What do you desire the most? Honor and pride? Authority and power? Money, and all sorts of shining riches? Revenge? Helping, or saving, or mattering to someone other than you (even when you’re not piloting a giant robot)? Or perhaps… something even more significant, more transcendent?
No matter. Reach the top of the tower, and it will be yours. Whatever you may be looking for, you will find it there. That’s what its Guardian, Hadon, says. That’s what every character in this show believes.
Tower of God (Kami no Tou) tells the story of Rachel, the girl with golden eyes who left everything to climb, desiring to shine like the stars. And of Bam, the boy who went after her without a desire of his own. So starts a quite atypical shonen, based on a beloved webtoon, with cartoonish, colorful, quite original designs, powerful music (“TOP” by Stray Kids is an opening for the ages), references to the book of Genesis, and a deep, unflinching depiction of sin, by which I mean evil of the darkest kind, the only true evil, chosen by the human free will, in a way that can poison the universe and kill that soul forever.
The human heart and its darkness are certainly at full display at Kami no Tou. Its colorful tower of broken dreams and people who are constantly left behind has a constant aura of threat and dread, even in the more innocent scenes. Despite the swords, powers, characters who combine medieval, fantastic, contemporary and futuristic styles, and the clever ways of overcoming difficult challenges, this is not the Heaven’s Arena of Hunter x Hunter, and it certainly doesn’t have that show’s leniency with the murderous organizers of these challenges for super-talented individuals.
As Bam goes up, level after level, we come nearer to the ultimate temptation, the fall, the consequences like concentric waves, and the dark mystery of evil, a mystery that defies understanding and rational explanation. One that is linked with all the pain and suffering in the world, with the reason why reality (Kami no Tou’s and ours) constantly breaks into painful fragments and goes into cycles of horrifying self-destruction.
A nameless boy awakes without memories in a system of caves where he cannot see the stars. He is taken care of by a kind, joyful girl with golden eyes. She heals him, and patiently teaches him, and soon becomes his entire world. She has a dream, too—to see the stars, to shine like them. She will ultimately depart, leaving him behind to enter the Tower.
But he doesn’t want that. He wants to be with her. Not romantically, I think, or not exactly. “I belong to her,” he says. Rachel is, especifically, someone Bum adores, his point of reference for everything, and he just wants to have her around, even if it’s not as an equal.
At the beginning, I compared this show with The Divine Comedy, Dante’s medieval poem about following the light of the loved one who has departed to Heaven. But this is a show about Babel, about a world in which humans fight to reach the skies and become like God, masters of good and evil. In our world, the limits of human power, coordination and communication (miraculously brought upon humanity for the first time at Babel), avoid a sustainable deification. And the tower, thank God, is forever left unfinished.
Not so in Kami no Tou. The desires of the heart have been completely instrumentalized to serve the present ruler. The Tower stands, every floor as great as an entire continent, and the tower itself is an empire, ruled by King Jahad, a Darwinian monarch who was the last to reach the magical top.
The characters surrounding are dangerous people, who soon reveal that they are just broken, very human individuals with a desire so strong as to risk everything. Khun is a banished prince from a well-known, powerful family. Rak the dinosaur and Haru the samurai just want to be the strongest. Anaak seeks revenge. Shibisu would like to be rich. Endorsi is a Princess of Jahad, and needs to keep her status. These are all lovable people, fun and relatable, but something is clearly wrong with them all. And something is wrong with us, too. Bam is going to learn that in ourselves, just beneath our daily reality, there is unspeakable evil, irrational, horrifying, linked to the worst evils we know, only awaiting the opportunity to manifest itself. Indifference and hate for the people we are supposed to love. A thirst that could devour others if they get in the way. Monstrous vanity, lies, violence, dreadful, intimate idols. The deep betrayal of everything that is good and true, of God and of love. And the realization that all that has been there from the beginning.
Though I liked this anime from the first episode, I think it reaches his peak with a certain twist that everyone remembers. So, spoilers for Tower of God. And I strongly advise you to experience it firsthand.
Bam becomes popular in his circle of self-centered friends because of his selfless, innocent personality that reminds them of what they have lost, or just encouraged them to help him. He wants to be with Rachel, to help Rachel. And he works hard.
