Bokurano is almost a new kind of mecha show, considering it deliberately skimps on action in favour of personal drama. Although physical fights abound, their lack of pomp precludes titillation; giant robots exist but they are cumbersome and finish each other off quickly. Rather, essential conflicts occur in the everyday lives of the children piloting the robot Zearth, throwing up questions of societal failings and human insignificance. As such, I urge thrill-seekers to pass this one by while more traditional science fiction fans should draw closer.
Likening the show's premise to children making 'a pact with the devil' ignores the fact that the devil could never match the original manga creator Mohiro Kitoh (Shadow Star) in pure sadistic creativity. Forget dodgy deals with Satan; just being born one of Kitoh's characters guarantees a short existence replete with biblical punishments. Bokurano's 'game' binds the heroes in airtight rules that make the notion of escape nothing more than a pipedream. Worse, the children discover these conditions mostly through trial and error, each revelation rendering the situation more abject than before. Like agreeing to a game of russian roulette only to realise just as you're about to pull the trigger that there are six bullets in the chamber instead of one. Numerous ironies also sprinkle the plot like salt on a gaping wound. The heroes' pilot seats, for instance, look like their favourite childhood chairs, which seems a mocking reminder of the innocent lives they will never have again.
Few can deny how much Bokurano recalls Neon Genesis Evangelion. The two have no substantial link (although Kitoh interestingly designed one of the Angels for Evangelion 2.0: You Can [Not] Advance) and I make no assertions that Bokurano is influenced more strongly (or at all) by NGE than any other mecha show. Rather, I simply point to their shared interest in the protagonists' identity crises and resulting psychological deconstruction. Like Shinji Ikari a decade before them, the children in Bokurano suffer familial unrest, usually because of strained relationships with their parents. Every episode or two recounts one child's search for a sense of purpose, contextualising their dysfunctional behaviour and seamlessly relating it to the universal struggle. Luckily, we find among them more determined Asukas than unresolved Shinjis and fortuitously no trace of the blank slate Rei.
A more fundamental difference is that while NGE entertains using spectacular battles, Bokurano would much rather prick the senses with unnerving visual and aural cues. The mecha do not arrive in ceremonial launching sequences but beam into the city without anyone noticing. A citizen will sit in a park watching life go by or drive to work one morning when, the next time they look up, an armoured behemoth is silently blocking their view. Zearth is an ominous black mass that comes accompanied by a chug-a-chug noise as though inside it were a giant ticking clock. Its signature move is looming. It stands above the cityscape like a shade, a totem pole of misery, a demonic form dreamt up from a futuristic version of hell. Perhaps the most affecting scenes include those where combatants throw the enemy robot to the ground and win by ripping out something that looks disturbingly like a still-thrumming heart.
Bokurano offers a challenging fusion of nihilism and hope and it does so by doing things that other recent mecha shows simply lack the audacity to do. Hopefully, that comes as good news not just to me.
In design, the show wins no awards and deserves none. With muted colours and bland character designs, Bokurano looks a competent if unambitious Gonzo product. Moreover, if an untrained audience can say 'this part is CGI' then the CGI fails. During battles, glossy robots lumber towards each other and bash each other in undignified fisticuffs, crushing beneath them cities carved seemingly out of glass. It brings to mind Gigantic Formula, a comparatively unworthy 2007 mecha series that also mistakes drifting block models for animation.
Comensating for disappointing visuals, the show delivers one of the greatest opening themes I have heard. Ever. With a haunting but catchy sound and rich pop vocals from Chiaki Ishikawa (also 'Prototype' for Gundam 00 Second Season), 'Uninstall' fires the imagination for ninety seconds before the episode has even started. I have not stopped listening to it regularly since that summer. The two ending themes also warrant some extra attention, although the in-episode score succeeds mainly in enhancing the dark atmosphere rather than standing out in its own right.
When not battling alien invaders, the fifteen main child characters suffer realistic if unusual problems. I mean that they grapple with suicidal parents and terminally ill friends, not necessarily what to wear to the school disco. The mecha game relates to their troubles either as an interruption, an oblivion in which to drown their traumas, or even a tragic convenience. They repeatedly ask themselves why they should be the ones to give up their lives to save the earth. Is it fate? Is it a trial? Is it punishment? The cruellest answer is the truth: they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They are not chosen ones. Society at large has no idea they even exist and the minds behind the game are indifferent to whether they win or not.
Mecha shows generally cast teenage heroes purely as empty vehicles for vicarious enjoyment. After all, a largely teenage audience will relate better to an inoffensive teenage protagonist. Bokurano's main cast, however, feels more intricately crafted. Take Masaru Kodaka, who shows a premature Darwinian view of life by shooting at cats and admiring cruelty as strength. For him, the only certainty in the universe is that his father, a cut-throat businessman, is untouchable and therefore he is too. Perhaps this is why the show enjoys breaking him down at the start. Masaru, as the most self-assured and most comfortable with killing, fully underestimates his vulnerability. Others have more time to develop their attitudes, resulting in each becoming an odd mix of child and adult - they frame their concerns like children, but they resolve themselves like adults. Most poignantly, despite having no choice but to fight, each one finds his or her own reason to do so.
I'll also briefly mention Dung Beetle, a rat-like mascot who is supposed to guide the children through the game. His beady black eyes and violent slash of a grin, however, instil no confidence whatsoever. In him lurks a current of malevolence that bleeds through during his shrill outbursts of glee at precisely the most awful moments. His behaviour is a combination of detached, bored disdain and morbid gags that seem too forced to be completely genuine. But he too has a story.
Bokurano revives in the mecha genre a higher calling than just empty thrills. It has superficial attractions for fans of dark, cynical plots - sadistic punishment of children, for one - but they are merely the icing. As a show concerned with the value of humanity in such an infinite universe, Bokurano toys with children's lives in a ruthless bid to lay bare their souls.
When a group of children discover a strange cave at the beach, their lives are forever changed. Inside they find a hide out filled with computers and a man named Kokopelli who gives them a curious offer: to participate in a special game in which they save Earth from fifteen giant monsters. To defeat the invaders, he will give them a powerful mecha of black armor. The children eagerly sign the contract, name their new weapon Zearth, and must now take turns to pilot it; but the 'game' is in fact all too real and the consequences of battle become the stuff of nightmares. With no option to cancel the contract, is there any way to stop the game before it is too late for all of them?
I'll review anything as long as there are words in the dictionary to describe it. Disagree with me? Want to leave feedback? Please do, but take a look at my personal rating scale first.