Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.
Bokurano: The Unheard
When we talk about deconstructions in the anime community, especially those within the mecha genre, the one name that almost always pops up is studio Gainax’ 1995/6 postmodern epic Neon Genesis Evangelion. It also almost single-handedly popularized the approach in the anime medium, and its influence is still notable, two decades later.
But there is also a name that doesn’t come up as often as Neon Genesis Evangelion, unfortunately. Bokurano, similar to Evangelion, is a deconstruction of familiar mecha tropes that we’ve come to see in the genre since its prime days.
Adapted from—and completed long before—the 2004-2011 manga by the same name, Bokurano had the unfortunate fate of being released in a year bombarded with titans such as Baccano! And Lucky Star. It really didn’t help that this series was released around a time when its producing studio—Gonzo—suffered financial problems.
I honestly only heard about this show from obscure forum comments, a certain Youtuber with a knack for finding lesser known titles, and a mind-blowing masterpiece of an opening theme. And boy howdy, were they right about Bokurano’s testament as a superb anime.
Format: 24 episodes
Release: April 8, 2007 – September 25, 2007
Story & Setting
The story of Bokurano starts off innocently enough when a group of fifteen kids relax on a beach together before one of them notices a cave laying close-by. With nothing better to do, all of the kids enter the cave to find it filled with computers and electronic devices. It is there when they meet a mysterious middle-aged professor who refers himself as Kokopelli.
Kokopelli then asks the group if they want to help him with a game (“game”) he is developing, which is to control a mountain-sized mecha to fight off fifteen other mecha that are destined to attack the world. The kids, assuming it’s just a harmless game, agree to sign up a pact for the game.
Up to this point, Bokurano appears to be quite familiar to many other modern mecha and generally heroic anime, of chosen children who will fight to save the world. However, there is a catch here, and if you - my precious readers - prefer to not spoil yourselves this gem of a series, do yourselves a favor and stop reading this review and just go and watch the series first before coming back.
Okay, so let’s reveal right away the big hook (but obviously not the only one) about Bokurano’s mecha piloting system; controlling the giant robot - named Zearth - requires… a special kind of fuel, that is being the pilot’s very own life force. Once the battle has been won, the pilot will die by having their life force completely depleted.
This is what Bokurano’s story about; it’s a tale of naivety, sacrifice and the very purpose (or lack thereof) of life. All fifteen pilots, whether they’ll accept this fate or not, WILL die, and no one can run away, because running away may very cost them the very existence of the planet.
From there, Bokurano begins to delve into uncomfortable yet bold questions, and sometimes even bolder answers, the biggest of them being what will a person do if they knew they were going to die soon, and what will happen to their loved ones following their passing. Those two questions are also asked in the backdrop of an apathetic world that doesn’t care for its saviors’ names or fates at all.
This isn’t your typical mecha hero show, where the main characters are hailed as saviors of the human race and become the proud defenders of earth whom everyone learns to admire. Like Evangelion, Bokurano is a very cynical and ruthless show towards both its characters and the audience, sometimes even moreso than Eva. Aside from killing off its visibly uncertain pilots, the show also presents the uncaring and ungrateful nature of humanity.
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Initially, Zearth and the pilots are treated as one would expect when a skyscraper-sized mech rampages around; with fear, mistrust and hostility. But even then when the government gets involved with the group, that feeling of dread and animosity still assaults the atmosphere, where corrupted figures and dubious politicians attempt to twist and manipulate the events to fit their own agendas.
As for the pilots, aside from minor concerns of sending 4th graders to fight for the sake of billions, they each get one or two episodes that showcases just how severe their own lives and circumstances were, sometimes pondering whether they really should help protecting a world that caused much harm to them and their loved ones.
It’s such a thoughtful, yet bleak, series. And this doesn’t even include getting to the second half of the series, where the true nature of the mech battles is revealed, along with how terrifying are the end results of each battle.
At 24 episodes, Bokurano is rather tightly paced and written, densely packed with sophisticated dialogues and intense character interactions, and I would say that for the most part it manages to balance the cruel and bleak nature of the story with the more lighthearted and heartwarming moments the characters are allowed to have every now and often.
The one part I do not find as compelling or well thought-out as the rest of the series, however, is the larger-scale subplot about internal and external political affairs. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the series for not restricting the narrative to the kids alone, as seeing how Zearth’s battles affect the society is fascinating.
However, by the end of the series, the political subplot feels more like a liability or an excuse for some diabolus ex machina rather than an important thread that expands on the story. Perhaps the best example is the usage of internal power games to kill off at least two characters just for the sake of drama, instead of giving said characters a more organic and appropriate send-off.
Part of this seems to be a side-effect of taking an at the time unfinished manga and adapting it into a slightly condensed anime, although, regardless of how the source material is, I’d say that the anime version of Bokurano did quite a good job at telling its story from start to finish. Especially the ending, which was surprisingly good despite the notorious reputation of gecko endings in anime. It ended wonderfully, concluding the strong character arc of several of its leads and finishing on a hopeful note that was both poignant and heartwarming.
I won’t write a very long character section this time around, partly because of how many characters are there, with the main cast numbering in around eighteen different characters, and partly because I believe that each character’s life story and personal arc should be watched without any prior knowledge or description.
All you really need to know about the characters themselves before venturing into Bokurano is that they’re all mentally or emotionally broken in one way or another, ranging from poverty to paternal abandonment, to sexual abuse, to lackluster education of morals. The common aspect that unites the majority of the main characters is how their life experiences affect their position as Zearth’s pilots.
Each one of the fifteen children - with the exception of one or two - gets a character arc that last between an episode to three episodes. There is often a common formula to their character arcs, beginning with the chosen pilot being the first-introduced character of the episode, showcasing their backstories, exploring their mindsets and feelings, and eventually wrapping it all up when their fight is finished.
