Merging Science Fiction and Fantasy in Bounen no Xamdou

Incorporating action, drama, and even love, Bounen no Xamdou takes us into a breathtaking world brimming with complicated characters and believable settings.  The 26-episode show also fills each episode with elements of both science fiction and fantasy.  While the two genres are quite similar, and do in fact spring from the same origin, there are some key attributes that differentiate one from the other.  Bounen no Xamdou not only includes this smattering of classifications, it also melds them together to form one incredible story–a story that you’ll never want to forget.

“The genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy overlap and interpenetrate.  All literary genres are impure, each partaking of diverse formal modalities, but fantasy and science fiction are especially intertwined because they have a common origin.”  (Kroeber)

Karl Kroeber–American literary scholar and brother to the well known fantasy and science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin–discusses Beowulf and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to help define and differentiate between “romantic fantasy” and science fiction.  His work is a bit too long for me to go into a full analysis and comparison here (don’t want to write a TL;DR post), but there are a few key points that I think are especially useful for applying to Bounen no Xamdou.

“…the key to the genre [science fiction] is extrapolation.”

: “extrapolation,” or in other words, taking a known trend and assuming its continuation and/or conclusion.  Science fiction takes scientific realities further than our current capabilities.  We see this multiple times in Xamdou, from the militaristic weapons, to the battle ships, and even in the medical practices.  Just by looking at them, you can draw their predecessors that exist today.  It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that the technologies present in Xamdou may someday become actualities.

There are quite a few weapons present in the anime, from your typical handheld guns, the Northerner’s Humanforms, as well as Sentan Island’s ASP suits.  I love the blend of machinery with biology, a physical manifestation of bio-weaponry.  As shown in the image, man and machine communicate through a neural connection, allowing the human to move the machine as if it is an extension of his or her own body.  Fans of Evangelion and an assortment of other mecha-themed anime obviously are no strangers to this concept, but that doesn’t change the fact that this combination of two separate sciences makes for some pretty cool creations.

Science goes even more extreme with the Xam’ds that heavily populate Xamdou.  Unlike the ASP suit, which is a human-manned machine, these take a life-form, voluntary or not, and turn it into a deadly weapon of war.  In some cases, the life form comes from the recently deceased, when the soul is extracted just in time for it to be put to use.  At other times, an unwilling body is made to host and nurture a “Hiruko,” while some choose to take on the strength that often supersedes its host’s identity.

“Fantasy involves its author in self-enchantment, which leads the fantasist toward a discourse distinct from the realistic, rationalistic, expository forms that undergird science fiction.”

While a good majority of Bounen no Xamdou makes heavy use of science fiction elements, there are times in the show where an event occurs that lies outside the realm of the viewer’s idea of realism, or even rationality.  When moments like this happen, you have stepped outside the boundaries of sci-fi and made a bee-line for fantasy.  You might think of “magic” as a good marker for the fantasy genre; in Toaru Majutsu no Index, those who practice science and those who practice magic are–for a large portion of the time–opposed to one another.  However, in Xamdou, the two often overlap, like in the previously discussed section about the creation of Xam’ds.  While I related them more to scientific possibilities, I find they also spring from imaginings.  In my limited knowledge, I do not believe science has yet created such a developed life form, so the mere image of a Xam’d makes me liken it to fantastical creatures from fairy tales.  More distinct fantasy can be found In episode 16 (“Burning in Our Wake”), where we witness two prisoners, enclosed separately from one another, communicate face-to-face.  How so? One prisoner, a Jibashiri, draws what appears to be some ritualistic circle on the ground with chalk, steps into it, then somehow teleports into the other room.  We see no indication of scientific explanation for his ability to do this; by all appearances, he is human and used only chalk and his own skills to create teleportation.
This is only one such instance of inexplicable accounts that pop up periodically throughout the season, and while I was usually surprised, I still found their appearances worked nicely with the overall plot and setting.

There are times when the categories are clear: Lord of the Rings is clearly fantasy, Baka to Test is fantasy, Asimov’s Foundation Triology is sci-fi, and Dennou Coil is sci-fi,  But then you come across works that transcend their classifications and give birth to more fascinating ideas, works like Bounen no Xamdou and Paprika.

Overall Rating: (9/10 Great)
The story and characters are what really pulled me into this anime.  I had never, ever heard of this show from anyone or seen it anywhere until not too long ago when it popped up on my MAL list of “recommendations.”  There are plenty more themes that can be discussed in relation to this show, themes like gender and feminist theories; psychoanalysis (in terms of the Xam’ds and their identity dilemmas); space, time, and memory; and many more.  If I wasn’t so lazy, I would have aimed at episodic blogging, since each episode was notable for a variety of different reasons. It would have also helped me keep track of the million events that took place and affected many people who may or may not have known one another.  The one item that held me back from a full 10 rating was the set up for the war that takes place through the entire season.  I wasn’t sure what was up with the Northerners, the Southerners, the Sentan Islanders, etc, etc.  The details of the war were largely unexplained and felt like they were present for the mere atmosphere of war and unrest.

6 thoughts on “Merging Science Fiction and Fantasy in Bounen no Xamdou

  1. A lot of the elements of this show were rather vague and arbitrary to everything else, I felt, but in the end, the folks over at BONES (I think) managed to pull together a fun package. I enjoyed this show simply because it was interesting to watch.

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    • You’re completely right in that this show was interesting to at least watch since it feels very unlike a lot of the current shows that I’m watching, shows that are largely predictable and rarely give me scenarios and settings I haven’t seen before. It’s unfortunate that you found Xamdou‘s elements random/unclear; I find that some people feel that way the first time watching it, but that upon a second watch, find that many of the confusions are cleared up with closer scrutiny.

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  2. The neural connection and blending of sci-fi/fantasy reminded me of Avatar. Unfortunately I fear, though, Avatar will explain away the fantastic in the movies with science garbage thus ruining that blend. It’s refreshing to hear of a show that keeps the fantastical and the sci-fi in one piece.

    You mentioned sci-fi and fantasy come from the same origin twice, but not what that actual origin is. What is it? And if sci-fi is extrapolation, then what is fantasy?

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    • “Fantasy involves its author in self-enchantment, which leads the fantasist toward a discourse distinct from the realistic, rationalistic, expository forms that undergird science fiction.” So unlike sci-fi, which pulls from tangible realities, fantasy’s imaginings are largely impenetrable. They cannot be rationally explained.

      As for origin, they are both “…responses to the triumphant humanizing of Western post-Renaissance culture.” As the article focuses on romantic fantasy, instead of just fantasy, you’ll have to take that into account. Both genres respond to the advent of post-Renaissance technologies, with sci-fi looking forward, and fantasy mostly looking backward.

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      • That’s cool, which means Xamdou is like steampunk as another case where sci-fi and fantasy merge. The forward-looking and backwards-searching motif. Maybe that’s why I enjoy steampunk.

        Would you recommend Bounen no Xamdou for fans of Last Exile? And vice versa?

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      • The recommendation is a bit hard to make since the tones of the shows feel very different. Sure, they may have similar elements of genre, but I would never, ever classify Xamdou as steampunk.
        They are also both adventure anime to a degree, where the protagonists have to go out of their homes and into the Other to “save the world.” However, Last Exile has a definite feeling of nostalgia, while Xamdou doesn’t. Steampunk romanticizes technology, but the technology in Xamdou didn’t feel that way at all.

        Really, just watch them and tell me what you think :p

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