Bokurano: Ours, Vol. 1

Among the most discussed scenes in the new Kick-Ass film is one that pits a tweenage assassin against a roomful of grown men. To the strains of The Banana Splits theme song, thirteen-year-old Hit Girl dispatches a dozen gangsters with a gory zest that has divided critics into two camps: those, like Richard Corliss, who found the scene shocking yet exhilarating, a purposeful, subversive commentary on superhero violence, and those, like Roger Ebert, who found it morally reprehensible, a kind of kiddie porn that exploits the character’s age for cheap thrills. What’s at issue here is not children’s capacity for violence; anyone who’s run the gauntlet of a junior high cafeteria or cranked out an essay on Lord of the Flies is painfully aware that kids can be beastly when the grown-ups aren’t looking. The real issue is that Hit Girl seems to be enjoying herself, raising the far more uncomfortable question of how children understand and wield power.

Mohiro Kitoh, creator of Shadow Star and Bokurano: Ours, likes to muck around in this uncomfortable space. In Shadow Star, for example, Kitoh pairs teens with powerful supernatural allies — in this case, “shadow dragons” — who become instruments not for fighting evil but for exacting revenge on their masters’ peers and asserting their masters’ primacy in the school pecking order. Shadow Star‘s graphic violence and sex scenes clearly made some folks uneasy, as a few of the later chapters were censored here in the US. (Dark Horse dropped the series before completing it.) Bokurano: Ours hasn’t crossed that line — at least not yet — but once again finds Kitoh subverting a familiar manga trope to suggest the darkness of the underage psyche. This time, he takes a stock shonen formula — kids piloting giant robots to save Earth from aliens — and gives it a nasty twist: the pilot of a successful sortie dies after completing his mission.

The first volume of Bokurano: Ours is neatly divided into three acts, the first explaining how Kokopelli, a mysterious computer programmer, dupes fifteen kids into “playing” this lethal game; the second profiling Waku, a brash jock who pilots the first mission; and third profiling Kodama, a ruthless loner who leads the second. In just a handful of pages, Kitoh establishes both boys’ personal histories and personalities with efficiency and nuance. Waku, for example, views his mission in the same light as a soccer match, as something to be won, while Kodama views his sortie with calculated detachment: by stomping flat an entire neighborhood, he hopes to create work for his father’s construction business. (He’s a youthful Donald Trump, minus the comb-over.)

As these first two sorties suggest, Kitoh seems intent on laying bare the unspoken truth about the giant-robot genre, that kids’ power fantasies are seldom as heroic and self-abnegating as we’d like to think; given the opportunity to control an enormous, destructive piece of machinery, many kids would just as soon turn it on others as save the day. His point is well-taken, but is driven home with such grim determination that it feels more punitive than insightful. The same could be said for his fight scenes, in which he meticulously documents the destructive effects of the children’s behavior. Kitoh’s robots look more like flesh-and-blood creatures than machines, making every body blow and puncture as viscerally real as a wound. The fights aren’t exciting; they’re exhausting, grim spectacles with terrible consequences for everyone caught in the crossfire.

Which brings me back to Kick-Ass: if a story’s tone is serious and dour, rather than cheeky and excessive, how are we to process the sight of young children committing terrible acts of violence? I wouldn’t go as far as Ebert and pronounce Bokurano: Ours morally reprehensible, as I think Kitoh recognizes that a child’s capacity for inflicting — and enjoying the sight of — pain comes from a different place than an adult’s, something that’s less self-evident in the Kick-Ass movie. At the same time, however, there’s something undeniably exploitative about Kitoh’s fondness for depicting children in peril; he seems to take pleasure in stomping all over the idea that children are more innocent and pure than adults, even though he’s devised an unfair scenario for testing that hypothesis. (As I note above, the kids are tricked into “playing” what they believe is a game, with no way to renege on their contract.) I’m not sure if his aim is to shock or simply tell unpleasant truths, but either way, his relentlessly pessimistic view of human nature wears thin fast.


9 thoughts on “Bokurano: Ours, Vol. 1”

  1. Danielle Leigh says:

    This a smart and compelling reading of the book and the significance of its representation of children’s capacity (perhaps even lust?) for violence. I enjoyed reading the first volume when it was serialized online but it wasn’t something I felt compelled to own (one of the few VizSig titles I probably won’t be following regularly).

  2. Erica says:

    This is exactly how I felt about Alien Nine, in which the ‘heroes’ have no say in the matter and suffer horribly through the entire process – effectively being mind-raped during every moment of their imposed position as saviors.

    It might make us think, but first we’ll need to therapy to get past the PSTD.



  3. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Danielle: Thanks, Danielle! I have to say that Bokurano was one of the only SigIKKI titles I didn’t like (well, aside from Bob and His Funky Crew, which I found resolutely unfunny).

    @Erica: Frankly, I may need some PTSD therapy after reading Bokurano. The fact that the kids have no say about whether or not they want to play the game really bothered me; I felt like I was reading some kind of grim torture porn.

