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.)
- 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’.