It's an anime from my favourite director, Akitaro Daichi, famous for charming and explosively funny shows like Kodocha
and Fruits Basket. That's just the stuff of his that's reached the West, by the way. He's also done five-minute gag nonsense and fluffy kiddie stuff like Ojarumaru, Atashin'chi and Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoiyo! Masaru-san.
Akitaro Daichi was inspired to write this show by the Rwandan genocide and, more broadly, by brutal dictators and civil wars in Africa and the Third World.
I'd heard it was unusually serious for him, but I hadn't been expecting this. Goodness. It starts out quite fun and a lot like regular anime, but then our hero Shuu gets transported to another world and things never stop getting darker. Child soldiers, kidnapping, the loss of innocence and a dictator who basically thinks that everyone else should die and who orders child rape as government policy.
What's more, it's delivered with a clear-eyed unsentimentality that makes it feel real. It's no documentary, but it's making its hero almost helpless against a world that's being more realistically portrayed than he is. (Well, apart from being a desert world with water shortages and a giant red sun.) It's not just schlock for shock value, but instead truth. It's showing us stuff that really happens, albeit toned down enough to be watchable. Child soldiers? Daichi has said that he was thinking of East African child armies, so that suggests the Southern Peoples' Liberation Army (South Sudan) and the Lord's Resistance Army (Uganda), although we could also mention Sierra Leone or the Khmer Rouge in Indochina. Rape as deliberate wartime policy? You don't want to know. Akitaro Daichi only goes there briefly. The truth in Bosnia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Nanking and too many more is worse.
The tone was obviously the biggest risk. I wouldn't call the show fun, but it works as an adventure despite (a) breaking the rules of adventure drama and (b) playing out realistically, with a conclusion that hits with such force that it would be a bad joke to call it a happy ending. (The bad guys lose and some of the good guys survive. I'll say no more.)
Shuu, though, makes the show watchable. He's not from this world. He's from ours instead, which is ironically what lets him be the unrealistic one, i.e. a "never say die" anime hero even in the face of this world's horrors. Shuu has no cynicism and is incapable of accepting evil. I loved him. Theoretically he's an anime archetype. In practice, though, he's wonderful. He's not stupid, but he never thinks before acting. Threatening him won't work because he'll have jumped through a window before you've finished speaking. It's amazing he's not dead. He also has a guilelessness that feels both teenage and male, saying what he thinks without filters or awareness of subtlety. He'd turn the world upside-down to protect a girl called Lala-Ru, for instance, yet there's no romantic angle. Shuu doesn't have it in him. He talks to her the same way he talks to everyone else, as if the world's a school playground.
As for Lala-Ru, she's got water superpowers. This makes her both the McGuffin being hunted by everyone and the plot key to an ending in which not everyone dies. However she's also thousands of years old and bears no love for humanity.
Shuu can't fight the whole world on his own, but that's not going to stop him trying. This is a story that's largely immune to heroism, with no one (hero or villain) getting a conventionally dramatic ending to their story. However Shuu's just so damn full of heart that he keeps the show afloat anyway. It's still short of entertainment factor, to be blunt, but for Shuu I stuck with it. When he's on a roll, he's mighty.
Random speculation: I've seen it suggested that this is Earth billions of years in the future, when the sun's swollen and dying. It's an interesting idea, but personally I don't see it as anything more than that.
I must mention the visuals, by the way. It looks like a 1980s show and Tomoko couldn't believe it came from 1999. The animation can be spectacular, but the character designs are simple and a bit on the cartoonish side, turning this into a retro nostalgia experience. Tomoko and I both loved it. It's deliberate, obviously. You don't make a show that looks fifteen years out of date accidentally and the effect is to soften the show's hard edges a little. It makes it look more like a cartoon.
Oh, and Tomoko thought the dictator, Hamdo, was cute. She even liked his dorky pudding-bowl haircut. It's true that he's a drama queen with no inhibitions (i.e. not buttoned-up at all) and even, if you squint hard, the story's most dynamic character. However he's also a pathetic, tantrum-throwing man-child with the voice of a paedophile, who'll nuke his own (child) troops and order the machine-gunning of families. No, I can't agree with Tomoko on Hamdo.
It's powerful, especially the ending. Would I recommend it? Not lightly, but it's not without humour and Shuu is awesome. It's also raising some big questions. If you were fighting for an evil regime, what would you do? Similarly the bad goodies in the village have a compelling argument and there's only one reason why Shuu and Lala-Ru's standpoint is even forgiveable. (It's an unarguable reason, though, viz. that the twats are just going to get themselves slaughtered.)
If it helps, though, I think it's less harrowing than Grave of the Fireflies. At least it technically has a happy ending. I can even imagine rewatching it.
"My use is over, eh?"