Reviewby Carlo Santos,
After a mysterious encounter, fifteen children have been chosen to defend humanity by commanding a giant robot named Zearth against alien invaders. But their quest comes with a price: each child only pilots Zearth once, and dies shortly after completing the mission. Now only three children remain, and two of them are related: Jun Ushiro and his ten-year-old sister, Kana. Jun is feeling uneasy after learning that he and Kana are not related by blood—and his mood only gets worse when he finds out that Kana will be the next pilot, despite his impression that she would not be pulled into the fight. Jun and Kana's father, meanwhile, wants to set things right before he loses his two children, and so he seeks out Jun's biological mother. But will they have enough time to face the truth—and their feelings—before Zearth comes calling?
As Bokurano hurtles toward an inevitable, apocalyptic finish, it hits a strangely disappointing bump in Volume 9. Kana's story arc contains none of the media frenzy or high-stakes geopolitics that defined the last two volumes; instead, it goes back to basics and tries to tell another poignant family story ... only this time less effectively. Part of the problem is that Kana doesn't even play the starring role, despite being the doomed pilot: instead, it's the Ushiro family as a whole that takes center stage, drawing attention to their fractured relationships and away from the world-threatening giant robot crisis.
Normally, this would be a wise tactic for the genre—taking time to explore the characters' human side so that the story doesn't get lost in technical details and endless talk of saving the world. But the Ushiro family's tale of struggle goes the wrong way about it, dealing out one soap-opera cliché after another: the son who never knew he was adopted, the mother who'd been hiding in plain sight this whole time, the saintly youngest daughter who only wishes everyone would do the right thing. The plot also moves at such a slow pace, with so few surprises, that readers might soon find themselves wishing for Kana to just get in the robot and fight to her tragic death already. It's a cruel thing to say, but it'd do more to move the story forward than another gloomy conversation about the fragile nature of family.
However, even epic sci-fi showdowns don't always lead to satisfying results. Kana's battle has its shock-and-awe moments, and features a couple of clever tactical maneuvers (carrying an entire fighter jet aboard a giant robot is pretty bold), but the overall skirmish is disappointingly short. Meanwhile, the drama that was set up in previous chapters finally hits some key turning points. Jun finds out who his real mother is at the worst possible moment, and emerges from Kana's battle with a stronger resolve after seeing so many tragic losses before his eyes. So perhaps this story arc is really more about Jun's transformation from an ill-tempered older brother to a steely-eyed hero. In that respect, maybe Kana's story does accomplish something meaningful—but it still takes a wearisome path and uses poor storytelling technique to get there.
The art of Bokurano is another reason why such an ambitious series can feel so ordinary. The lack of shading, uniformly thin lines, and near-expressionless characters drive some scenes right into the ground. This is most evident in the early chapters, where conversations that should be emotionally intense are rendered as a monotonous sequence of talking heads, Worse yet, the page layouts are about as creative as a suit-and-tie business presentation, with panel after rectangular panel boxing the characters into conventional poses. It's not until the unearthly battle between Zearth and its opponent that the series truly shows what the artwork is capable of: monstrous robots barging into each other, far-future machines operating at incredible power and speed, and grand, mountainous backgrounds playing host to the action. (Most of the civilian, on-the-ground segments barely even get backgrounds, unless it's to establish a slice-of-life atmosphere.) It's also during this battle—and in the aftermath—that Mohiro Kitoh finally remembers to use dramatic, eye-catching angles to spice up the visuals.
Wishy-washy dialogue between characters is another reason this volume feels so lackluster. Mumbling conversations and vaguely sad statements about the meaning of life might reflect how people genuinely feel—but such meandering words do little to serve the story. Sometimes the dialogue is so vague that readers have to play the dreaded game of "Guess who said which line," because the characters' viewpoints and personalities are too bland to pick out. Granted, there are moments of brilliance, like when Jun's mother goes through an internal monologue about the privileges of youth. But in the end, this is a script that fares better when it use fewer words—or none at all, as proven by a silent yet heartbreaking scene where Jun witnesses another person's grief. The English translation is blemish-free, but lacks any real spark (which is somewhat the fault of the weak storytelling anyway). Sound effects during the battle scenes are also edited from Japanese into English, but with no adverse impact on the visuals.
To see how Bokurano does family drama right, one would have to backtrack to the story of Daiichi Yamura and his three younger siblings, whom he earnestly tried to care for before his death. By comparison, the Ushiro family saga tries too hard to be fancy, with trite plot elements (will the son find his long-lost mother?!), drag-out conversations that never go anywhere, and a lot of forced emotion. And because this sprawling storyline takes up so much space, the supposed main character never gets a chance to be the star of her own giant robot battle. Terrifying alien sights and the powerful sting of death make their way into this story arc eventually, but it doesn't make up for an otherwise mediocre outing. Saving the world and making peace with one's family ought to be emotionally moving experiences—but this volume rarely shows it.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Monster-machines at war, heartbreaking silences, and a boy's journey from angry brat to stoic young man are some of the highlights.
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