I started watching Now and Then, Here and There recently. It’s a show that easily mirrors some of my favorite kind of stories when it comes to war – the struggle of life on a battlefield where humanity is shown at its worst and best. I was expecting similar things, having heard that NTHT was “powerful” and “hard to watch,” but I didn’t quite get what I was looking for. At least, not in the way I expected it.
trigger warning: discussion of rape/abuse/genocide!
Now and Then, Here and There starts off rather undramatically. We’re introduced to Shu Matsutani, a boy who figuratively and literally embodies the “shonen spirit” – the power to never give into cynicism and give up. The first episode carries a foreboding tone to it as he ends up losing his first kendo match, but easily wipes off any disappointment from his face with a smile and proudly states that one day, he’ll defeat his rival. The optimism ends from there however, as Shu is kidnapped with a mysterious girl named Lala-ru to a dystopic and hellish environment where water is a limited resource and “countries” – in the form of battleships – are forced to wage war and kill to gain these resources. At the heart of this strife is cruel and mad tyrant who will do whatever it takes to get his hands on what he wants – which is, unfortunately, Lala-ru. As a result, Shu is trapped in a world where friendship seems meaningless, hope is the last thing to exist, and despair permeates every way of living.
It’s not a pretty picture, and Daichi pulls his punches one after the other. We go from imprisonment, to abuse, to torture, to rape, to whippings, and to mass slaughters. In episode 2, Shu is mercilessly beaten for not knowing where Lala-Ru’s pendant is. In episode 3, Sara – the girl whom Shu shares a prison cell with – is hinted to be repeatedly carried out for rape and sexual abuse. In episode 5, Shu is forced to join an army on kidnapping young children and the slaughter of women and older adults for imprisonment and eventual enlistment into the army. The downward spiral continues onward, and for every bleak moment there is in the show, there is Shu with his determined face, taking the brunt of humanity’s worst day by day. With this kind of ceaseless pessimism and darkness, Now and Then, Here and There could easily be misinterpreted as a Gen Urobuchi ripoff, but it’s clear that for one of the first (and few) times, these are not tropes being pulled off as mere shock factors. They are figuratively being used to express the true horrors of genocide and war, and the multitude of consequences that come with the aftermath.
And for this, I should be grateful. I should, but when I watch these things on the screen, I feel nothing. A child gets killed. Lala-Ru gets slapped. A cat mercilessly is beaten to death, its head tilted in the wrong direction and its eyes, hollow. I feel nothing. Abelia must command her soldiers to wage war on the battlefield, only to use a laser and wipe out half of her army while destroying a foreign battleship. Shu is bound and hung from the very tops of the ship, forced to stare at the desolate wasteland and starve till nightfall. I feel a slight twinge here, but even then, it is nothing. Every episode continues to get worse, but despite this, I don’t feel the punches. They’re there, but they lack impact. I bite my lip and try to think: is it the storytelling? Am I just not invested in the characters? Is the suspense of belief too heavy for my liking? No, it is none of these things….
It then strikes me: the power of Now and Then, Here and There isn’t the gruesome violence and small budding hope that carried throughout. It isn’t the thoughtful and well-in-context trope of rape for once, or the horror of child warfare. The punch to the gut for me is myself. I have become completely desensitized to the violences of the show, barely flinching an eye at what is being portrayed. And it makes me slightly sick as if somewhere, I had gone wrong.
Am I to blame? Media has become something of a mirror here. I’ve been accustomed to seeing acts of violence on this kind of scale, to the point where it’s only become common to find things like rape and bloody murders. I could flip on the TV this week, for instance, and tune into a show like Hannibal or The Following, and find distorted bodies that are artistically laid out to be both perverted and beautiful. I could see a foot being used for simple culinary pleasure. Or I could go to the movies and watch the sequel to 300 and find more sexual violence there. I could even turn on my Playstation 2 and put on something like Grand Theft Auto, or God of War – the list goes on. It’s everywhere, it’s been everywhere, and as a result, moves like these are nothing but common fodder for plot setup. There’s no real or lasting consequence for despicable actions when they’re used so apathetically, and as a result, I’ve become apathetic to the effects myself.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Now and Then, Here and There is necessarily better than these other shows/movies/games because it uses its tropes properly. Hannibal makes really great art of violence and I think that’s something to be said for itself. But I do think that whereas rape and violence are viewed as nothing but devices to move things forward and bulldoze through, Now and Then, Here and There examines the consequences of these atrocities. Sara in the show for instance, is never explicitly shown to be raped. But we see the effects of it every time when she’s thrown back into her jail. She is shown as a victim and she plays a central role in the story from the second episode onward as she struggles with her hatred and fear of what is happening around her and her own body. In most modern stories, this kind of thing would be downplayed, and Sara would just be some throwaway side character existing solely for someone’s pain or to show how terrible the world is. But here, she’s something more. She’s her own person. Nabuca is also a victim to abuse and brainwash and is forced to give horrible commands, but the story pivots these executions in such a way that it’s not really the executions that matter. It’s how they affect Nabuca and his slow erosion of faith in the neurotic King he follows. Once again, if we saw this kind of thing in today’s kind of series, it would be condensed into a mere happening, rather than something to be focused on and examined. Now and Then, Here and There thus doesn’t really suffer from “problems” in the conventional sense. The only problem here is an audience – me, a person who didn’t watch the show at the time it aired, in a period where violence was used more sparingly and with better consequences.
It’s said that Akaritoh Daichi made Now and Then, Here and There after reports of the Rwandan Genocide and it definitely shows. Make no mistake, Now and Then, Here and There is a period piece about the criminals of war and the military use of children. But it also is deeply unsettling that only 14 years later, it may speak volumes about the kind of media we’ve grown accustomed to and have seen as merely nothing but simple effects, when in fact, they are tropes used exploitatively and without significant purpose or context.