Now And Then, Here And There: Anime’s Bleakest Isekai

Anime isn't all Pokemon-alikes and schoolgirls.

Now And Then, Here And There

The show Now and Then, Here and There has topics relating to sexual assault, suicide and child soldiers. Discretion is advised.

When it comes to any form of media, there are a rare few stories that will stay with a person long after they’ve consumed it. Perhaps the creator masterfully creates a series of events that keeps the audience intrigued, building up towards a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes, the themes and story itself are so horrifying that they leave themselves etched into your mind. Personally, for its depiction of the worst of what humanity is capable of, the post apocalyptic dystopia Now and Then, Here and There easily falls into the latter category, standing out as the most disturbing story in Isekai anime.

For those of you unfamiliar with what this is, an Isekai anime in its most basic form is a story about a protagonist or protagonists who get transported to another world, typically via otherworldly means. The genre became popularised with the release of Sword Art Online in the early 2010s, in which 10,000 people get trapped in an MMO game. Since then, the subgenre has exploded with countless Isekai titles. Some of the staples of the genre include Inuyasha, Overlord, and the self-explanatory That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime.

Normally, the subgenre has an adventurous tone to it. The protagonists may encounter perils beyond their comprehension, but conventions of the genre would also see them assisted by friends and sometimes a mentor figure who helps them get to grips with this new world. This isn’t necessarily true for all Isekai anime, but as a general rule of thumb, the main character usually ends up surviving or even thriving in this world, and most titles in the genre have a lighthearted tone throughout the running time.

There are, of course, exceptions. In recent years, the genre has been slipping into darker territory. Titles like The Saga of Tanya the Evil and Re:Zero have taken the tropes of the genre and moulded them to tell much more bleak narratives. However, at the tail end of the 90s, long before Isekai really took off, Now and Then, Here and There really stood out for how dark the story got.

The show opens up with the main character, Shu, practising Kendo. He is an optimistic boy and despite losing in his bout, he is determined to keep trying to succeed in the future. After his practice, he meets a mysterious girl called Lala-Ru who is pursued and captured by soldiers piloting mechanical snakes from another dimension. Feeling he has little choice, Shu pursues them through the portal they came from in an attempt to save Lala-Ru from her fate.

Just by that synopsis, anyone familiar with the genre but unaware of the show would assume that from this point onwards the show would follow normal conventions of the genre. If Now and Then here and there followed the rules of Isekai, Shu would arrive in a new but fascinating world, where he makes allies and enemies, all the while learning the rules of this fantastical world, eventually becoming a force to be reckoned with and saving the girl. The colour schemes in Isekais are also bright and vibrant, highlighting how fantastical the new world is, while the main character becomes more used to the world around them.

However, Now and Then, Here and There is quite different and takes these tropes of the genre and flips them completely. The world that Shu comes to is the epitome of a dystopia, being a desert world orbiting a dying sun. The main society of this world is a militaristic empire called Hellywood, run by a tyrant that recruits child soldiers into his ranks by taking them from their homes and forcing women/ girls to bear children against their will – one of the characters Sara, who also came from Earth like Shu, becomes so traumatised by what she goes through, she attempts suicide.

Water is scarce, despair is an everyday companion and there is little hope for the future. The colour scheme reflects this as well – everything is grimy and dirty, with the only standout colours being fiery reds and cold blues. Shu has to face it more or less alone, though he stands out from the other characters with his unyielding hope.

When people talk about this show, one of the most commonly discussed aspects is that the director and creator Akitaro Daichi was inspired by the events of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In an interview during the Big Apple Anime Festival in 2002, Daichi explains how he tried to empathise with the suffering of children caught up in civil wars in Africa during that period, being a parent himself.

Though he isn’t the main selling point of the show, one of the criticisms of the character of Shu is that he never goes through a character arc. At the end of the story, he is pretty much the same character he was when he first left Japan. Daichi also comments on this in his interview, explaining how Shu is a vessel for Daichi’s perseverance and how he would hope to act if he were ever in this situation.

This leads to another aspect of what makes Now and Then, Here and There stand out from the rest of the Isekai genre. While other titles within the genre may follow the stereotypes of anime, like having an overpowered protagonist and solving problems through the power of friendship, Now and Then, Here and There’s story is based within reality, despite itself being science fiction. Shu regularly gets tortured and beaten, while any glimmer of hope that the supporting characters have is shattered by the story’s end.

It is extremely bleak: it is a dark story with an anti-war tone, highlighted by the suffering brought to the cast, who are mostly children. While academics and critics may have argued about the validity of making something anti-war – Francois Truffaut famously said that it is impossible to make an anti-war film – Daichi makes a damn good attempt by not having experienced soldiers push the narrative, but instead kids who have had their innocence robbed of them.

If all this has got you curious about this anime, then this will touch upon another aspect of its reputation – its obscurity. Despite it being positively received by critics, it wasn’t a very notable one to be picked up by audiences. ADV re-released the show some years after its initial release, but this was overshadowed by another equally bleak anime that also got re-released: Hayao Miyazaki’s Grave of the Fireflies.

Perhaps its obscurity could also be related to the fact that it was an anime that came out before its time – though there were shows with darker themes that came out during the late 90s like Berserk, Cowboy Bebop and Serial Experiments Lain, perhaps it was Now and Then’s status as an isekai that didn’t help it take off, since it wasn’t really a well-known genre at the time.

However, Now and Then, Here and There has become something of an underrated gem in anime, a shared grimace between two otakus in the know. More Isekai anime will continue to be released, sticking close to the genre’s typical formula. But Now and Then, Here and There stands out because of how different it is compared to most other titles in the genre. Unlike when it first came out, it is now easily available on YouTube and Amazon Prime. Though it is a harrowing watch and one I wouldn’t want to revisit, it is still a fantastic piece of haunting art that is well worth experiencing if you have the mindset for it.

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