Stranger in a Strange Land

With nothing to do, the youth of today are reduced to just hanging around.

With nothing to do, the youth of today are reduced to just hanging around.

Do you have children? If you don’t, do you want to have children? How valuable is a child? (More than an adult?)

It’s a commonplace that modern, first-world societies place a very high value on children: with low infant mortality rates, we tend to have fewer children, and have them later, and as a result we invest considerable emotional (and monetary) resources in each one. Children also stay financially dependant longer, spending ever-increasing amounts of time in education and living with their parents. Given all this investment, it’s no surprise that pædophiles occupy a position lower than murderers in the moral scheme of the popular press.

Yet childhood is a recent invention. We don’t have a long tradition of children’s literature: while there are probably experts in the subject who could, I can’t think of many things written expressly for children before the Victorian period. It’s true that you get the odd child cropping up here and there (Ascanius, to pick the first example that comes to mind) but they’re not normally having a childhood (let’s hear it for ‘the death-dealing bow of Ascanius’!).

Moving from fiction to journalism, I recently read The People of the Abyss by Jack London (who wrote that dog book), an account of the author’s time spent living in East London in 1902. It’s like The Road to Wigan Pier (indeed, it was one of Orwell’s models), with the added interest of being about the area where I live and study.

London’s prose is sometimes melodramatic, but the society he describes was real enough and it was a society in which childhood lasted only while the child concerned was useless: children worked as soon as they could. Indeed, some early unions campaigned against legislation which would restrict child labour, as members depended on the assistance of their children to earn a living wage.

Of course, most of history’s children lived out their non-childhoods in less Stygian conditions than those described by Jack London, but his extreme examples are good reminders that childhood is the product of a developed world which can (mostly) afford to educate its children instead of immediately putting them to work once they’ve survived their earliest years.

The first episode of Now and Then, Here and There sketches the hero, Shu, as a typical-seeming schoolboy, but gradually withdraws him from the normal milieu of family, school and kendo club. First he spots a strange girl sitting on top of a smokestack. Then we find that she’s bizarrely uncommunicative. And then there’re snake-mecha, a time-travelling sequence and the shock of a post-apocalyptic/steampunk environment. Twenty minutes into the series, and Shu has almost been shot in the head by a boy his own age. ‘Why are they carrying guns?’ he yells, as he’s pursued down a grim metal corridor, and at this point we might be forgiven for asking the same question.

As the first few episodes pass, it becomes clear that Hellywood, the vast fortress in which Shu finds himself, is a society which completely lacks the concept of childhood. Children are tools for Hamdo, Hellywood’s dictator, and for his subordinates. Boys serve as soldiers, and female children are used as breeding stock once they reach childbearing age.

Children are treated brutally, and they become brutal in turn: Shu finds that the child soldiers who serve Hamdo see nothing strange in their regime, and that they’re accustomed to kill and enslave other children. It’s striking that most of the characters are not particularly cruel people. It’s simply normal (to them – add your own Eichmann in Jerusalem reference here) that children should be treated like anyone else.

Now and Then, Here and There‘s ending sequence is a series of images of our world set to a calming tune – the juxtaposition of Here and There is jarring, and the images of our world seem increasingly unreal as the series goes on. (Remind me – which place was Here?)

Shu himself is remarkably courageous and optimistic. At first I thought he was a parody of the typical shounen hero, but after I finished the story I thought he lacked the parodic edge of a character like Busou Renkin‘s Kazuki Muto, so my current theory is that Shu’s the embodiment of tenacious persistence. I’m told that the word I want might be ‘ganbariya-san‘. That must be important because years ago I read an article in the FT about the spirit of ganbare, and anything printed in the FT must be true. Mind you, I suppose your typical shounen hero is a bit of a ganbariya-san anyway.

Without going into too much spoileriffic detail, there’s an escape, and by the tenth episode Shu finds himself in kinder circumstances. This particular episode has a climax of steampunk excitement as Hellywood takes to the skies, but there’s a subtler climax earlier in the episode: we see children playing.

It might easily pass by if it wasn’t for the fact that we’ve seen nine episodes of children being tortured, raped, pressed into service as soldiers and generally abused (I should probably say that the series isn’t particularly graphic depicting these things – it doesn’t need to be). Given this preparation, children doing normal, childish things is shocking. If you want polysyllables, childhood has, by this point in the story, been defamiliarised. Elegantly, the game they’re playing is ‘house’: we see children pretending to be adults, rather than seeing children actually fulfilling the functions of adults.

There is eventually a more-or-less happy ending in which, as with the children’s game in the tenth episode, childishness, adolescence and adulthood seem to be restored to normality. But to the viewer things cannot be the same. After such a brutal story children actually seem more important; childhood may be just an invention, but it’s a good invention.

(And, at the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t need to travel many millennia into the future to find child soldiers.)

