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Reimagining The World Ends With You

2021 seems to be a good year for fans of the popular 2007 DS game The World Ends with You; the long-awaited sequel called NEO is coming out soon on July 27th but in the time being, the anime adaptation of the first game has been airing. The World Ends with You engaged players with its world and characters through both its story-based cutscenes, and the interactive element (exploration, combat etc). Turning it into a TV anime is going to remove that interactive aspect altogether, meaning this new experience was inevitably going to be different. Are the anime staff doing a good enough job accounting for those differences to make sure this version is still an enjoyable experience that at least honors the original game? This is Abhi from The Cartoon Cipher, and today we're going to look at The World Ends with You the Animation so far, to see how it compares to the game.

The World Ends with You is an urban fantasy set in Shibuya, Japan about teenagers who must use supernatural powers to survive a series of trials called the Reaper's Game. Originally this all happens over the course of an average playtime of 30-40 hours, but the anime ambitiously sought to do it all in 12 episodes. Some reviews and impressions have already pointed out that the anime has been taking us through many dramatic plot points and character moments at breakneck speed. One consequence is that it becomes more transparent when an exposition scene is happening. There is definitely a lot of lore about this game's world required to understand the premise, so this was likely inevitable. Exposition dumping is usually frowned upon by media critics and to be fair, it can often be dull, however it isn't as if the game had no moments where characters just sat around making sense of the world's lore, in fact it probably had even more. But because the game's input is (in part) controlled by the player, letting them wander around, observe the environment and the people or explore Shibuya at their leisure, the overall pace of the story was originally a lot slower on purpose. Even in scenes early on in the game that try to camouflage the tutorials and info dumps, there's enough time to add in a lot of dialogue that illustrates each characters' personalities.

This quicker pace obviously meant we didn't have time for the fan-favorite moment where Shiki takes Neku's pants off in public, Ouji's infamous “F Everything” mantra, or him calling Neku a spicy tuna roll. However it's not always such a detriment; Higashizawa got a lot less time in the anime than the game but the game gave him very little to begin with. Side characters like the ramen shop owner were seen more often than him, but maybe that speaks to how well-written those side characters were in the game. Many of the climactic moments have looked and sounded great as we'll get to but it just isn't the same without all the side plots; the competing rameon shops, Makoto's wacky journey through the business world, Eiji Ouji's influence and so on. In my opinion the game was quite good at interconnecting them all into the backdrop of Shibuya while making it just as relevant to the core themes of the story as anything revolving around the Reaper's Game. Some people would probably call those parts filler, and as we've seen, cutting it out from the anime doesn't fundamentally break the story per se. But I think it was important that the game introduced all these side characters early on so that it feels like they've been with you the whole time by the end of the game. Though admittedly, it would be ridiculous to expect the show to cram in every single possible scenario and interaction the game had to offer without feeling like a meandering mess. As someone who knows the game thoroughly, I already know every nook and cranny of The World Ends with You's world and how its characters behave in these offhand situations; I personally don't need to be shown it, so all I can do is try and imagine things from a newcomer's perspective.

Let's use episode 1 as an example: the very first day's pacing is largely the same as in the game because it was mostly a tutorial that didn't let you wander off and get lost. Day 2's mission is more of an investigation with a few smaller trials leading up to the big finish. The game has you wander around the bus station, chatting with Beat and Rhyme, getting to know them better, learn how to de-possess something from Noise and clear walls, and investigate the Hachiko statue. Neku and Shiki even have a chat about what Hachiko is and why he's important, learning things about their mindsets all the way. All of that comes before the fight with the Noise wolves, while in the anime, that fight begins immediately after the mission is issued. And while the end of Day 2 is a tense cliffhanger that only resolves itself later in a flashback, the anime has it play out chronologically and rather quickly. Mr. Hanekoma steps in right away, says “resist negative emotions” then we abruptly move right on to the next day. That's not even mentioning the funny businessman, Tin Pin Slammer, Reaper Creeper, the members of 777's band, all of which are stories that Neku dips in and out of as the story goes on to color his own character arc. Giving all these side stories this much coverage in a non-interactive format like a TV show might make it feel sluggish or bloated. On the other hand, The World Ends with You is essentially a story about how a restricted town has many sides to it. To an extent, being stuck in one place with no choice but to appreciate your surroundings is the point of the story.

