“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.
Despite the success of shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Archer, in the US animation is a medium still usually associated with children’s programming. There may be plenty thrown into Pixar’s Up for the grown-ups, but if asked most American moviegoers would still classify it as a “kids’ movie.” In much of the rest of the world, however, animation has become a familiar form for even the most serious drama. Now and Then, Here and There (NTHT), directed by Akitaro Daichi and written by Hideyuki Kurata, is an outstanding example of how animation can be used to tell truly grown-up, brutal, and heart wrenching stories. The series began airing in Japan in October of 1999, and is heavily influenced by reports Daichi was reading about the Rwandan Civil War (1990 – 1994) and the growing use of child soldiers there and in other African nations.
NTHT tells the story of Shu, a ‘tween boy who on his way home from kendo practice one afternoon, climbs an abandoned smokestack, only to see a strange girl about his own age sitting on a nearby stack. He learns her name is Lala Ru, but suddenly they are attacked, and Shu is pulled into a different world. So far, the plot is not much different from a variety of anime’s, but once Shu arrives in the new world, he is imprisoned, interrogated, beaten into swollen unconsciousness, and thrown into a steel cell. He has landed in Hellywood, a disabled war machine on a dying world ruled by a madman with the help of a ruthlessly efficient second-in-command, Lady Abelia. Here, children are stolen from their villages, indoctrinated and violently trained to be solders that, in turn, raid villages to kidnap more future soldiers, as well as girls and women to be passed around by the soldiers to breed more soldiers. It is a horrific, very uncompromising look at the lives and realities of children who find themselves in a world of lawlessness, war, and strongmen.
I only watched NTHT recently, and in a way it serves as a useful antidote to the slew of “young adult” features currently being produced in which plucky teens overcome tyrannical regimes in post-apocalyptic worlds where things are just a little too neat, the edges are not truly sharp, the evil rulers really not all that effective. NTHT is a YA tale where the plucky young teens and ‘tweens find themselves in a much more realistic totalitarian state, where boys are brutalized into becoming callous killers, and girls are raped and turned into sex slaves for the older soldiers. It is not until episode 9, that the viewer sees an adult who is actually kind, and who doesn’t represent a threat to the child heroes. Throughout, Shu remains an incredibly stubborn voice for hope, and is always optimistic that, no matter how bad things may get, good things are just around the corner. This is standard stuff, of course, but as the 13 episodes march on with unrelenting cruelty and loss confronting the children at every turn, at some point the viewer is forced to question the validity of this comforting narrative trope. The series itself winds up on an ambivalent note, albeit closer to a “happy” ending that one might expect.
The look into the world of child soldiers and broken nations that NTHT gives is unflinching and very, very disturbing. It is also, sadly, realistic. Its animated format allows the series to go places where directors would be hesitant to go with live child actors, and despite the cartoony aspects of some of the characters, the medium allows Daichi and Kurata to dispense with the usual niceties and get down to the literally cruel truth. Like Grave of the Fireflies, to which it is often compared, Now and Then, Here and There is not an anime series that you will want to rewatch too often – it is too grim for that. Yet that very grimness arises from the truths about ourselves that the series so painfully manages to convey. The medium is something of a Trojan Horse that takes us from a seemingly predictable escapist, science fantasy adventure, to the heart of darkness, and there are children there who know nothing else. This is a brutal, beautiful, and brilliant piece of art that continues to resonate, and will likely do so going forwards, unless we can become worthy of Shu’s optimism, and remake the world. Until that time, Now and Then, Here and There will remain a part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.