Anime & manga about history are a rarity. When we do get one, it’s often a fantastical take on world history, if not outright fantasy. Real stories about people that actually lived are super rare, so my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Zenon: Unlimited Love. A historical anime about the life work of a Polish priest so obscure that he has no English Wikipedia page.
Zenon Żebrowski was born in 1891 to a Polish family of peasants. In his 30s he joined a Catholic order and soon became an involved figure in the religious community around Warsaw. In 1930 he then joined a religious mission to Japan, where he would remain for the rest of his life. This movie deals with the aftermath of Japan’s capitulation during World War II, focusing on Zenon’s attempts to provide aid to the war-torn nation and its poorest citizens.
Similar stories have been told before, like with Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, but Zenon: Unlimited Love offers a new perspective by focusing on an aging, Christian priest rather than children. It creates a very different kind of tragedy. Zenon is an unrelentingly kindhearted man who wants to do good in an unfair world. He wants to help the sick, the hungry, the needy, the young, the old; he takes on all that weight, but simply doesn’t have the resources to do all of it. People are desperate, struggling just to survive, and a lone priest can’t help them all. It leads to painful imagery like Zenon almost being trampled to death as he hands out loaves of bread, followed by a sneaky thief trying to steal his bag
His charitable nature is infectious to many, but times are harsh and the tragedy all too real. This movie managed to tug at my heartstrings on numerous occasions and—though I can’t confirm everything—draws at least a lot of inspiration from Zenon’s known work. Particularly when it comes to his aid for Japan’s orphans.
While I find this story immensely interesting, it’s clear that the subject didn’t resonate with too many people. A likely cause is that the movie has its share of pacing problems and a lack of an overarching objective. There’s the initial shock at the start of the movie, but afterwards it never hits the same level of intensity again. It becomes more about a bunch of smaller, loosely tied-together events, rather than one gripping storyline.
As a result, the movie is quite obscure and hard-to-find these days. If you can find it, then I highly recommend giving it a watch. Especially if you’re a fan of history or would like to see Poland being represented in an anime for once.