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Monday, November 30, 2015

Bokurano: Wheel of Fatality, Turn Turn Turn, Show Us the Victim Who We Shall Burn

The previous two Mecha Month celebrations began with reviews of the two halves of the early-90s mech anime Matchless Raijin-Oh, the first entry in the Sunrise/Tomy collaboration known as the Eldoran Series. Therefore, it's only proper to end this year's Mecha Month with the anime adaptation of a manga created specifically due to Raijin-Oh's legacy... And it's time we come back to everyone's favorite corrupter of childhood dreams, Mohiro Kitoh.

One month after finishing up the Narutaru manga in 2003, Kitoh debuted his next major work, this time in Shogakukan's Ikki, a now-defunct magazine that specialized in underground or alternative manga. Simply titled Bokurano/Ours, the manga ran until 2009 & was similar to Narutaru in that it took a popular Japanese creation & turned it upside its head. As mentioned earlier, Kitoh used Raijin-Oh's concept of children having to work together to protect the planet via a giant robot, but instead of making it look cool, exciting, & hopeful, he instead showcased it as depressing, threatening, & (most importantly) fatalistic. In 2007, Gonzo (which was on the last legs of its surge of international popularity at the time) adapted the manga into a 24-episode TV anime, yet it wouldn't see an official release in North America until earlier this year, and even then it was released by niche anime company Discotek Media instead of the "usual" companies like FUNimation or Sentai Filmworks; hell, by the time we got the anime, Viz had already released all of the manga. Therefore, to bring this whole matchless circle to a close, let's examine how the anime adaptation of Bokurano is and see just how much of Raijin-Oh's DNA is indeed to be found.

One summer fifteen children take part in a Nature School program on an island off the coast of Japan. While on the beach they come across a cavern that leads to a secret area filled with computers. While checking the area out, a man returns, revealing that he's a game designer & asks that he be called "Kokopelli". He offers the kids to take part in a test of the game he's making, which is about protecting the Earth from 15 monsters by piloting a giant robot, and all of them agree to do so (except for little Kana, whose brother Jun Ushiro demands she not sign up). That night a giant creature appears near the island, along with a 500 meter giant robot that the kids are all teleported into. Kokopelli is piloting the robot, telling them that he'll take care of the first monster, & everyone realizes that this isn't a simple "game", but instead is a real battle with the existence of the planet at stake. Unfortunately, as enemies appear one at a time, & a new child is determined to be the pilot at random, they all realize the danger about piloting the robot they name Zearth ("The Earth"). Essentially, after defeating the enemy, the child pilot will die, as Zearth runs off of life force. If a pilot refuses to fight or loses the battle, though, then Earth is destroyed.

I don't know how exactly Mohiro Kitoh feels about Matchless Raijin-Oh, as he would have been 25 when the show first aired in Japan, but it is obvious that he didn't simply choose it at random when it came to deconstructing. This isn't simply taking the basic concept & putting it into a blender, but rather Kitoh reworks many of the original characters into his own. Kokopelli is obviously the dark, twisted variant of Eldoran, giving the kids a giant robot to protect the world, but while the "Guardian of the Earth" did so due to him becoming weak from battle, & to not actually kill the kids of Class 5-3, Kokopelli's motives are mysterious & vague, and his not-exactly-cuddly partner Koyemshi (who helps monitor the "game" for the kids) is sarcastic, caustic, & finds any bit of altruism by the kids to be disgusting. Much like Raijin-Oh's de-facto lead character Jin Hyuga, Waku is an energetic & hot-blooded boy who takes very quickly to the idea of piloting a giant robot to protect the world, even screaming out his attacks because he's allowed to. Likewise, & even more blatantly, Bokurano's equivalent to Kouji is Moji, who tries to take everything happening around him as calmly & as possible, even figuring things out before others do. Another down-to-the-name rework is Daichi, who, like his inspiration Daisuke, cares deeply for his younger siblings & will do anything to protect them. There is also Maki Ano, whose positive energy & initial arguments with Waku make her the likely reference to Jin's argumentative other, Maria. Hell, a short-lived set of uniforms that fellow pilot Mako makes utilize the same exact red/yellow/blue color scheme as the suits that Jin, Kouji & Asuka wear when piloting Raijin-Oh... Look, all I'm saying is that Mohiro Kitoh really did his homework here.

