Dramatic title, eh? But for this show it’s surprisingly appropriate. Gatchaman Crowds is the most ambitious show of the summer, and quite possibly the most ambitious show of the year. But does it succeed in its ambitions? Well, if I tell you that right now, why would you read the rest of this?
I’m just kidding it succeeds this show is sweet let’s talk about it anyway.
Gatchaman Crowds is a “remake” of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which looked like this and was called Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I think that’s pretty much all you need to know. Classic sentai, good and evil, fighting for your ideals, heroism. Etc.
Gatchaman Crowds don’t give a shit about any of that.
Starting off, the premise is that Gatchaman are possibly secret warriors for justice, and they’re possibly fighting whatever evildoers are possibly making random people go missing, but this is all highly theoretical and hush hush and whatnot. Seems like the setup for a classic scifi hero-team, eh?
No fuck you we Hajime now.
Hajime, our scrapbook-happy “protagonist”, tears through this premise like a genki wrecking ball, spending the first episode irreverantly absorbing the premise of the Gatchaman (who are indeed secret warriors for justice), and every episode after breaking it down. The initial conflict, the abduction of random civilians by the cube-shaped MESS, is resolved by Hajime refusing to battle the MESS altogether. Instead, she takes off her spiffy Gatchasuit and addresses the MESS directly, introducing herself and swiftly establishing a shared love of origami. The message is already clear – the old, tired forms of heroism are not relevant or useful here.
A lesser show would spread that “deconstruction” out across twelve episodes and call it a day. But Gatchaman is not that show – Gatchaman can barely raise an idea before immediately questioning and discarding it. So what is Gatchaman about?
The internet! Well, certain necessary corollaries of the internet existing. And leadership! And the meaning of heroism. And human nature! And gamification. And crowdsourcing. And communication. And transparency. And…
Alright, you get the picture. This show is as exuberant about themes as Hajime is about life, so let’s just take it from the top and see if we can parse this thing.
The show’s actual objectives orbit around the invention known as GALAX – a shared digital space/social networking platform that allows people to communicate, organize, and even gamify civic duty. The show’s own example of this is a person wondering if they should seek legal help for dealing with their disruptive neighbors – that person would plug their question into GALAX, and the system itself would put them in touch with a nearby lawyer, who would conveniently gain GALAX-specific points for assisting them. It’s basically a more advanced and socially focused version of logging into Foursquare or whatnot – turning expertise and assistance from something centrally located and distributed into the scattered yet accumulated knowledge and competency of the public at large.
This wonderful near-future platform is the creation of LOAD-GALAX, or Rui, who wants to use his platform (which is facilitated by his self-designed AI “X”) to “update the world” – to destroy old systems of leadership and learned helplessness, and to create a new world order where everyone contributes equally out of a sense of shared civic joy. Which is all well and good, but it turns out Rui has one more slightly questionable trick up his sleeve – just as Hajime and the other Gatchaman were given their power-bestowing “Notes” by the mysterious, godlike JJ, Rui has his own Note, gifted to him by the equally mysterious and likely insane Berg Katze, which allows him to let individual GALAX users deploy “Crowds.” The Crowds are basically powerful physical manifestations of the users’ digital selves, and by cultivating and empowering a carefully selected group of ostensibly New World Order-minded individuals known as the Hundred, Rui uses the Crowds to Fight Crime (or natural disasters, or whatever else may come up).
That’s a whole lot of exposition, but the show actually relates this all quite naturally and gracefully, and both Hajime’s narrative-shoving exuberance and the conflict between Rui’s stated goals (make all people equal and disperse leadership/expertise) and his questionable tools (which empower very specific people, and put him in charge of those people) makes for a very satisfying ride through the first half. In an essay, yes, less fun. But that’s just a reflection of how dense the show is, really. So what does all of this lead to?
Well, unsurprisingly, Berg Katze turns out to be not the nicest guy. In fact, he’s pretty much the worst, in the same way Hajime is pretty much the best – he represents all that is obscure and petty and mean-spirited in human nature, a significance manifested literally through his ability to conceal himself and impersonate others. The show makes this comparison fairly overt with its continuous light/dark visual motifs, which directly correlate with the differences between Hajime and Katze’s ideology. And when Katze takes control of GALAX away from Rui, the limitations of Rui’s own methods become clear – his reliance on central power, and more importantly his reliance on anonymity, mean that his revolution was never any more than a revolution of one, and when the reigns are taken away, things like gamification or distributed power can be used for evil as well as good. Katze empowers the trolls, and all hell breaks loose.
