If the title of this post already makes sense to you, then you are welcome to sit by me in our tiny sliver at the center of an incredibly nerdy Venn diagram. Maybe you’re familiar with the beloved writer of such hits as Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass, and maybe you know of the cult sci fi flick about clerics who wield gun-fu in a dystopian world where feelings are illegal. But would you be surprised to learn that before Booch made it big writing anime, the beloved weeb wordsmith published an entire fan visual novel in the Equilibrium universe?
Actually, it might not surprise you. Once you get past the hilarious novelty of anime Christian Bale, Jouka no Monshou‘s existence makes total sense.
Equilibrium was neither a critical nor commercial success upon its release in 2002, but of the many black leather trenchcoat action movies our world weathered in the wake of The Matrix’s success, it’s managed to stick around longer than most in the hearts of a devoted few. It’s easy to see how this movie could spark some imagination despite its notoriously sophomoric script. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer is far more skilled as a director than writer, so even when Equilibrium’s story stumbles by painting strokes too broad to make its “future without feelings” believable, the action stays imaginative, propulsive, and too much fun to take seriously, keeping all boredom with the movie’s pretensions at bay in ways that duller Matrix clones couldn’t. Equilibrium still looks great for its miniscule budget, with cinematography and production design just artful enough to weigh down the corners of its paper-thin ideas. It’s easy to see how mall goths and chuunibyou everywhere would be tempted to mine its shaky core for greater meaning.
Enter Gen Urobuchi, self-proclaimed adult chuuni and writer at the modest visual novel imprint, Nitroplus Games. It’s the early 00’s, so cyberpunk thrillers about dual-wielding badasses are all the rage with chuunibyou, and Booch is busy trying his hand at the genre for both fun and profit. Jouka no Monshou—or “Emblem of the Sacred Flame”, the most chuuni title I’ve ever heard in my life—is a visual novel in the truest sense, with no game elements beyond the progression of text. It’s just a fanfic with pictures and music to be sold for spare change at 2003’s Summer Comiket, but reading this Equilibrium doujinshi still gave me newfound appreciation for one of my favorite anime screenwriters. Take my Booch stan opinion with a grain of salt, but I think this little story with only two characters and three fights is better than the movie it’s based on! If nothing else, it’s a captivating kernel of concepts that we wouldn’t see pop into their fullest potential until Booch’s career blossomed in later years.
Now, I realize it’s not exactly fair to say Booch’s Equilibrium fanfic is better than the movie it relies on to even exist. Jouka no Monshou only has the opportunity to explore its own twisted ideas because it doesn’t have to spend time developing the prototypical savior arc that carried the original story. Equilibrium is a by-the-book Hollywood dystopia, where the initially icy Christian Bale stops taking his emotion-numbing Prozium drugs to discover that feeling your feelings is good, actually. Humanity should never have gotten rid of love and art just because they also bring hatred and war! Really makes you think, bro. However, this thought-crime (known as sense-offense) becomes evident to Bale’s fellow clerics when his softening heart won’t allow him to kill rebels anymore, so he must use all his badass powers to lead the resistance and take down Big Brother (imaginatively called Father) once and for all. Stylistic charms of the movie aside, it’s got the kind of lukewarm blockbuster script that’s a little too weird for most meatheads but a little too dumb for most nerds. So, what spice could Booch possibly add to this basic broth to make it more thoughtful?
Well, what if a cleric stopped taking their Prozium not because they sympathized with rebels, but because they wanted to enjoy the work of killing them? Before Kyubey, before Kirei, before Makishima, before all those compelling villains that would come to define Booch’s style, you can see him explore his fascination with psychopathy in Bartholomew Tirelli, the partner and mentor of protagonist Melvin Barnard. After Barnard catches Tirelli smiling while executing a rebel, he plans to emotionlessly report his other half for sense-offense, but Tirelli catches wind of the betrayal and kidnaps Barnard, forcing him to endure Prozium withdrawal for days in isolation. When Barnard emerges, he’s malnourished and delirious with emotions he’s never felt before, but instead of bringing him closer to Tirelli, the new gulf in their ability to feel empathy forces the once-synchronized duo apart. As they fight to the death, Barnard realizes that Tirelli is desperate not just to silence him, but to make him accept that taking joy in the “art” of murder would make him a better cleric.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I thought it was just the right mix of clever and bittersweet, classic Urobutcher style stuff. Jouka no Monshou is now the oldest work of his that I’ve read and obviously far from his best, but it seems like Booch has always had great storytelling instincts. If you’re a fan of his style, I’d highly encourage you to read this fun little fic for yourself, after you’ve already seen Equilibrium. Reading Booch’s prose as text instead of seeing it adapted for TV gave me fresh admiration for his unique strengths as a writer. I never realized before that he was so good at describing action scenes! Most of this novel is detailed gun-kata choreography, which could read like the lamest thing on the planet, but I couldn’t believe how exciting and punchy his timing was, and how precise the characters’ positions came across without seeming clinical. It turns out that Urobuchi’s knack for breaking extremely complicated worldviews down into little human pieces that everyone can understand also carries over to how he describes the moving parts of a gun battle. It made me want to read the action scenes in his anime scripts someday, too.
Who knew an Equilibrium doujinshi could be so illuminating? Okay, that’s a little misleading. Jouka no Monshou would not be known as an Equilibrium doujinshi in Japan. Like many exported blockbusters, the film’s title was changed overseas.
Its Japanese title is Rebellion.
Thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