WorldEnd uses a risky narrative device that adds real weight to its tragic tone
Coming in just behind massive shonen manga adaptations, fantasy series have dominated the release schedule of Spring 2017. When dealing with a surplus, any aspect that makes one story stand out goes a long way. WorldEnd definitely has a title that's difficult to ignore, (What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us?), but it also left an impression on me from the very first episode. After the first 24 minutes, I remember experiencing something closely resembling dread at the prospects of the plot, which placed Willem in an idyllic boarding house under circumstances that weren't exactly optimistic. In addition to laying a great deal of groundwork, the premiere excellently framed the story to put you in the perfect mindset to appreciate the plight of Willem's wards.
WorldEnd made excellent use of a risky narrative technique, providing a prologue that was actually a flash forward to events in the indeterminate future (a technique also used in the premiere of Boruto). We’re shown scenes that feature a number characters, later revealed as residents of the boarding house, engaged in what seems to be a losing battle juxtaposed with Chtholly’s voiceover which speaks of gratitude for the happiness she has been allowed to experience. The tone is fatalistic, the imagery and Chtholly’s claims against regret leading us to believe their end is near. Our introduction to these characters promises a violent death, casting a shadow over the rest of the series, no matter how hopeful the tone.
This foreknowledge adds emotional weight to what might have otherwise been some fairly typical expository events. The residents of the house have been raised with the expectation of an early death, taught that they are weapons whose only personal value is in ensuring the safety of others through their own sacrifice. The very magic they use requires they hold little value for their own safety to maximize its potency. Chtholly’s later flashbacks reinforce how this message has been communicated to the children, by watching their seniors depart for combat only to never return. Both the audience and the girls themselves are presented with the fatalism of their existence by witnessing its conclusion in action. The threat isn't some sort of future abstraction we witness through Chtholly but an actual event we know will come to pass.
But we’re not given all the information at the outset--following Willem’s perspective we are not only provided with the opportunity for exposition as he learns more about the government project firsthand, but we also come to appreciate his own conflict with the dawning realization of the purpose of the boarding house, as well as the true nature of the children who reside within it. We’re introduced to them as normal kids, distinct and playful, curious, and even afraid of his new presence within their house. Nygglatho fears revealing their true nature as living weapons will change the way Willem looks at them but he, like us, already recognizes them as children. The prospect that they were made to become martyrs is instinctively repulsive and we feel his desire to somehow change their fate.
Building upon our visceral horror at the concept of the purpose of the household and Willem's desire to change it, Chtholly's present strife reveals that the girls may not be able to so easily take their own lives for granted. Told she is fated to die in 10 days, Chtholly is in the midst of this existential crisis and, in her attempts to give her life meaning, she impresses upon us the relevance of her existence. Her request for a kiss shows us she is afraid of dying without experiencing the essential joys of being human and, perhaps, perpetuating her existence in some small way through the impressions she leaves on others. From this scene, we come to understand her vacation in the city was an attempt to find some sort of meaningful event she can hold onto before her impending death. She believes she can fulfill a greater purpose through her death, but fears it all the same.
The sparring session in episode three is Willem challenging this narrative. Holding the same hope as the audience, Willem believes he may have the tools that will allow Chtholly to win without sacrificing her own life. Though he knows the population of the warehouse is destined for combat, he hopes that this doesn’t necessarily resign them to death. Chtholly fears accepting the belief she may be saved since giving into that hope will make her sacrifice that much more painful should it prove false. Not only that, but the idea that the narrative of her life might be flawed means that all of those who came before her might have died in vain.
Where normally this may represent a heroic turn, we can’t forget what we witnessed in the prologue. Just as Chtholly risks tormenting herself by hoping to survive, so do we by becoming invested in her survival. Ctholly’s resignation in the opening moments are not are not an optimistic prognostication. Placing us in Willem’s shoes, we come to appreciate the tragedy of the household faces, and empathize with his desire to change it. Although the prologue seems damning, we aren't subjected to an actual image of Chtholly's demise. To this point, that purposeful glimmer of hope and the stakes of its failure to manifest have been nurtured into an emotional heart for WorldEnd that can transform into a source of catharsis or pain by the season's end.