Now and Then, Here and There (Volume 2: Flight and Fall) Review
As discussed in my review of the first volume of this series (Discord and Doom), Now and Then, Here and There is like no animé you've ever seen before, although its emotional register can often remind you of something like the much-acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies. It's important to understand that Now and Then is not another series in the tradition of El Hazard, Fushigi Yûgi, or Magic Knight Rayearth, despite the core similarity of 'normal people from our world transported to another place/time'. All three of those shows tend to have an upbeat feel – bad things happen, of course, but the protagonists are supported by a core group of loyal friends/allies and it's made pretty clear that they'll pull through OK in the end.
Contrast this with Now and Then, where the two protagonists from 'our world' initially spend most of their time lacking a support network of any kind, deliberately isolated by those with the power of life and death over them, and without any hope of being rescued... as they have no friends in this alien place and are unlikely to make any converts from the warped society around them. Shu, a young boy with a penchant for rarely thinking much beyond the present moment, is regularly tortured and finally enslaved as part of his tormentor's army, where his fellow conscripts (who in a different kind of show might be sympathetic to his plight) view him with suspicion and disdain. Sara, a slightly-older teenage girl who was abducted solely because she bore an unfortunate physical similarity to the mad king's quarry (the mysterious LaLa Ru), is meanwhile gaoled and repeatedly raped.
This second DVD includes episodes 6 through 9 of this 13-part series, and it's safe to say that there's no filler here; every episode is essential to your understanding of the characters and the unfolding of the story itself. In addition, the instalments on this disc present some of the most beautiful symbolism in the entire show. A good example is how – after Hellywood's forces have kidnapped an entire village's worth of people and done a remote bombing to eliminate any chance of their returning there – their footprints and vehicle tracks are swept clean by the desert sands. Less blatant is how LaLa Ru's pendant (which represents more than one thing in this series) is eventually found in the least likely of places (and by someone who is himself as unlikely a saviour as you could hope to ask for).
In point of fact, it is amazing how smoothly the creators of Now and Then have segued Shu from being an almost-comedic character at the beginning of the first DVD to – ethically – one of the strongest people in the show by the end of this volume. There's only one other character who steadfastly refuses to compromise her values, and she's only introduced in the last episode of this disc. Similarly, Shu's willpower is a (quite palpable) driving force for good throughout Now and Then, and it's fascinating to watch how the other characters in the show stand amazed by it. (After all, how often do you get to see the will of a king utterly defeated by that of a kid lying tortured and defenceless at his feet?)
This transition is made all the more astounding when you consider that the director's previous works mostly include silly, fast-paced comedies like Elf Princess Rane, Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl, and Kodomo no Omocha (Child's Toy). Now and Then is so very different from anything Akitaroh Daichi has done before or since that it really brings home his range as a director.
6: 'Disappearance in a Sandstorm'
The part of the story arc contained on this DVD begins with a murder and an escape (albeit neither by Shu). As per King Hamdo's orders, a 'requisitioning party' is sent out to raid the nearby villages and capture more slaves/soldiers for the techno-fortress that is Hellywood. Since Shu's corps is one of the many assigned to this effort, we get another chance to see his ethics in action... and moreover how starkly it contrasts with that of those around him. Further, this episode is filled with magnificent dialogues between conflicting viewpoints... from the memorable debate between the battalion commander and the leader of the village he has come to subjugate, to a cold and hard-edged exchange between Lady Abelia and the captive LaLa Ru, to – naturally – the ongoing moralistic discussions between Shu and Nabuca. (The latter's grimly-resigned comment, 'We won't be fighting. It's much worse,' is particularly chilling.)
7: 'Night of Flight'
For his attempted interference in the 'requisitioning' mission, Shu is imprisoned in a sewage trap in the depths of Hellywood, awaiting probable execution. In this unlikely place, he finds LaLa Ru's pendant and – with a little help from an unexpected quarter – he manages to escape. This is a great moment for Boo, and really demonstrates once again how there are no wasted characters in this small cast. The fact that the youngest and smallest of Hellywood's 'soldiers' is able to make an ethical stand for what is right shows a clear chink in the armour of Hamdo's war machine... even if the older boys aren't yet ready to make the same kind of leap. His comments to Nabuca are poignant, as he desperately tries to explain the wrongness of what they are doing to his mentor figure – one who already knows it, but who has steeled himself against disobeying the regime. And yet by the end of the episode, Nabuca is ready to make a small step in the right direction, as he permits Shu and LaLa Ru to flee Hamdo's clutches.
8: 'Two Lone Souls'
As LaLa Ru was forced to use her pendant to facilitate their escape, the deluge of water she thus created has unwittingly provided Hellywood with a fuel source to power its flight, freeing it from its until-now-steadfast immobility. While the minions of Hamdo endeavour to collect the water before it drains out of the fortress, Shu and LaLa Ru race to put more distance between themselves and Hellywood. Unfortunately, there's some nasty fauna lurking in Earth's distant future, and the two of them barely win free of one desert predator in particular.
And it's here that the two of them sit down to quite an interesting discussion about the nature of humanity and LaLa Ru's own background. We learn that (despite appearances) she is neither young nor human, and that each use of her pendant weakens her... and she's convinced that all of the good people on Earth have long since died. Shu obviously argues the contrary, and – as we shall see – he's actually right for once.
