It was the tagline that got me. The thumbnail looked a little too bubblegum bright, the animation a tad old-fashioned, and to top it all, it was apparently instalment sixty-two or thereabouts in a franchise I knew nothing about. All good reasons to avoid ViVid Strike! But the tagline piqued my interest:
I was not expecting to find God’s promise to Joshua and Israel in an anime tagline.
And so I watched, intrigued. And to my surprise, this odd series about friendship through fisticuffs actually has—buried deep in the kaleidoscopic swirl of its mish-mash of genres, artistic style and music score—a valuable little pearl about the kind of friendship God offers to us. So, let’s go unbury it. Se-no!
ViVid Strike! is set in the training gyms and rings of Under-15 Mixed Martial Arts fighting. But with magic. Because Nanoha spin-off. The magical girl transformation sequences and blinding colour design signal the series as yet another lighthearted addition to the CGDCT (cute girls doing cute things) catalogue, but the profoundly emotive orchestrations of half of Yoichiro Yoshikawa’s soundtrack, ominously shaded freeze frame shots (think Attack on Titan), and most of all, Rinne Berlinetta’s cold, empty eyes cue another type of story.
Beneath the candy sweet surface is a cruel tale of bullying, guilt and one girl’s desperate pursuit of the kind of violent strength that will make her feel safe again—the trauma of Rinne Berlinetta, a character more in keeping with the “eggs” of Wonder Egg Priority than, say, the plucky cast of Girls und Panzer. But where the vulnerable girls of WEP are driven to suicide by their suffering, Rinne dies on the inside, crushing her true self as something weak and shameful.
The plot revolves around Fuuka Reventon and Rinne, who were best friends growing up in a church orphanage before the latter was adopted by a lovely wealthy family. Fuuka was tough as nails and never smiled; Rinne was sweetness and hope personified. She taught Fuuka to smile and see beauty in the midst of poverty.
Fast forward four years and Rinne, aged fourteen, is now a brutal U15 MMA fighter on the path to world championship. She and Fuuka have become estranged over her heartless treatment of opponents in the ring. Fuuka is taken in by the Nakajima gym and mentored by the current U15 champion, Einhard Stratos, due to the natural power of her punch. Fuuka’s goal is to fight and beat Rinne to make her come to her senses and stop looking down on people she perceives as weak.
Here’s the thing though: Rinne’s negative transformation is the fruit of fear and shame. She was bullied mercilessly after she was adopted, didn’t know what to do, and was ashamed to ask for help or even tell anyone of her plight. When they parted, Fuuka had told her to call her when she wanted to cry, but Rinne could not bring herself to do so because of shame over her helplessness. This may seem a little over the top, but in his evocative discussion of contemporary Japanese culture, Makoto Fujimura outlines the kind of response Rinne expresses here as the norm: “Remaining silent, being stoic and being good at hiding one’s true feelings and thoughts have become the accepted ways to deal with trauma and fear.”1
Rinne’s trauma is rooted not so much in the physical beatings she suffered, as in the fact that the worst of these beatings prevented her from attending the bedside of her beloved adoptive grandfather as he drew his final breaths. In her grief-stricken state, Rinne came to believe that she was to blame for his death. As irrational as it may seem, again, I think Rinne’s reaction is all too common; children (and indeed, often adults as well) are vulnerable to these kinds of lies in the midst of trauma, taking on responsibility for tragedies and wrongs that are not theirs to carry. Rinne’s method of coping with this burden is to beat the three bullies mercilessly (in a rather graphic scene) and step onto the harsh path of the MMA fighter.
Rinne is driven onto this path by her hunger to never be weak again, and to gain the physical strength to dominate. It is fear and shame (and the fear of shame—the two are inextricably linked) that motivate her dark transformation, and led to the break between her and Fuu-chan and the disjuncture within herself. Fear’s primary tactic is isolation, after all, alienating us from others and ourselves.
Fuuka learns what happened to her friend relatively early in the series, and renews her pledge to fight Rinne, but this time with expectant joy rather than the offence and anger that had motivated her at the start. Fuuka’s attitude may seem rather strange—why does she still want to beat her friend after learning that Rinne had been bullied so severely? But what is happening here is that Fuuka understands that she cannot reason with Rinne or try to interact with her as she used to be, when they were children. Rinne is living in an alternate reality now, one dictated by fear and the disciplined quest for physical strength. Fuuka needs to speak a language that Rinne can understand, and reach her through the values Rinne now holds, as insufficient and flawed as they may be. But Fuuka will also bring some language of her own to the conversation: love for the sport and for her friend, whose engagement with MMA is utterly joyless.
And so Fuuka goes out of her way to engage Rinne where she’s at, offering Rinne the fight she missed out on after failing to advance in the tournament. Both coach Nakajima and Einhard back Fuuka in her plan, the latter even agreeing to put her title on the line if Rinne wins. (Fuuka has learned what Rinne has yet to step into: insurmountable challenges are best faced in community.) Fuuka gives Rinne what she thinks she wants; Fuuka also gives her the first opportunity she’s had to fight all out (something she could never do as her opponents would not have survived, according to one observer), and experience the art of fighting, and not simply the brute force of it. Fuuka even lets Rinne set the stakes: if Rinne wins, Fuuka has to leave her alone and “stop meddling”. Fuuka demands no favour in return.
