Missing: My Moral Compass (Bokurano took it away; I suspect the Dung-Beetle)

Bokurano v02  cover1

I read all of Bokurano in under 18 hours on and off. This is a superlative kind of pain. I realize that I sometimes consume media precisely for this kind of experience. I like how fiction can hurt me this way, and Bokurano hurts.

One way to describe the narrative is cruel, in a crafted work this could mean an ability or directive to show the audience a truth that they may not want to see. In the case of Bokurano it is the cruel idea that even our best selves ultimately choose terrible things; even in service of the ‘good’ which ultimately means survival as an end.

bokurano c64 04-05

I am ghostlightning, perpetual wide-eyed child who loves giant robots (indulge me). I am 14 years old, the age when mecha pilots begin their journey to save the world. A mysterious stranger invites me to play a game where I get to pilot a 500 meter tall robot to fight an alien robot just as massive, attacking the Earth. A bunch of other kids are also invited.

I accept.

What’s the catch? I wasn’t told of one. I find out much later, way too late. Here’s the catch:

If I lose my fight, the Earth gets destroyed and everyone dies.

After I win, I die.

The first betrayal is the non-disclosure of the cost of playing. However, I weigh this against being a passive spectator for the fight that determines the survival of humanity. It’s still an easy choice. I don’t relate to it as a dilemma. A dilemma is a choice between two equally right options. I contextualize the choice as a “take responsibility vs. avoid responsibility” consideration.

bokurano c64 06-07

But there’s another catch:

I am fighting other players. These players are also people like me, who are in exactly the same circumstances. To win, I must kill the pilot.

And what of the consequence of winning?

The planet of the enemy pilot is destroyed. All it’s people, all it’s living things, all of it.

bokurano c64 08-09

Can I have my dilemma now?

Technically, it may be a wrong vs. wrong consideration. However, what we value is our existence. It is a biological imperative to survive, and it is not for me — after accepting the responsibility of fighting for humanity, to lose on purpose just because I deem it reprehensible to extinguish another planet and all its life.

So what is “good” here? I don’t have that much time to think. The alien robot will arrive soon, and I have a little time to do the most important things in my life. Are there people I have wronged? Have I done terrible things that I have failed to acknowledge? Do I have promises that I have an opportunity to keep in my final moments? Is there someone who needs to hear “I’m sorry?” or, “I love you?”

Or, if I were to indulge in fulfilling these things, is my remaining time better spent training or preparing to win my upcoming fight? Should I be spending time learning how to kill, so I don’t fail to do so, when the time comes?

How do I do right by everyone involved? How do I honor myself?

The children of Bokurano get to confront these questions. I witnessed different answers. I don’t really know which ones are the right ones. Perhaps there aren’t any. This sounds like a cop-out, and maybe it is. Bokurano is showing me how cruel my own cowardice can be, in avoiding to give my answer.

Bokurano v01 p056

But I do have an answer. I’ll give it when I’m chosen to pilot the giant robot. That’s my condition and my promise. You’ll just have to forgive my reticence for now. Instead I invite you to read Bokurano, and answer these questions for yourself. I think these will be far more interesting to you than anything I say here.

Further Reading

My interpretation of cruelty here is wholly influenced by gaguri in his post on cruel anime (gaguri 2008/12/10)

Rossiu of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was also beset with a compelling dilemma. Kinon educates me on it [->]

lolikappa crafted this last love song for Bokurano, and Mohiro Kitoh’s other completed manga Narutaru (lolikappa 2009/07/08)

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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28 Responses to Missing: My Moral Compass (Bokurano took it away; I suspect the Dung-Beetle)

  1. 2DT says:

    “I am ghostlightning, perpetual wide-eyed child who loves giant robots (indulge me).”

    This rang as incredibly true to me. Everything else follows.

    It’s hard to imagine Bokurano as a love letter to giant robots, but I think it is: A big, messy, dysfunctional love letter, which like real letters is only one artifact in a much larger universe of feelings.

    I’m not sure I’m making any sense. But I stopped reading Bokurano at some point, and now I think I’ll pick it up again.

    • ghostlightning says:

      You make a lot of sense. The love for giant robots is obvious from the first chapter. There’s a lot of love I feel for Evangelion as well, even if only for the series of singular enemies that almost always pose a new and novel way of fighting.

      Go ahead and pick it up again. I didn’t look for it to edify, or ennoble itself or create such feelings for me, but somehow through the cruelty I felt some of those feelings.