Further Reading

  • I was reminded to write this by Omisyth’s two recent posts about the show. You can find the second one, about Nabuca, here.
  • I’ve focused on a small facet of Now and Then, Here and There, the way the show makes us take a second look at children. It can provoke quite wide-ranging discussion, as seen in the comments to this post.
  • I think Bateszi’s entry about dehumanisation in Eureka Seven was the first place I heard of Now and Then, and dehumanisation’s hardly irrelevant.
  • A lot of people like this show. I’ve already linked Korasoff’s review indirectly, but it’s probably worth putting another link down here: he not only disliked it, but declared it ‘too morally unsound’.
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29 responses to “Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. “(And, at the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t need to travel many millennia into the future to find child soldiers.)”

    Or more prevalently, child prostitutes.

  2. You reminded me that I’ve forgotten to finish off my articles on this. Thanks for that, and giving me an even deeper look into an, in my opinion, already incredible series.

  3. Hah, “that dog book”.
    I rather loved White Fang, and the Call of the Wild!
    Tsk..

  4. *puts on his flame retardant suit*

    Good post. Now and Then, Here and There is an ambitious show, and for some, that’s enough to earn praise, but in my case I felt it fell on its face trying to reach the stars. On one hand it wants to dabble in realism by tackling real-world hot button issues (see below), but on the other, its magical realism undermines any seriousness the show can muster.

    I stand by my “morally unsound” comment. The moral of the show is that if you persevere like Shu you’ll always overcome opposition! Even if you receive so many beatings your brittle twelve-year-old bones should have snapped by episode 03. It’s almost a “them or us” mentality, and the only solution the show offer is… Well, kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

    For me, the treatment of child-soldiers and rape was too crude for my taste (see: “rapists are people too!”) and Shu lacked credibility as a protagonist. If Sara hadn’t been there to uphold my flagging interest throughout I wouldn’t have finished the series, I think. :)

  5. NTHT was a pretty sad show. I recognized immediately where it was going, and it reminded me of my trips to Cambodia which suffered at the hands of an overambitious leader not so long ago. I just wished the whip lady got more screen time. :P

  6. @Korasoff
    But if the show was more realistic then it would have been even more depressing; though it way be attempting to represent some of the problems in the world today, without some aspects, such as Shu’s perserverance, then most likely everyone would of ended up dieing and Hamdo would have won the war. Realistically, can such a small, fractured group of rebels such as Zari Bars really stand up to the practically unstoppable and ruthless fortress of Hellywood?

    And you have to lok at the nature of the people (rapists or otherwise) in the context of the show, their world is so corrupted and Hamdo’s influence so extensive that they either did not have a choice or will have been within Hamdo’s army for so long that what they think they’re doing is right. Or they just plain crazy, like the first rapist.

    And not everyone from the opposition dies in the show, at the very least Abelia’s still alive =).

  7. Actually, on the topic of children’s literature and its invention, there is a book that came out fairly recently about children’s literature and from whence it came. The review for it can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/books/review/Miller-t.html – I suppose it’d at least interest you to take a look at the review given the underlying idea of this post, and the sort of ideas highlighted in this series.

  8. @ omo: Mmm, though the rape in N&T, H&T is institutionalised and considered perfectly normal. From memory, at least one of Sara’s rapists regards here as something like a co-worker, as the point of the rape is to produce another soldier for the state.

    There may be a conceptual difference, too – in the developed world child rapists usually sexualise children as children, but this doesn’t happen in Hellywood, because they don’t have the concept in the first place; Sara’s considered no different from any other breeding stock.

    @ omysith: Not at all – thank you for your posts in the first place, which got me round to writing this.

    @ Jemma: I suppose my curmudgeonly reaction to famous/popular things kicked in when I wrote that . . . sorry!

    @ Korasoff: Does magical realism per se prevent a story from achieving a serious treatment of ‘RL’ issues, or was there a problem with N&T, H&T‘s particular brand of it?

    If the moral of the show is that if you persevere you’ll always overcome opposition then it’s no more unsound than a lot of anime, given how the ganbare thing gets around. I suppose you’d be justified in saying that this show should aspire to something better than that since it’s more ambitious than your typical Endless Shounen Action Series.

    And what’s the problem with ‘rapists are people too’? Rape is terrible, but it’s true that rapists are people. Or is it that the delivery is too simplistic, rather than the message objectionable?

    @ madeener: Cambodia’s an interesting study in what can be made to seem normal. I imagine ‘I just wished the whip lady got more screen time’ is the sort of comment one could make about a whole sweep of anime, though, not all of them particularly respectable shows.

    @ A Day Without Me: Thanks! An interesting article that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. I was especially tickled by the description of the conflict between librarians peddling traditional fairy tales and progressive educationalists horrified by the grim(m) content in those same fairy tales.

  9. Interesting read. Reminds me that there are no such things as entitlements, only conditional privileges.

  10. I … better avoid this series for now. D:

  11. I didn’t think the moral was to “keep trying and everything will work out,” or something to that effect. The over-arching theme Shu-wise seems to be that your principles mean nothing unless you can maintain them through the most trying of circumstances. True, he maintains through sheer thick-headedness most of the time, but in the end it’s still admirable. I don’t know if that means he is or is not a ganbariya-san.

    I forget where I heard (just recently), but N&TH&T was apparently directly inspired by the child soldiers of the Sierra Leone and such, so the series was actually created with morals at its heart. That makes me disagree even more strongly with “morally unsound.”

