When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader of Stephen King novels. Back then, I probably would have told you that my favorite of his books was IT (and just to get it out of the way: the TV miniseries is equal parts corny-as-hell and cheesy fun, the first movie from 2017 is pretty okay, and IT Chapter 2 is one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life, and we shall never speak of it again). With the benefit of hindsight, though, it's pretty clear to me that the best of King's work can actually be found in his sprawling fantasy epic,The Dark Tower. Though it is a shame that nobody has ever been able to make a movie of that bonkers western/sci-fi/horror mashup, that may perhaps be for the best, as the tales found across the series' many pages are perfectly suited for the limitless theater of the mind. I've been slowly re-reading The Dark Tower as the pandemic has worn on, and the tale has lost none of its luster even all these years later.
Outside of the fact that both To Your Eternity and The Dark Tower prominently feature a giant murder-bear that is venerated as a forest spirit, the two properties have little in common, but the anime has come to evoke a vibe that is strikingly similar to the way I felt when I was lost in the pages of those books as a kid. Though To Your Eternity is playing with familiar fantasy iconography and tropes, it is filled with so much confidence in its presentation and such wonderfully human characters. “A Large Vessel” may be yet another series of detours and false starts for the young women and orb-thing at the story's center, but their trials and tribulations certainly give us a thrilling adventure to savor in the meantime.
We start by getting some insight into Parona's past, and we see in a flashback that her rescue of March has a very personal precedent: Years ago, when Parona was March's age, the “priestess” from Yanome selected Parona to be sacrificed to Oniguma. Under the pretense of a fun “hide in this hollowed-out tree stump until you run out of food” game, Parona is hidden away from the village by her sister, who goes on to take her place on Oniguma's altar. Not only does this result in Parona getting ostracized from her village (which presumably means that March's people took her in later?), but it has also led to Parona's rebellious streak, which is what got her and March stuck as Hayase's prisoners in the present day.
Outside of one weirdly terrible line-reading at the beginning, Aya Uchida does an excellent job of selling Parona's charm and spunk in this episode. You buy her disillusionment with the Ninannah's tribal culture, and her determination to break herself and March out of the Yanome prison that Hayase eventually traps them in. Speaking of which, Mitsuki Saiga does an equally solid job selling Hayase's whole “Queen Bitch of Cop Island” shtick. Last week, I pointed out the great detail of her and her cronies being frustrated gofers masquerading as spiritualists, but the fraudulent Yanome priestess reveals an even more insidious truth: The powers-that-be in Yanome have never been true believers. Hayase is merely one of many manipulative ambassadors that have been sent into the Ninannah wilds to co-opt their beliefs and curry some goodwill with the locals, all so that Yanome will have an easier time taking over the land completely in the long run.
It's one of the many developments “A Large Vessel” provides that demonstrates how deft this show is at both its big-picture and its small-scale storytelling. Consider another scene, where March runs headlong into a local letter writer's shop so she can send word back to her parents that she hasn't been consumed by a vicious god-thing like so many scraps of the girls that came before her. Our little heroine is stymied by three things: The first is the fact that there is no system of written language for the Ninannah, so there would be no possible way to send March's message in the first place. The second is that there are dozens of similar villages scattered all throughout the land, and neither March nor Parona can actually point to a place on a map to say where their home is. Finally, as we have already discussed, Hayase has absolutely no intention of letting either girl live freely. They are to be thrown into cells and worked as slaves until they die; what's really important is Fushi.
This scene is the everyday kind of remarkable that is easy to overlook, but forgive me a little indulgence as I dwell on it, because it speaks so well to what To Your Eternity is succeeding in. First of all, this is simply Good World Building 101, as the whole sequence tells us a lot of really valuable information about Yanome, its history, and its relationship with the different cultural factions across the land. Even more important is how all of this information is conveyed in a scene that prioritizes character over exposition; March's confusion and sadness allows us to also reflect on just how much she and Parona have lost, and give the girls a new goal to fight for, even as Hayase demeans and imprisons them. If you have any aspirations towards writing good fantasy or science-fiction, then take notes: This is how you get the job done.
Then there's ol' Fushi, who continues to develop in his own ways on the sidelines of the plot, while the girls take on the more active roles. We learn that it can create matter that isn't just confined to the skins it wears when it crafts itself a spear to use against one of Hayase's prisoner-goons, which is good to know, though it isn't clear what the cost or limitations of this ability are quite yet. It also seems like its growing ability to recognize and empathize with other creatures is shaping its development. The orb goes all out with its haunted-sounding mimicry, and he trades his monotone parade of “Thank Yous” about halfway through with the gasping cry of “It hurts!”, courtesy of that dude he stabbed.
That burgeoning empathy also seems to extend in a kind of telepathic sense to Oniguma, who suffers and eventually dies in a pool of its own blood in Hayase's prison. Is Fushi's connection limited to the creatures that it comes into physical contact with, so far? Are we meant to understand that Fushi has grasped, in some way, that he inflicted pain on Oniguma in the same way that he did the prisoner? There's literally no way to properly analyze Fushi's actions, since it is impossible to gauge how sentient he is at this point, but his slow transformation into a proper character is a fun story to track alongside March and Parona's more pressing efforts to escape Yanome.
I'm loving To Your Eternity, so far. It says a lot that, for how much the impressive visuals of the pilot were one of the show's biggest selling points for me, I'm not even all that bothered that art and animation have been so inconsistent from Episode 2 onward. Reading The Dark Tower all those years ago was one of the first times I found myself able to articulate exactly what I loved about discovering new stories like it, ones filled with magic, and horror, and wonder. To Your Eternity is shaping up to be just such a story, another new and terrible world to get lost in, and I can't wait to see what comes next.
Orbs and Ends
• That one weird line reading I mentioned comes when Parona, March, and the old lady are discussing Yanome's exploitation of the Oniguma ritual, and Parona says, “I had no idea. I'm disgusted that horrible ritual has been carried on under the pretense of tradition.” Maybe it's the fact that there's barely any expression on Parona's face when she says this, or the overwrought quality of the dialogue itself, or the odd sound mixing, where she's barely audible above the strings in the score. Either way, it stuck out to me as a clunky beat. Perhaps it is a result of the production straining from COVID restrictions? Or, could it be that I'm completely crazy, and there isn't any issue to begin with? You make the call!
• Parona is a badass of incredible proportions, and anyone that harms a hair on March's head deserves to die a thousand deaths. I didn't have anywhere else in the review to make note of these two objective facts, but they needed to be said.
To Your Eternity is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.