suffer the children

gunslinger girl henriettaSometimes it’s a hard world for small things.”  -H.I. McDunnough, Raising Arizona

These days the blogosphere is all atwitter (see what I did there?) about HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Game of Thrones, G.R.R. Martin’s first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.   If you are into this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you are into and you are no doubt as happy as I am that someone is going to put one of the best fantasy books ever written on film (and perhaps encourage GRRM to finish the series before he kicks off…).

If you have read the books, one of the things that is striking about the series is how young the protagonists are.  I am not kidding.  Bran Stark is six years old when Jaime Lannister tosses him out a tower window.  Rob Stark, King in the North, is about 16 when he leads his armies against the Iron Throne.  Arya is eight when she becomes a fugitive, living by her wits and her sword in the war ravaged countryside.   Sansa is thirteen when she is betrothed and married to a man she loathes.  So it probably comes as no surprise that HBO has upped the ages of the major characters somewhat.  Not only is there rather a lot of sexual activity in the book (not with the kids, so far), there is a lot of brutal, graphic violence, including incest, rape, assassinations, executions, pillaging, war, torture, betrayal, and savage, unremitting cruelty.  Americans really don’t like to watch kids suffer (and neither for that matter, do censors and advertisers).  Other cultures don’t share our squeamishness about these things.  This is borne in upon me most often when I watch anime, which is almost always about children and which almost always treats children little differently from adults.   Lately I’ve watched a number of series that  have put children rather decisively in harm’s way.  The results can be all kinds of  disturbing.

SPOILER ALERT!

The best known of these is probably Grave of the Fireflies, which is routinely found at the top of the list of saddest animes.   Near the end of World War II in Japan, Seita (who is not yet a teenager) is left to care for his younger sister Setsuko when both their parents are killed.   In the course of the story, which is told in flashback by the spirit of Seita, the children are abandoned by relatives who can no longer afford to feed them and forced to live in an abandoned bomb shelter in the countryside.  Eventually out of money and food, Seita starts to steal to support them, but he is helpless as Setsuko, who is preternaturally cute and perky, wastes away to nothing and eventually dies from starvation.  After cremating her, Seita wanders the bombed-out, defeated countryside until he also dies, alone, in the Kobe train station.   It is, as cartoons go, pretty brutal.  But it is a war story and although quite depressing, none of it is surprising or unusual. It’s just really sad and like so many war stories it simply doesn’t have a happy ending.

This isn’t the case with Neon Genesis Evangelion, a story that revolves around the young pilots of the giant robots as they fight increasingly deadly Angels bent on destroying what is left of Earth.    All of these pilots, who risk death every time they fight, are younger than 14 years old.   They are used as tools by the adults around them, both because they are the only ones capable of bonding with the robots and because the clandestine paramilitary organization for which they work needs them for a secret project.    One of the children is the son of the organization’s leader and his father, who apparently hates him, is unrelentingly cruel to him.  Another of the children is used as the vessel for the soul of the first Angel; soulless clones of her are kept on hand to replace her whenever she dies.  She spends most of the series grievously injured and occasionally is dragged from her hospital bed to pilot her Eva.  The children’s fear, helplessness, self doubt, and anger are graphically and repeatedly displayed; as the Angels get more powerful, the Evas become more savage, and the stakes increase for Nerv and the world, the kids are forced to take bigger and bigger risks without any adult ever being honest with them about anything.   I generally find giant robot animes to be pretty silly but Evangelion contains two of the most powerful and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen in anything.  The first is when Asuka suffers a telepathic attack by an Angel and is forced to relive her traumatic childhood; she becomes incapable of piloting her Eva and just lays in the machine, whispering over and over again “I don’t want to die.”   This event eventually drives her into depression so deep she becomes catatonic.  The second is when the government decides to shut down Nerv and soldiers rampage through the complex shooting all of the characters we’ve grown close to in the show.  They’ve been told to kill everyone, but especially the children.  At one point a soldier finds Shinji hiding under some stairs and points his gun right at his head.  For a few seconds, as Shinji looks up at him in terror and resignation, the horror of what has happened to these kids is utterly obvious.  Then the soldier, unable to shoot a child, moves on.

