What is the purpose of a story? That’s not a rhetorical question, even if it is a broad one. It doesn’t have a reliable single answer, but if you enjoy any story, it’s worth pondering what its purpose is. Everyone has a different reason why they appreciate art, and if I asked a hundred people that question, I’d get two hundred unique answers.
But I have my own answer to the question. A story’s one and only purpose is to provide an experience. This tale can evoke emotion, take me somewhere new, slide me into someone else’s perspective, but above all, it is an experience. I love stories that give me new experiences, but the longer I watch anime, TV, or movies, the rarer those instances become.
And while I love those experiences and storytelling as a whole, you might notice I didn’t say anything about a specific kind of experience I’m looking for. For me, the content of the experience is simply secondary to the process itself. I might want a story that makes me feel bubbly or nostalgic, or a real tearjerker, but both are of equal value. Stories have an inherent value in whatever emotion they create.
However, despite that, people naturally avoid that which makes them uncomfortable. Upbeat anime occupies the largest share of the industry’s lineup; even if the heroes get beaten down, they get back up and win. More than that, though, we avert our eyes to that which is unsettling. Not just fear or sadness, but true discomfort. There are questions we’d rather not be asked, and it’s human nature to reject those who do ask.
So today, I want to talk about Bokurano, my favorite anime that I don’t actually like. This isn’t a recommendation where I tell you that you need to watch Bokurano, because this series is not for everyone. Content warning, this one is genuinely hard to watch. If you can handle the subject matter, I believe that Bokurano is important enough to watch. It is an experience unlike any other, and if you think like me that’s what stories are all about, you owe it to yourself to try.
Fifteen children while away their carefree summer days at a nature camp, playing at the beach, when one girl discovers a cave. Their curiosity gets the better of them, and after exploring the cave, they discover a room full of computers, a strange altar, and a man who introduces himself as Kokopelli. He offers the children a chance to play a game where they take control of a robot to fight for the fate of the earth, and they eagerly accept.
In the first fight, Kokopelli demonstrates how to wield the robot, which they name Zearth, and defeats an alien invader. After doing so, the children are teleported away, and Kokopelli disappears. The next invader appears, and then the next, and the first few pilots selected take up the task enthusiastically. It isn’t until their third battle that they realize the truth; Zearth takes its power from the pilot’s own life, who will die at the end of their battle.
The contract they unwittingly signed with Kokopelli is explained by Koyemshi, a sadistic mascot who holds dominion over Zearth. The children are to engage in fifteen battles total, and if they lose, the earth is destroyed. If they refuse to fight, the earth is destroyed. If they take longer than 48 hours to finish a fight, the earth is destroyed.
The conclusion is foregone, and true to Koyemshi’s word, each pilot battles and loses their life, only for a new pilot to be selected. The series follows each pilot for one or two episodes, exploring their life before Zearth, the people they’ll leave behind, and what drives them to protect the earth. Without exception, they are heartbreaking.
I’m not going to dive into true spoilers, because what I’ve explained here is just the first couple of episodes. I have to explain that much because if I didn’t know about that hook, I wouldn’t have been able to watch it. This is a slow burn, but once it is ready, it’s hard to pull your eyes away. I will mention a few pilots and arcs, but this story is more than the sum of a handful of its storylines, and my words aren’t close to being able to ruin that.
I’m not going to lie to you; Bukurano is kind of an Evangelion rip-off. The children are forced to defend the planet from alien-like creatures at the expense of their lives and mental health, at the behest of a mysterious man whose eyes are hidden behind glasses doing the anime glasses thing.
Obviously it’s not a pure copy-paste job, but the manga came out in 2003, so there’s a good chance you could go into this thinking it’s just another mecha anime that came out a few years after Eva trying to ride that wave of depression all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt that Bokurano is one of the ugliest anime I’ve ever seen, despite airing more than a decade after Eva, so your first instinct might be to disregard it.
Even if it’s natural to compare the two, you’d be doing a disservice to them both. They share many themes, such as the unfair pressure we place on adolescents to sacrifice their youth and happiness for some imagined greater good. Ostensibly, any sacrifices made for the greater good should be done for these children, but time and time again, both the adults of Eva and Bokurano hide behind their most vulnerable.
Obviously, Eva has a smaller cast of main characters and explores their psyches, while Bokurano is a character study of more than a dozen. Some succumb to overwhelming pressure and depression, as Shinji often does, but this isn’t about one person’s journey with mental illness. Bokurano tries to look at how many different kinds of people react and for what reasons; more often than not, the pilots find something worth fighting for, even if they won’t live to see it.
