Review: Now & Then, Here & There
Episodes: 1-13 (complete)
Genre: Alternate Reality, Drama, War
(Note: this review was written more than 10 years ago)
There are some anime shows out there that are like a warm greeting from a stranger: unexpected acts of kindness that brighten your day. There are other anime shows which are like a sudden punch in the gut: an attack on your being, leaving you gasping for breath. And there are some anime shows which are like grieving friends: you lend your heart to them, to help ease the pain you both suffer. Now and Then, Hear and There is an anime which is all three of these things.
One of the things that directly contributes to the power of Now and Then are the perceptions the viewer brings with them. In the first episode one is introduced to Shu as he attacks life with boundless enthusiasm and vigor. A Kendo sparring match demonstrates that Shu is not quite capable of grasping the subtleties of the art form while also demonstrating his dedication at getting better. As Shu is walking home he notices a girl sitting atop an abandoned factory’s smokestack, apparently enjoying the beautiful sunset. Shu climbs up a neighboring smokestack and attempts some conversation, but is only able to make out the girl’s name: Lala-ru. At this point in the anime, it seems as though a solid foundation has been laid for yet another light-hearted romantic comedy of some sort, especially considering this series is directed by Akitaroh Daichi who directed Fruits Basket, Sexy Commando, and Elf Princess Rain. This perception is further strengthen by the character designs of Atsushi Ohizumi, whose simple compositions speak of earlier times in anime’s past.
This perception is challenged by the final moments of the first episode and is completely shattered before the beginning of the fourth. A descent of this magnitude – into a story of violence, torture, rape, murder, and suffering – is masterfully and steadily controlled by Daichi. His skill in more serious endeavors (versus his previous anime) is evidenced not only in the scenes themselves, but also in the order of such scenes; the descent into decadence and madness is truly a descent, not merely a plummet, and that makes it all the more powerful.
What makes the scenes and the series in general so gripping are the characters. Shu, which seemed the kind-hearted but otherwise bumbling protagonist becomes something so much more as the story progresses: Shu becomes the literal personification of hope. His lively banter and unwavering optimism in the face of his own torture and enslavement in the child-soldier army of Hamdo, help keep the experience from being too mired in its own despondency. It is clear that Shu is naive, that his wishes for peaceful resolutions are not going to be possible, but when faced with the hopelessness of the rest of the cast and the horrors they create and endure, the viewer finds in Shu relief, respite from the pain and yes, even hope that maybe some miracle will save them all. Hamdo is the psychotic and completely insane ruler of the (unfortunately named) fortress Heliwood, and remains perhaps the best antagonist ever penned. He alternates between obsessed megalomaniac convinced that he is on a holy war for the salvation of the world, and a sniveling, inept coward whom can only rely on his second-in-command, Abelia, in the moments that truly matter. It is not an altogether large leap to state that Hamdo’s character is simply a collage of historical military dictators, but that does not detract from Daichi’s ability to direct nor Hideyuki Kurata’s ability to write in the least.
Indeed, it is when Now and Then is looked upon as historical case study of human beings during times of great strife and warfare that one can see the genius behind its execution, especially in terms of the remaining major characters. Abelia is the uncompromising and seemingly uncaring top female lieutenant for Hamdo, and is most often the target of his childish tantrums. While her character is not entirely explored as well as it could have been, Abelia nonetheless remains quite the conundrum. One wonders at why she stays so unshakably loyal to so obviously deranged a beast, while at the same time taking pity upon as such an obvious danger that Shu represents.
Another character that is far deeper than first appearances suggest is the child-soldier, Nabuco. Put in simple terms, if Hamdo represents Hitler/Stalin, then Nabuco represents the common man in Germany/Russia. Nabuco follows the orders of his superiors to the very best of his ability despite knowing full well what pain and anguish they bring, no matter how evil those orders might be. He does so out of fear – of punishment inflicted not upon just himself, but upon the other children as well – but also out of hope – a promise Hamdo made that once the war was over everyone would be able to go back home. Through Nabuco one is able to better understand why the common German people did nothing to stop the atrocities that went on around them: the same fear and hope Nabuco experiences. Nabuco is more than simply a placard for the people however, and his personal conflict when subjected to Shu’s unhesitant criticism of the morally corrupt system Nabuco helps maintain, intentionally or not, represents one of the greatest tragedies Now and Then conveys.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the series though, is expressed through the suffering of Sara. This is an American girl who was dragged through the time portal into the future just as Shu was, however she was with her family at the time and was taken simply because she resembled Lala-ru, not due any sort of heroics on her part. It would have been obvious once she arrived in the future that she was not Lala-ru, but she was imprisoned just the same. Sara meets Shu in the prison cell after his torture, where he tries to convince her that everything will be all right as long as they are alive. Everything is not all right however, and Shu is carted off to join the child-soldiers and Sara taken by Nabuco to another soldier’s bedroom, to a fate that is altogether too horrible to bear. Seeing the deterioration of Sara from the lost girl Shu meets in the prison cell to the grizzled survivor she becomes is one of the most painful things I have ever seen in an anime, period.
The ancient being in girl form, Lala-ru, is the catalyst of the series and the object of everyone’s desires but she also stands somewhat as silent witness to the depravity of the human spirit – a sort of living history. Her words begin each episode of Now and Then: “Because 10 billion year’s time is so fragile, so ephemeral… it arouses such a bittersweet, almost heartbreaking fondness.” She confesses to Shu that in this time, five billion years into the future, there are no longer any good people. Thus while the plot-line itself revolves around trying to keep Hamdo from exploiting the powers of Lala-ru – which is the ability to produce fresh water in the desert wasteland of the future – it becomes clear that the greater goal is Shu trying to convince – to Lala-ru, Sara, and the rest of the audience – that there are still good people left in the world. This emotional struggle, facilitated by characters who not only represent real people but are real people, is what gives Now and Then real power.
Composer Taku Iwasaki also assists masterfully in this regard with a soundtrack that is as much soothing as it is crushing. The main theme, Standing in the Sunset Glow, is simply a beautiful piece which continues to accumulate a deeper meaning with each passing episode. Decadence, Rescuer, and Tumbling are fast-paced tracks which create a level of fear/anxiety using techno sounds and stringed instruments that I have not experienced in quite some time. The aptly-named Tears is one of the saddest songs of the entire series, being beaten only by the absolutely haunting Komoriuta, which plays at the end of every episode. Truth be told, there really is not a happy tune in the entire series, as even contenders such as One Calm and the aforementioned Standing in the Sunset Glow remind more of friends and innocence lost than hope regained.
Now and Then, Here and There is quite simply one of the most griping and surprising emotional dramas I have ever seen; its themes and its characters speak of a level of maturity not often seen in anime. This superb treatise on the Human Condition written by Kurata, given a face by Ohizumi, given a voice by Iwasaki, and finally brought to life by Daichi, is something worth experiencing at almost any cost. Never before has so much been done in thirteen short episodes; so much love, hate, suffering, bitterness, despondency, tragedy, and ultimately, hope. If there is one resonating truth in Now and Then, Here and There it would be one of hope. Hope in the face of pain, in the face of defeat, in the face of death. For sometimes hope is all there is to hold onto.
And sometimes, hope is enough.