One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward; A Look at the Themes of Self Awareness and Individuality in Bounen no Xamdou

While me and Steven will do weekly episode reviews for anime, as well as overall reviews for shows we might have watched already or are not on air (marathoning), we also like to blurt out our thoughts on anime in a more coherent form, hence something called The Meta Dump. Here, you’ll find thematic essays ranging from characterization to plot, or more analytical things where we take a look at symbolism or opinions found in anime that we also have an opinion on.

So a week ago, I had the chance to livestream Bounen no Xamdou (or commonly known as Xam’d: Lost Memories) with my friends, which in itself was a great way to spend the summer break rewatching some good anime. However, I have to admit that on my first watching of Bounen, I was…disappointed with the ending, if not confused by the terminology and the universe of the series. Doing a rewatch helped me in more ways that one; not only did it give me entertainment, but it also allowed to me to get a better grasp of what the show tried to tackle in terms of themes, and most importantly, the character arcs.

Bounen no Xamdou is a heavy show. The first episode gives us spare time to really absorb the details of the world the characters live in and the setting they surround themselves in. We’re introduced to various things at the same time: a religion known as Ruikonism and its followers, a mysterious power called Xam’d, which is instigated through the seed of Hiruko, and a mass political and physical warfare that takes place at the center of where our characters are introduced: Sentan Island. While this seems no different than Bones’ earlier show, Eureka Seven (it’s often been said that Bounen is the spiritual successor of Eureka Seven) I personally find Bounen‘s universe far more diverse and complex than Eureka Seven‘s. The main drive of the show is the mystery of Xam’d; however, it’s not fully explained as to what Xam’d really is. Yes, it’s been stated that it’s the humanoid figure that people turn into when they are synchronized with the Hiruko seed, but I personally believe that the meaning of Xam’d- why the show is called Xam’d, Lost Memories- is more about tackling the philosophy and mentality of a fully aware, self-led life; something I hope to explain properly. (spoilers for the show follow!)

The main character, Akiyuki Takehara, is a teenage boy who lives his ordinary life with his two best friends on Sentan Island when he accidentally gives his ‘bus pass’ to a strange white haired girl, who turns out to be a terrorist of a religious organization. His life is changed, for better or for worse, when he is forcibly given the Hiruko, a seed that makes him turn into a Xam’d. Out of nowhere a girl (who looks extraordinarily like Nausicaa) named Nakiami comes and saves his life, taking him with her for him to better understand the origins and the intent of the Hiruko and the meaning of Xam’d. As much as this seems like your typical ‘boy meets girl, anime version’ story, it’s actually quite the opposite. The show instead focuses, individually, on both Nakiami and Akiyuki, exploring their character individually through the world of Xam’d.  While Nakiami’s arc is very Nausicaa-based, Akiyuki’s is more interesting to me because he doesn’t fit the typical shounen protagonist. Instead, his arc is emotionally moving to watch but also very philosophical in nature. Akiyuki’s role as the ‘hero’ of the story is subverted to becoming the model of the themes presented in the show. Akiyuki’s heroic deeds don’t happen until the last two episodes- only when his character narrative is fully established. His journey is essentially, our journey through the world of Xam’d.

Some food for thought, eh?

Akiyuki begins as a modest, humble teenager who acts pretty brashly despite having a good heart: in Episode 2, he bows his head and thanks the Captain for taking care of him, only to be punched in the face by her, because he hadn’t even introduced himself.  After being caught by a Humanoid, Akiyuki sincerely apologizes to Nakiami and does his training without much complaint. The interesting part of his arc then, begins when he begins to think. Not just think as a character in regular setting and restricted to plot movement, but rather as a character who tries to become self aware, with the very basic question: “Do you want to live?” Upon his training on the ship, Akiyuki is told to never stop thinking, or the Hiruko will consume him and his “heart will turn into stone.” Stagnancy then, is the root of the problem in being a Xam’d; not only must Akiyuki tackle what he is and how he must control it, but rather why he has become this so called Xam’d and what his purpose is: not just in his life, but the Hiruko’s as well. In other words: Akiyuki must understand the meaning of life, himself, and the purpose of the Xam’d.  It’s a lot to put on a teenager who only a few days ago was struggling to getting to school on time and dealing with parents who lived separately.

