[Synopsis]: During summer camp, 15 children have a chance encounter with a mysterious man named Kokopelli (Touchi Hiroki) who claims to be making a game wherein a giant robot defends Earth from alien invaders. Excited by the premise, the children agree to a contract in order to test the game. Later that night, they are teleported aboard one of two immense robots that have materialized near the beach and watch as they do battle. They then learn that the remaining fights to come are their responsibility and that the nature of their battles is far less a game than they were led to believe. Locked into a hopeless situation, the children strive to live their lives and win their battles in a bout that may claim their very lives.
To understand the characters of Bokurano, one must first understand both the premise and formula of the show. Traditionally, a cast featuring as many as 20 primary characters would come under a great deal of trouble – unable to balance out screen time and character focus. Bokurano avoids this convoluted fate but at a cost. Rather than busying itself in trying to play up each of the characters simultaneously, their introductions and whatever development they might possess are done fairly episodically. This allows for each of the children to have their own time in the spotlight and plenty of breathing room however this often cuts short the time that you know them. For the most part, nobody is allowed to have extensive character arcs or intricate insight because they only truly exist for the span of 1 or 2 episodes.
In avoiding the issue of balancing its cast, Bokurano sacrifices the memorability of its characters. The way in which the children are contextualized and explored is often through flashbacks or short vignettes about their life. There’s a good deal of variance between each of these episodes and some children end up being a lot more interesting than others but its fair to say a handful of them offer engaging enough stories. Fortunately, the further into its story Bokurano gets, the more time it spends on fleshing out some of its characters but it primarily revolves around this formulaic cycle of highlighting them individually. One’s enjoyment of the show likely hinges a lot on how much they can empathize and connect with each character when their individual moment comes around.
As a whole, there are a few likable characters but perhaps nobody that is particularly noteworthy beyond the scope of the show. Something else that Bokurano seemed to struggle with was in portraying the emotion and drama of its characters. In piloting Zearth, the name the children bestow upon their robot, the children and their enemies wreak absolute havoc and devastation. Countless thousands die, mountain ranges are obliterated, and even members of their own party die off but the general reaction of the characters is something bordering on apathy. They don’t seem to realize the full weight of the drama and danger around them and opt to instead simply move from one scene to the next without much of an emotional focus. Bokurano does get better about this as it progresses and people start behaving in a more believable, authentic, and emotional way. It’s oddly stunted in this regard in a couple areas and doesn’t fully live up to its dramatic possibilities.
While not really a damaging part of Bokurano’s presentation, its visuals certainly avoid being a strong point. The art style itself is a bit dated and the animation pretty lackluster and slow but one point of praise is the show’s grounded aesthetic. The show feels like it takes place in a real city and the diverse set of character designs all feel like they belong within the setting. The robot Zearth, along with its enemies, are rendered in CG however they match relatively well against the backgrounds and don’t stand out too much.
While the premise of the show might inspire in the viewer images of colossal and awesome robot battles, Bokurano doesn’t really deliver on that point. The combat between each of the robots is clunky and slow-going – Zearth typically opting to bash the opponent about with its would-be-forearms rather than executing anything particularly flashy or impressive. It’s dull to watch but it does add a certain amount of realism to the scenes. In the same way that the characters and environment appear grounded, so too do these bulky and unwieldy robots. That being said, Bokurano’s action scenes don’t present much of a reason to watch the show.
In many ways, Bokurano’s single greatest asset is its story and subject matter. It starts out feeling very rushed and awkward. There’s no buildup or preamble before the children meet Kokopelli and are suddenly forced into piloting Zearth against an alien threat – the story gets going in a matter of minutes.The second episode then threatens an extremely formulaic future for the show however luckily this isn’t entirely the case. As I discussed priorly about the way in which the show highlights its characters, Bokurano has an exceedingly clearcut pattern however its story is littered with occasional developments, subversive elements, and attention to detail.
What’s so striking about Bokurano is how surprisingly dark and grim it occasionally becomes. The premise itself involves each of the students taking turns piloting Zearth in a battle that will likely claim their lives and the manner in which they are chosen is this twisted, visualization of musical chairs. During the battles, cities are flattened and thousands die. The backstories of each of the children are pretty somber and between intimate student-teacher relationships, attempted rape, and corrupt government interest, Bokurano presents an unusually harsh world. This frees it up to be subversive and brutal in some respects. Its presentation gets steadily less formulaic as the story unfolds and something that’s worth noting is its unusual attention to detail in how it answers the questions a viewer might pose.
As the children struggle to come to terms with their predicament and fend off alien invaders, a handful of themes arise that somewhat mirror Bokurano’s darker subject matter. Because each battle threatens to claim the life of the person who fights it, the children are effectively forced to become martyrs for whatever they believe in. The fight that then ensues is less about their robot versus the invader but more of a manifestation of their own personal struggle and internal strife. Themes of confronting death, valuing life, and finding something to believe in are often featured in each of the children’s stories. While these themes aren’t developed as much as they could have been, they offer a cohesive backdrop to the show.
The soundtrack isn’t anything particularly memorable and while it doesn’t go as far to hinder the scenes it appears in, it doesn’t do much in the way of supporting them either. There aren’t really any cases where the soundtrack dominates the scene and so it mostly exists in the background of the show.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Bokurano isn’t quite what you might anticipate at face-value. It’s more twisted and detailed than it initially lets on but it never quite develops anything to the degree which would make it truly worthwhile. It has a series of important and dramatic developments that keep the plot entertaining but the narrative is severely hamstrung by how little time the show spends with each character. Bokurano offered surprising pragmatism in some events and the role of the government in the show was an interesting one however it ultimately didn’t amount to much.
I gave Bokurano a 4 because, though it offered some occasionally interesting developments and exceptionally grim circumstances, its generally formulaic approach and lackluster audiovisuals kept it from becoming something more impressive. The brevity of Bokurano’s investigations into each of the children cripples their appeal which is important because it doesn’t have much narrative to speak of outside of what the children are going through both together and individually. It has subversive elements and the potential to surprise you but as a whole its presentation leaves it feeling forgettable despite these minor successes.
I would recommend Bokurano to people looking for something a little twisted. Fans of bleak circumstances and depressing themes should find the various character vignettes and disturbing plot developments engaging. After it gets its feet on the ground, it can be fairly dramatic and so it’s likely worth looking into for that reason as well.