This article is a part of AniTAY’s Spring 2021 Early Impressions series, where our authors offer their initial thoughts on the new, prominent, and exciting anime from this season!
The World Ends With You: The Animation (henceforth referred to as “TWEWY: A” because I value my fingers) is an anime adaptation of the eponymous cult classic RPG released by Square Enix in 2007 for the Nintendo DS. In it, we follow Neku Sakuraba, a 15-year-old living in (then) modern-day Shibuya who one day wakes up in the middle of Scramble Crossing with no memory of how he got there. He can no longer interact with other people and finds himself a Player in the Reaper’s Game, where he must partner with a stranger and survive for one week to earn a ticket out of that mess.
Being based on one of my most formative games inevitably invites comparison, and I was equally excited and terrified to watch it. Video game adaptations don’t have the best track record. For every Steins;Gate and money-printing machine Fate, there is a plethora that either fails to capture the essence of its source material (looking at you, Danganronpa) or just flat out exists solely to promote it. Where does TWEWY: A fall on that spectrum so far?
Well… I don’t know.
Let’s start by acknowledging one thing: this might just be the greatest translation of an art style I’ve ever seen. It’s astounding how well the anime captures the distinct aesthetics of its source material. The original DS game found a happy medium between manga, street art, and youth fashion. A stylized interpretation of the existent art one could reasonably find in Shibuya, and for The Animation, the transition is seamless. Character outlines remain bold and recognizable. The colors and shading strive to capture the graphic novel appearance that was so intrinsic to the game’s atmosphere. Even minor details, like blending the opening credits with the graffiti on the ground and walls, or recreating poses and logos from the game, everything just oozes that same style. This isn’t an anime interpretation of the original designs. This is the original design brought to life, and sometimes I legitimately have a hard time telling the two apart. To this day, nothing has come close to capturing the chicness of its presentation (not even you, Persona), and TWEWY: A can be proud of itself for carrying that tradition.
Except for some slight touches to make the show better reflect current day Shibuya — flip phones become modern smartphones, the logo on 109 Building was changed to resemble the new design, and so on — it faithfully recreates that style, no doubt helped by the return of composer Takeharu Ishimoto, character designers Gen Kobayashi and Tetsuya Nomura (yes, that Nomura), and nearly all the original Japanese voice actors. It’s in the substance that we run into problems. At its core, TWEWY is a slow-burning coming-of-age story. Twelve episodes are simply not enough to accommodate the original narrative, and the pace suffers.
Episode 1 is a rough start, cramming three whole in-game days in 24 minutes, with lots of fighting and not enough moments establishing how this world works. I don’t blame anyone for dropping it here because of the blistering pace. Things improve considerably from episode 2 onward, explaining important concepts (even if a couple still come out of left field) and even incorporating some post-game information that normally would not be part of the main plot. I do wish they hadn’t omitted the fact Players’ psychs come from the pins they have, and Neku is special for being able to use any, whereas most people have certain affinities. For anime-only viewers, he’s pulling new moves out of nowhere, and that’s poor world-building.
Despite these blunders, these episodes still do a good job at introducing our leads. Neku is a loner that doesn’t like or understand people, serving as a foil to his partner, Shiki Misaki, a bubbly girl with an easygoing personality that quickly befriends another pair of Players: Beat, a tough guy with a heart of gold, and Rhyme, a young girl that’s the brains to her partner’s brawl. Our fifth lead is the city itself, even if it isn’t obvious at this point. Shibuya isn’t simply the backdrop for the Reaper’s Game. It serves a narrative and thematic purpose. It’s a place ruled by youth culture, a blend of art, music, graffiti, and fashion. These elements don’t always agree, but they always clash and transform, creating a formless and ever-changing zeitgeist that nevertheless remains meaningful and recognizable. A sea of Noise where it’s all too easy to drown in the undefined static we call “moment.” Shibuya reflects all the chaos, and potential, that comes with adolescence.
Growing up to discover and reach said potential is ultimately what TWEWY is about, and we can look at Shiki’s arc for a microcosm of that theme. Upon entering the game, the Reapers collect an “entry fee” from each player: the thing they value most at the time of entry. For Shiki, her entry fee was her physical appearance. In the Underground (the “plane of existence” where the Reaper’s Game takes place), she has the looks of her best friend, Eri. Shiki’s dream is to design clothes, but her actual strength is bringing the designs her friend creates to life. As a result, Shiki envies Eri, and that envy consumes her, to the point she wanted to be Eri. She doesn’t understand why she was seemingly given the one thing she wanted the most but soon realizes (with a little help from Neku, who has himself grown a bit) the obvious: she’s not Eri. She never will be. What she truly valued was herself, but her mind was too clouded to see it. Discovering how equally high Eri thinks of her was the kick she needed to stop putting her friend on that metaphorical pedestal and accept she’s fine just the way she is.
Shiki’s feelings are surprisingly mundane and undoubtedly relatable. How many of us have ever misplaced our sense of self-worth, depreciated our own identity, or otherwise wished not to be who we are? It’s a struggle that never truly disappears, but is at its peak during the days of youth. Although condensed, the way The Animation handled this arc was great, and if this is any indication, I can’t write off this show as the promotional material suggested by its low episode count. The message that resonated with me 13 years ago is still there, despite the constraints. Our worldview is only as narrow as we allow it to be, and by opening up to others, and coming into contact with different worlds, we can find our own. Now, more than ever, we could all use that piece of advice.
If you decide to stick with this anime, I sincerely hope it can affect you the same way the game did me. This adaptation is undeniably imperfect, and there is a chance it won’t stand on its own by the time it ends, but there’s a beating heart in there that deserves to be heard.
As for already existing fans? Well, every performance needs an encore. And personally, I’m already tapping my feet in anticipation of the beat.