9: 'In the Chasm'
Shu and LaLa Ru find their way to Zari Bars, an oasis of self-sufficiency in a concealed canyon in the desert. There they meet Sis, about the only character in the series more pacifistic than Shu himself. Once word spreads through the village that they are escapees from Hellywood, Shu is confronted by Elamba, an angry man (and one with many valid reasons for being so, which he proceeds to enumerate) who feels the only way to deal with the threat of Hellywood is to assassinate Hamdo. His arguments are persuasive and much of his logic irrefutable, but Shu maintains his moral high ground and refuses to help them plan another attempt. Interestingly, LaLa Ru – who has overheard their conversation from the shadows – seems to speak for the audience when she says that she feels Elamba is both right and wrong at the same time. The debate may be rendered moot, however, as Hamdo is mobilising Hellywood for the sole task of wiping out Zari Bars.
I can only reiterate my previous comments regarding the excellent video quality of this series: Flight and Fall, like Discord and Doom, is blessed with a nice clean transfer showing very few flaws. As for the animation quality here, it's on par with the five episodes on the first DVD, although it seems to have settled down a bit and is less concerned with 'wowing' the audience... which is to say that no spectacular special effects shots come to mind from this disc.
As I mentioned before, some viewers find the use of Now and Then's simplified (almost childlike) character designs incongruous with the show's hard-edged, mature themes. They object to the roundness of the faces, the handwaving of certain expected details, and a minimalist style that echoes the works of Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, etc.). And yet I believe this animation style was chosen to underscore precisely that contrast. While we're talking about Miyazaki, though, it's worth mentioning that his Laputa: Castle in the Sky also features a girl with a magical pendant... which is not to suggest that Now and Then is in any way derivative, but rather that even in a strikingly-original work like this, time-honoured animé concepts still manage to creep in.
Everything I mentioned in my review of the first disc still holds true. The audio quality is solid on all three tracks – Japanese Dolby 2.0, English Dolby 2.0, and English Dolby Digital 5.1 – although I still prefer the show in its original language. This is primarily because the English dub continues to be uninspiring, particularly as the voices of the actors playing the children in the show all sound too adult and knowing, and thereby ruin the believability of the series for me.
The fact is, the voice actor who plays Shu in the original Japanese (Okamura Akemi) is an absolute joy to listen to, and once you've associated her (yes, her) voice with Shu, you may find it hard to adapt to her North American counterpart. Anyway, unless you despise subtitles, there's really no compelling reason to listen to the English dub of this show... unless you are set up to take advantage of the DD 5.1 track, in which case it's a slightly harder call.
As with the Volume 1 disc, the menus here are all elegant and professional-looking. The main menu offers 'Languages', 'Play Program', 'Pick a Scene', 'Special Features', 'DVD-ROM', and 'Sneak Peeks'. The main menu and the Languages and Pick a Scene sub-menus are all animated and feature a generous looping track of either the Now and Then main theme or a speech sample from the show. (For some reason, the sound level on the Languages menu is set a lot lower than for the other two.) The Pick a Scene menu is presented across four pages (one per episode), each with six animated panes marking the associated chapter breaks. Access times are speedy throughout.
On a side note, the transitions from the main menu to the Special Features menu on these discs is proving something of an unexpected treat. On the first DVD, it used the complicated pullback shot from the end of the first episode as a travelling matte to draw the new screen. On this disc, it's achieved by a little 'implosion' effect centred on LaLa Ru's pendant, as if she's just pulled her water creation trick in reverse. I look forward to seeing what they've done for this transition on the third volume.
The special features available on this second DVD are similar in quality – if not quantity – to those on the first. First, there are four image galleries (named 'Art Gallery', 'Character Sketches', 'Mechanical Sketches', and 'Background Sketches'), each presented slideshow-style and accompanied by the gentle end titles music from Now and Then... except for 'Mechanical Sketches', which for some odd reason uses a rather-alarming action theme instead). There are almost 90 still images in total, thankfully all presented full-size on the screen (no annoying frames).
As before, there 'Cast and Production List' consists of three static text pages outlining the full VA cast and production team credits for both the Japanese and English versions of the series. Particularly welcome is the return of the 'Storyboards' section, which includes four new segments – one from each of the episodes on this disc. This is without a doubt the best extra on this disc, as you get another 9 minutes' worth of CPM's innovative storyboard-to-film comparisons (see picture). Curiously, missing from this disc is the 'Textless Closing' feature included on Discord and Doom.
The only extras included via DVD-ROM that aren't available from the DVD menu are web links and the complete scripts for all four Now and Then episodes contained on this disc, so those of you without DVD-ROM drives need not feel too slighted. In the way of pseudo-extras, there's the obligatory 'Sneak Peeks' section, with five short previews of other CPM titles, including Garaga, NightWalker, Legend of the Dragon Kings, Labyrinth of Flames, and The Ping Pong Club.
Finally, like all Central Park Media / U.S. Manga animé titles, this is an all-region DVD.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Now and Then, Here and There continues to explore the dual psychological limits of: 1, hope and despair; and 2, doing what is required of one as opposed to doing what is right... particularly as regards what happens to normal human beings when placed under the stresses of a military regime. Many viewers have interpreted the examination of the human psyche seen in this series as a reference to the actions of the German and Japanese populaces during World War II. Although this connection is hardly unreasonable, one could justifiably broaden it to refer to the dehumanising influence of wartime on any group of people.