Now and Then, Here and There (Volume 1: Discord and Doom) Review
As Japanese animation has become better known by Western audiences over the past few years, modern shows seem to be picked up by the media buzz more and more frequently and popularised by word-of-mouth among fans. Prime examples of this include Cowboy Bebop and Serial Experiments: Lain. Another such animé that I've been hearing about for a while now is Now and Then, Here and There.
Despite its rather unwieldy English title (which for sanity's sake I'll abbreviate to Now and Then from here on), the show is an important – and in many ways unique – arrival on the animé scene, due both to its subject matter and to its treatment thereof. (This is the only animation I've ever seen that dares to depict a stark future Earth where children are routinely kidnapped, tortured, raped, and forced to serve as slaves and soldiers in a dictatorial regime.)
The lead protagonist of Now and Then is Shuzo (Shu) Matsutani, a brash and overconfident boy living in modern-day Japan. On his way home from school one day, he happens to espy a strange girl with blue hair sitting atop a smokestack. He climbs the adjacent one and attempts to engage her in conversation, but she seems transfixed by the vision of the sunset and only after some coaxing silently mouths her name (LaLa Ru) to him.
Before he can get anything else out of her, though, she is attacked by a pair of snake-like mecha commanded by a woman with a distinctly military bearing (Abelia), all of which seem to appear out of thin air in an abrupt flash of light. While he tries to intervene on LaLa Ru's behalf, he only succeeds in being dragged with them through a temporal rift billions of years into the future.
In this distant future Earth, the sun has swollen many times in size and dominates the entire sky. The land is scorched and barren, water is a scarce and precious commodity, and humanity has been reduced to scrabbling an existence together in small villages and warring, feudal city-states. Unfortunately for Shu and almost everyone else we meet in this harsh world, they are now trapped in a colossal fortress constructed from a mixture of surviving technologies (Hellywood), presided over by a megalomaniac king (Hamdo).
As Shu later discovers, Hamdo is a madman with a warped vision of 'uniting' (read: 'conquering') the planet. His troops constantly raid the villages of enemy nations and steal their children to serve as cannon fodder for his endless war efforts. Boys are conscripted and trained as soldiers, and are led to believe their only hope of returning home is to ensure Hamdo's victory. Girls fare considerably worse, as one might imagine. And into this bleak reality comes an unforeseen hope in the form of Shu, whose indefatigable optimism and conviction that things will turn out OK in the end may well have a ripple effect on everyone he interacts with... assuming that he can survive that long, of course.
And so the stage is set. There are 13 episodes total in the series, and this first volume (called Discord and Doom) contains episodes 1-5, for a total running time of 125 minutes. Unlike many animé series where the action is episodic and self-contained, Now and Then is a story that flows freely from one instalment to the next, and one where you cannot afford to skip any episodes if you wish to fully understand what's going on at each stage. These early chapters introduce the central supporting cast, focusing on Hamdo and his second-in-command Abelia (who carries out his orders unquestioningly, despite their brutality), Sara (a girl from Shu's own time who was abducted because she resembles LaLa Ru), and Nabuca, Tabool, and Boo (boy soldiers of varying ages, all of whom are trying to deal with a nightmare situation in the only way they know how).
It goes without saying that this is not a show for children, despite the fact that children constitute the majority of the characters. There are graphic depictions of violence and strong implications of off-camera rape. Disturbing as all this may be to watch, none of it is gratuitous. The director (Akitaroh Daichi) has used a level of detail appropriate to achieving a specific goal... which is to paint a realistic picture of the horrors of a totalitarian society.
However, one must understand that this is only part of his aim. It's only against a background this dark that he can begin to explore the nature of humanity with an eye towards what the human spirit can achieve in the face of overwhelming odds. Nor does this show succumb to the usual pitfall of having relatively-flawless heroes and generally-irredeemable villains... the ethics of Now and Then are portrayed in shades of grey. Which makes for a very intriguing watch indeed.
1: 'A Girl Admiring the Sunset'
This has the distinction of being the only 'light-hearted' episode in the entire series. We follow Shu, a likeable but brash boy with a passion for kendo... though lacking the discipline it requires. We see him go through a seemingly-normal day in Tokyo, watch him attempt to impress a girl in his class at school and instead merely completely embarrass himself, and see that despite this setback, he remains cheerful. With this brief portrait of his character, his later unthinking defence of LaLa Ru does not seem so surprising to us. Key to the plot is the fact that in the same moment when Shu loses LaLa Ru to the minions of Hellywood, his outreached hand takes hold of her pendant before he falls out of their reach. (Star Wars fans, rejoice... there's a very blatant homage at the end of this episode.)
2: 'A Boy and a Mad King'
We're introduced to some of the boy soliders of King Hamdo – Nabuca, Tabool, and Boo – all of whom will have important roles to play later in the show. Although they have succeeded in capturing LaLa Ru despite Shu's rescue attempt, he himself manages to elude them for considerably longer. In the ensuing fight between Nabuca and Shu, the latter's concepts of mercy and fairness do not avail him, but before he is subdued he loses LaLa Ru's pendant into the abyssal deeps of the techno-fortress. As you can imagine, this loss does not go over well with Hamdo when Shu is brought before him...