The fight, spanning nearly three full episodes, is epiphanic. As the punches fly, Rinne opens up to Fuuka about her hatred for herself, her inability to forgive herself, and her realisation that her strength and victories have left her feeling empty. As Fuuka refuses to let the “conversation” drop, insisting she wants to carry Rinne’s burdens with her and fight alongside her; and as the flashbacks remind Rinne of just what a true friend this girl before her has always been, Rinne begins to recognise the language Fuuka is speaking. She sees the “love and endearment” with which her friend throws hands.
After two episodes of violent angst, Rinne finally allows herself to feel something other than fear and self-loathing; the tears fall in response to Fuuka’s tears for her; and the smile reappears on her face as she at last can picture her grandfather smiling over her. As she allows herself to step out from under the burden of guilt, fear and shame she has so doggedly carried since her grandfather’s death, Rinne realises that she has enjoyed learning martial arts all along.
There is something powerful here about the humility with which Fuuka enters into Rinne’s dark world, meets her there, speaks her language, and gives her what she thinks she wants—and only then shares her heart. Fuuka actually learned how to be incarnational like this as a friend—getting stuck into someone else’s world in order to reach them—from Rinne herself. It was Rinne who befriended the grumpy, taciturn Fuuka when they were children by offering her food, that is, by speaking Fuu-chan’s language, since she was always hungry (and hangry). Rinne also let Fuuka set the parameters in the beginning of their friendship: Fuuka accepted Rinne’s offer of a snack, but only if they shared it and Rinne agreed that Fuuka would pay her back later. (Which she does, years later, in fists rather than snacks.) So Fuuka is able to love because she was first loved. And her love undoes the brutal armour Rinne has clad herself in and gives her a fresh start in all her relationships—with her friend, her family and coach Jill.
But what does all this have to do with the tagline? Thou shalt not fear for I am with you. Presumably, this is the message that Fuuka’s fists of “love and endearment” are conveying to Rinne. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Maybe the King James English just sounded epic to the show runners.
In any case, thinking about the verses that inspire this tagline in light of an anime about friendship and overcoming trauma, highlighted for me an element of Joshua 1:9 and Isaiah 41:10 that I wasn’t consciously aware of before, namely, the element of friendship that is embedded in God’s promise:
“…do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
“Fear not, for I am with you…” (Isaiah 41:10)
In Joshua, there are a few versions of this promise repeated through verses 5-7 and 17-18, and taken together, they give us a fuller picture of what God is saying in Joshua 1:9. In them, both God and the Israelites bless Joshua to inherit the same kind of relationship with God that Moses enjoyed. Namely, a relationship of friendship, as explained in Exodus 33:10, where God speaks with Moses “face to face, as with a friend”. Friendship is the foundation for the promise in Joshua 1:9.
In Isaiah 41:10, the exhortation is repeated once again, this time in the context of Israel’s exile rather than their entry into the promised land. Here again, verse 8 roots the call not to fear for the Lord is with you on the premise of friendship. The verse defines Israel, the recipient of the promise this time around, as “the offspring of Abraham, my friend.” The rest of the passage makes it clear that although they’re not living up to Abraham’s example, God nevertheless seeks to draw them close and demonstrate the bond they share and his heart for them in the midst of their fearfulness. “Do not fear, I will help you,” he encourages in verse 13.
I had never noticed before the context of friendship in which God made these promises, despite having memorised and turned to these verses since I was a middle schooler like Fuuka and Rinne (well, not exactly like them!). Instead, I’ve understood God’s statement in terms of relativity: why would I be afraid when God is so much bigger than what I’m afraid of? In my mind, these verses took on a tone of admonishment: my fears are ultimately petty in comparison to God’s greatness so I should just stop already. And if I didn’t, well, it was kind of my problem to sort out.
But considering these verses in light of friendship totally transforms the implications. I do not need to fear because, as my friend, God is with me in this: he’ll meet me where I’m at, even if I’m believing lies and letting fear dictate my views, plans and behaviour (as with Rinne); he wants to shoulder the burden—not just half of it like Fuuka, but all of it—and fight alongside me, no, instead of me often, taking my place. He fights with me, with a heart full of “love and endearment” for me, not to mention a power and authority even greater than Hegemon style’s “sky-severing knuckle”. And he’s willing to lose a lot more than teeth in the battle on my behalf.
I’ve mostly taken God’s statement here like a set of orders from a sergeant—one I respect, trust, and love of course, but a commanding officer nonetheless. But reading them as a promise or even an invitation from a friend completely changes my response. Any lingering shame about being afraid in the first place, or not being up to the challenge before me, melts away with the outstretched hand and the smile of a friend.
So let me repeat ViVid Strike!’s tagline and God’s promise to you now: you don’t need to be afraid, and you don’t need to fight this battle alone. You have a friend who will never leave your side, no matter how hurt, angry, guilty or poor a friend you are in return. He’s even better than Fuu-chan, and he’ll move heaven and earth so that you can hear him when he calls himself your friend.
1 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty (IVP Books: Downers Grove, IL, 2016), 105. His discussion of Japanese bullying culture likewise reveals the bullies’ rationale for picking on Rinne—her exceptional athletic ability—as one of the most common reasons behind the kind of ostracisation Rinne is subjected to (pp. 125-6). More than just a convenient pretext for a necessary plot point.
ViVid Strike! can be streamed through Amazon Prime.