Manga-ka: Moiro Kitoh
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: February 2009
Synopsis: “Saving the world is hard. Saving yourself is even harder. One summer, 15 kids innocently wander into a nearby seaside cave. There they meet a strange man who invites them to play an exciting new video game. Sounds like fun, right? This game, he explains, pits a lone giant robot against a horde of alien invaders. All they have to do is sign a simple little contract. The game stops being fun when the kids find out the true purpose of their deadly pact.”
Mohiro Kitoh’s Shadow Star was an unsettling yet somehow charming series. It combined the wonder of the assorted adorable battle monster anime that populated fandom around the time it debuted in North America, with a dark take on the unpleasant aspects of adolescence as its heroine Shina and her new friend Hoshimaru confronted other teens with decidedly less chipper attitudes and sinister friends of their own. Bokurano continues the strange combination of childhood wonder with the grim nature of humanity that Shadow Star had, this time in the giant robot genre. In some ways, it is a more tranquil series, yet in others just as brutal as Shadow Star.
The series kicks off with the characters attending a summer school retreat. Mirroring the opening chapters of Shadow Star as the characters meet while at the beach, the children of Bokurano come across a strange man named Kokopelli in a cave by the sea, and soon become enlisted to take part in a game. Sold on a fantastic new game featuring aliens and giant robots, the kids are given the fantasy they were promised, with consequences they quickly become acquainted with.
Each chapter focuses in on a different cast member, the initial chapters being themed towards Kokopelli and introducing the large ensemble cast. Primarily junior high students – with the exception of Jun’s little sister Kana – the cast is almost evenly split between male and female pilots, creating a classroom like environment. Indeed, we’re introduced to the cast during summer camp, as they befriend each other over their vacation, before heading back to their respective homes and towns. Each of the children has their own quirks that slowly emerge across the two volumes, foreshadowing how they will handle their turns at piloting the robot they name Zearth.
The series starts off quite jovially before plunging into giant robot battles, knowing when to slow the plot down to reflect on the changes that occur in the characters lives. The aliens attacks are irregular, with little foreshadowing, leading the crew of Zearth to slip back into their daily lives before being interrupted by robot battles. After several encounters, the reality of their situation sets in, and the beauty of the story comes in how the children chose to adapt to it, embracing or rejecting their status as the new saviours of humanity.
Kitoh’s artwork has always proved fascinating. Delicate line work that is simultaneously sketchy, his characters look achingly fragile, standing strong and firm despite their small stature and thin frames. His cast is even more differentiated than that of Shadow Star, as he artfully balances the cast of 15 children, along with their accompanying families and others in their lives. Each chapters takes on a different setting, even more memorable than the strange giant monsters Zearth battles, from a quaint resort area to a close-knit family home.
From a warm personable mother and daughter living on their own, to a boy who is seemingly unattached to others until the one person he loved is torn from him, Kitoh takes on both dark and light territory in his story. His artwork is extremely emotional, conveying many small details with his character designs and interactions. The comic changes its scenery to suit these themes, from the sort of garish overpriced car one only imagines owning in middle age, to a girl slaving over a sewing machine in her two family home. Daiichi’s home bears all the markings of a large family loving and living their lives in it, overcoming a past that would shock many of the other children. Touches such as these reflect how Kitoh’s stories are deeply personal as they focus in on the characters worlds while drawing the camera out for some spectacular yet tragic battles.
Contrasting against the personality of the characters home lives, Zearth is a cold, alien creature, and the scenes of destruction enacted by him and the aliens are reminiscent of classic super robot shows with their monsters-of-the-week and even earlier to the Japanese monster films of the 60’s such as Godzilla. It’s appearance is insect-like, a deep black colour to distinguish it from the primarily white “aliens”, with a design that appears more organic than robotic. Indeed, subsequent revelations show it to be something more than simple gears and leads one child to suspect it’s somehow alive. Inside, the robots cockpit is sterile, white and without a defined space, as the cast’s chairs float above it, reinforcing the classroom environment. Each chair is personalized to the children, many simply their classroom chairs reflecting their daily lives, others their families, such as Maki‘s crib representing her soon to be born baby brother. This personalization becomes all the more important when Zearth’s true nature is revealed.
Further sinister design elements are carried over into the mascot character, Koyemeshi, a floating, teddy bear eared sidekick, with a cheerful grin loaded with serrated teeth. So many of these elements are drawn from the traditions of children’s anime and manga, but subverted in a fashion that mirrors the nostalgic views adults have of pleasant childhoods that are often not entirely so. Nevertheless, the series manages to give these aspects a tangible sense of wonder, as these fantastic elements weave themselves into the children’s lives. It mirrors how what might seem like tragic elements in their lives are often quite happy ones. People can find happiness in otherwise grim situations, a theme Bokurano exploits to the utmost.
VIZ’s presentation is rather solid, using the standard Sig Ikki use of oversized trim, art on the interiors of the cover, and french flaps. These elements agree with Kitoh’s choice of a wraparound cover, as does the appropriate choice of using a notebook theme for the title and end pages. Sound effects are retouched and translated, providing a smooth read, with a few unobtrusive translation notes for some cultural elements. There was an apparent issue with a panel being censored but it has no effect on the story and was likely done with Kitoh’s participation.
Kitoh doesn’t shy away from societal issues, using classroom drama, family issues and school life elements as part of each child’s story, leading to some occasional unsettling moments. Nevertheless, I highly recommend Bokurano for fans of thoughtful, story-driven manga for mature readers. For those familiar with the wish fulfillment themes of so many manga titles, this series is a dark spin and a celebration on those elements, with rewarding, devastating lessons to share with us all.