The same pattern occurred here as happened with Kitou Mohiro’s last manga, NaruTaru: I first encountered it as an anime, later picked up the manga, and ended up far, far more deeply emotionally invested in it than I had expected to be, and more deeply moved by what happens to these characters than those of almost any other manga, novel, book, play – any story in any media. As I said when I finished reading the penultimate volume, as someone who almost never cries, and never at all over fictional stories, I was astonished how often this manga took me close.
Just as with NaruTaru, Kitou starts a series with familiar clichés that the systematically get disassembled, examined and ultimately reimagined in the most harrowing and tragic ways that end up leaving very deep impressions. There, it was magical girl archetypes, while here it is that age-old fantasy of giant robots. If 20th Century Boys took the idea and showed audiences how it might look in reality, Bokurano examines the real psychological impact of giving that much power to emotionally unstable adolescents, exacerbated by a very real, immediate cost each has to pay.
And once again, while the anime skipped some of the most adult subject matter and ended prematurely, the manga is given freedom to really explore the ideas of death, self-sacrifice, revenge, family and the survival instinct. Sadly, while the anime’s ending gives some degree of relief, it rather betrays the principles established at the start, while the manga gets to take them to their conclusion, even if of course, each individual’s situation is unique.
Despite similarities in characters and circumstances, the dynamics are very different from those in NaruTaru. The sense of empowerment is completely different, and while no-one suffers or learns quite as much as Sheena, they better understand what is happening to them, which makes for a more reflective work with characters better able to embody ideals and, ultimately, a much tighter plot. I was probably even more emotionally invested in NaruTaru, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel a great deal for the characters of Bokurano, or very surprised at the pasts unfolded, the decisions made by these kids or the surprising way the series comes to an end.
A lot of licence has to be given in order to swallow the premise, the pseudo-science, the arbitrariness of appearance and facilities and the extremely reductive concept of infinite universes in infinite divisions of time, but really, to fixate on the mechanics is to miss the point – the emotional and philosophical place that the pilots find themselves in when they receive great responsibility and power at great personal cost.
The reason the manga is such a success is that it takes its concept very seriously and imagines how people face death and sacrifice, fear and love, while retaining the adrenal rush of mecha. Normally, giant robots don’t interest me, precisely because shows featuring them tend to come with shallow posturing and a total lack of real consequences, which is why Bokurano is so refreshing. If a show like Gurren Lagann will take the shallow aspects of a concept and make them ridiculously fun, a manga like Bokurano goes for depth, and produces exactly the opposite emotions. Sometimes, it is good to feel those, too, and tragedy has always been perceived as more worthy than comedy. Both have a valuable cultural place, but you can’t beat something genuinely powerful and moving, like this.