While the general quality of the writing and development ranges from one pilot to another, and some may leave great emotional impact in comparison to others who would be a little more than filler to the audience, Bokurano develops its main characters rather well for the time limit.
Really, the only downside is that most of the characters don’t really get enough build-up before their reveal as Zearth’s next pilot, and despite how mesmerizing and heartbreaking their stories are, by the end of the show you might have difficulty remembering which is which, due to how many main characters there are.
There is one character, however, that is quite unforgettable, for better and for worse. Kyomeshi, or as he is known in English, Dung Beetle, is the “guide” and “mentor” of the fifteen children, although I use these words VERY lightly because really, he is just a huge bully and a jerk who finds very little problem with emotionally abusing the children.
What is supposed to be the cute but thoughtful mascot and stuffed animal guide quickly introduces himself as a heartless and cruel being that has no problem lying to, manipulating or toying with the children, and he doesn’t care one bit what happens to them.
Normally, I’d derail such an excellent series for having such a shallow villain, but Dung Beetle sits comfortably with Fullmetal Alchemist’s Kimblee as one of those few obviously evil and gleefully sadistic villains that are just so much fun to watch. He is a bastard, yes, but it’s hard to deny that he easily dominates the scenes he is given prominence in.
Animation & Art
As far as the general animation quality goes, Bokurano falls short. It might be one of studio Gonzo’s most visually unremarkable projects ever, an animation studio that is generally known for their rather… inconsistent level of work. This comes to bite Bokurano pretty hard, as the series often suffers from junky movements and off-models, as well as rather uninspiring visual direction as a whole. In a way, however, this might also be a testament to the series’ writing, which is so good you might not even notice its animation shortcomings.
Also, since this is Gonzo, there is no shortage of awfully balant CGI that sticks out like a sore thumb. This is mostly reserved for Zearth and the mechs the kids are fighting, and while it gives them an otherworldly appearance, it’s rather hard to appreciate them due to how clunky they move. Same goes for the mech battles as a whole, which are rather unimpressive save for one or two which had interesting deviations from the rest.
That said, the actual designs of the mechs are one hell of a sight. Their unconventional bodies and less humanoid appearances in comparison to other mecha shows help distinguishing them from one another and your generic looking “evil” robot, with some truly… unique mechs such as a walking mirror or even a road roller.
I am also fond of the character designs, and just how plain and down-to-earth they can get. It’s nothing lavish or outrageous, but rather mundane and simple, which further drives the point of the main characters being just regular kids. It doesn’t get in the way of their personalities, but at the same time it doesn’t get forgettable, either.
Audio & Sound
Bokurano is one of those rare times where composer Yuji Nomi who did the soundtracks of several Ghibli movies was in charge of composing for a television series, with the only other show that he ever composed the music for was - as far as I’m aware - KyoAni’s Nichijou.
However, personally I don’t find the soundtrack to be very memorable or distinguished. I mean, sure, it has its moments of brilliance, and I absolutely love some of the tracks that use stuff like somber violins and melancholic piano and they really fit the tone of the show. But it’s nothing that really sticks out for me.
Do you know what does stick out for me? The opening theme. “Uninstall” by Chiaki Ishikawa is one of the primary reasons why I began watching Bokurano. It is a phenomenal opening theme and one of the best songs from any anime that I ever listened to in my life. From Ishikawa’s gentle yet sorrowful singing to the haunting wailing, “Uninstall” is easily one of the best opening themes of the 2000s.
Sadly there is no English dub for Bokurano, although I can bet than if a dub will get greenlit, it will be a very hard task for the English voice actors to match the Japanese talent here, because Bokurano’s Japanese dub is excellent. Most noteworthy is the performance of Akira Ishida as Dung Beetle, who just gives him the most arrogant and sarcastic voice he can do, and despite of how vile and cruel he is, you just know his scenes would never be dull.
Bokurano is an unfortunate case of a great show falling into obscurity due to either bad timing, lack of advertisement, lack of hype or maybe just all three issues combined. Despite its rather basic and subpar production values, the series hides a surprisingly mature and intelligent narrative powered by its subtlety and bloodless ruthlessness. Whereas most shows feign sophistication through carnage or shock value, Bokurano dominates its audience’s attention with a truly gripping narrative and rounded characters.
It absolutely deserves its title alongside shows like Evangelion as some of the more unique and interesting shows within the mecha genre, and even had influence on shows beyond this particular genre like 2011’s Madoka Magica. Bokurano deserves to be more of just a cult classic; it might very well be one of the best anime series to come from the mid 2000s area, not to mention 2007 which was a wonderful year for anime of every kind, for make no mistake; Bokurano is worth your time just like any Baccano!, Mononoke, Lucky Star and Gurren Lagann.
- Brilliant narrative that plays with mecha and heroism tropes alongside a slew of rounded main characters
- Excellent character and mecha designs
- The opening theme is simply phenomenal
- Dung Beetle
- Muddled by some political subplots
- Subpar production values don't do justice to the story and the mech designs
& the Ugly:
- Gonzo's CGI
- Madoka Magica - Does this surprise anyone? Madoka Magica seems to take a lot after Bokurano in terms of overall plot structure and setting scenarios, not to mention the possibility of Kyuubei being based on or at least influenced by the character of Dung Beetle.
- Narutaru - Now this is a blind recommendation, because I never read nor watched Narutaru, but perhaps the most notable aspect about it in relation to this anime review is that both Narutaru and Bokurano were written by the same mangaka, Mohiro Kitoh, so if you enjoyed one, you should definitely go for the other.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Raziel Reaper