In Now and Then, Here and There the children themselves are soldiers.  Shu appears to be about twelve or thirteen.  He loves kendo but isn’t very good at it, substituting enthusiasm for actual practice and focus.  He has a sunny outlook on life and basically believes that everything works out in the end.  One day after losing a kendo match in front of a girl he likes he sees a strange girl sitting at the top of a smokestack, apparently watching the sunset.  He climbs up and tries to be friendly but she ignores him.  When soldiers suddenly appear in the sky he tries to defend her and is accidentally dragged into her world, a dying desert planet.   Heliwood is ruled over by a paranoid and power-mad king who creates his army by ransacking local villages, killing the adults and taking the children.  The children are forced to be either soldiers, if they are boys, or baby machines, if they are girls.  The children themselves carry out these raids as well as the training of the conscripts, telling their young victims that if they fight hard for the king they can go home someday.  In the course of the series, Shu is forced to serve as a child soldier and to participate in a murderous attack on a village.  Later, he’s beaten, tortured, forced to flee into the desert, attacked by monsters, and chased by soldiers, and made to watch his friends die, as he tries to protect Lala-ru, the mysterious girl with the ability to control all the force and power of water.   Sara, a young girl who was mistaken for Lala-ru and who meets Shu in Heliwood’s prison, has it even worse.  She is dragged screaming from her cell each night and given as a “reward” to the soldier who was bravest or cruelest that day; some of them are kind to her and some are…not.  Eventually she kills one of them and escapes into the desert.   On the brink of death, she is found and taken to a safe haven.  And when Shu and Lala-ru show up there, she gets to find out that not only is she pregnant as the result of one of her repeated rapes but that the army of Heliwood is on its way to destroy her sanctuary and enslave its people.  The director of the series has stated that he based it on news reports of child soldiers in Africa and he does not pull any punches in the depiction of child exploitation.  The violence is brutal, graphic, and nearly unrelenting and the people that both perpetrate it and bear the brunt of it are kids.

Children are also “dogs of the military” in  Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which follows Ed and Alphonse Elric’s search for the philosopher’s stone, which will restore the bodies they lost during a disastrous alchemy experiment.   At the age of 12, Ed becomes both a Major in the army and the youngest State Alchemist on record.  When Ed was eleven and and Al was ten, the two boys tried to perform human transmutation to bring back their dead mother.  When it failed, Ed lost a leg and Alphonse lost his entire body.  He was saved only when Ed sacrificed his arm to perform another transmutation to bond  Al’s spirit to a suit of armor.   Driven by guilt and desperate to restore Al’s lost body, Ed applies for and wins the position of State Alchemist, a position that adults rarely fail to remind him will one day require him to use his alchemy to kill people in service to his country.   At the time of the series, Ed is about sixteen and Al is fifteen.   As in Evangelion and Gunslinger Girl (see below), the adults in this show use children cynically for purposes that remain opaque to the kids themselves.  The country is in the midst of a political upheaval, there is intrigue and unrest, hidden agendas, sedition, genocide, and horrible human experimentation.  Ed and Al are pursued not only by the government but by created monsters called homunculi, one of which takes the form of a very  young child.   Through all this, Ed and Al find their strength in each other and they defend each other in the face of everyone else, human and monster alike.

Gunslinger Girl just sounds silly, but it is anything but.  The five girls in question are all assassins and none of them looks older than ten.  (Apparently they are “adolescents” but the artistic style makes them look much younger.)  Each of them was the victim of a horrible tragedy.  One saw her entire family murdered and then was raped for hours and left for dead.  One was the victim of attempted murder by her parents who wanted to cash in her life insurance.   One had severe birth defects and was signed away by her parents when very young.  Each has been “rescued” by the shadowy anti-terrorist Social Welfare Agency and through cybernetic surgery and extensive brainwashing to remove their memories they have become trained killers.    I am still in the part of the series where each girl’s backstory is given, usually in the context of a mission, and am finding the series surprisingly moving.  Each of the girls has an older male “handler” who is assigned to oversee her training and direct her missions.  The reactions of these men to their charges are telling.  Giuse is fond of Henrietta, takes her on vacations, and worries about what the agency has done to these girls.  Marco initially bonds with Angelica but can’t handle it when she doesn’t remember his kindnesses to her (it’s a side effect of the conditioning).  Lauro treats Elsa as a tool and is brutally dismissive of her when she fails to perform at peak efficiency.   The men are encouraged to think of the girls as weapons and nothing else; this is at least partly because the surgery and conditioning each girl undergoes will drastically shorten her life.  And the girls? Uniformly they are deeply attached to their handlers, if not actually in love with them, and will pretty much do anything for them.    Despite their training and their implants and the mess the adults have made of them they are basically little girls, with the attendant emotions and doubts and longings.  It is not surprising when one of them kills her handler and then herself when she realizes she will never mean anything to him.  Through all of this these children unquestioningly perform any acts of violence required of them, including assassination, witness protection, cover-ups, and mass murder.  They carry their guns in violin cases and look like nothing more than precocious music students.  Their eager willingness to kill for their “brothers’ ” regard is both poignant and indescribably sad.