In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis’ version of the classical allegory, every so often a chapter is titled “Leah for Rachel.” This is a reference to the story of patriarch Jacob, who worked seven years to marry Rachel, the youngest daughter of Jethro and his loved one, who tricked him into taking his eldest daughter, Leah, instead, so he would have to restart the process to reach Rachel. In Lewis, this expression refers instead to the pain of the human heart which falls into the trap of egoistic, self-centered sexual acts when its desire for the bright, the eternal and infinite, symbolized (Utena-like) as a castle in the sky, attracts it from the distance. But, as Kami no Tou tells us, it can be just about anything. A person or a relationship, a position or a treasure, a story we tell to ourselves, a moment of pleasure or a momentary relief, an urge, can seem to us like the shining gate to a greater, more god-like world, as stars are for Rachel.
It is only afterwards that the heart recognizes, with bitterness, that over the top of the tower, there is only a darkness that engulfs you, that becomes you, that is akin to voluntarily sacrifice love and meaning, bonds and identity. And that is what happens to Bam’s Rachel.
I always trusted Rachel to have a good reason for having abandoned Bam. As Khun, I saw the warning signs. Bam was not being objective. It is wrong to idealize a person so much, to adore her, to put the entire weight of your own existence on her. First, you will never know her this way. Second, you may be more easily tempted by evil, as she betrays your hopes. But Rachel’s smile was kind and humble, and she was somehow radiant. Her character design showed that someone had thought of her with care and admiration. She had taken care of Bam, a perfect stranger, as a kind, patient, loving sister would. And I think any of us, looking the sky at night, have been filled of this longing, this thirst that Lewis calls the “Joy” and the Spanish translation, el Dulce Deseo, the Sweet Desire. I certainly never expected the chosen one, for whom all those sacrifices had been made, to willingly push Bam into the abyss to go up. It is a perfect moment of treason, sound off, seeing her go up in slow motion while Bam falls.
And then, there is the flashback. Where we only had watched her sadness, her darkness, her bitterness, her vulgarity, her spite, her greed, were all revealed. A character who was full of light, able to inspire, freely scarred herself in such a way that the thought of her achieving her goal, watching the stars at the top, is just unthinkable. Hadon himself tells her that, when he sees her cowardice. It will never happen. She’s just not capable of that sort of pure happiness. And her inner evil does not cease to grow.
And, if you were wondering, Rachel is the character in which I see myself the most.
I am a sinner. By which I mean that I habitually do things that I judge to be monstrous, world-shattering, dark and loveless beyond all rationality. Not the sort of things that may end up with me in prison, perhaps, or not often. But maybe they should. There is a seed of destruction in them, sometimes so manifest to me that I hold no doubt that the distance between it and the more showy and horrifying forms of evil is only a matter of opportunity and means.
While I’m still young, I’m convinced that there are deeper sins in me I cannot yet fully grasp, like frozen icebergs beyond the surface of my mind and soul. Also, I feel loved by God, with a love even more devoted, sacrificial and deep than Bam’s love for Rachel, a love that would, and does, travel any distance and fight any enemy just to see me happy. Whenever I sin gravely, I freely and consciously choose to hurt and betray a real person who has hope in me, and who has bought an opportunity for happiness for me, my only opportunity for happiness, at the price of His blood.
My whole being and personality, created for the good, become a carcass, a walking lie. I’m totally conscious that, for any of them, it would be just and appropriate that I should never taste happiness of any sort in all eternity. And why would I do thing of that sort, again and again? I don’t really know. It is a whim, or something that shines, or a perverse hope that this time, I will reach some happiness that way.
So, as you can see, I am every bit a son of Eve, and every bit a brother of Rachel.
If what the presumptuously named Tower of God offered was real happiness, there’s no way King Jahad would be such an egoist, murderous jerk, or that his followers would be as petty, perverse, and traitorous as they are. Neither Rachel or I will become happy or God-like by ascending the tower of human power and human pride. If we aren’t deformed and destroyed during the ascent, we are sure to meet just pain and betrayal at the top.
The one who tempted Eve and Adam to sin was an angel already in Hell. In the case of Adam, there was also the person who had already fallen, and was not happier or wiser for it. In the case of Rachel, the people of the Tower play that role, because it will be interesting to see how low she falls. And she falls really low. I know this. To some extent, so does she.
But we both forget, because we see sometime pleasing to the eye, and we infer that it would feed our hungry souls, and that we would be wiser, more powerful, and happier, even if we have to deform and destroy ourselves and the people around us and betray the purest love to achieve it. Aided by the original tempter and other human beings, we convince ourselves that we will be like loveless gods, masters of good and evil.
