To Your Eternity was one of the biggest releases this spring, and by far the most positively received. In a single episode it was an undeniable phenomenon, plucking heartstrings and setting the stage for a grand narrative. My expectations for the series were unfairly high, but it met them and continued to do so.
After that first episode, To Your Eternity dove into two arcs that impressed with their sympathetic storytelling and engaging characters. If you had asked me somewhere around the twelve episode mark, I’d have told you To Your Eternity was a shoe-in for Anime of the Year, and we’d refer to it as a classic going forward.
That sentiment didn’t last. Somewhere between the end of the second arc and the end of the first season, I had completely soured on To Your Eternity. It’s not irredeemable, there’s even some promise in the already-confirmed second season, but there’s no guarantee I’m interested enough to tune in. Considering how invested I was early on, this is a spectacular drop-off. Forget Anime of the Year, I might forget to remember it by winter.
So what happened? Well, the writing that made To Your Eternity so moving began to grate as it became increasingly obvious the series didn’t have as many ideas up its sleeve as we initially thought. And spoilers for To Your Eternity, by the way.
For the purpose of this essay, I will refer to the protagonist as Fushi from the start, even though he doesn’t acquire that name until a little further in. Fushi is an orb. Or rather, an enigmatic god known as the Beholder created Fushi as an orb with the ability to shapeshift, and cast him down to earth. Fushi’s goal is to learn and be stimulated by his environment in order to grow.
After a stint as a few inanimate objects, he discovers a dying wolf and assumes its form. He finds the wolf’s owner, a boy from an abandoned village struggling to rejoin his people. When the boy contracts an infection and dies, Fushi assumes that form as well, still not self-aware, and unclear on the importance of death.
Fushi struggles with his human body, but he forms a connection with a little girl named March. March is slated to be sacrificed to a giant bear god, so Fushi lends a helping hand and kills the bear god before taking its form too. Fushi’s basically a shapeshifter collecting new forms like Pokemon, if you couldn’t tell.
Despite Fushi’s intervention, March is still killed by Hayase, the woman who took her captive in the first place. He meets more people, learns to speak reasonably well, and even stays in one spot for a few years with his friend Gugu. However, pretty much every storyline has a few basic beats that they touch on: Fushi meets the main character of this storyline, learns from them, is attacked by a species of monsters called Nokkers that steal his forms, and Fushi’s friend dies. Learn a lesson from that, move on.
Someone dies quite literally in every arc, and it’s so trite by Episode 20 that I can’t even muster an emotional response.
The third arc sees Fushi getting captured and sent to a prison island, where he befriends Tonari, an orphan girl who followed her father into exile, and her friends. The group puts their hopes on Fushi winning a tournament for the kingship of the island, the only way to allow anyone to leave. This is complicated by Fushi’s refusal to kill, and the appearance of Hayase, who has become obsessed with Fushi.
The biggest problem with this arc by far is the pacing. To Your Eternity’s previous arcs were brisk and manageable, never devoting too much time to one story. Fushi’s time with the boy is one episode, his time with March and Gugu a few episodes each. This arc spans eight episodes, and honestly, not enough happens to justify that runtime.
There’s the tournament arc, but you can tell that the story is completely uninterested in fighting. The character work is meager; Tonari is the only islander who gets significant characterization, while her entire gang is basically nameless until the end. The only thing Fushi has going on is his struggle with killing, and how it affects his shapeshifting. His ability only lets him turn into creatures that have died, but now that he understands the finality of death, he’s unwilling to take a life.
The problem is that the conflict revolves around a short fight with Nokkers, who are silent, emotionless antagonists the audience knows nothing about, and Hayase, a cartoonishly evil antagonist with no redeeming or interesting qualities. She’s not even intelligent; she kind of wants Fushi on her side, but she kills people he likes regularly and that’s not how you make friends. Usually there’s a decent supporting cast, but the orphan gang barely count as characters, and Tonari is irritating to the point of provoking violence.
Many anime lose track of what made their stories so compelling in the first place, but To Your Eternity has the opposite problem; it knew what it had going, and kept going with its diminishing returns.
To Your Eternity just repeats the same basic story structure for its entire run. It wasn’t bad for the first couple arcs; it was actually compelling and interesting to meet new people and learn their stories. It’s just that they stop being shocking after the third arc or so.
The first episode is an excellent proof of concept. The first real arc with March was suspenseful because the pattern hadn’t been established. The second arc with Gugu, I became convinced that he’d survive because they wouldn’t do it three times in a row. Then, Tonari, the inconvenience who’s been a nuisance to Fushi and the audience for the entire storyline, survives. Pioran, a character I actually enjoy, is the one who dies.
It’s just a Mad Libs script with all the details interchanged for each arc. By the end of Gugu’s story, you’re not invested because you know their only ploy to get an emotional reaction is to kill someone off. Then, they populate the show with characters you either dislike or don’t care about, and nothing happens. It’s a dumb sort of subversion of expectations for no reason.
I’ve never seen an anime fumble like this. Darling in the Franxx jumped the shark, Death Note ditched its fascinating antagonist, but I’ve never seen an anime that just repeated the same storyline until it completely lost the thread. Even if there’s a shapeup in the second season, I really don’t care anymore.
To Your Eternity is ultimately a lesson in the use of shock value and unpredictability. You could offer a foregone conclusion; many stories tell you something about the end to get you thinking, or to provoke a sense of impending dread, but this is the audience realizing that the writer has no tricks or plot development left. It’s just disappointing.
Now knowing that Fushi can only acquire new powers when something dies, it kind of takes the tension out of every conflict. You automatically know who is going to live or die, depending on whether or not they have a cool Pokemon move that will be useful to Fushi. Each character with a talent gets a red shirt slapped on them, and the story’s robbed of its stakes.
There was some decent shock value; I didn’t expect the boy to die until the sense of doom slowly crept up. I didn’t expect them to kill a little girl like March. The problem is that shock value only works when you’re aware of your audience’s expectations. An important character dying is shocking because now the other characters and story have to continue without a part that was previously integral. To Your Eternity’s supporting cast are designed to be replaceable, and once you realize that, you can’t care about them anymore.
I understand this is a bit of a controversial take, though it’s far from the first or last. I actually haven’t seen a lot of people talk about this show, so I’m hoping this will stir a little more discussion on my small corner of the internet. I’m certainly not done ragging on the most critically-acclaimed shows of the spring, but Vivy survives unskewered another day. If you want to check that out when it comes up, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.