Advent, the time of year in which Christians commemorate Christmas by looking forward to it in anticipation, as well as to Christ’s return, is upon us. We hope that we can help you participate and get into the “Christmas spirit” through our blog as we do our traditional Christmas posts. Consider signing up for our newsletter as we gear up for the season, and following along here on the blog as well with posts like today’s, which kicks off the season is a most appropriate way.
Infinite Ryvius (Mugen no Ryvius), Goro Taniguchi´s Lord of the Flies meets Lost in Space, is without doubt one of my favorite shows. Yet, I must warn you: It is not an easy one to watch. Its slow burn starts with the focus on the people-pleaser protagonist, Kouji Aiba—a guy who finds it uncool to hang out with anyone who has known him for a long time, his estranged brother Yuki, and their bossy childhood friend Aoi. But soon it expands its scope to perhaps twenty or so very interesting youngsters aboard the Liebe Delta, a starship academy for future space cadets, left without adults after a strange accident (or is it?), and through them, encompasses an entire teen society which grows, fights, suffers, and evolves with every episode, always waiting for rescue.
That is the starting point of a journey that will take its protagonists through hard decisions about survival and violence, war, lies, fears and betrayal, the collapse of social norms, emotional and mental breakdown, and repeated moral failure in what I found to be a very atypical, honest story full of quasi Eva-like angst and misfortune.
What’s worse is that you do not even have a Gendo to blame here, either for how frustratingly Kouji acts nor for anything else. There are adults and dangers outside, but they are not the focus. Instead, it’s on the kids. From the kindhearted teen hero to the bright model student, from the Vulcanian-like brainy to the loud representative, from the weak-willed fat boy to the “bad girl,” from the silent gang leader to the space princess (sort of), they are as flawed as they are relatable, and truly dangerous to each other in their own ways. And the consequences of their sins and errors are not small, not here. What follows has been aptly described as an ascent/descent into hell.
Why watch it, then? Why suffer? For one, its characters are (in my view) fascinating, and their occasional ugliness, and that of the situation, is how we gradually come to see something genuine and hopeful about them. They may start as archetypes, but they suffer, evolve, interact, struggle, and surprise me, for better and for worse. No matter how minor their roles, they all have something to say, and quite frequently they are things I hadn’t heard before from characters like these. The story does not whitewash their flaws, but neither does it give up on them when they fail (and boy, do they fail). The comparison with The Lord of the Flies may be the first thing that comes to mind, but if you go along, you will receive, one after another, signs that things may go differently here. It is not only the primal they confront, but also the supernatural; not only the evil in them, but the good. And I have come to understand enough about myself to know that I´m pretty much like Hikki Hachiman: I thirst to know the human heart, of others and mine, and I often find hope in it.
More than that, Mugen no Ryvius is a show firmly interested in what is good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust, much like Bokurano or Serial Experiments Lain. It takes its premise seriously, and it makes every effort to show us that everyone is connected. This principle is personified in the character of the Girl in Pink, the soul of the starship, an observer who wanders around learning about its inhabitants, sometimes talking with them, sometimes helping them, sometimes unveiling what is beneath the surface, she herself connected to the deeper mysteries of the ship. And, as I have loved reading about the evolution of fictional societies and regimes since I first read Plato´s terrific (in both senses of the word) Republic in Philosophy class, the self-contained nature of the community which is described, the elegant way in which everything is presented and the 26 episodes that give us plenty of time to know everything about everyone make this a very enjoyable story, even if sometimes you have to just endure it.
There is even more. Ryvius is not only a psychological thriller or a social experiment. It is a tale of discernment and heroism, but not only that either. Much as in Taniguchi´s Planetes, its themes and symbology go all the way to the philosophical and the spiritual, in this case with the salvation of all humanity literally at stake. The characters are largely unaware of this larger plot—they are busy enough as it is—except for some weird encounters they experience here and there, but we get to see it through the Girl in Pink. The story has something to say about who we are to each other, and about sacrifice, sin and delusion, and also about the meaning of hope and love in this fallen world. Thus, it connects with the themes of Advent, the time when we remember the long wait for Christ during the long ages of Israel, the longing of the human heart for Him in the reign of sin, the promises of the prophets and the difficult and specific, strange, miraculous yet discreet circumstances in which the fulfillment of that hope was prepared when the time came.