Akiyuki is not asked to just meditate over the existence of the Xam’d but physically experience it himself. The first half of the show then,  focuses on Akiyuki struggling to become more understanding and aware of his environment. Akiyuki first realizes the importance of keeping the Hiruko dormant; it attracts Humanoid lifeforms and only through consciously thinking about what he wants- and about others- does he manage to keep it calm. Thus, it can be said that the Hiruko is directly linked to Akiyuki not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. In episode 8, it’s shown that Akiyuki is able to reach a certain stage of being aware of his situation as a Xam’d- something that is only achieved through the training and admonishing of Nakiami. The problem is that Akiyuki can activate his Hiruko to an extent, but he cannot properly keep it under control and make sure that he doesn’t get consumed.. This can be related back to Akiyuki himself. He has grown to become accustomed to the Hiruko, and has accepted his life as a Xam’d and as a part of the family on the ship, but he still has yet to experience what it means to “live.” The notion of being a Xam’d is just not the process of turning into a fully fledged humanoid or even synching with it completely. It is the process of understanding yourself, but also understanding the root of your feelings; something that can be attributed to Buddhists’ idea of nirvana. Achieving completion of identity and becoming self-aware is what leads to attaining a ‘higher plane of being’. Akiyuki’s journey is no different. Completing his training, he decides to have a taste of the outside world and in the process, meets other Xam’d for the first time. Through meeting various sorts of people and how they struggle in their lives, not just with Xam’d but with personal loss, pain and existential questions, Akiyuki understands more about the value of life. The meaning of life itself may be unclear, or the path uncertain, but living for the sake of living- despite its tragedies and victories- is sometimes, the greatest courage of all. This still however, does not answer the true questions: What does the Hiruko and the Xam’d seek? What does he seek, and what does his life mean?

Ironically, to understand himself, Akiyuki must lose and struggle himself. In episode 14, his heart is turned into stone. Akiyuki’s transformation regresses to all but a mask covering his face, and he is kidnapped and forced to become a part of the slave trade, not knowing who he is or how he came to be there. Most importantly, he forgets his name– more than just words, but a face of who he is. Taken in by a kind lady, he becomes her servant, performing menial tasks like fixing the lights, or cleaning the floor. The loss of identity resonates strongly within him; the emptiness of not knowing who he is, or what he’s there for; these feelings create strife, stagnancy and sadness. Akiyuki throws himself off a cliff (literally) as one last, desperate attempt to remember his name. Even more ironic is the fact that he does not remember it himself- it is Haru, who calls him out, saving him from falling to his death but also from the nameless death he had been living himself. Stepping out from the dark and into the light, Akiyuki not just understands the importance of life, but individuality. To have a purpose in life, to have a name- to be given birth and given existence that isn’t meaningless, because nothing is in the end- that is the pain of living. But knowing yourself fully isn’t just knowing who you are; it is about the people who are important to you, and that in living for yourself, you also live for others’ sakes, to fulfill their happiness. To acknowledge who you are, in both your good and bad points: it is at this point, that Akiyuki becomes fully aware of who he is and has 100% synchronization with the Hiruko. As they say, “you never really understand the importance of something until you’ve lost it.”

“In accepting oneself and understanding oneself can one begin to fully be oneself.”