That's what the title means: The World Ends with You and your outlook on life, and for Neku that means realizing a town that he once pegged as small and stifling and empty wasn't any of those things. Not all of us live where he does, but I imagine a lot of people know what Neku felt like at some point in our lives, like the world was just dull, irritating noise. Obviously the world we live in is far from ideal and could definitely be improved, but that's somewhat beyond the scope of what this game could cover in my opinion. However for a story all about death and reapers passing judgement, it's also about how life is definitely worth living, exploring, and enjoying. The anime definitely touches on this through the way you can Scan normal people and hear their thoughts, turning Shibuya into a battleground where everyone's ideologies are violently clashing. In the game though, you could explore this even further through the food, fashion and of course, the people of Shibuya itself. Much like the Mother trilogy, The World Ends with You put a very modern twist on the standard armor, accessories and healing items you see in a lot of JRPGs, characters eat and digest food to boost their stats and put on different kinds of clothes for different protections and abilities. Both these things not only lead to all sorts of combinations that affect your experience with the game, but each character also has unique ways they respond to foods and fashion too. If they don't like how something tastes it won't boost their stats as much, and certain items of clothing have abilities that are only activated when a particular character wears it. It's almost as if characters have personal opinions on them that they only really express when you're equipping them in the menu, which to me, was a big part of the original's charm (That's not even getting into the personal relationships you develop with the cashiers).

Regardless, I feel things have improved since the first arc. The story has 3 main arcs, one for each of the characters Neku partners up with, giving the first arc 3 episodes, the second one 4, then the last and current possibly 5, or maybe 4 with an epilogue. Even with the skipped content the story doesn't feel anywhere near as fast, and it may be because of that extra time. They've even used it to introduce some stuff that arc 1 didn't have time for, like the Reaper decals that let Joshua walk into a shop to buy some ice cream (spreading out some of the game's top-loaded world-building). The anime also makes the battles and Neku's psychs a spectacle, and the use of 3D movement and effects animation are consistently a highlight of the show. But I worry that it's not enough for anime fans who have seen how other shows treat powers like these. It's pretty common for characters to develop new powers as their characters develop, giving emotional meaning to how they fight. In some light novel adaptations, the system of learning, using and upgrading skills is very important to the plot and can take up pretty substantial chunks of episodes. In shōnen manga adaptations, often a lot of thought is put into making the most of what limited abilities someone has at the time or what conditions they'll be most effective under. Meanwhile in this anime, there's no real story behind Neku's individual psychs. And to an extent, that is understandable; the original game left Neku's pin usage up to the player, so it couldn't significantly factor into the pre-written cutscenes. However the experience of playing a video game means the gameplay and cutscenes feed into each other.

The Castlevania Netflix series recently ended, and one thing I can give that show is that at no point did it make me think “huh, that was odd, I wonder why they did that? Eh, probably because it was in the original game and made more sense there.” In TWEWY, a big part of gaining pins and money comes from regularly fighting Noise. Of course, condensing all those random encounter battles and optional content into a linear script would be very tricky. A lot of the interactive storytelling in the original game is carried by video game logic; characters might kill a pack of wolves or kangaroos who would drop money and pins and whatnot, all the while implausibly lugging a huge inventory around town. This isn't to say it's impossible, but adapting this well would probably require a very open-minded writer and producers that would be flexible with them. Personally as someone who played the game in my teens, my imagination has admittedly run wild with the sheer possibilities of what a The World Ends with You anime could be like for years. Until an interview comes out confirming it, we can't know all the circumstances that are affecting how this anime is being produced, but from what we've got so far, it definitely understands the core appeal of the story even if it isn't able to flesh it out fully. As a result, the show's writing has made some slight tweaks to the main characters.

One difficulty about Neku Sakuraba as a character is that for the first arc, he has no memory of his life. The only thing we have to go on at first is his base personality which, admittedly, is easy to mock as a typical brooding anime teenager before the player gets to learn more about him. The game opened up with several lines from an unknown point in time to clearly establish his state of mind: “All the world needs is me. I've got my values, so you can keep yours,” before throwing both him and the player into the deep end. Not only do we not get this in the anime, but as part of speeding up the pace, it seems Neku was made more considerate and open from the get-go. This way, it isn't jarring when he and Shiki start getting more intimate only one episode later. Originally, this took a good few days, which made the moments when he did come out of his shell feel more rewarding.

Whether the anime could have pulled that off effectively is itself questionable because the lengthy nature of the game's text allows Neku to have an internal monologue where we can read him getting rather frustrated at Shiki at times. Internal monologues likely don't work as well in an audio-visual medium though, some anime adaptations like The Melancholy Haruhi Suzumiya do try keeping them in, but other times it can slow the action down or make the medium feel redundant. Likewise, when Neku ignored Shiki or dismissed, she would retaliate and chastise him. In the anime, the two are able to open up to each other with much less friction, though the result is that their relationship isn't as much of a journey with highs and lows. Again, perhaps only 3 episodes for the first arc was too few, but despite all this, I can appreciate how the anime has tried to repurpose the game's events to make these character dynamics work with what little time they had. Moments like the Spain Hill incident were sped up and sometimes reordered, but the anime used these moments to show how in spite of her inner turmoil, Shiki doesn't give up on people. Is it a bit forced? Probably, but given the pace they decided to tell the story at, I think the anime did well to sign post these moments of character development.