And we are increasingly desperate to get it at any costs, whatever may happen. I don’t think the scene in which Rachel eats the red apple is unintentional.
Of course, this is only one form of temptation. After the Fall, we can ignore the fact that there are some things that are worse than pain, and even than death, and corrupt ourselves hoping to avoid something that we feel would destroy us. Rachel won’t face the terrible creature Bam, guided as he is by love, goes against. She lets Hoh’s life be destroyed. Sin destroys our own courage, our ability to be signs of God for one another, as we were created for. And the salary of sin is pain, confusion and death. And scandal, the strike against love and hope in the hearts of those around us, that may tempt them to sin, too.
Scandal is a sin Our Lord condemns in the strongest terms. “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Because, as we see with Bam and Rachel, what is done to the scandalized is just like that. To believe in true love, in God, in life, after such a betrayal is very difficult.
A scarred, somber, changed Bam emerges from the abyss, pursuing Rachel. This time, he wants an explanation. In future seasons, I think, we will see the extent of the wound she has inflicted him, and to what extent his innocent heart that inspired so many of the other characters and gave them a path has been hardened, and inclined to lovelessness and sin.
What will Bam do? I don’t know. What I know is what the One who has his place in my equation did, again and again. Which was, and is, starting again and again the path into the loveless and dangerous world of fallen Humanity to reach me again, and bring me such a love that I can be moved, and cry, and change.
Jacob worked for seven more years. Betrayed by a Leah, the Lord will still fight so that her inner Rachel arises, and ultimately triumphs, whatever it takes. So that the Tower is broken, and the bridge is built, one in which we can follow Christ in His Cross, in His Ascension, to the loving embrace of a Father who awaits every day His prodigal son, His prodigal daughter, to celebrate their rescue and restore their happiness. So that the present promise doesn’t become a lie, but a hopeful, humble truth so that we are able to bring hope, and not despair, to each other, On the only condition that we acknowledge our sins and confess them, putting them in His hands, Christ will return them to us as something that He willingly suffered for us, for love.
Our evil, Rachel’s evil, will be countered by a powerful, rich, sacrificial love which will become our own, for a beating heart of flesh, that of a hero, that of a heroine. One that is able to reach the true light our hearts thirst for, and display the true power and potential of the human heart and the human will, when they accept God, as shining vitrals, each with their own colors. If we cling to His hand and walk this path to the end, we will be saved.
What do you desire the most? Are you sure? Perhaps there is something even greater. A love that burns endlessly without consuming the loved one. A light brighter than the stars.
God’s way is not the way of Babel, the way of the world. He gradually purifies our wishes, enlarges our hearts, and shows us the true nature of those signs as signs of hope that bring us true joy when we are loyal to their true meaning, even when that entails going beyond them or rejecting them here and now.
When I thought Rachel may have had a good reason to left Bam behind, it was because these reasons exist in the path of true love. God pointed the stars to Abraham the nomad, old and sterile, promising to grant him the wish of his heart, to be the father of a great family, a great people. But when the time came, he had to renounce to everything, even to the son God had granted him, and hope against all hope, believing that God could even raise the dead. God gave Abraham what He had promised, and more that he could have ever hoped for, because that’s God’s own way of doing things, and that’s how He overcomes evil.
While they may not be not as corrupted as her, the characters of Kami no Tou generally reason like Rachel, not Bam. It was Hoh who was tempted and destroyed, but it could have been anyone. But sacrificial, generous, life-affirming, pure love like that of Bam, even if it entails suffering, has a great power of attraction, and its strength makes those who embrace it truly powerful. It creates communion. Its logic trumps the logic of this world, the logic of Babel, which rises against it, which tries to hurt it by temptation and scandal.
I hope Kami no Tou continues being the kind of show which illustrates this beautiful paradox. How those who cling to their own lives are lost, and see increasing despair, despite their efforts, but those who lose them for the sake of Christ, of the purer love there is, achieve true happiness. As Chesterton puts it in his Ballad of the White Horse:
“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;
“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery“.
Let’s fight, not the fight of Babel, chasing after idols and illusions, but the good fight against evil and sin. And may Leah/Rachel, full of light and hope, come to cry and find salvation, and receive as a gift the shine of the stars, with a heart that can accept it, and a thousand other stars in her firmament.
Tower of God can be streamed at Crunchyroll.