3: 'A Feast in the Dark'
It's in this episode that the audience begins to get a good feel for what life in Hellywood is like, particularly for the kidnapped children who are forced to serve as its soldiery. When a battered Shu awakes, it's only to discover that his cellmate (Sara) has been even more thoroughly abused than he. This is also the first time we get to see the techno-fortress in action against an enemy, as some other city-state has launched an assault on Hellywood, and Hamdo gleefully uses children as cannon fodder.
Having finally decided (after a great deal more torturing) that Shu really doesn't know where the pendant is, Hamdo demands that Abelia have every corner of Hellywood searched, but the bedraggled population has no luck in locating it. Meanwhile, she assigns Shu to Nabuca's corps, which goes over like a lead balloon with the other kids. This does, however, mark the beginning of the philosophical debates between Shu and Nabuca, which play a pivotal role throughout the remainder of the series. This episode also greatly furthers the character development of Boo and Tabool, and gives Shu another chance to demonstrate his personal values to his frankly-incredulous companions.
The crux of this episode is an attempt on the life of King Hamdo, carried out by two almost unbelievably inept assassins from Zari Bars (a name which will become important in episode 9). When the two infiltrators fail to kill Hamdo, one manages to escape into the gloom of the techno-fortress... and, inevitably, it's Nabuca's squad who eventually come across him. We get to see more of Shu in action, as well as a grim illustration of what Hellywood does to children, as Nabuca unhesitatingly murders the assassin in cold blood. On a side note, at the very start of this episode the audience gets a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-him' introduction to a grown soldier named Kazam... who, amazingly, resurfaces on the last DVD in this series.
An excellent (albeit very grim) story could easily be undermined by shoddy animation or dodgy picture quality. Thankfully, Now and Then suffers from neither of these... it's a fresh and modern work of animé backed up by a simply gorgeous transfer. Let's take each in turn.
Be forewarned; the animation style used in this series is fairly minimalist. I'm sure there are those fans who will look at it and brand it overly simplistic, but I believe that's missing the point... which is that 'less is more'. This story mostly focuses on children in a world of stark contrasts, and as such I believe the animators made a conscious decision to emphasise this in the animation style as well. It's not a question of talent; there are a number of points on this DVD where they demonstrate their abilities beyond any question. (One good example is the spectacular pullback shot at the end of the first episode.)
Personally, I really liked the look of Now and Then. Setting aside the whole debate over detail, the character designs for one are very appealing and distinctive. There are also many interesting camera angles and scene layouts that imbue the series with its own unique feel... after a few minutes of watching the show, you'll know what I mean, though it's hard to put into words. Episode 1 also benefits from a lovely palette rich in oranges and reds, thanks to the extended sunset scene. Things get considerably darker once Shu is transported into the future, because Hamdo's techno-fortress is built like a prison and most of the scenes are devoid of daylight... but colour is still used to good effect.
Moving on to the actual video quality on this disc, it's top-notch. Now and Then was produced in 1999, so it's no surprise the production values are superb. There is a fluidity to the animation that's almost mesmerising, and I didn't notice any macroblocking whatsoever. Camera pans seem generally rock-steady, and the edges on characters are crisp with only the rarest instances of rainbowing or jagginess. Nor did I notice any scratches or dust anywhere in the transfer. There was the occasional scene that was slightly soft, and at times I thought I could detect a hint of grain in the background... but such moments were really few and far between.
(I have to stress that the screenshots I've included in this review really don't do justice to the video quality of this series. Even though I used the same settings I normally do, these snaps just came out looking a lot worse than usual... and certainly far worse than what you'll see on your TV.)
The audio quality on this DVD is also quite good across all three of the provided soundtracks (the Japanese Dolby 2.0, an English dub in Dolby 2.0, and an expanded soundstage version of the same in Dolby 5.1). The dialogue, sound effects, and stereo directionality all come across quite well in whichever version you choose... but the actual quality of the voice acting is another matter.
I confess that the only track I listened to the whole way through was the original Japanese, which is superb. The voice actors playing the children not only manage to sound like kids, but they seem better able to convey the emotions underlying the dialogue without resorting to 'stage schtick'. I wish I could say the same for the English dub.
I did sample the two English tracks to check for fidelity and – in the latter – sound effects, but I found the fact that few of the children actually sounded like kids to be a little grating. (This isn't so much of a problem in shows where the principals are supposed to be in their late teens, but here it's painfully obvious that these are voice actors in their 20s and 30s taking a not-very-convincing stab at childlike voices... or not even trying, in some cases.) There were also several instances of 'over-the-top' voice acting, particularly with the guy playing King Hamdo. (Let's just say he really puts the 'ham' in Hamdo.) You get the feeling that someone made the mistake of telling the VA, 'The guy you'll be playing is mad,' and the actor said, 'Oh, no problem... I've got a great crazy-guy voice.'