But, God being the Lord of the Living, this period is not only one of remembrance. It is also the time when we try to better dispose our hearts so that His coming here and now can touch us more deeply. It’s becoming a challenging, tiring Advent for me, both professionally and personally, so these days I am fasting a bit, trying to bring to mind the hope of Christmas and of the future and meditating on the readings of Isaiah and John the Baptist, Joseph, and Mary. Because Advent is also the time when we look to the future from the hardships of this world and renew our hope that He will come back, that rescue is coming. That there is a second, hidden story in my life too, and it encompasses and explains the one I see. It is something of a funny coincidence that the hardest part of the Ryvius story comes also at December, a December in space.
I think that is as far as I can go speaking only in general, so spoilers ahead. Ryvius is full of twists and turns, so you have been warned.
Episode 23 is probably the show at is bleakest. Just an episode or two before, the violence, the egoism, the anarchy, the malevolence, the ill will, the disorder and the laziness have reached its peak, and a friend has been scarred. The sins of the little society—unbeknownst to them, a literally chosen people, because the Ryvius is the only hope for humanity to escape the Second Solar Flare, and no crew has ever been able to make it react—are just too many, and they are punished. It is the logical consequence, and even I was hoping for it. Our heroes experience a mutual emotional breakdown, unable to comfort each other. And hurt and bitter, the courageous and kind Ikumi turns into a tyrant by threats and sheer force, threatening to destroy entire sections of the starship if he is not immediately given unconditional obedience. Like the Leviathan of Hobbes, he demands absolute power to prevent the kids to becoming wolves for each other. With Yuki and the rest of the mecha aces on his side, those aboard are forced to comply.
His first decision is to reinstate the gang of Airs Blue, that other interesting tyrant, back from prison as the police force, a role than they clearly enjoy. Shortly after, order is restored, but in such a way the ship starts to feel like an occupied country. Violence is not as overt as it was, but it is there. And maybe all that would be at least an improvement on the previous anarchy, were not that his main advisor is the ultimate schemer of the Zwei group, Heiger, who has been given free hands to engage in his social engineering projects and protect this Pax Romana until the number of violent incidents is zero.
Shortly after, people are sorted by ability and separated (well, either that, or if Heiger thinks you a subversive element, sent straight to Class F, which includes pretty much every important character who is not part of the regime). Juli Bahana, the voice of empathy and reason, is expelled from the bridge for objecting (more specifically, for objecting without providing a feasible alternative), and sent to Class F. So is her ever-jealous friend Ran, who has undermined her in every way she could. His crime is violently protesting that the little kid aboard, Pat, has been sent to Class F too (well, says Heiger, naturally, he is not useful by any objective standard). Fina S. Shinozaki, the beautiful pagan priestess/cult leader who preaches the false Gospel of making yourself a new you of your own design, is leading the course of the ship, which now points toward her planet.
When all the new residents of Class F are in their area, a new surprise comes. Unbeknownst to Ikumi, Heiger, who is losing it a bit, blocks the area and switches the lights off. They are left without food or a way out. In his reasoning, these people are not useful, the lowest of the low, and everything that is given to them is a waste. Many of them, conscious of their crimes or their lack of ability, even recognize it is only natural that they would end up at Class F. So there they are, our most pathetic characters, in the darkness. Jealous Ran, indecisive Juli, feeble and treacherous Charlie (sorry, I mean Good Turtleland the Third), femme fatale Criff, bratty Nicks, people-pleaser Kouji, messy and bossy Aoi, loud Lucson, spoiled Pat, the lazy couple who stole points, even the creepy psycho who “protects” Charlotte—all there.
When someone lights a lantern, and it turns out that Lucson was stealing food, so he decides to share it, not without boasting about his “keen foresight.” The last, the not useful, the dispossessed, the guilty thus share the little they have, and sit around the light. Somehow, a curious joy starts to permeate them, and someone asks out of the blue, “iIt is almost Christmas, isn’t it?”
What it is is December 13rd, the birthday of the youngest member of the crew, Pat Campbell. His father and mother figure are beside him. Lucson may be an incompetent, a liar, and a vain leader, but he has taken good care of Pat, to the point of showing that he is willing to take a beating in his place, and has tried to set example for him in his own clumsy way. Juli may be indecisive and her renouncing as captain of the ship may have played a part in the present state of things, but she has cared for the kid from the first moment. The Girl of Pink is attracted towards that light they share, not towards the bridge, and it´s no wonder. The bleakness of Ryvius disappears for a couple of minutes, and there is a warm light instead. This is the moment in which she speaks to Kouji and stops being an observer, providing hope, a way out. Literally, there is a path.
