year-old Emma grows up in what she thinks is an orphanage with nearly 40 other children — nonrelated siblings, she calls them — including two boys her age, Norman and Ray. They receive abundant love from Mama, their carer.
However, they find out that the place they live is a “farm” for growing humans to be eaten by demons, called oni. Mama is their watcher.
With peaceful days a thing of the past, Emma and her mates use their excellent minds to form an elaborate escape plan.
The difference between the smiling Mama and stern-eyed Mama is horrifying. But after the children are gone, she says: “I wish I could just love them in an ordinary way,” and, “Way to go. Run away.”
Even among the demons, there are some who do not eat humans for religious reasons and help the children.
“I keep in mind that society and people are multisided,” Shirai said. “Children are more mature than adults think. This is just a boys’ manga, but I don’t want to go too easy on the story.”
The drawings deliberately emphasize the size difference between children and adults.
“The world depicted in the story is seen from a child’s viewpoint. So I draw the grownups bigger than their real size, like insurmountable walls,” Demizu said.
Shirai took inspiration for the story from a childhood nightmare about being prey.
Parallels to Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” are undeniable, although Shirai has not read the novel. “[I was more influenced by] an extremely popular manga in the Shonen Jump magazine, and also ‘Monster’ by Naoki Urasawa,” Shirai said.
The lead character in “Yakusoku no Neverland” is a girl with no special talent, who mainly uses mind games to fight the demons. Some readers claim the manga differs from mainstream works in the magazine.
“I think the way Emma never gives up shows that this manga picks up the classic themes of the Jump magazine: friendship, hard work and victory,” Shirai said.
In December 2013, Shirai brought 300 pages of the manga’s storyboard to Shueisha. The work caught the eye of an editor at the publisher. The writer was still a newcomer and couldn’t find the right artist to draw the work. After waiting over two years, Shirai found Demizu.
The two make a superb team. Shirai instantly fell in love with Demizu’s art, and the artist, having read the storyboard, gladly accepted the offer to draw it. The manga finally started its magazine run in August 2016.
Even after the children escape, the story keeps readers engaged through the mysteries of the world they inhabit. They also encounter children from another farm, and do battle with demons.
Famous manga artists including Osamu Akimoto and Eiichiro Oda have heaped praise on “Yakusoku no Neverland” — which has amassed many awards, including the 63rd Shogakukan Mangasho award in the boys’ manga division. More than 4.2 million copies of the manga have been sold so far.
“I hope to draw stories in which the characters and readers grow together,” Demizu said.