That being said, not all of the direct similarities are 1:1, but instead are as twisted as what was done to the concept itself. If Waku & Mouji are Jin & Kouji, then Ushiro may be Kitoh's take on Asuka, or at least is the closest one I could find. Unlike Asuka, who was generally positively-minded (though a bit vain at times) when possible & there for his friends, Ushiro is a Grade-A jerk from the very start. He thinks he knows better than everyone, finds caring for others to be a weakness, & even has no qualms at hitting Kana when angered. Another opposite take would be Kodama, who is similar to Class 5-3's Tsutomu by being a generally smart & practical person, but where Tsutomu was practical from a helpful perspective, Kodama is practical from a cynical perspective, declaring those who die as being unworthy, while those who live are the "chosen ones". Hell, even the way the mechs operate is a direct about face. Raijin-Oh, though piloted only by Jin, Kouji, & Asuka, still requires everyone in the class for it to be used to its max potential, but Zearth is only piloted by the randomly-chosen child at hand, with everyone else being nothing more than cockpit-sharing onlookers, helpless to the whims & personal feelings of the current pilot. Granted, you don't need to have seen Raijin-Oh in order to watch (or read) Bokurano, but if you've seen the former first then the references & deconstructions become all the more obvious & enjoyable to see in action.

The way the story plays out in general hits some of Raijin-Oh's story elements, but otherwise is completely different in execution. Like its source of deconstruction, every child gets some sort of personal story told, but in Bokurano's case this generally happens for each child as he or she is chosen to be the next pilot; one child does get overarching development, but I'll leave that as a surprise for viewers. Still, the personal stories are all very superbly told, with some of them being pretty depressing (as expected), while others are actually much more happy in their own finales, though the end result is more bittersweet than anything as the child still dies in the end. There is also a larger focus on government involvement when compared to Raijin-Oh, this time showcasing how petty & secretive a real-world government would more than likely act in this scenario. Komoda, for example, has a father who's in the Diet, so he's told the truth rather quickly, but as he continually agrees to reveal more & more publicly he's essentially punished for doing so, like by having a report he acquired be falsely debunked as the work of a hack writer. The kids also gain the protection & support of two military soldiers, Tanaka & Seki, who are steadfast in their dedication to the children. This is even more so for Tanaka, who ends up becoming a second mother figure to all of them (some more than others), and she winds up becoming one of the absolute best characters in the show.

Having not read the manga I can only go off of basic research, but it looks like the anime diverges from the original source somewhere in Volume 5, just a little past half-way, so I have no idea where exactly the anime becomes an original story. Hopefully this doesn't mean that Tamotsu, a former yakuza who becomes another protector for the kids, is anime-exclusive, because he is easily the best adult character in the show, being both so extremely casual in his mannerisms yet steadfast & reliable to everyone around him that he's instantly endearing. Anyway, the story slowly develops alongside the personal stories, and about half-way through changes around the way the "game" is even looked at, so I sadly can't go into too much detail without completely removing the element of surprise; if you don't care you can always look for that info yourself. Still, what story is told here may be very morose & tragic, with the more comical moments only keeping it from being outright depressing, but is nonetheless exquisitely well told. You wind up either caring for every child when it's his or her time to die, to put it bluntly, or at the very least you can understand where a child is coming from & can relate in some way, and the adult characters are definitely a marked improvement over the recurring adults in Raijin-Oh. While characters like Mr. Shinoda & Principal Yazawa are intensely lovable characters that Class 5-3's students can rely on, they just can't hold a proper candle to Tanaka & Tamotsu, simply because the latter two are always around & help in much more substantial ways.

As much as I want to credit someone for the excellent writing & storytelling to be found in this anime, the credits oddly don't list any sort of "Series Composition", and I had to look on Wikipedia Japan just to even see who was on the writing team. Anyway, said team was comprised mainly of Daisuke Nishida (Claymore) & Natsue Yoguchi (Hidamari Sketch), with a smattering of episodes written by Hiroyuki Kawasaki (ep 1; Gundam X) & Keiichiro Ochi (eps 20 & 23; La Corda D'Oro). What's most surprising is that Yoguchi is responsible for most of the writing, as he wrote/adapted half of the show. Maybe it's just me, but I just find it crazy that the person behind the writing for a comical show like Hidamari wrote such an extremely downtrodden & tragic show like Bokurano; well done, Yoguchi. An even more curious aspect of this anime, though, comes from the director. Much like Narutaru before it, Bokurano marks the directorial debut of a key animator, in this case Hiroyuki Morita, whose only other directorial work is One Piece Episode of Luffy.