      Though maybe it’s part of how I lost my moral compass in reading it… that I had enjoyed the cruel fates of the characters and their struggles to overcome.

  2. Panther says:

    The anime diverged from the manga at episode 10, but the anime itself was already pretty painful. Maybe I should pick up the manga and get to know the “true” ending of Bokurano.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I really can’t speak about the apparent controversy regarding the different endings. I have had the anime on hand for over a year, and ultimately I read the manga maybe because it was the source text.

      Part of what I’m afraid that the anime won’t do is the nudity. The censors may get the better of things. The manga has terribly disturbing nudity that for me — threatens to undermine you by titillating you while confronting how wrong everything feels.

      It’s a terrible, terrible feeling.

  3. omisyth says:

    Good. Now watch anime. It’s the last good thing Gonzo made before… *sigh* Dragonaut.

    What really made it painful for me was the inescapibility of it all. I almost wish I hadn’t gotten attached to any of the characters ;_;

    • ghostlightning says:

      Am I watching for Gonzo’s sake? If so, pass. I’ve never had any real attachment to studios and even creators, even though I can say I’m a casual fan of theirs (GAINAX, Kawamori, Tomino, etc.).

      But fuck man, there’s a reason why I chose the volume two cover to be the lead-in image for this post. T_T

      • There’s a good reason I never watched the anime. The director publicly admitted that he actually hated the manga and the manga-ka’s work altogether, and then admitted he would purposefully try to make the anime different.


        • ghostlightning says:

          I don’t mind the idea of changing things to suit one’s own personal vision. The anime would just have to be appreciated differently. Less an adaptation, more like a re-imagining. It’s just that I’m less inclined to watch terribly depressing things as much as I enjoy reading them.

  4. gaguri says:

    *sobs* people actually remember what I wrote months ago. That’s like the greatest achievement one can hope from a post right? ;__;

    IIRC, a reviewer from Nihonreview once said he must be a sadist for being so ‘fascinated’ from watching children being plundged into such harsh reality. I’m thinking perhaps sadism is not the right term, perhaps masochism. I actually have a draft written from months ago on Bokurano and masochism and cruelty, but I’m not confident enough to write a post on it because I haven’t got my head around yet to this concept Deleuze’s concept…(maybe I should ask animekritik for help…).

    As for anime version of Bokurano, I recommend it but I don’t think it’s as essential if you’ve already read the manga. Definitely a great anime though. Instead I recommend ‘Now and then here and there’. That’s about the cruelest things you will see happen to children, in anime or live action. IIRC, lelangir loved it too, made into one of his fav titles I think.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Give yourself a little credit man. It’s a good post, and has been on my mind doing this masochism streak: http://ghostlightning.tumblr.com/post/162197789

      I don’t even attempt to address the concept of masochism, catharsis, etc. So all the luck to you in crafting your post on Bokurano. It is something that I’m very interested in, but had no confidence in taking on.

      I had seen a few episodes of Now and Then, Here and There on TV way back when. I’ll keep it in mind, though as I’ve said to omisyth above, I’m less inclined to watch cruel shows than I am inclined to enjoy reading them.

      This could be just as superficial as to why I don’t like reading robot manga, but I love watching robot anime. I don’t really know, but this is consistent behavior for me.

  5. 0rion says:

    While I haven’t read or watched Bokurano, your description of the moral dilemma sounds a lot like a microcosmic view of the classic soldier’s dilemma and the ethics of war. It has all the same characteristics – getting involved without full consent or prior full disclosure, fighting for morally ambiguous reasons with a lot of lose-lose scenarios, and trying to determine the best way to live in a situation where you have a high chance of dying at any time.

    I wonder if that’s what the author of the story wanted the reader to engage with.

    • ghostlightning says:

      This makes a lot of sense, up to a point. You’ll find this explored as a sub-theme in the manga when the military does get involved. If you can see things this way, the story may have a lot to offer for you. I dare say you will get a lot out of it.

  6. drmchsr0 says:

    There’s only one way out of this dilemma: Don’t join. Unless your refusal results in Darth Vader showing up with the Death Star primed and ready for some planet-destruction fun.

    This is why sometimes, having a lawyer friend on speed-dial is a GOOD thing.

    If you were asking my former self, I would have taken part, only to lose on purpose in the first round, taking out the Earth with it.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Hmmm, as I mentioned: “I weigh this against being a passive spectator for the fight that determines the survival of humanity. It’s still an easy choice.”