Bokurano is kind of an Evangelion rip-off, but I’d say it’s more accurate to call it inspired by the definitive mecha series. Mohiro Kitoh probably didn’t think he would write a manga that was Eva-adjacent, but as a writer myself, I’m familiar with the feeling of seeing something really cool and thinking, “I want to write something like that.” Rather than pit the two stories against each other, it’s a lot more useful to compare how they approach similar subject matter in starkly different ways.
If it isn’t clear, Bokurano tackles some sensitive topics, and you’d be right to be nervous about any anime that addresses abuse, sexual assault, and every other phrase that makes advertisers panic. I touched on it in my review of Tokyo 24th Ward, referencing issues like class systems and policing, but anime just does not have a good track record of handling these topics tactfully when they demand to be done so. My expectations were low, so it was even more surprising that this anime from 2007 gets it right.
The best example comes early on when Chizuru is chosen to pilot, and we learn she was groomed and assaulted by her teacher. It’s a grounded and realistic depiction of these types of predatory relationships, and it was the first time I realized I should be giving Bokurano more credit.
Chizuru is discontented with her home life; she’s stuck between being a child and an adult, and her parents often dismiss her out of hand. Her concerns about her underwear being stolen off the clothesline are ignored because her parents don’t even see her as enough of an adult to be preyed upon. While Chizuru clearly still is a child, she’s in that bizarre phase where the two stages overlap, and she’s in a vulnerable state.
Her teacher almost immediately picks up on this angst and feeds her manufactured lines about how mature she is for her age. He offers her positive affirmation of her goals to go to a good high school and preys on her desire to be treated as an autonomous adult. This goes about as well as you would expect.
It’s nauseating even to write about, but it’s a convincing portrayal of an unfortunately common heinous act. Bokurano highlights the failures of adults to protect Chizuru, how these predatory relationships occur, and the damage they inflict on their victims. It doesn’t unnecessarily preach or overstay its welcome; the writers know this is horrific, and we know. While they explore the disastrous consequences this has for Chizuru, they never condescend to the audience.
And that goes for every pilot we meet. Each has a complex inner world and are grappling with issues far beyond their means and age. The story builds an environment where you understand that these children were put on a sacrificial altar long before they were chosen to pilot Zearth. The adults and the world they built failed these children in the first place, not a stupid mascot controlling a robot.
As for those failures, Bokurano is quick to attribute blame, and exceedingly unsubtle in doing so. One of our pilot’s mothers is a scientist researching Zearth and how it will affect the energy industry, only for that energy research to be weaponized against the earth by the invaders. Politicians deny reports that Zearth is piloted by children because while they’re willing to let children die for the sake of the world, they refuse to be seen doing so. The same energy company executives who hand a weapon to the enemy are willing to let cities burn for a profit.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to the way Japan treats children, overloading them with studies and standardized tests to prepare them for a grueling workforce that sacrifices their health for some fabled ideal of a harmonious society. Politicians and businesses are more than willing to cut children’s futures short just to maintain a status quo where they stay powerful and profitable.
In the end, Bokurano is fascinated with how people create systems that pit us against each other arbitrarily. We discard our children, grind them and their potential into dust for our own survival, and it’s all okay because we’re the ones who survived in the end. Bokurano goes so far to claim that the universe positions us like this, but it never allows us to forget that we’re complicit.
I could use more examples from the series to elaborate to that end, but I want to keep the last couple of twists unspoiled. This is supposed to make the case for watching Bokurano, so rest assured that half the experience is in watching what I described unfold for yourself.
Although I just told you I want you to watch Bokurano, it’s not pleasant, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It’s unsettling at best, and downright painful the rest of the time. However, those feelings, when created sincerely and tactfully, are just as important as any other.
So I can’t bring myself to love Bokurano; it’s too uncomfortable, and I can’t look at it and not feel as though we are all in some way responsible for this monster. Even so, I can acknowledge that it is masterfully written and deserves its place in the anime canon. I’m never going to rewatch it, put it in a top ten, or tell my friends “you gotta check this out,” but Bokurano has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
So if you have any anime in the same vein as Bokurano, and its title doesn’t include the worlds “Redo of Healer”, I’d be happy to check it out if you leave it in the comments below. If you want more introspective essays that probably leave you bummed out, be sure to like the post, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or follow me on Twitter @Exhibition, where I talk about all the anime I watch. Until next time, thanks for reading.