One hot summer day, I died.
Such a statement, a voiceover set amidst the mysterious serenity of zen archery practice, sets the pace for Arjuna Volume 01: Rebirth. There is something almost dreamlike about it; the haunting Yoko Kanno soundtrack, director Shoji Kawamori’s fine control of details and the rich, tactile colours all combine to generate something that borders on the grand. Even the opening of the first episode, setting the pace and describing clearly the central theme of the series, manages to convey a message of subconscious power. This series opens like a feature film, with a focused treatment easily suitable to that medium.
And like an animated feature, Arjuna is completely unapologetic about its point — this is about nature, both the verb and the noun, and there are no typical mecha here despite the famed Kawamori’s presence (not that Kawamori’s mecha could ever be considered ‘typical’). Juna in her Avatar of Time aspect might come across as an unlikely, fumbling super-hero, struggling with her efficacy in her new role as saviour, but it is her receptivity, confusion and powerlessness as a teenager that truly give the series its heart. It is obviously no accident that the show’s vocabulary is taken from Hindu religion and the Bhagavad-Gita, an epic in the form of poem describing the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna, a prince of India who represents the principle of ‘man-mind’ or self-awareness. This is what Juna ultimately struggles for, both as a normal teenager trying to find her place in the world, and as an empowered being trying to understand it.
The search for this awareness of self and place is a strong undercurrent in the first volume, exemplified most pointedly when Juna is left in the mountains to fend for herself and realises that she is the only living thing for miles that doesn’t know how to. ‘Heavy handed’ has been ascribed to this series like an accusation, but I’d like to argue that there’s no other way to go about such serious content. Japan as a setting is used to illustrate the thoughtless waste of a consumption-driven first world and Arjuna is an attempt to bring the audience back to its origins of life. Kawamori’s visual approach to the pro-environment narrative, scattered with actual images, is unflinching yet compassionate. It’s not the relentlessness of a regular end-of-the-world anime, although there is the pressure of time running out, and it’s not the grandiose heroics of a regular mecha anime either, although there is action of the god-like type. Yes there is the standard psuedo-military organization, small children with phenomenal psychic powers and monstrous beings of destruction encountered in each episode, but that’s not really the point. As in Kawamori’s previous efforts in the much more epic Visions of Escaflowne, the point is the story on the human level, and through the vulnerable realism of Juna’s boyfriend Tokio, anchoring what might be an otherwise somewhat outlandish tale, the director does not appear to lose sight of the show’s humanity.
Perhaps it won’t be for everyone, but it doesn’t lecture so much as emphasise and the questions it poses are deep and relevant enough to warrant thought. It’s visually and aurally gorgeous and the vocal talent, both English and Japanese, do a nicely understated job. Character design by Takahiro Kishida (Serial Experiments Lain, no less), taking a quiet second place to the landscape of the series and the soundtrack which accompanies it, is still lush and articulate. Overall, Arjuna is both rich and enriching, and to be put off by its message would be a pointless exercise in shooting the messenger.