  12. @ The Sojourner: Indeed. It’s rare for me to stop taking a lot of priveleges for granted, but polemical accounts of poverty in 1902’s London seemed to do the trick.

    @ Michael: Oh? Why?

    @ otou-san: I’m not sure simply being inspired by tragedy in meatspace necessarily makes a story morally sound – though I’m still not sure if it’s the message or the delivery (or both) that Korasoff objects to.

  13. Now and Then Here and There was IIRC based on a BBC documentary about child soldiers.

    The problem was that the documentary was dreary. No one wanted to watch the whole thing. They would say, “Yes, child soldiers are poor souls” and move to another topic.

    NTHT tried to keep people watching by making the problem prettier. If they had been honest, it would have been less depressing, because people would have put up an emotional barrier more quickly.

  14. Because I really don’t want to be depressed, Daniel. My life right now is pretty depressing.

    in b4 an hero nao

  15. @ formosan: I would have thought that more people might have been ghoulishly interested in the original documentary. I doubt that can have been the sole impetus behind the show’s creation, though, as there are a lot of scenes which don’t have much to do with how unpleasant it is to be a child soldier.

    @ Michael: Sorry to hear that. Sometimes I find happy things even more depressing when I’m down, as they’re so far removed from my own experience. But I suppose people differ.

  16. Having read your previous post “Moe-Mao and a Mobile Suit”, I was quite surprised you didn’t mention Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight in some shape or form in this one.

    More than the political undertones, what stuck me about Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight was the constant focus on the worth and value of typical childhood activities and values.

    While nowhere near as gritty and brutal as Now and Then (sans making Mikan cry, which has already been defined as an ultimate injustice), it does bring up similar issues. In Manabi Straight, schools are a dying institution; children are opting out of school in favour of part-time work and meaningful employment; and activities deemed to be frivolous or without practical merit are being phased out.

    There is a constant play between perceived duties expected of the youth and the School Councils goal of “fun for funs sake,” which finds a tangible form in the School Fair. What is interesting in their case is that in the world setting, the School Council is in the minority – they are constantly challenged by both their fellow students and involved adults to justify their activities.

    While the “Cute Is Justice” adage won out in the end, it highlighted the fact that what we took as granted during our younger years is, as The Sojourner indicated, not entitlements or even the natural order of things, but rather an institution that can morph, change, and adjust according to the times.

  17. @ Well, I wrote that Manabi Straight post in the week before I posted it, but I wrote this one last December, so my mind didn’t connect the two. But it should have!

    You’re quite right that GUMS portrays a conflict between two visions, one utilitarian and one not, of what childhood/education/growing up should be like, and so it compliments N&T,H&T very well indeed.

    I must say I found Manabi Straight‘s world (what little we saw of it) strangely frightening, more I suspect because of the melancholy central idea of a declining birthrate rather than because of any outright menace on screen.

  18. I’ve been wanting to write about the “child soldier” aspect of anime for some time. As a matter of fact, it’s been ever since I left that comment on Bateszi’s E7 post. I just haven’t had the time to sit and do the research I’ve wanted for it.

    On another note, you title “Stranger in a Strange Land” reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land

    …I guess you’ve been reminding me of a lot of things I’ve wanted to do with this post.

  19. @ j.valdez: More broadly, I can imagine anime looking quite interesting from that angle [so hurry up and do that research]. I haven’t actually read Heinlein’s book but the phrase stuck in my mind somewhere. I think it’s one of those things that bounces around in popular culture. The post originally stressed the defamiliarisation element more, which I think is why I wound up with that title.

  20. Ok… this is pretty off topic right now, but it’s okay, because I’m writing this a few months later.
    I’ll direct my point at Korasoff.

    I wouldn’t go as far to say that “Now and Then, Here and There” has but one over-arching moral that is, at that, an unsound one.

    It is true, one of the morals is “As long as you have life, there’s still hope.”, which is vaguely along the lines of your “if you persevere like Shu you’ll always overcome opposition” idea.
    However, that’s not what it’s getting at. It’s saying that life is precious because once it’s over, it’s done, and you loose all your ability to influence people and make your surroundings better. The moral your getting at should be changed to “If you persevere like Shu, you can help make a better world, not nessecarily ‘always overcome opposition’.”

    There are also some other morals in the show. One is like Spider Man 3’s moral “No matter what the circumstances, you ALWAYS have the choice to do what’s right.” This one is represented by the relationship between Boo and Nabuca. Nabuca thinks that he HAS to do evil in order to live a good life, whereas Boo looks too the consequences of the actions and realizes the futility of doing the wrong thing.

    Yet another moral is the “Sanctity of Human Life”, where we see a pretty blatant anti-abortion message and a few messages against suicide, which relate back to Shu’s “As long as you have life, there’s hope” mentality.

    As you can see, Now and Then, Here and There, regardless of its unrealistic characters and their structural integrity, has some pretty strong morals it stands by. I would definitely not say that Now and Then, Here and There is morally unsound.

    See ya later.
    ~Aalenfae

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