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by Nick Creamer,

Bokurano [Episodes 1-24 Streaming]

Fifteen kids have come together for a summer nature program, hanging out on the beach in between days of studying. With nothing to do, they decide to explore a nearby cave, and there they find a strange array of consoles and a man saying he's designing a game. The rules are simple - in this game, the earth will be attacked by fifteen strange monsters, and so each of the kids must take turns manning a giant robot to defend it. The kids agree to this contract out of boredom, and the man disappears with an apology. He has doomed them now, committed each of them to a horrible fate they cannot escape.

I'd been meaning to watch Bokurano for a while before it fortuitously popped up on Crunchyroll. The show falls in what I consider a “low-key classic” area of fan reputation - shows like Dennou Coil or Haibane Renmei, that have absolutely stellar reputations, but not the most visibility. It's about a decade old now, and not made by a particularly renowned studio, so it makes sense that the show's star would somewhat fade over time. But those who've seen it praise it highly, and now that I've finally seen it myself, I completely understand why.

The show's premise is pretty classic grim scifi contrivance. Fifteen random teenagers from a variety of schools have all come together for a summer program, where they run into a man who convinces them to try his “new game.” By placing their hand on a pedestal and saying their names, they agree to form a contract and defend the earth against invaders. Fifteen monsters will come, and so each of the kids will have to win a single battle for the earth to be saved. Of course, as soon as the first battle occurs, the kids realize the stakes are a little higher than they'd expect. The game they've signed on for is real, and it's very likely none of them will survive.

The show then proceeds as a series of individual battles that each shed light on that week's chosen combatant, as well as contribute to the ongoing story of the kids and government coming to terms with these dramatic clashes. Secrets are revealed, battles are fought, and the earth moves slowly towards destruction or salvation, carried on the backs of a dwindling number of brave, terrified children.

I'll start with the bad news: as a series of robot fights, Bokurano isn't that impressive. Part of this comes down to the general messiness of the show's visuals. The actual character designs are excellent, and the direction is strong, but the animation is a bit of a sticking point. The show can be visibly jerky in some of the traditionally animated scenes, and more importantly, all of the giant robot fights are done in very mediocre CG. Some of the fundamental designs of the robots are compelling, but they all look awkward in the context of the show, lumbering creatures that fail to convey either the horror or majesty that you might hope for from robot battles.

The actual ways these fights play out is a little more interesting, owing to the diversity of designs and pilots involved. Each of the many characters brings a different approach to their battles, and each of the enemies has their own trick. But in the end, Bokurano is not a show you should go to if you're specifically seeking awesome robot battles.

Fortunately, Bokurano is not at all about giant robot battles. Bokurano is about people, and at that, it excels.

The show's premise seems like it would lend itself to the kind of adolescent murder-fantasies that are pretty common in anime - but in Bokurano, the actual fight is against the kind of people who want to prove humans are inherently selfish. As the fights proceed, the kids' “guide” keeps throwing them against each other, trying to get them to break or sell each other out. But this character is not the voice of the show; he is the show's devil, and the stories told here do everything they can to prove him wrong.

On the side of the kids, Bokurano establishes a broad array of characters that through their stories reflect all the diversity of the human experience. The show proceeds as a series of small, poignantly written vignettes, as each pilot in turn reveals their passions and insecurities through the course of their days. Some of the kids are scared, some of them are determined, some of them are angry. All of them strive to find meaning in their lives and in their deaths, be that through protecting something, finishing something they have to do, or leaving something for their friends behind.

Bokurano's great magic is that it makes you care for every one of these characters. The opening song, where you get a tiny glimpse of each of their lives in turn, ends up becoming a monument to people you've come to truly feel for. Some of them act selfishly or desperately, but in ways you can understand - this boy has been too conditioned by the arrogance of his father to be compassionate, this girl doesn't understand her mother, and so attempts to lash out through self-destruction. Some of them have to work hard to find a reason to fight; others astonish you with their charity, or with the sad ways they're unable to see their own value. Bokurano's unvarnished dialogue, blunt depictions of adolescent drama, and willingness to engage with the internal lives of its characters makes its cast seem real enough to always be worth rooting for.

