Well, I couldn’t put this off forever. Whilst I’ve made it perfectly clear in the past that I think all non-Ghibli war anime, war movies, and war fiction in general can suck someone else’s critically acclaimed dick far away from me, I’m also aware that there are times when you have to step out of your comfort zone and review something that you only like because “based Shaft”, whatever the fuck that means. So let’s take a look at that late 90s tear-jerking piece of anti-war propaganda that everyone considers to be a classic but I consider to be exploitative rubbish.
Admittedly, it’s kind of awkward trying to criticize Now and Then, Here and There properly because most of the negative qualities you can associate with the show are what most people actually like about it. Most specifically, the fact that it’s hard to watch, which is about as give or take a quality as the nature of School Days. If you’re one of those people who aren’t familiar with the show – which is understandable given it’s kind of obscure these days – let me fill you in. After realizing that acting like Naruto only causes you to lose tournaments, a young boy named Shu meets a strange blue-haired girl named Lala Ru and is transported into the far future – or at least that’s what people have been telling me, because I apparently missed when that fact was clarified in the show – where water is scarce and children are enslaved in order to serve a dictator who reminds me so much of Billy Zane from Titanic or that boring ponce of a villain from Moulin Rouge it astounds me that people could take him seriously. He is then forced to become a child soldier and from there we follow his struggle to survive in a world gone mad.
Whilst the anime clearly shows signs of being influenced by Evangelion (because weren’t all anime during that period trying to recapture that feeling during that time period?), Now and Then, Here and There recaptures that feeling better than most due to its direction actually being really good. Most of the story is told through the visuals and whilst the animation itself hasn’t aged too well, as far as that era goes, it’s actually pretty good. I’m bringing this up because that’s about the only real good thing this show has if you’re not into torture porn. And even that’s tainted by the fact that a good chunk of the visuals overplay how many times I can watch Shu getting the crap beaten out of him before getting bored out of my mind.
And believe me when I say that watching these characters getting abused gets old very fast. What the director – along with most war anime in general – fails to understand is that no matter how much he tries to convince me, anime is inherently fictional and thus you cannot make me sympathize with what’s going on in the world just by having your cartoon portray what child soldiers go through and leave it at that. Especially when the child soldiers you’re using to portray the going-ons in Rwanda are shallow stock characters who were created solely to tug at your heartstrings, and make decisions that are so 28 Days Later-levels of dumb that it made me hard to sympathize when they got killed off. I’ve heard some people talk about Nabuca and Sara as fleshed-out human characters – and yeah, when you compare them to that asshole kid who just wants to stay a soldier and climb the ranks, they’re Citizen Fucking Kane – but the Nabuca and Sara I saw was an idiot who couldn’t have telegraphed the fact that his village was a pile of rubble any harder if he tried, and a girl who was created solely to suffer because “war does that to people, and thus we’re allowed to do whatever the hell we want to her!”
Another thing that the director, and most war stuff in general, doesn’t seem to understand is that “war is hell” is about as boring and standard a message as that godawful “we need to save the rainforest” stuff that was rampant during the 90s for largely the same reasons. Ghibli understood that almost twenty years before this series came out and thus did its best to breathe life into that tired genre. This is especially true in the studio’s very own tear-jerking war epic, Grave of the Fireflies, which was actually pretty good despite me not being a fan of the setting because of its unique message underneath all the war tragedies regarding youth culture that was relevant at the time it came out and continues to be relevant to this day: listen to your elders and don’t run away from home or you and your cute sister will die like a dog, alone and forgotten. Unless someone can convince me otherwise, Now and Then, Here and There has no such ambition other than to make you feel emotional, which might have been tolerable if the characters had been interesting rather than, well, the inspiration for 28 Days Later’s characters I described them as earlier.
Speaking of which, I’m fully aware that Shu is supposed to represent what a normal kid would be like if he was dropped into a strange world (ultimately useless, lone bright spot in a dark depressing world, can’t fight worth shit…except said untrained fighting style actually works on every single bad guy he faces so way to confuse whatever message you were trying to get across with the amount of time dedicated to commenting on it, NTHT), but I’m sure there’s a way to convey that point without making my eardrums rupture. I’m too lazy to look up who did his voice, but my god his simplistic morality combined with that high-pitch was such a chore to sit through I had to change the language to English where his voice sounded twenty years too old, which was at least tolerable in its mild hilarity. Also, regardless of what he’s supposed to represent, that doesn’t change the fact that he had no real character arc, so why did you even have him be the main character in the first place? At least the kid from War in the Pocket had a few minutes dedicated to his changed worldview after the final climax. All I got from Shu was just a few seconds of forlorn reminiscing and everything else up to that was “you can’t hurt each other like this!”.
Watching him communicate with practically every single character in this show was like watching an anime adaptation of Ace Attorney without all the funny to the point that the anime might as well have consisted of a war council where people just shouted out “Objection!” whenever a flimsy as fuck point was made and counter with their own flimsy as fuck point. And to make things worse, that’s the most substance you get out of this anime. The entire series feels padded like someone stretched a two-hour long movie into a series and filled up the time by either putting in those overlong “let’s hurt this character just so the audience can feel sympathy for them, but we’re justified because our stuff is actually grounded in reality” scenes I mentioned earlier, or some set piece that sounds cool on paper, but in practice it’s very awkwardly inserted.
There’s an entire episode dedicated to Shu and Lala Ru trying to fend off a carnivorous plant that adds fuck all to the plot and only exists just because the staff needed to fill up time and couldn’t think of a good way to put our main characters through the ringer that actually expanded on the “war is hell” message meaningfully. Aside from clarifying that Lala Ru’s powers would kill her if she overuses them too much, which sort of justifies why the show’s conclusion couldn’t have happened much sooner, said event is never brought up again. Don’t even get me started on the way the show padded out the time between Lala Ru losing her pendant and Shu finding it. This review is long enough as is and there’s only so much I can clarify in written words to begin with.
For all of Now and Then, Here and There’s apparent teeth, it’s surprisingly shallow in terms of theme, characters, story, and emotions, just leaving me with pure shallow exploitation that isn’t funny nor comforting to watch (and not in the good way that fans seem to enjoy about the show). But I think the final nail in the coffin for why I think it fails is the fact that this show is supposed to be a commentary not necessarily on war and child slavery as a whole, but what was happening in Rwanda during that time specifically. Exactly what part of NTHT indicates that? The show isn’t set in Rwanda. Nobody speaks the language. Unless Boo is actually black, there are no natives from said country in this show. For all I know, the creators might as well have said they based this anime on the American Revolution and I’d have no choice but to believe them.
PS: Fully aware that the lack of child slave soldiers during the American Revolution would have made it impossible to base NTHT on that event, thank you very much.