Anime with inspirational humanitarian messages are exceedingly hard to come by. Most attempts get bogged down in contrivances, never moving beyond manipulative, hackneyed tragedies to stir viewers into some kind of reaction. This is why, when a show like Now and Then, Here and There comes along, I can't help but pinch myself.
Although NTHT's mild sci-fi universe removes it from any direct association with historical wars, its powerful themes of child soldiers, rape, and state terrorism should be familiar to anyone who switches on the news once in a while. Moreover, regardless of life experience or education, nobody will struggle to 'get it' - NTHT hammers home the message with such brutal simplicity that it's accessible even to a child. In fact, I suspect that this is precisely the point.
The show is in part about a mad ruler, Hamdo, and the way his madness comes rolling down the proverbial hill to swamp the nation in senseless war. While imperialism is a universal tragedy, and one that's plagued humanity since the birth of nations, NTHT's twist is to put a brave face on this old and common theme. That face happens to be the adolescent protagonist Shu, who pulls the plug on Hamdo's bloodbath by influencing everyone with his relentless sense of justice. Much friction in the plot centres on him trying to cope with people's defeatist perspectives on war and changing them. If Takahata's seminal Grave of the Fireflies is a non-judgemental look at the loss of innocence, NTHT actively invites its audience to take a stance on the rights and wrongs of that loss.
Shu's brand of pacifism won't convince everyone, of course, but the show would hardly be masterful if it promised bland, easy-to-swallow solutions. More importantly, while the series takes a pacifist stance on the question of violence, it still leaves enough room for others to form their own conclusions.
Don't judge an anime by its screenshots. I say this because I'm sure some can't help raising an eyebrow at the lacklustre character designs and generic backgrounds. Indeed, while a flashier concept design wouldn't have hurt, neither does NTHT need it. The animation is simply superfluous to its message; it looks decent enough to avoid petty distractions (motion is satin-smooth, for example), but it shies away from frazzling retinas with pointless special effects.
In a similar minimalist vein to the animation, the soundtrack holds back most of the time. The opening theme is a pleasant enough instrumental, but the ending theme is so infinitely slow that I've never bothered to sit through it.
A theory in Social Psychology asserts that minorities can influence a majority population, but to do this they must be consistent - their message has to be unwavering. Shuzo Matsutani, the plucky protagonist, is the theory put into practice. After suffering a comical defeat at kendo training, his opponent says to him that he can't win just by charging in blindly. Shu's puzzled response is, 'I can't? Really?' Indeed, he's a witless champ (sometimes a woeful chump) but a fully determined one. This is also the reason why he's the only hero that could succeed in NTHT's defeatist context; while everyone around him splashes helplessly in the tide of anarchy, he remains a moral anchor, always doing the right thing and never giving in to despair. By no means does his staunch goodness make him passive or uninteresting - in fact, his behaviour raises controversial questions all of its own. For example, is a shout of 'daijoubu' the right response to every complex tragedy? Shu believes it is; the audience can make up its own mind.
He's not the only character to stir viewers into emotional and intellectual conflict. Lady Abelia, while a brave, capable second-in-command to Hamdo, also gives orders for torture, rape and kidnapping of children. Nabuca, a conscientious leader in Hamdo's army is also a willing tool of oppression for his own selfish ends. Many of the characters are a mixture of victim and villain, each giving the general impression that, had the circumstances been kinder, they could have been positive people like Shu.
If you're looking for a provocative experience, switch off Gundam Wing or Code Geass or whatever confused, pseudo-political fluff you're watching. Instead, try this straight-talking anime with an invigorating perspective on the horrors of war. Carving a bold pacifist path through the jungle of moral what-ifs, NTHT is a tale of human endurance the likes of which hasn't graced our world since Grave of the Fireflies.
Amidst a beautiful sunset, Shu is violently whisked away to a grim future devoid of water, and empty of hope; a place where children are forced to become soldiers, and kill countless others in the name of King Hamdo. Shu's companion is a mysterious girl named La La Ru, who may hold the key to survival. Now, he must concentrate on the only things that matter: escaping Hellywood, and finding a way home.
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