The passage of time has only increased my appreciation for UN-GO.
As anime in general has trended towards xenophobia and nationalism, BONES has provided a welcome contrary perspective. Specifically, writer Aikawa Shou has been a standout – first with UN-GO and now with Eureka Seven: Astral Ocean, he shows a rare touch with political satire and biting commentary, quite a contrast to the clumsy and simplistic work of writers like Yoshino Hiroyuki. BONES has always had a more humanist and tolerant strain in their work, more suspicious of the military and nationalism than other studios, and in adapting Sakaguchi Ango’s novels Aikawa-san has found a perfect vehicle to comment on the state of the world today, and the possibilities he sees for the future.
While UN-GO was far from a perfect series it’s one that always held up better upon consideration, the true subtlety and grace of an episode only becoming clear after reflecting on it for a bit. I appreciate its unwavering refusal to be conventional or to make it easy on the viewer, and I think this is certainly reflected in the fact that this “Inga-ron” film was only released after the series. Without question, the series would have been a very different experience if it had opened with this as a two-part episode – so much that we had no choice but to leave to conjecture would have been known, and the context it provides would have changed the way we perceived many, many elements of the show. I’m not going to say it was a good decision or a bad one to give us exposition only after the fact, but it was certainly an interesting and unconventional one. And UN-GO has always, through its good moments and bad, been those two things at least.
While (as you would expect) this film has an unusual narrative style, jumping back and forth between several time periods, in substance it’s more or less what you probably expected – a pretty thorough explanation of how Shinjurou met Inga, and how be became the man we know today. There were hints of this in the series but now those hints are given specific form. Shinjurou was an orphan, dedicated to trying to find a way to help others. He was a superb competitive swimmer, but abandoned the sport when he realized he wasn’t good enough to win medals for his country. Eventually he decided that he could change the world through film – by taking movies into war zones and poverty-stricken places where the local children had never seen them. Eventually this work takes Shinjurou to an unspecified battleground, where his path crosses with the musical group “Singing on the Battlefield” likewise trying to make a difference in terrible places in their way. At least superficially.
At the heart of UN-GO is an odd contradiction – a strong belief in the darkness of the human soul and that the world is a place where humans are constantly doing terrible things to each other, yet also a sort of blind faith that redemption is possible, and that decency will always survive and provide its own rewards. Shinjurou himself provides much of that redemptive quality to the series of course, though even as the young man in the war zone he’s already become quite cynical that anyone can really make a dent in the horror that is existence – and he projects his disillusionment with his own efforts into gently mocking Singing on the Battlefield, specifically Kurata Yuuko (Tomatsu Haruka), disappearing into a role as only she can). She’s the young woman with whom he feels an undeniable romantic spark, a seeming idealist. The group also consists of Shinjurou’s old swim club teammate Serada Makirou (Kawashima Tokuyoshi), and their leader, Oono Myoushin (Suwabe Junichi), among others.
Here’s were Aikawa-san’s and Sakaguchi’s-san’s inherent distrust for authority kicks in, as it turns out Serada is actually a member of the SDF, and he’s infiltrated SotB specifically to lead them into a trap, where there deaths at the hands of “terrorists” will lead Japan into the war officially. It’s after the trap has been sprung and Shinjurou’s van has crashed in a cave that the UN-GO we know intersects with this past, as Shinjurou is mortally wounded when the van explodes – but his body is possessed by a strange spirit who declares its intent to feed on souls at long last. This is a harrowing scene, the best in the film, as Shinjurou and the being we’ll know as Inga wrestle for control of his body and Inga eats the souls of the SotB members – all but Serada, who’s disappeared. Inga tells Shinjurou later that the human soul actually consists of screams, saved up the way a camel stores water in its hump. As the musicians die they reveal the truth of their desires, and they’re all ugly – all except Yuuko, who decides that she’ll kill herself before she allows her truth to be revealed – and does so with the jagged neck of a broken guitar. But as she dies Inga jumps to her body, and the quick-thinking Shinjurou strikes a deal – his body will be forever off-limits to Inga, and he will provide Inga truths to eat – but Inga must leave the soul behind, and he must never take Yuuko’s form. The hungry spirit, far removed from its own time, agrees and the stage is more or less set for the UN-GO we come to know in the TV series.
This being UN-GO we have a mystery to solve, and it’s the link between that scene in the cave and the “present” that we see in the series. A cult has formed, led by Oono, and Shinjurou – by this time already a detective (in order to keep Inga well-fed) has been asked by Izumi and Seigen to solve the mysterious deaths of many of its members. Here another mystery of the series is explained – the existence of Bettenou, the strange God who grants her “Master” the power to turn their words into reality. Shinjurou’s suspicions about who the real survivor of that day was are proved true, and the existence of both Inga and Bettenou is given elegant explanation by Serada – they were deities Japanese soldiers carried with them long ago to far away lands, broken and forgotten when those soldiers died and never returned. It was the blood of Shinjurou and Serada that brought them back to life in that cave – but Inga is not a true God but a demon, created by the regrets of all those fallen soldiers and sealed by Bettenou. Is this true? It might well be, though I can’t say for certain – and I don’t think it really matters. What is certain is that Serada – like those we will meet later – becomes arrogant at the taste of the power Bettenou gives him, and forgets the limitations of that power. As all those who taste great power eventually do…
The poetry of this, for me, is that God or youkai, Inga is the right sort of being for Shinjurou. A scraggly, unkempt and cynical man would have no use for a true God – “I’d rather choose a demon over a God with nothing but words.” What Shinjurou has learned is that the best path for him is to devote his life to the practical, and that it’s possible to do so without sacrificing his ideals entirely. Actions matter, not words – and compromise is the inevitable toll that must be paid. This is even apparent in his identity itself – the name Shinjurou Yuuki is a gift from Kaishou, as the man we will later know by that name had to “die” to take the fall for what happened with the cult. The world is crawling with liars…
If anything was ever certain, it was that UN-GO would be a commercial failure – despite BONES and the presence of Aikawa-san and elite director Mizushima Seiji, there was never a reason why this series would find a large audience. What possessed BONES to make it in the first place is beyond me but I’m certainly glad they did, as there hasn’t been another anime quite like it and it’s a show whose considerable merits will be remembered far longer than it’s shortcomings. We’ll likely never see another incarnation of UN-GO in anime form, but we’re better off to have this excellent film to put the show in perspective, even after the fact.