The darkness will strike twice again in this very episode and the hardest part of this journey of purification is still ahead, but we have seen a glimpse of where it leads. As viewers, we can have hope. Kouji still has to carry his own Cross, his own Gethsemane, and beyond. Aoi will share it all with him. We will still suffer before we reach the end. But for now, there is light. There is a sign of something beyond the madness the Ryvius has fallen into, something that reaches these broken sinners suffering the consequences of their own errors and makes them one, even so.
While darkness and poverty have united Class F, the powerful, the strong and the wise in the terms of the ship are not so lucky. Ikumi cannot participate in the feast. After all, he is locked in his palace—the officials bedroom—with his own thoughts, increasing his own power, worried, navigating his inner traumas, working to stop even the littlest of crimes aboard while the tyrannical system he has created causes others he does not detect. He wants his Pax Romana no matter the means, and even if he is not mistaken about what is right, he is wrong about placing all hope in his own hands, and about the darkness of his own heart. Like Herod (though younger, more desperate and driven by fear and trauma), he may resort even to murder. Neither can Kozue, who has made the conscious decision to play into Ikumi´s trauma to have someone who will provide her affection, and literally shut the door to everything and everyone else.
Neither can Yuki, our punk Pharisee, who never loses an opportunity to point how weak-willed, despicable, low and inauthentic his elder brother is, usually with a punch or two to show him. Even if he is Kouji´s younger brother, he is no doubt like the older brother of the parable, only substituting obedience to the father to doing what he pleases without external influence. He also wants acknowledgement for his achievements. Nor Heiger, who is busy with the census of his new empire, sending every member of the Ryvius community to the place where he belongs to, in his opinion, and worshiping efficiency like he always wanted to. Heiger´s terrified reaction to the unknown, in the form of the Lovecraftian/Ghiblian space beasts, shows us how self-enclosed in the works of his own hands he is at this point of the story: His own cleverness has blinded him to this hope.
But if Ikumi is traumatized, Heiger is a materialist, and Yuki is just doing what he feels vaguely good about, someone is searching for a spiritual meaning in the circumstances. And the meaning she finds is evil. That is Fina S, Shinozaki, the young cult leader/priestess of Mother Arne, a pagan deity who considers letting your past behind and rebuilding yourself from zero as the first moral imperative, adapts to every situation quickly and cleverly, considers Ikumi to be a war god, and believes the Universe will help you if you desire things strongly enough. Behind the bizarre elements of this space cult (you know, those pesky Uranians), there is a very familiar philosophy: Be the center of everything, project a perfect illusion, become powerful no matter the situation, delete from your life those people and parts of yourself you don´t like, always be determined, and get what you want.
Villainous as Fina is, I cannot but feel compassion for her, as she is farther away from hope than the rest, and suffers without it. When hurt, she tries to kill the same person whose love she longs for: she wants to prevent him from applying her own philosophy to her and letting her in his past. When heartbroken, she tries to force her smile like a mask. When her acts get her scarred, she wonders if she is not as virtuous as she should be. The philosophy of becoming your own creator not only destroy you, but also tells you that it´s your fault, for not wanting to be free and happy strongly enough. So I truly pity her, and this broken age of ours, too. In a silent alliance with the Girl in Pink, Kouji will risk everything to confront all four, like John the Baptist, and call them to repent.
So at this time of the year, we should also prepare for what is to come—the fights as well as the rescue, the present as well as the future. The joy of the feast and the time of waiting. In the midst of our daily struggles and sufferings, of the problems of the world, we may take a step back to reflect and pray, try to hear the call, think about the meaning of what is happening, share the little we have, remove the obstacles, acknowledge who we are, repent. Take perspective on the things of the world. Give others the comfort and hope they need. Be brave. And help those who are not useful for us, even those who have hurt us, for we are connected, aboard the same ship. And those far from Class F, locked anywhere, need Christmas too, and dearly: Their hearts thirst just like ours.
And miraculously, there is a path.
Mugen no Ryvius can be acquired at Amazon.