  4. lumi says:

    I really liked Bokurano, anime as well as manga. It is very dark, but also very touching, especially some of the later stories. The children all have very different stories and motivations. And I actually felt that most of them were quite “innocent”, like clearly “good guys”. Kodama and one more later on were the exceptions, imho.

    The fights also get more exciting, with more tactics, when we learn more about the enemies and several things happening, so that not every battle turns out the same. I’m not sure how far you’ve read, but I think the series gets better later on, after the introduction is done. But well, the overall tone probably stays the same I guess.

    The kids might have no say for now, but as far as the setting goes – ugh, I don’t want to spoil you if you still plan to read on and I don’t remember how much has been explained in volume 1. But in general – the whole world actually has no say.
    Later the series features at least one pilot refusing to fight and others adding their “own touch” to the game. And more (adults) trying to get the children out of that whole mess, wanting to take their places etc.

    But in general the “children” factor never stood out so much for me, since the series also has a lot of adult characters important to the story. I took it mostly as a parody – because every mecha series will have children piloting the robots.

  5. Katherine Dacey says:

    Hi, lumi — thanks for offering a different perspective on the material! I understood Bokurano: Ours as you did — as a parody/subversion of the giant robot genre — I just didn’t enjoy it very much.

    As for your question, I’ve only read what was available through the SigIKKI site, so I’m not very far into the story. I did read a lengthy summary of the series that explained some of the key differences between the anime and manga; from what I read, it seemed like the anime director found the original material too bleak and contrived a way to save some of the principal characters. I think that’s what I would have done, too!

  6. Jade says:

    I’m enjoying the story, but I have to admit it’s moving into a hopeless territory that’s in danger of losing me. I enjoy bleak and dark stories, but there’s a line beyond which there’s no longer any mystery or suspense or really any real dynamic, the story just becomes a drudging march towards the inevitable dreary finish. Replace the characters in Runaway Bride with psychic murder children and it’s still no more engaging. But for an example of effective ‘torture porn’ Audition leaves us not knowing what will happen right through the very finish and there is constant human emotion at play rather than one-dimensional chimera born from social commentary and plastic allegory.

    On a side note to Kick Ass, I’m not Millar’s biggest fan, but the comic Hit Girl was played more as the over-bearing sport or hobby parent pushing their child to live out their own fantasies. The movie glamorised the father/daughter super-relationship and turned the parent pushing the child into some sort of misunderstood heroes thing with a clumsy dash of ‘Yay for alternative family lifestyles!’ Watching Hitgirl in the comic seeking approval from her father was gut-wrenching, but in the movie it was played as a cute little quirk to their supposedly healthy, but quirky family.

  7. Katherine Dacey says:

    Great point, Jade! I agree with you about the intent of the Hit Girl character (at least in the movie; I haven’t read the comic): she’s clearly meant to be a monstrous version of the over-coached, under-age pageant queen, violinist, or soccer player. Watching her in action, though, I felt a little queasy — there’s something disconcerting about watching a character that young do something so depraved, even if it’s being played for laughs. And I say that as someone who positively adores South Park! I guess I’m turning into an old fogey… or I’m totally inconsistent in my opinions!

    I’m also with you about depressing stories: I can hang in there for a while, but if it’s just unbearably sad or hopeless I’m likely to throw in the towel. There are a few exceptions — I love Sansho the Baliff and Umberto M, two of the saddest movies ever made — but generally I steer clear of no-win scenarios.

  8. Jade says:

    What I was getting at in the big problem with Hitgirl/Big Daddy is the conflicting presentation. On the one hand, you have that pageant kill queen being pushed into the super business and that reflects badly on Big Daddy. But on the other, there are vague and clumsy hints at homosexuality in Big Daddy along with attempts to present him as a healthy and normal, but single and gay father of the year. The conflicting presentations end up cancelling each other out and the audience is left with no way to key into the internal morality of the story, no way to take sides and so we’re left to bring our own real-world baggage into the theatre and make judgement unfair judgement calls on a work of art (so to speak). South Park does well enough with presenting a consistent internal morality that we can shed our egos when stepping into their world and enjoy the work objectively.

    Bringing this all around full circle, this is a problem I also have with a lot of bleak works. When the world is based on such nihilism that there is no truth, I can’t really make a concious investment in the stream of chaotic events taking place without bringing my own ego to bear. When a work asks me to bring my own thought and logic into it, great, objectivity can still be maintained, but when it tells me all is nothing, I’m going to chew it over anyhow and skew things as I please. Truth to be told, that’s the only way I can enjoy a Cohen Brothers movie.

    A robot moves, a child dies. If there’s nothing beyond that causal cycle of events, it’s a coin flip what a random stranger will read into and thus enjoy about it unless they really just enjoy seeing children die. And if the events themselves are handing me that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern coin every time, why bother? I could be playing Minesweeper instead and work up my own insight over that.

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