What's curious is that Morita is an admitted non-fan of Kitoh's original manga, and asked the man himself if he could change from the manga when it came to possibly making any of the children survive to the end. Kitoh responded that he was okay with any changes as long as they don't go against the rules of the story (like not having any magical revivals or whatnot), but would then go on his blog & warn fans of the manga that the anime would be markedly different from his work. What's odd is that, minus one moment where a child does survive a fight (which does apparently go against the manga's game rules), Morita didn't seem to change all that much in terms of the general mood & feel of the story. Make no mistake, this is a fatalistic story through & through, so I'm going to guess that if Morita had any plans to make the show more hopeful, he likely dropped them at some point. Having not read the original manga yet, my only guess is that Morita changed around the order of child pilots, if only to keep it surprising for fans of the manga. Also, I'm going to guess that the second half of the story is markedly different from the manga, as the original story still had a couple of years left to finish up.

The character designs by Kenichi Konishi (Tokyo Godfathers, Mysterious Girlfriend X) look accurate to Kitoh's lanky style, though at first it does look like most of the girls have similar faces; once the ranks start to thin out it becomes less of a problem. Sadly, though, while I won't say that the music by Yuuji Nomi (Wings of Honneamise, The Cat Returns) is bad by any means, it certainly doesn't come off as memorable by any means. They fit the scenes they are used in & are hummable while heard, but don't stick in your head afterwards. It's especially sad because the opening & endings themes sung by Chiaki Ishikawa are outright amazing. The OP, "Uninstall", may very well go down as one of the most iconic anime themes of the 00s, with a trancelike beat & fitting lyrics about being nothing more than a speck of dust that must act like a brave warrior when faced with conflict. The first ED, "Little Bird", is a slow-paced ballad that purposefully sounds like a lullaby, almost as if it's what the children could hear in their last moments after piloting Zearth. Finally, the second ED, "Vermillion", is a bittersweet pill of a song that fits the encroaching despair that follows each child that survives for the next fight. Sorry Yuuji Nomi, but it was just too much to go up against Ishikawa's excellent performances.

Considering how large the overall cast in this show is, I'll focus instead on the performances I felt were the best. Therefore, I'll simply start with the real star of this show, which is Akira Ishida's Koyemshi. I felt that Ishida's performance in Narutaru completely stole the sole episode he was in, so I was ecstatic when I heard his voice coming out of the sardonic & sarcastic Koyemshi. Without a doubt, this could very well be one of Akira Ishida's most iconic roles if it was more well known. While he isn't seen for long, as he's one of the early deaths, Waku delivers the unbridled energy that his influence Jin Hyuga had, and Daisuke Sakaguchi made his few episodes count. Ushiro's outright jerkiness is delivered very well by Junko Minagawa, & the same can be said for Tomokazu Sugita as the calm & dedicated Daichi & Kumiko Higa as the energetic & spunky Maki. Seki & Tanaka are voiced by Shinji Kawada & Naomi Shindoh, respectively, and both deliver being simultaneously stern & truly, emotionally invested in helping the kids out. Finally, there's Takehiro Murozono, whose Tamotsu almost rivaled Ishida's Koyemshi in terms of guaranteed scene stealing. Make no doubt, every notable character has a great voice behind him & her, but these people in particular were heads & heels the best, personally.

Bokurano may not be quite as cynical & horror-like as its predecessor Narutaru, but it is still by no means a happy series. This is, quite simply, an anime where children die on a somewhat regular basis, and the world they live in has plenty of opportunities to make them wonder if it's even worth protecting. While there are numerous moments of lightheartedness & levity, it's nothing more than a way to keep the viewer from becoming loathing; this is a modern-day tragedy through & through. That being said, it's still an amazing series to watch, and even if it obviously diverges from Mohiro Kitoh's original manga at some point it still delivers the dark goods that you'd expect from the man's oeuvre. At the same time, however, I can see why it took so long to finally come over here. By the time the anime finished airing, Gonzo's popularity outside of Japan had waned heavily, and then you also take into consideration that mech anime has always been a niche-within-a-niche over here... Oh, and there's the whole tragic, children-dying aspect of the story; many are still amazed that Viz released the entire manga over here. Still, it's great that Discotek finally gave the Bokurano anime the release it missed out on, and I can only hope that more people will eventually check it out, because it's outstanding. Following that, I also recommend checking out Matchless Raijin-Oh as well, if only to see where Kitoh found his inspiration.

*checks Discotek off the list of anime companies left to review anime from*

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