Everyone is going to die—everyone on this Earth is going to die. That’s not exactly news. But to have this notion in some corner of your mind is very different from actually seeing the day come, like a spinning roulette in which your number may just come up next. To know that, before the moment arrives, you will have to go through a lot, and what for? You may achieve some things, but the show will go on, the people you know will just keep living, and then die in turn. So many hopes, plans, bonds, ideas, are going to just be left hanging there. But those are the field, the ball and the rules.
A time, long or short, passes. And, suddenly, it’s your turn. So, what will you do?
1995’s Evangelion brought to the mecha genre fascinating ideas about the pressures of adult society, the flaws, anxieties, and struggles of a typical teen, the pain of personal relationships, and the disorienting life in which you’re pressed to fight while the reasons for doing so are increasingly tainted and distant. 2011’s Madoka, for its part, showed us a rigged world in which heroism itself may be a trap, and the interior darkness grows and grows.
Those are great, essential topics. But perhaps no other mecha is so worthy of being considered the spiritual successor of Evangelion, or to deal with Madoka‘s themes so well, as the old-looking, fast-paced, disturbing, beautiful, wholly devastating, and strangely hopeful Bokurano (Ours) in 2007. A dire show, for sure, with themes, among others, of suicide, parental abandonment, trauma and, in one episode, a disturbingly realistic case of sexual abuse of minors.
But what a great show, nevertheless.
Fifteen kids from very different backgrounds, eight boys and seven girls, are together in a summer camp of sorts on Mitomo Island. Some are kind, some are strong, some are insufferable, some are, well, evil. When they are exploring a cave with computers, a strange man offers them the chance at playing a game. They will get to pilot a giant robot against fifteen monsters which will attack Earth. They will all have a weakness in some different point. The robot looks cool, and they agree.
And there is a contract: They just have to say their names aloud, and the robot will be theirs. They accept. And then, the man disappears. “Kids. I’m s-”
And here comes the twist. In the second episode (spoilers), Waku, by then apparently our main character, with compelling hopes, flaws and dreams, is already planning on a secret identity and a hidden superhero career, “Zearth.” But he receives a friendly elbow as he descends victoriously from the robot, and suddenly falls off a cliff. The police, though, discover that he was already dead when he started to fall. As it turns out, piloting the robot sucks your life energy, and you will be dead in the moment you descend from it. But refuse, and the whole Earth will be destroyed. Besides, the confirmed collateral damage of the robot battle are 153 mortal victims. And the contract meant that nobody else can pilot the thing but them.
So, here you have it. Everyone is going to die.
What are we to make of a series that keeps punching us like this? Among the creations of the Golden Age of sci-fi that I read as a teen, one that stays with me to this day is Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations, from 1954 (you can find it here). A stowaway girl is found by a pilot in a single-seat spaceship that is transporting vital medical supplies to a faraway colony where her brother lives. She thought of giving him a surprise. But there is not enough oxygen, and nowhere to stop. All the alternatives are explored. And in the end, spoilers for the story, she has to jump.
The editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell, sent back the story to the writer three times, because Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl which where not honest to the tale. It’s no wonder. You rebel. You want literally anything else to happen. That feeling is almost unanimous. But when I took a look to some of the responses, the blaming of the engineering designers, of the author, of anybody, or even more clever solutions, none of them have the silent power of the girl facing the great darkness of space.
As with The Cold Equations or Infinite Ryvius, Bokurano is a show that at times has to be endured rather than enjoyed. As with the characters, you may be tempted to step away and not watch what you know it’s going to transpire. But, if you actually manage to endure it, you may find, amidst the pain, a deep compassion, a strange hope. The wish to be more kind, to be better. To put things in perspective. The feeling, perhaps, that we are not so different, and that every human being, even as he or she dies, bears the image of the living God, a common narrative frame which conveys the story of an unique, precious human life.
Bokurano is also a story that will stay with you.
“It came from beyond the extreme reaches of our reality, / It came to laugh at our naive existences. / I am puzzled by the truth that slips through my hands even as I cover my ears. / Where in this thin body do I find the strength to stand?” As this review says, “Uninstall”, the opening song which depicts every character, slowly becomes a tribute to them as the show goes on. The characters are very different, and they will face death very differently. But their story is one, and not unrelated to our own, as the show itself notes.
You have selfish and generous kids, rich and poor, smart and dumb, suicidal and desperate to live, rebellious or eager to please, and heroes, too. But all their experiences have a common frame. They are all terrified. They may find the strength to succeed, or they may not. Their secrets, their parents, their schools, their environments, their government, the corporations, their hobbies, their world, everything is at stake, and everything is going to have a role in their battle. And, as their alien guide mocks and belittles them, and tries to throw them against each other, they invite us to look at them with a look of horror and compassion, and often admiration, and keep each of them company to the bitter end.
And the question is not an easy one. “What should I fight for?” “This Earth.” “That’s not really striking a chord with me.” “Anything will do. Think of something you want to protect.” Well, if you expand the “everyone is going to die” idea sufficiently, that probably won’t hold. Another person will die next week, so what is the point? I’ll only say that Bokurano does not give an easy answer, but it won’t cave in to despair or “bow before the iron crown,” as Tolkien put it.