Even the shows that are ostensibly about adults or which seem lighter occasionally give pause.  Rurouni Kenshin (also called Samurai X) for example is about a wandering samurai.  Nearly every one of the major characters, with the exception of Yahiko, is an adult.  Kenshin himself is about 28 and his “advanced” age is often the source of  humor, particularly in the manga.  But if you think about it, the events in the story take place 10 years after the end of the war that established the Meiji era in Japan and we are told that for five years during that war Kenshin was the best swordsman and the most feared assassin in the country.  Do the math.  At age 13 he was a hired sword and a good one and by 28, an age when rather a lot of people in the U.S. are still prolonging adulthood by meandering through college, he is already atoning for his past life.  Full Metal Panic!, another giant robot anime, is another example.  High school-aged Sousuke Sagara works for Mithril, an elite paramilitary unit run by a 16  year old girl, and is tasked with guarding Kaname Chidori, a pretty high school student with a secret ability that is sought after by good guys and bad guys alike.  Sousuke was orphaned at a very young age and was trained by the Soviets as an assassin when he was eight years old.  He has worked for one paramilitary organization or another since he was little more than a toddler and he has no idea what any other k ind of life is like.  Although his social ineptitude is often played for laughs in the anime, basically he is so damaged that he is incapable of recognizing when a pretty, popular classmate likes him.  The entire show is about Mithril’s efforts to protect Chidori from the righteous badass terrorist after her.  And that terrorist?  At the age of 12 he was a soldier in the war against the Khmer Rouge and one of his jobs was to bury his dead comrades.  What goes around comes around.

Why are shows involving children so different in other places?  I don’t think it’s because they love their children any less or are less sentimental about them or see them as small adults.  Nor do I believe they are exploiting children or trying to titillate or provoke the audience (the occasional fan service notwithstanding).  Rather, I think these shows pay homage to a simple truth that Americans have forgotten.  The world is often a brutal place and it doesn’t necessarily show mercy to children, just because they are children.  Our expectation of an easy, fun, and long childhood is an historical anomaly.  It wasn’t all that long ago that children worked in mines and factories or carried arms into battle.   The children in these shows are incredibly strong in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.  Most of them survive on their own merits, after their own struggles in which the adults in their lives, those we might expect to protect them, have used them, victimized them, brutalized them, or simply abandoned them.   Few of the adults get any kind of vindication in these shows.  Gendo Ikari is a shit to his son right up to the end.  No adults intervene in any way to help Seita and Setsuko.   The adults in Heliwood are content to serve an insane king and turn a blind eye to everything they see done.  Any moments of grace in these worlds belong to the children.  In a world where they cannot depend on or trust grownups these kids take care of themselves and each other as best they can.    They manage. They survive.  They win.

(author’s note: I haven’t rated any of these shows because saying “w00t!!” or “meh” about this kind of thing doesn’t seem right for some reason. But some of these series are excellent and all are worth a watch. )

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~ by gun street girl on June 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “suffer the children”

  1. Ugh…you’re right. I got confused with their differences in ages in the first series, when Al came back as his 10 year old self. Thanks!

  2. you made a mistake Ed is 15 then 16 as the series go’s on and Al is 14 and only a year younger then Ed

    also despite one of the Homunculi having the form of a Kid he is the oldest one and over 300 years old

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