Anime and its Commentary on Childhood Death
It is said that there is nothing worse than burying a child. Seeing a young person that is filled with so much potential and promise lose the opportunity to enjoy their lives is stifling, especially to those who know the child personally. It is a tragedy that all people can sympathize with and seems so fundamentally unfair and cruel that it makes people question the world around them and the significance of life. However, it is usually a topic that is not spoken about publically due to its horrifying nature; in a way, it has become a cultural taboo. No one wishes to think about the grueling reality of childhood death and, when it occurs, communities and even countries are widely affected. People begin to question their faith and their reality. Why do children die? Why would God, if there is one, let such a thing happen? Why is the world so unforgiving? Certain anime that involve childhood death try to answer these questions and lessen the emotional blow, as they attempt to create a more hopeful atmosphere around the unspeakable concept. Anime has the ability to accurately depict the grievance and lack of faith that sprouts from childhood death and tries to reveal that solace can be found in the aftermath, alluding that the child’s journey only continues after death.
Ano Hana: The Importance of Grief and the Hope of Rebirth
Ano Hana does a painfully accurate job of portraying the effects of childhood death on the family and friends left behind after the tragedy. The story centers on a group of friends that become estranged after the accidental death of one of its members, the cheerful, five-year-old Menma. The group is brought back together ten years later due to the appearance of Menma’s ghost, who beseeches them to help her get to heaven. With her return, the characters’ emotional turmoil from the past is revived and they are forced to face the realities of that day and continue the grieving process they did not complete as young children.
Each character chooses a different way to cope: Jinta becomes a recluse; Yukiatsu and Tsuruko become heavily dependent on each other; Anaru changes herself completely to try to forget the past; and Poppo runs away in order to avoid thinking about the situation all together. The only thing all these methods have in common is that they do not work; these behaviors fail to act as coping mechanisms because the characters are not allowing themselves to grieve. In the course of ten years, the five separate and all become colder versions of themselves; a part of them is still stuck in the past with Menma and they need to have closure over her death in order to get it back. Even Menma wishes for them to grieve, accept, and move on.
She returns to the human world in order to have her wish granted by her friends so she can proceed into the afterlife. It is revealed that Menma’s wish is for Jinta to cry: to cry over the death of his mother, to cry over the situation of his life, to grieve. In the end, the entire plot revolves around the point that grieving is a necessary part of life. When Jinta and the others accept the death of Menma, cry, and finally get the opportunity to say goodbye to her, she happily disappears, promising that when she is reborn that she will play with them again. Once the grieving process is complete, the characters are able to return to their everyday lives and continue their close-knit friendship after its ten year hiatus.
However, Ano Hana also shows the aftermath on those who refuse to continue with life after the death of the child with the example of Menma’s mother, Irene. This heartbreaking, realistic depiction shows the destruction of the family due to one of life’s greatest pains: burying your own child. The entire Honma family is broken after the loss of their daughter but still has not recovered after the ten year gap due to Irene’s depression and refusal to accept what happened to Menma. She prays at her daughter’s shrine daily and cooks her favorite meals often; she is the opposite of Menma’s friends because she grieves constantly. Her mind is entirely in the past, causing her to be extremely disconnected from the present. Irene reveals her true feelings to Menma’s friends when they come to her to try to find out what Menma’s wish is:
“All of you really are good friends. I’m sure Meiko would be really jealous being left out like that. You say she’d be pleased, but you’re only using her as an excuse to enjoy yourselves, aren’t you? Meiko’s no longer here, but you all act like nothing changed. Why? You were playing with her that day as well, weren’t you? Tsurumi, you read her diary, didn’t you? Time stopped for her! She’s the only one who remains the same as back then! Why?! Why are you all so grown up?! Why is Meiko the only one…” ~Irene Honma, Episode 8
Irene’s behavior also negatively affects Menma’s younger brother, Satoshi, who remembers little of his sister and his real mother due to Menma’s death. Satoshi is an introverted boy who tries and fails to get the attention of his parents because they have not yet grieved the death of their daughter, accurately showing how the domestic sphere can disintegrate after the loss of one of its members. Satoshi does not receive the proper attention he needs at a formative part of his life and briefly joins Menma’s friends in their grieving process, allowing him the closure his mother does not have.
Even Menma’s cutesy, optimistic persona does not lessen the blow of the sad reality. However, Ano Hana shows that grieving is necessary in order to continue on in life and function as a member of society. The show also gives the viewer hope that there is life after death for all people, especially children. Throughout the entire series, Menma talks about how she is excited to be reborn and start another life. In the series’ final moments, she cries that she is sorry that she wasn’t able to be friends with everyone, how she wishes she could have grown up with them, and how, when she is reborn, they will all definitely be friends again. This idea that there is more after death, whether it be heaven or rebirth, is extremely comforting and allows the series to end on a positive note. Jinta’s closing line reaffirms this message to the audience: “I’m sure that flower is still blooming somewhere. It still has so many wishes so we’ll keep on living to grant them.”
Angel Beats: A Short Life is not a Full Life
Recent successes like The Fault in Our Stars try to send the message that a short life, ending with a tragic death during adolescence, can still be a purposeful, worthwhile life. The characters of Angel Beats would probably laugh at the idea. They disagree with this notion wholeheartedly and are enraged with the unfairness and cruelties of their deaths, so much so that they fight against God to show their contempt. Angel Beats takes place in an afterlife only populated by teenagers who have regrets from when they were alive, rebelling within a purgatory in vengence against God. As group leader Yuri puts it, “I don’t care if I become a sea urchin. I just want to defy God if he’s really there. A life like that is so unfair, it’s unforgivable.”
