by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Concrete Revolutio: The Last Song (TV 2) ?
"The Never-Ending Battle" is one of the most anticipated episodes of Concrete Revolutio, as it was scripted by the now legendary Gen Urobuchi. Famous for Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass among others, Urobuchi is known for his strong authorial voice. Some people remember him for his high character death toll, his pattern of writing villains who lack empathy, or his protagonists who manage to embrace hope and keep fighting even when life is at its bleakest. For me though, the most compelling Urobuchi theme is his take on intentions vs. results.
Urobuchi's stories are full of heroes who do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. These characters tend to be moral centers in their worlds and fan favorites in our world for a reason. He has a gift for showing the flaws in very understandable human values in a way that's always sympathetic. This theme makes him a natural fit for Concrete Revolutio, as the show has been examining the flaws in conceptions of "justice" from its earliest episodes. Recently, it has also examined superheroes who do "villainous" things because of strong human connections, from Aki (the Angel Stars' black sheep) to Wakamura (the "Human-Man" who turned villainous out of love for his daughter). It's fertile ground for Urobuchi's playbook, and what better place to explore the complicated web of intentions and results than the Vietnam War?
To modern viewers, the Vietnam War (or "Mekong Delta War" as it's referred to in Concrete Revolutio) might seem like the "wrong action for the wrong reasons," but it's important to put it in the historical perspective of what American politicians and military leaders were thinking in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was fought largely to "contain" the spread of communism, an ideology supported by the U.S.'s greatest foreign adversaries at the time, as well as several dictators (like Stalin and Mao) responsible for unspeakable atrocities. Of course, from a post-Cold-War perspective, we can critique this tendency to blame and fear the ideology itself, as well as the false assumption that America's intentions were more benign than imperialist. This is what "The Never-Ending Battle" tries to do, and it arguably defies the usual Urobuchi pattern by not only showing the horror of the American government's actions, but also suggesting that their intentions were messed-up too.
Colonel Carolco goes to great lengths to explain his motivations to the Japanese characters, but the holes in his reasoning are clear right away. When their human experiments are compared to those of pre-war Japan, Carolco insists that their "great cause" is different, because they "fight for all humanity, surpassing national interests" and aren't "imperialistic" like Japan. This is ironic to modern viewers, since historians view the Vietnam War as the height of Cold-War imperialism. Even without that knowledge, Carolco's biases leak out more and more, showing the true colors of this mission. First, he expresses disdain for the cultures of America's "natives" and pride in how they were eradicated, though an extreme endorsement of the Manifest Destiny philosophy. We also learn that America is so unnatural that it "smells like nothing but humans," compared to the "jungles" of Japan that seem like the Mekong Delta to an American soldier. By the finale, he's also espousing disdain for the culture and people of Japan itself, making it clear that he thinks only America can lead the world to the new, glorious, superhuman future. It's impressive how slowly this builds in a way that feels believable, as the narrative develops naturally and we absorb the full scope of the conflict.
The U.S. military's human experimentation is nothing we haven't seen committed against superhumans before on Concrete Revolutio, as has been the subject of previous episodes, but "The Never-Ending War" gives us a more human connection in the form of Master-Sergeant Jonathan Morrell, a shellshocked soldier who fought in Vietnam and a victim of the superhuman experiments. Jonathan signed up for the Jungle Operation Enforcers (J.O.E.) program to become a superhuman and fight in the war. He was told that "superhumans are a new possibility, a guide that takes humanity to a brighter future." Echoing Colonel Carolco's words, it was the story that got him to volunteer, but Jonathan saw it fall apart firsthand when he fought in Vietnam: "The people of that country didn't want our freedom. They preferred the darkness of their forest. They hid in the jungle with the monstrosities and attacked us." While this reads as demeaning to Vietnamese people, it seems intended to rebuke the common American response to aggression of "they hate us for our freedoms." Americans as far back as the Vietnam War believed in a version of this assumption, that they were fighting to liberate the Vietnamese from a tyrannical government. Instead, they learned that people around the world have different ideas of "freedom"—and for many, the main component of that is freedom to decide what kind of society they want without the interference of outside powers.
Unfortunately, Jonathan also learns just how much his country doesn't value his own "freedom." The J.O.E. project is so potentially disastrous for the U.S. military that they can't let anyone go home after being subject to it, imprisoning them forever or killing them. Jonathan's desertion is a desperate attempt to escape this fate, which is where our main characters come into the picture, as Jiro and Raito protect him with the goal of helping him find his way back home. Raito insists that this is pointless, as Jonathan was built for war and can't be useful in any other kind of life. Jiro insists this is wrong; Jonathan is a superhuman who believes in justice, and he deserves the right to find this path for himself.
Raito ends up being right in that Jonathan is too damaged by his PTSD from the war to ever return to a normal life. He keeps having vivid visions of the horrors he experienced in Vietnam, and while he insists that going back to America would make these less potent (given the industrialization of America that smells "only of humans"), the audience isn't convinced. Eventually, his triggers so completely overtake him that he goes mad, killing tourists for wearing shrine tokens that remind him of the Buddhist statues he saw in Vietnam. He shifts into a superhuman form by plundering arms from other J.O.E.s and goes on a rampage, insisting on a philosophy of endless war to destroy the world that has destroyed him.
In the battle, Jonathan is killed, seemingly proving Raito right. The U.S. military hires Imperial Ads to come up with a plausible denial for what happened in their fight with Jiro, Raito, and the Superhuman Bureau (showing once again that they're not so different from the institutions they despise). However, Jiro insists that it was still the right idea to help out Jonathan, even if they failed. In the end, Concrete Revolutio reaffirms the belief in hope and the human spirit even in the midst of tragedy that knits together Gen Urobuchi's works.
"The Never-Ending War" also includes a brief (as in "blink and you'll miss it") bit of character development for Emi. We learn a bit about what her larger goal is when she responds to Kikko's question about why she volunteered for this mission. She says it's to "keep Jiro safe from the U.S. military" by pretending to be their allies. Emi also mentions something about defeating a "real enemy" that isn't clarified, but hopefully will be in future episodes. It's good to have a better clue about her goals, but it would also be nice to see the two main female characters get motivations that aren't so centered around being in love with Jiro.
Concrete Revolutio continues a string of promising, thoughtful episodes by finally exploring the big elephant in its late 1960s-early 1970s room: the Vietnam War. "The Never-Ending War" is a fascinating exploration of the motivations behind this war and the costs it had for all sides, in the special fashion of one of anime's strongest authorial voices.
Concrete Revolutio is currently streaming on Funimation.
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