Likewise, things like the A-East fight at the end of Day 3 or the double team-attack in Week 2 were very clearly meant to be moments of Neku learning the values of teamwork and trust. But let's move away from compromises, because part of making a good adaptation is taking advantage of the things only the new medium can do. Anime's main selling point is quite often its visuals, and while the game itself had its own very unique graffiti-inspired visual identity, the anime surprisingly has a lot to offer. Not only does it maintain the appeal of the original character designs, but the use of CG and 3D movement gave us set pieces the game never could. A lot of the stand-out fights have essentially been memorialized as brand new visual spectacles, but one interesting thing the anime has been doing is showing how Psychs can be used intuitively, such as Neku using Murasame, which was originally just an uppercut attack, to navigate the side of a building. He's also used fire in all kinds of ways other than just attacking, like self-propulsion or even a shield against projectiles, and even uses barbed wire to tie Higashizawa in place. This creative application of familiar abilities can be really rewarding for long-time fans, we get to see a whole new dimension to how Neku and his friends could use their powers outside the limits of the game's programming. Not to mention after all these years we FINALLY get to see how Rhyme fights.

Rest assured though there are plenty of Easter Eggs, like stock poses from the game being re-illustrated in the ED and sometimes animated. The background features some of the brands and clothes you could equip, even some skateboarders as a nod to the presence of skater culture in the original. And while things may seem like they're going fast, the show at least used background shots to set up stuff for later, such as Sota and Nao's deaths.

But the real soul of anime isn't just in the action, but the visual direction. Characters are no longer bound to stock poses, the backgrounds and angles can be whatever the creators want, and that can lead to a lot of these key moments getting done justice through scene choreography rather than writing. This time we actually got to see Shiki reaching out to touch her crying friend instead of just standing off to the side, the dark clouds to set the tone for week 3, or the atmosphere the rain provides in the lead up to the Week 1 climax as Shiki and Neku say their last few words. Even small things like Kariya fiddling around with his lollipop, giving some to Neku, or having lunch with Uzuki at the Mexican restaurant do a lot to help establish these characters and this setting without words, those are the sort of touches I personally wanted to see more of in this show. Some moments even surpass the game in my opinion; I personally loved how Sho announced his first mission over his megaphone, that felt totally in character and a great way to start Week 2. However, there is a possibility that the sum of these little details has a different goal entirely to just bringing the game to life.

Certain evidence suggests that this anime is meant to be a reimagining rather than a recap. After all, the original game was very trend-conscious when it came to music, fashion and so on. It was made contemporary to when it came out in the late-2000s so perhaps the anime is just trying to be contemporary to the early-2020s, hence the smartphones replacing flip phones and a mostly new soundtrack done by the game's composer himself. Even the OP was originally gonna be a brand new song called "Teenage City Riot," though unfortunately it had to be replaced at the last minute due to a controversy surrounding one of the musicians. Despite all my wild wishes for this adaptation to really strike out and stand on its own as best as it could, since NEO The World Ends with You is coming out right on the heels of this show, the purpose of the anime is probably more so to hype everyone up for it. They even gave Joshua a line where he mentions the Shinjuku Reaper's Game, which we will definitely be learning about in that sequel. Alternatively, the slight differences in the anime might point to this being some sort of parallel timeline within the original continuity. As confusing as that might seem, at this point it wouldn't be too unexpected. Many fans expected the Final Fantasy VII Remake to be a straightforward re-imagining of the original game but there's evidence to suggest it's some kind of continuation. The KHInsider Twitter account even pointed out that an older version of Neku who appears in the sequel trailer, strongly resembles a Support Reaper from the anime. Other things like this guy in the red beanie or Kitaninji's surprise attack in episode 2 come to mind but they could be red herrings.

We still have some episodes left so things my thoughts could change, and heck we still don't know how or if an English dub is gonna be handled, especially with Neku's actor mentioning he's interested but just hasn't been contacted. But whether you're a diehard The World Ends with You fan or newcomer, enjoying the anime or not, this adaptation has definitely revitalized the fandom in the biggest way since maybe the Switch port. So even if it ends up being a footnote to the upcoming sequel there is still a bit of value to be found here, even if I can't help but wish they had some more episodes to play around with. As someone who often covers English dubs we talk about adaptations all the time, asking “how can you capture the spirit of the original in a new language with different words?” Things that feel totally natural in one language could be obtuse in another, and something similar applies to different mediums like games and TV shows. If you take nothing else away from this article, I highly encourage you to play the game yourself. Not simply to see what the anime leaves out or even to get caught up in time for NEO, but because it's an experience, definitely one of the best RPG experiences I've ever had.

But what do you think? Are you enjoying The World Ends with You the Animation? Do you think this adaptation does enough to stand on its own? Are you excited for NEO? Feel free to share your thoughts and keep this discussion going.


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