Which is a real shame, because the English Dolby 5.1 track would be astounding if it weren't for the dub. It's much fuller and better-defined than either the Japanese or English Dolby 2.0 soundtracks, and the mapping of sound effects, ambient noise, and room acoustics is perfect. I did watch the entire first episode again with the English Dolby 5.1 on and it really does pull you into the action. It's my hope that as new shows are recorded in Japan, the availability of Japanese Dolby 5.1 soundtracks on animé DVDs will increase, because (in my opinion, of course) it's a rare dub that compares well against the original language track.
There's also quite a bit of instrumental music that occasionally turns up in the background of important scenes. Like the show's opening and closing theme songs, it's pleasant to listen to but nothing that really stays with you after the show is over. (That is, you're unlikely to catch yourself humming it the next day.)
The menus on this disc are all elegant and very professional-looking. The main menu offers 'Languages', 'Play Program', 'Pick a Scene', 'Special Features', 'DVD-ROM', and 'Sneak Peeks'... the last three of which seem to be something of a standard block on recent Central Park Media animé DVDs.
The main, languages, and scene selection menus are all nicely-animated and feature a looping track of either background music or speech from the show. 'Languages' lets you select between the three soundtracks and includes room diagrams to illustrate Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 speaker layouts. At first I thought that the DVD authoring crew had done something exceptionally clever like playing a demo sample from the corresponding audio track whenever you highlighted a new selection... but no, it keeps looping the English Dolby 2.0 sample until you leave the menu. The scene selection menu is presented across five pages (one per episode), each with a fairly generous six chapter breaks.
There's a decent set of extras on this DVD, albeit nothing like the scope included on some of CPM's other recent titles. However, bear in mind that the company has also put out a box set of Now and Then which includes all three of the individual DVD volumes plus an additional bonus disc with additional special features.
In the meantime, though, this is what you have to work with: 'Art Gallery', 'Character Sketches', 'Mechanical Sketches', 'Background Sketches', 'Cast and Production Credits', 'Textless Closing', and 'Storyboards'. The first four selections are all your basic automatic slideshow features, and in total present almost 110 individual stills and production sketches from the series. Furthermore, CPM was kind enough not to frame these, so each image fills the screen... and as such a great deal of fine detail can be made out (including handwritten notes scrawled on the sketches).
The 'Cast and Production Credits' is three static pages of the usual info, but it's very handy to have it easily accessible like this. The 'Textless Closing' is just what you'd expect – the end titles theme song from Now and Then but without the end titles scrolling over the graphics. It seems a little odd that there's no analogous option for 'Textless Opening'... until you realise that the opening segment is all about introducing the characters and the text is essential. Still, it would have been nice to have those two minutes of intro theme music available from this menu.
The best special feature on this disc truly has to be the innocuously-titled 'Storyboards'. With a name like that, you expect to find another slideshow of still images from the original storyboards... where in fact this section includes five different extended storyboard-to-film comparisons, each several minutes in length. This has to be the most stylish presentation I've ever seen for this concept on DVD. Most of the time, storyboard-to-film comparisons are achieved either through a basic split-screen approach, or the DVD reminds you to press the 'angle' button on your remote to shuttle back and forth between the film and the storyboards.
Not here. What CPM has done instead is to place a vertical strip of consecutive storyboard images along the left side of the screen, along with a 'tracking frame' that moves up or down the strip to highlight the storyboard that corresponds to the current animation cel in the completed show (which takes up the larger portion of the screen to the right). As the finished scene plays in this window, there is constant activity in the left-hand strip, as new batches of storyboards appear and are each outlined in turn by the rapidly-moving tracking frame. It's a really excellent innovation. (And the 'audio' button on your remote will let you change soundtracks on the fly during these comparison segments.)
As is becoming the norm with Central Park Media (U.S. Manga) animé releases lately, this disc also has a DVD-ROM section. However, those of you without DVD-ROM drives need not feel too slighted, because in this instance most of the content found there merely duplicates what I've already described above. (That is, all of the stills and sketches and all of the cast and production credits.) The only extras included via DVD-ROM that aren't available from the DVD menu are web links and the complete scripts for all five episodes of Now and Then. (It's good to see that although the scripts are presented in English, they constitute the text from the subtitles track – which is a much more faithful translation of the original dialogue than what is found in the English dub.)
In the way of pseudo-extras, there's the obligatory 'Sneak Peeks' section, with five short previews of other CPM titles, including Maetel Legend, Battle Skipper, Angel Sanctuary, Labyrinth of Flames, and Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie.
Beyond this, the packaging carries on CPM's tradition of using transparent Amaray cases with reversible cover inserts, and although no screenshots from the series are pictured, the artwork that is used invokes the right mood for the show. Finally, though not strictly an extra, this is an all-region disc.
This is a wonderful DVD in terms of story, dialogue, artwork, picture quality, and audio fidelity. This is a series that truly succeeds in drawing you into its alternate universe and making you care about the lead characters. I find myself very eager to discover what will happen over the course of the remaining 8 episodes, and at the same time a little apprehensive for what may become of these kids. (In other words, despite Shu's optimism, this isn't one of those shows where you're clearly guaranteed a happy ending.)