      A dilemma is a right vs. right problem. To not participate is morally suspect, that is to avoid responsibility for everything, including my own future.

      Your former self’s choice, in conjunction with this present self’s choice, would frame a wrong vs. wrong scenario. This too is a threat during the course of the narrative.

      • drmchsr0 says:

        I cannot stain my hands with the blood of others. Not even if it means survival.

        The insane option would be to join, but proceed to co-operate with the other guy to destroy the entire tournament so that NO ONE ELSE would be subject to such torment, but I think that would be impossible. Simply because the tournament would probably be IMMORTAL.

  7. Turambar says:

    Painful. Morally ambiguous. My favorite word to describe Bokurano however is still selfish. But don’t take that automatically as negative dismissal. Rather, the thought that comes to mind is “How can the pilot not be?”

    • ghostlightning says:

      It isn’t just the pilot, but rather it is a distinction being made for humanity in general. Perhaps, a re-calibration of morals is suggested – that the “True North” of selflessness, self sacrifice, as such is not necessarily the case.

  8. Great show. Hard to watch, but a great show nonetheless. Of course by show I mean the anime, as I haven’t read the manga. I actually put the series on hold half way through because I simply wasn’t in the mood for something so dark and cruel. Picking it back up later, I probably wasn’t in the mood either. I had just wanted to see how it would all go down.

    gaguri mentions Now and Then, Here and There, which I’ve been wanting to pick up for some time now. Once again, I keep putting it off because… well, will I ever really be in the mood to watch something so cruel? More like one day I’ll finally force it to the front of my to-watch-list, just to finally see what all the praise is about.

    As for “what would I do in that situation,” I think it’s pretty easy. I die whether I win or lose, so that’s not really much of a debate. The only real affect that has is, knowing my death is upon me, it would probably reek havoc on my concentration. The main dilemma is our Earth versus theirs. For me, that’s an easy choice, but I can see how other people would get caught up there.

    Our world may not be perfect, but it deserves a chance to live on. So does theirs, of course. But in an Us versus Them situation, I fight for Us. No internal debate needed.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I think the choice is an easy one, very easy if it comes down to it. It is only upon reflection that makes it morally suspect. I think very few people will choose willingly out of genuine moral concern to preserve the others instead of who they represent.

  9. adaywithoutme says:

    Have you ever read or watched Shadow Star Narutaru? It is by the same manga-ka, and it is similar in its deceptive initial presentation – in Narutaru’s case, young girl gets somewhat cute, apparently magical creature! How sweet! And then it stabs someone! Wait, what? If you enjoyed Bokurano you’d probably like Narutaru, which I have to say, in all honesty, has some sequences which I actually found to be even more discomfiting than Bokurano, shockingly enough.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Narutaru is exactly the next manga I’ll be reading. I’ve gone on this streak of ‘cruel and painful’ works that began with Onani Master Kurosawa: completed…

      2. Honey and Clover (both seasons rewatched; completed)
      3. Bokurano (manga; completed)
      4. Welcome to the NHK (novel; completed)
      5. Solanin (manga; completed)
      6. Nijigahara Holograph (manga; completed, did not enjoy)
      7. Pluto (completed)

      I will read Narutaru next. I want MOAR PAIN.

  10. Deckard says:

    Cruel works, ha? There are quite a few that fall within that category. “Saikano”. This one is Gonzo’s work with surprisingly little CG, no back breaking breasts and other Gonzo trademarks. What it does have is the Bokurano level of cruelty compressed into just 3-4 people.

    “Looking Up at the Half Moon” is another cruel (and at first misleading) title though this one is much more in vein of Hachikiro – it doesn’t use SciFi elements to heighten the drama.

    The last one may sound very odd – but Rahxephone is also very cruel and this is especially obvious when rewatching the series. In Bokurano almost from the beginning do we know the inevitability of the outcome and the various aspects of battles. At almost every turn the story reminds of its own cruelty. By contrast, in Rahxephone the cruelty is established almost immediately, but it remains dormant for most of the series and thus achieves spectacular results at the moments when it surfaces.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I’ve seen Rahxephon, and while I did feel sad and melancholy to a degree, I was very much under the spell of Evangelion which was cruel to an absurd degree.

      You’ve made me want to rewatch Rahxephon, after reading Narutaru and Saikano. Thank you!

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