That’s not to say that you cannot fully become a Xam’d without understanding life; there are various spectrums of it, and Akiyuki happens to go through each of these spectrums. There are those who do not, and fail because of it. One notable example is Nakiami’s sister, who embeds the Hiruko into her own body out of resentment and pressure of being the leader of her clan. Her control is fueled by rage and sorrow; rage for the people who have pressured her, rage for the society that has banned her religion, and rage for not being chosen like her sister. Kurjireika’s raw power and understanding of how pathetic she really is- but using her cold, calm and reserved personality as a mask to shield herself away from acknowledging that is what fuels her control of becoming Xam’d, but also ends up making her a faulted one in the end.  Likewise, Haru’s sister, Midori, out of repressed guilt and jealousy for being the one to kill their mother, also turns into a Xam’d, though her Hiruko was forced into her body. She blames it on the one symbol that was always her weakness- her lost shoe, or the crippled leg that she thinks makes her weak and unsightly. Both girls’ sorrow becomes the power to transform into their Xam’d forms, but are the reasons as to why they cannot control it. Anger and sorrow as an excuse to live with purpose can only get you so far in life- they create a stagnant, unhealthy mentality and lead to personal victimization as well as a hazardous effect on the people around you.

From Akiyuki’s realization to the end of the show, the viewer understands that the purpose of the Hiruko is all but a red herring to the character arc of Akiyuki. It’s revealed through plot development as to what the Hiruko and Xam’d are made for, but nonetheless, that still carries a philosophical theme to it. The first Xam’d, termed the Emperor, is one made from the ultimate sense of stagnancy. If the Xam’d embody the beauty and pain of life, then the first Xam’d of stagnancy represents death and true non-existence. Not given a name, nor given a purpose, it screams of anguish, pain, despair and of not knowing what it is. It does not know Itself; and cannot ever become anything. It is the true darkness that lies in each of us- lies in Akiyuki, as seen. Akiyuki, in becoming the true Xam’d, and ultimately taking back the ‘Lost Memories’ of what it means to live for oneself, for others, and for life itself, destroys the Emperor on a metaphysical plane. Now that Akiyuki has understood himself, he gives the ultimate power- his own name, to the Emperor. He gives him a face, and a sense of purpose. The other Akiyuki, now brought into existence, no longer exists as an unexisted. Our Akiyuki however, in vanquishing his own name, loses himself once again; he falls from the sky, his heart and body turned to stone, faceless and lost.

Akiyuki, giving the Emperor his Name.

What happens next is probably one of the more unfortunate aspects of this show which led me to disappointment because it wasn’t worked out properly and thus, was cluttered and messy and didn’t seem to fit into the themes this show had been building up from the start. Nevertheless, Akiyuki’s arc from beginning to almost finish, is philosophically tied as it is relevant to the show. In journeying with him we understand the importance of self awareness and having an identity. What it means to struggle for yourself and for others in turn, and how courage in life doesn’t necessarily mean fighting on the battlefield, but rather facing your own fears and your own faults and accepting them as a part of you and trying to change for the better. While this is usually said in a very cheesy way in anime, Bounen takes these philosophical values at a deeper value and tells them thoroughly, if not truly. It could have overall, plot-wise, remained short due to an episode count that was far too small for the big tales it wanted to tell, it still did a great job of tying these themes into its characters, making the protagonist far more interesting and memorable to watch than most.

I will conclude with one  line from the show. “There’s an old saying in Tessik, when that life which returns to the earth, rises in stagnation ten thousand fold, darkness wil begin to rise. The soul who stands against it, battles a destiny set in stone. He bears with him a single thought, bearing fire, yet frozen. For his sake, for everyone’s sake. Didn’t you promise me, on that fateful day, that you wanted to live? Accept that your life will be painful. Bite back your grief, and find the power to stand again…Think! Akiyuki!”

Thank you for reading this.

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2 responses to “One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward; A Look at the Themes of Self Awareness and Individuality in Bounen no Xamdou

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I still remember the great impact this show had on me some years ago, something I couldn’t grasp back then. It wasn’t the artwork, not really the design of the world, not characters I would like to see in my own dreams. It was something deeper and far more important, something that stayed with me for years.

    I only understood the message and the mission this show had several months ago when I decided to finally understand what it is that makes me keep the memory of this story so close to my heart. There are so few such meaningful, life-changing plots around, this one deserves all the praise. Thank you for this article, thanks to it I could remember the show’s preciousness.

    I don’t know if it speaks only to a certain type of people, but I’m certainly that type.

  2. Pingback: Kino’s Journey and Buddhism | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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