As Kana, Waku, Chizu, Moji, Daichi, and the rest of the children of Bokurano, the twelve Apostles of Our Lord were from different backgrounds, regions and political stances. They were twelve, like the sons of Jacob who had founded the tribes of Israel.
There was Simon the Zealot, of the violent political faction, and Matthew, a despised Publican who collaborated with Rome. Peter, the Fisherman from Galilee, and Andrew, his brother and a disciple of John the Baptist. John, who was one, too, but at the same time had some connection to Jerusalem and the High Priest. James, his brother, whom with he shared a heated character, and Nathaniel, who abhorred Nazareth, and his friend Philip, to whom to Greeks talked during the feast. Thomas, who suggested to go and die with Christ, and for whom it was so hard to believe in the resurrection, James the Lesser and Jude Thaddeus, of whom we know little, and Jude Iscariot, the traitor. And, beginning with James, son of Zebedee, killed by Herod, they suffered grisly, violent fates while fighting to save the people of this world, to the ends of the Earth. Much as in Bokurano, or our lives, chair after chair was left empty.
The Church would not die. Their chairs would be filled. But persecution didn’t take the Apostles by surprise. Their Lord, who loved each of them with such a personal love, knew about this, and had warned them. “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”
So, how are we to stand, to defend love, the burning value and meaning of what we have inside and see in others, to face death in such a dire world? Not just by ourselves, perhaps, but maybe as vessels, and witnesses, of an undying hope, of a love both universal and personal that will give us strength. “No matter how much he was betrayed, Dad loved his Earth.” God the Father so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that He would bring each of us everlasting life.
It is by no means an easy path. “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” For others, and in a wonderful way, also for themselves. The logic of the Kingdom of Heaven is the one manifested at the Resurrection. Dying for love will bring back life. Actual, tangible, biological life. The resurrected Christ ate a fish. We will truly be together again, as that summer day on Mitomo Island.
Christ links the prophecy about the persecution of the Apostles to others about the end of all which the Apostles knew. Of the Temple, of their political community, and then with the end of the world. “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the Earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” The final day of Earth will come, too.
But destruction will not have the last word. “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” There is a growing, powerful hope at the heart of Bokurano. When the giant wave is over us, when the cold equations point to zero, when our name comes up on some rigged Russian roulette, when a capricious autocrat decides to dispose of us, when war comes with fire and fury, when the sky itself trembles, we may recognize and embrace this strange hope, and love, and fight.
That something won’t die or lose its meaning, even if the universe itself isdestroyed. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” That some branches flourish, notwithstanding the ultimate winter. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”
Human life has a rich, near-infinite variety, and also a common, universal frame we all share. It’s a story of love and meaning, of personal relationship and communion, of the body and the universe, of sin and salvation, of an undying thirst and a powerful rescue, for one and the world, accepted or rejected. What God reveals to us through His word and His Church is nothing less than the true narrative frame of our own lives. In time, every truth of the faith will unveil to us something that always was an important part of our heart and our personal story, even if we never knew.
Maybe the answer is hard to accept, but the mystery, the overflow of meaning of the human life and the human heart, is there for everyone to see. And it will come to an entire universe wiped out or saved, standing through the great tribulation.
So how do we face death? Clinging to Christ, the Son of God, the meaning of universe, who loved us first. Trying to imitate Him. Repenting of our sins, the void of lovelessness that can destroy our deep selves.
But, once we know this, we must be vigilant. Those around the children of Bokurano are often fast to forget the deep truth that their witness conveys. “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Loving in the moment, asking for “our daily bread,” requires us to balance the hope of a day beyond pain and dark situations with an embrace of God’s will. Earlier this year, our writer Claire wrote a fascination article about Wonder Egg Priority‘s “Temptation of Death.” I’m not sure I fully agree with everything, but I agree that we shouldn’t forget either the “now” or the “at the hour of our death” aspect of our lives in Christ.
“How much better for us,” says the demon Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ witty and poignant Screwtape Letters, “if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.”
The Book of Job adds, “The life of man upon earth is a warfare.”. We are the disciples of the Lord, Israel, the church. We have an army of friends, of companions of all times and nations, that look at us from their humble thrones, in the presence of the Lamb. We are the ones who can say: “I saw them win. And now I’ll win for them, no matter what!” We are the ones that can put an end to the cycle of tragedy and destruction, with the help of Christ.
We have also those who live in this world, fighting like us, or perhaps lost in their labyrinths, or fighting against us. They are part of us, of our story, and we are part of them. And whoever we are, whatever our flaws, whatever we may have done, we have Christ, who died for us. However great may be the wave of destruction we face, He is always offering us the strength, the compassionate love, the path. After all, He came to this earth to share a suffering and a death that was not His, but ours. And He did it voluntarily. “No one takes my life from me. I give it up willingly. I have the power to give it up and the power to receive it back again.”
So, my Bokurano companion, whoever you may be, stand up, and lift up your head. Live, be vigilant, repent, fight, hope against all hope. Cling to others, cling to your brethren, cling to Christ. Love. Do not exclude anyone. Keep company to those who die, and give them hope, too. Face the last day. Your battle has meaning, and you can win. There is real potential for communion, and we are not alone.
May each of us fight his or her own battle, until the last of us, and may we met again at the other side. Alive, in a world that is truly ours.
Bokurano can be streamed at Crunchyroll.