In contrast to Rui’s hypocritical philosophy and Katze’s trollish love of anarchy, the show offers Hajime as an overwhelming force for good. As a character, she fails utterly – she is completely unrelatable, has no tangible weaknesses, and never undergoes anything approaching growth. But this show isn’t really about her as a character – as I said, just like how Katze represents the dark side of communication, she represents all that is good. She happily uses GALAX (what a great way to organize a scrapbooking club!), but always emphasizes the importance of direct communication and transparency. When a friend exclaims “GALAX is great!” she corrects them – “GALAX isn’t great, GALAX is powerful”. The tools offered by the internet are just tools – they are only as good or evil as the means they are used for, and the average person is just as likely (in fact more likely, in the show’s opinion) to use the internet to troll or relieve boredom than to make the world a better place. And Hajime knows this (yeah, Hajime knows everything, you’re gonna have to accept her as a non-character if you want to enjoy the show) – but to fall into distrust would result in an unhappy world for everyone, and core to Hajime’s philosophy is her belief that most disagreements are a result of misunderstanding, or not seeing things from another’s perspective. And so not only does she attempt to create transparency and true personal connections wherever possible (in fact, she always corrects any title referring to her by saying “I’m Hajime”, emphasizing her preferred self-identification as an individual), but she also always assumes the best of people. Her perfection essentially proves the lie of Rui’s initial methods – whereas Rui initially operates under the false assumption that everyone can think in terms of “what’s best for our society as a whole,” Hajime serves as a walking, talking, scrapbooking example of exactly how far removed that kind of human being is from the average person.
Not to say truly great, high-minded people don’t exist. The show makes a strong point of displaying those people – the mayor, police chief, and fire chief are all introduced early on (as personal friends of Hajime’s from her scrapbooking club, of course – though this too strikes at the point that honest communication can be as equalizing as the internet’s anonymity, and create much stronger bonds), and when GALAX is coopted by Katze to empower the trolls, it is these dedicated sources of traditional authority that keep things from descending into chaos. A more horizontal society does not remove the need and value of gifted, dedicated humanitarians.
Equally emphasized is the point that democratizing responsibility does not absolve the unique responsibility of traditional leadership. The Gatchaman’s original team leader, Paiman (voiced by Aya Hirano, who I’m very happy to see getting significant roles again), originally uses the chain of command as a crutch – because JJ empowered all of them, until JJ gives the word, Paiman always prefers inaction. After Hajime convinces him of both his worth and his individual responsibility (a scene that echoes across the entire team, culminating in a powerful moment where the traditional lead Sugane outright tells JJ they’ve moved past the need for cryptic directives), he in turn has to convince the Prime Minister of Japan that his leadership is still necessary in the age of Crowds. Like with many threads, this turn is left ambiguous at the end – even the epilogue features the Prime Minister diffusing personal responsibility through crowdsourcing, demonstrating one more of the many ways the internet can be abused.
But ultimately, it is that distributed power of the internet which ends up resolving the conflict. When Katze empowers the trolls (originally lead by Hundred #26, a family man whose neat little character arc deserves far more space than this parenthetical aside oh well sorry #26), the “heroes” fight back by using both the Gatchaman and the traditional lines of civic authority. When Katze counters by empowering the scared, defensive citizens of the city, Rui counters by empowering everybody – by making Crowds global, gambling that the compassionate users will outnumber the trolls. Of course, he’s learned that most people don’t think in such high-minded binary terms – and so he makes it a game. Create fifty rice balls for the refugees, 100 points. Rescue a lost family member, 1000 points. And so on. The show doesn’t rely on anything so speculative as the goodness of human nature – it relies on the fact that people like having fun (“fun” is a loaded word in this show – to Rui and Hajime, it implies the kind of positive-minded communal striving that each of them prize so highly, but Katze regularly uses it to describe his love of pure schadenfreude), and that the instinct towards having fun together in a positive way is more powerful than the instinct towards distrust and destruction. And the gamble pays off.
The show doesn’t kill Katze. It beats him up, yes – OD, the most powerful Gatchaman, ends up sacrificing himself to regain control of GALAX and buy Rui time to establish a positive fun feedback loop. But Katze survives, as the Katzes of the world always do, and Katze jumps around on signposts and poses as other people and calls everyone dumb and their taste in fun stupid. Katze isn’t a villain – he’s a fact of life, a fact of human nature. Obviously very few people are pure Katze, just like very few people are pure Hajime – they are both warring instincts within each of us. And in the show’s last moments that truth becomes overt, when it is implied that Hajime merges Katze into herself. But this doesn’t defeat her – even as she enters his world, even as she moves from a beacon of light to a scattered mix of light and shadow, she confidently declares that she is still herself and it’s a beautiful day. And then Katze calls her a dumb bitch.
Hurray for the internet.
Gatchaman Crowds balances a variety of compelling and well-explored themes, landing on a coherent resolution in spite of being forced to handwave some of its more thorny implications (Crowds’ long-term implications, the necessity of X, etc). It also tells a fast-paced and consistently entertaining story, and manages to sneak in fully articulated character arcs for virtually all the secondary characters (Hajime and Katze of course being more ideas than characters). On the negative side, though it has great visual style, the production was clearly rushed, resulting in fairly shoddy animation and an acceptable but still unfortunate half-episode recap (which somewhat overtells emotional turns, a problem echoed by a few scattered on-the-nose conversations throughout) – fortunately, these issues of compression do not extend to the show’s ideas. You could also possibly accuse the show of emotional sterility, but I think it works well enough as a mix of thematic exploration and glitzy entertainment (which were clearly its two actual goals) to not seriously fault it for that. For directly confronting some of the most compelling questions of the internet age in an intelligent, entertaining, and creative way, I give Gatchaman Crowds a solid 9/10.