By throwing these characters into a horribly arbitrary situation and seeing what they do, the show's antagonists end up proving the opposite of their intended point. The world presented here is harsh and unfair, but these children and the people who love them bring it dignity and grace. It's show like this that best demonstrate the power and beauty of hope - candles in the darkness, stories that accept that the world is sometimes a cruel place, but refuse to believe that means we must be cruel as well.

And Bokurano is not just a series of disjointed character stories, either. The show is actually fantastic at interweaving its individual narratives with a larger central plot, as the kids first attempt to hide their secret, and then end up working with the government and various outside groups to try and unlock the secrets of their battles. The show succeeds as a page-turner even as it brings these characters to life, constantly raising new questions and revealing new threats or secrets. The government, military, commercial sector, scientific sector, and even the yakuza all end up having distinct stakes in Bokurano's battles, leading to a complex web of conflicts featuring a wide array of understandable motives and engaging adult characters. The show's dedication to characterization is reflected not just in the elaboration of its pilots, but also in the complexity of motivations driving the individuals in all these separate organizations.

But in the end, it all comes down to the brilliance of those pilots. The show's opening song speaks of a great being that came from beyond to laugh at our simple existence, at how small and insignificant we are. But through the stories of Bokurano's pilots, the show makes each of these characters profoundly significant, and offers a resounding argument for the value of every human being. All of its characters come to life over time, as their diverse narratives weave into one united cry of camaraderie, of collective trust. The show defeats its antagonists' argument in heartfelt tears.

In light of that, it's a little tricky to evaluate Bokurano. The robot battles aren't that compelling, and the visuals in general aren't much to speak of, but I find it hard to fault the show for those failings. They certainly exist, and the show certainly could use better animation, but it still succeeds admirably in its core goals. The true “fights” here are within the characters, and those fights are depicted with empathy and nuance throughout.

The music also does excellent work for the series, incidentally. The show has a diverse orchestral soundtrack highlighted by some individually chilling melodies, which give the show a strong aural personality. Some other tracks rely almost entirely on percussion, creating a strong sense of martial unease while building towards the next battle. And the highlight is definitely the opening song, a beautiful and haunting track that will stay stuck in your head for days.

Overall, while Bokurano is certainly an uneven work, I feel no hesitation in also labeling it a legitimately great one. This show represents the kind of story I feel anime does best - taking the deeply personal and expanding it on a grand stage, be that just through careful framing, or through a conceit like fighting for the fate of the earth. Bokurano is a story that will stay with me, and I couldn't ask for more from my media than that.

Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : C-
Art : B+
Music : B+

+ Offers a gripping and heartfelt collection of character-focused vignettes while also succeeding as a propulsive overall narrative. Character designs and music are strong.
The animation is bad both in the traditionally animated and CG segments, and the giant robot fights aren't generally that compelling for their own sake.

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Production Info:
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Hiroyuki Kawasaki
Daisuke Nishida
Keiichirō Ōchi
Natsue Yoguchi
Kazuma Fujimori
Takayuki Hirao
Erkin Kawabata
Takashi Kobayashi
Tetsuya Kobayashi
Takenori Mihara
Hiroyuki Morita
Hidetoshi Namura
Yoshimitsu Ohashi
Takashi Sano
Shinsaku Sasaki
Masahiro Sekino
Kazuyoshi Yaginuma
Eiji Yamanaka
Yuu Yamashita
Episode Director:
Shigeki Awai
Yasuhiro Geshi
Naoto Hashimoto
Shigeki Hatakeyama
Naotaka Hayashi
Erkin Kawabata
Katsuya Kikuchi
Takashi Kobayashi
Takenori Mihara
Kyōsuke Mikuriya
Hiroyuki Morita
Yuu Nobuta
Masahiro Okamura
Masahiro Sekino
Kazuyoshi Yaginuma
Unit Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Music: Yuuji Nomi
Original creator: Mohiro Kitoh
Character Design: Kenichi Konishi
Art Director: Shigemi Ikeda
Animation Director: Ryuji Tsuzuku
3D Director: Katsuhisa Oono
Sound Director: Jin Aketagawa
Director of Photography: Kenji Fujita
Osamu Nagai
Hideyuki Nanba
Licensed by: Discotek Media

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Bokurano (TV)

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