Sometimes, the best thing you can say to a child is: “I love you.”
Back in the middle of my college years, I took an entire summer to go out to Denver, Colorado to serve on a 4-person team that traveled around the area putting on what was not exactly, but can be approximated as a week-long vacation Bible school program. There were a lot of good things that happened that summer (I fell in love and was rejected, made a lifelong friend, grew a lot as a person, etc.), but among the most unexpected benefits was the surprisingly valuable experience of spending the vast majority of my time surrounded by children between the ages of 6 and 12.
It’s probably true that there are few things in life that can test your patience as an adult as a fourth grader with an attitude or a second grader who just won’t sit down. But the other side of the coin is that these children, even the brattiest of them, are capable of some of the most uninhibited, generous kinds of affection. The emotional whiplash of dealing with kids is worse than the kind you get from watching airing anime go down the tubes, and yet the rewards—if you’re patient enough to receive them—are superb.
All this is to say that children are a very inconvenient, gratuitous kind of existence. There are very few things in this world less utilitarian than a child. I was listening to a podcast recently that described beautiful things as those things without usefulness, and while I don’t think such a description fully encapsulates the beauty, value, and importance of a child, I do think it serves as a useful point with which to begin considering Alice and Zoroku.
While there have been some recent anime with memorable child characters (Non Non Biyori, Barakamon, and sweetness & lightning come to mind), I would contend that the none of these truly make the child the center of their stories. While Tsumugi is a key element in the overall dynamic of sweetness & lightning, I think it’s fair to say that she is often decentered from the show’s focus for other characters. Likewise, Barakamon‘s Naru, while key to the show’s workings, is more important as an influence on protagonist Handa than she is as her own character.
Non Non Biyori actually probably comes the closest to really making its own child character, Ren-chon, the most important part of its story. The show often focuses specifically on Renge’s particular experiences and feelings, holding them up as valid and important. However, it’s ultimately the iyashikei mood and rural atmosphere that dominate Non Non Biyori – and Ren-chon’s perspective is just one method by which this larger goal is achieved.
That’s not to say these shows portray their child characters badly, it’s just that they all do something with them that Alizou does not: Make them useful.
For clarity’s sake I feel it’s important that I note that, yes, in some sense the children of Alice and Zoroku are useful to the anime as a whole; that is, it would not exist without them. In reverse, though, we might say that the show exists for them. It exists to tell their stories, to explore their needs, and to portray their growth as themselves. In essence, as a production—as a story—it values its child characters implicitly by elevating them over any other characters and never using them as useful devices to illuminate things about other, non-child characters. They remain at the center.
When I wrote about the nature of family in Alizou, The Eccentric Family, and Sukasuka, I called what Alizou depicts “the gravitational pull of a child.” And, really, that’s an accurate description of what Alizou as a show does – not only Sana, but also with its other child characters: Hatori, Ayumu, Yonaga, and Asahi. Like the sun to the earth, these children constantly pull the show’s story into orbit around them. Whatever else happens, the narrative is always about them – and, importantly, the attentions of all the important side characters almost as consistently are drawn toward them.
The first arc of Alice and Zoroku has taken some heat for being less enjoyable and less heartwarming the the much cozier second half, but I think the discomfort that exists there is absolutely critical to framing of Alizou‘s themes. Although we see Minnie C’s tragic backstory, her actions are inexcusable. Even as Alizou takes great care to provide nuance to Minnie C’s character by showing us her motivations (and thus avoid making her into a purely evil, villainous character), it also refuses to use her past as a justification for her present actions. Sad as it is, her selfish desires are cannot be given higher priority than the protection and care of Sana. Why? Because Sana’s a child, not an object Minnie C can use to achieve her goals.
Throughout the show, treating the children like tools is rather unambiguously portrayed as wrong, with even the more-or-less genial research facility being taken down because (in a thematic sense) it existed to use the children, not be of use to them. This stands in sharp contrast to the way Naito’s organization is validated in its concern for those with the Dreams of Alice (the choice that is narratively rewarded in its political triumph over its rival), but the foil winds up being more powerful because the research facility is never evil, per se – it just has the wrong priorities. The resultant rebuke is gentle, but firm – and there’s no need for a caricatured villain for the point to be effective.
This relative dismissal of the adult is paralleled in Alizou‘s second arc. In story terms, Hatori’s parents’ marital issues are very clearly shown as secondary to Hatori’s needs. Structurally, although Zoroku and Ichijou set out to help Sana and Hatori in Wonderland, the problem is almost entirely solved by Sana, Hatori, and Ayumu on their own initiative and by their own efforts. They are the stars; they, their interior lives, and the ways they attempt to figure out their lives are most important. All that’s left is for the adults to come in and shout away the clouds.
As I said before, the beauty of a child is not merely in their un-usefulness. It is not that children are valuable in an aesthetic sense because they lack value in a utilitarian one. It was never enough for Alizou to merely allow Sana, Hatori, and the others to lack in-universe and narrative utility. And so it takes great pains to validate their existence as children apart from any external scale, instead diving into their experiences. We see Sana’s talent for math balanced against her struggle with more qualitative subjects. We see the twins adjusting to life as schoolgirls, and the way that experience influences Sana. We see Hatori’s guilt and Ayumu’s love for her friend. In short, we see these children as the people they are – in the midst of growing, but with their own preoccupations, cares, and needs.
In the concluding episode’s final minutes, Naito makes an extremely important statement that both retroactively frames his actions within the story and makes concrete the thematic subtext the entire show has been pushing:
My jaw dropped at this line. Plenty of anime focus on characters in their teens and younger—an age range that could certainly be encompassed by the definition of “children”—but I had never seen an anime so explicitly cast children as the ultimate barometer of societal and narrative good. And by waiting until the end of the show, until Alizou had proven in execution its commitment to establishing this value system on all levels, made it all the more effective. It showed us what it means to make a good world, and then told us at the very end what it had done so we couldn’t miss it.
It’s all child-like, but the growth all of them display—particularly Sana—hints at one of the greatest, most astounding realities of children: Their capacity to grow. For what is a child but a ball of potential humanness? And who can say where the limits of that potential are? I’m certain a parent could speak more eloquently on this than me, but I think I apprehend at least a small part of the terrific wonder a child’s existence represents every time I hold a friend’s baby in my arms. Or, to return to my introduction to this piece, I may have seen some of that as I was teaching those kids out in Colorado. Somewhere amidst those times I was tired, annoyed, and fed-up, I simply just understood: These children are amazing existences. They are beautiful.
Alice and Zoroku, I am convinced, understands this too. And, further, it wants its watchers to understand it. Naito’s concluding thought isn’t just a nice sentiment. It’s an arresting challenge to anyone who finishes this show and witnesses the final frame of Sana, Hatori, and Ayumu heading off to school. Do we agree with Naito? Is a good world a place where children are happy and healthy? Is that the kind of world we want to create? For my part, I’d like to be part of making that sort of world. How about you?