The large cast in Angel Beats appears in this purgatory because they lived in poor circumstances or died in cruel ways. From watching their family get murdered to dying from freak accidents and illnesses, each character has a regret he/she cannot come to peace with so they try to fight against God and his “Angel” in order to show him that he can’t just toy with humans’ lives. The purgatory is structured as a high school to help the students live out the lives they never had, but the group in Angel Beats does not want to live in this world, a world they thin is God’s cheap version of payback. They believe that if they live out their fake high school lives that they will get “obliterated”; that they will disappear and be reborn again. All they want is revenge and answers. But one of them realizes that their fighting is futile. He starts to believe that his friends, and maybe even God, cannot change what happened to them and the only thing they can hope for is a better future in their new lives.
They each begin to get “obliterated” on their own terms but are never satisfied with the lives they lived; coming to peace with their lives does not mean they come to the realization that they lived full, purposeful lives. What the characters merely do is accept what happened to them, accept that they had no control over the circumstances of their lives and accept that they did the best they could. Otonashi, the protagonist and really the only person who believes he lived a worthwhile life, sets out on a mission to help his friends come to turn with their pasts and help them pass on. It is not the happy, Hallmark ending that the audience wants. The audience, like the cast, wants answers. Why did they die this way, God? But, like in real life, no answers are given and it shows that acceptance is the first step to moving on to a better life. But what brings the audience and the characters joy is the release, watching the characters let go of their regrets, anger and sadness. They each emotionally deconstruct themselves and reflect on what their life dealt them. Their ability to grieve for not only the people in their lives who have died but for also themselves is astounding.
Angel Beats shows the other side of childhood death, how the child feels about dying. It is an extremely raw account of how people’s lives are cruelly cut short. They react to it in a very realistic manner: they are angry. As Otonashi reflected on his arrival into purgatory, “They’re cursed with a life of unfairness. They were given such unfair lives so they’re fighting back.” But it also accurately shows the painful truth that there are no answers; there is no way to get revenge on God for an unfair. The only way to get passed those feelings is through acceptance, support and love. This also hold true for those who are left behind. Angel Beats shows that anger is not the answer but that one must approach all things in life with an understanding heart, even the cruelest of realities. All the characters get their realistic happy ending; they pass on to their next life. The audience is left hopeful that the children who die in this world feel the same peace and have their individual happy endings as well.
07-Ghost: Leaving the World When Your Job is Done
Although not a major plot point in the anime, 07-Ghost takes an interesting view point on adolescent death with Mikage, a kind-hearted character who dies early on in the series in order to protect his best friend. The friend left behind, Teito, is devastated by the loss of his friend and falls into a period of mourning and depression. Mikage’s soul cycles through the afterlife very quickly and is reborn into an animal Teito keeps as a pet, allowing him to protect his friend even after death. But 07-Ghost has an untraditional view of death which makes it an interesting example to include it the discussion and peacefully answers the question of why children die.
The world of 07-Ghost itself puts an innovative twist on life and religion, two very important things that define the human view of death. In this alternate reality, it is believed that when people are created by the Chief of Heaven, they decide upon three wishes that they want to achieve throughout their lifetime. When they are born on Earth, they lose their memory of their three wishes and live their lives in order to try to discover what their souls wish for them to accomplish, the attainment of these goals becoming a person’s quest for happiness. When all three wishes are realized, their souls are called back to the Chief where they set three more wishes and are reborn again, continuing the cycle. In the case of childhood death, this philosophy takes away a lot of pain and sadness when contemplating the death of a child. Instead of being remorseful and angry over how the child was cheated out of living a long life, one can find peace and be somewhat proud of the child that he/she achieved all the wishes in such a short amount of time.
This almost hopeful approach to death is extremely out of the ordinary but acts as a great source of solace for those who are left behind. Teito, for example, is at first destroyed by the death of his friend. With no family of his own, Mikage was the only person Teito had in life to rely on and the thought that he died in order to save him haunts Teito daily. However, his mentor Frau challenges his grief and says, “There’s no doubt Mikage’s third wish was to save the life of someone dear to him at the cost of his own.” This realization calms Teito’s guilty thoughts and he is able to come out of his period of grieving with a new perspective on life. The belief that death signifies that a person has attained the ultimate joy gives comfort to the living. Although it does not eliminate the grieving process complete, it allows people to mourn over the absence of their loved one rather than the unjust death and unlived life of the child in question.
Reflecting their logical nature, humans fear the unknown and therefore fear death. Religion and traditions may provide people with beliefs about what may happen after death, but no one really knows. Does life continue in the afterlife? On Earth? Or does life just cease to exist? These are the questions that make death so scary and the death of a child so horrifying and unfathomable. Some children barely get a taste of life before they are taken and forced to face the ultimate unknown. This leaves people angry, upset, and hopeless with the major questions on everyone’s mind being why. Anime, as a form of storytelling, tries to take this topic and put it in a form digestible for viewers who can hardly stand the thought of seeing a young person perish. The medium tries to give people hope, especially through its Japanese origin that has a strong belief in rebirth, that there is more to life after death, that children can find joy in their short, possibly unfair lives, and that maybe the world’s greatest unknown is not as frightening as mortals have come to believe.
What do you think? Leave a comment.