BIRD, GO! (Or: Why I Love Gatchaman Crowds and You Should Too)

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This has gone on long enough. I said in an earlier Summer Split that Gatchaman Crowds was my favorite show of the season, but when it comes down to it the Summer Split is not the right place for that kind of explication. Here’s my attempt at convincing you (if you haven’t even touched the show, or if you dropped it early on) that Crowds is essential viewing.

2013 has been an unusually good year for anime, and this summer season especially has been particularly fruitful. Watamote transforms the light novel comedy into an excruciatingly honest (though repetitive) masochistic in-joke about the otaku lifestyle, C3-bu re-engineers the slice of life club show into a drama with intense focus on its main character and frequent homage paid to earlier Gainax works, and probable Shibireru Darou favorite Uchouten Kazoku (or Eccentric Family) presents the kind of complex and heartfelt writing you’d expect from the author of Tatami Galaxy, directed by an apparent amateur and animated by the usually conservative PA Works. Of all of these, Uchouten is probably the least conventional, touching on themes of family, society and inheritance far more commonly addressed in literature than in anime. Whether or not it exceeds its predecessor, The Tatami Galaxy (it might, despite Yuasa’s lack of involvement), it’s likely to be one of the best series of the year–and in a year with Shinsekai Yori and Flowers of Evil to contend with, that’s saying a lot.

If Uchouten is more akin to literature than the obsessively retread tropes and devices of modern anime, Gatchaman Crowds (by director Kenji Nakamura and writer Toshiya Ono, who performed the incredible feat of showing up Shinichiro Watanabe in spring of 2012 with their comedy/sci fi fishing story Tsuritama) is very squarely pulp. A reboot of an old sentai property from the 1970s, it’s clearly an attempt by the associated Tatsunoko Productions to make a beleaguered property relevant again. Either that, or a means of cashing in on the recent Gatchaman live-action movie. But Nakamura, who has previously directed series ranging from the ambitious but flawed [C] to animated horror masterpiece Mononoke, has a lot more on his mind than taking an old property and bringing it kicking and screaming into the modern age. Gatchaman Crowds is Nakamura and Ono dropping the mic on the super sentai genre, tearing down the foundations of superheroes and building a stronger, more flexible foundation on the rubble. What follows are 8 reasons why Gatchaman Crowds is as good as it is, and why it is worth your time.

1. I’m Hajime!

Hajime is easily one of the most polarizing characters of the year, and at first it’s not difficult to see why. She’s 150% all energy from the very first scene, quickly overwhelming every other character in the show and probably driving the viewer nuts. The fact that she (for all her emphasis on empathy and communication) is almost completely unable to communicate with others without causing confusion makes her even harder to bear. But as the show continues, a curious kind of alchemy begins to take place. The more the rules of the universe gradually become clear, the more comprehensible Hajime’s actions become. Soon the viewer realizes that Hajime is not an idiotic, self-absorbed annoyance but instead an extremely empathetic and selfless individual with more of a brain than just about any other character in the series. She’s also static, but in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t really matter. Hajime is Hajime and that suits the story’s objectives just fine.

2. Giving episodic conventions the middle finger!

The first episode of Gatchaman Crowds takes time to lay out the standard sentai template. Aliens known as MESS are abducting humans and generally causing a nuisance, and it’s up to the Gatchaman to set things right. The series than proceeds to pull the carpet completely out from under the viewer by having Hajime solve the entire problem non-violently, successfully communicating with the MESS and setting countless absorbed humans free in one stroke. It’s a brilliant means of taking the piss from standard sentai tropes, and in the process clears the table for the true enemy: us.

3. Gatchaman Crowds is the first television anime to successfully address social media.

Okay, so Valvrave did it first with Kickstarted mecha. Serial Experiments Lain commandeered animated cyberpunk commentary on the internet back in the 90s, and pre-SAO online rpg anime .hack//SIGN (according to Natasha, possibly its biggest fan on this site) dealt with the question of how our online identities bleed into our virtual personalities, and vice-versa. But the internet evolves faster than just about any modern social construct that currently exists, and while I feel everything from Summer Wars to the acclaimed Eden of the East attempted to address the contradictions of modern society, responsibility and the use of social media, I think Gatchaman Crowds is the first to get it right. It presents a (admittedly fantastical) social media platform with amazing potential, but rather than evangelize it or demonize it entirely the show presents strong arguments for both sides. In the world of Crowds, the internet is a tool, capable of both miracles and great acts of destruction: just as in the society we live in, technology’s potential  for good or evil, connection or alienation depends entirely on how it is used.

4. Gatchaman Crowds is the first television anime to successfully address gamification.

Of all things, you wouldn’t typically expect a Japanese superhero cartoon as being a treatise on the pluses and minuses of gamification (the integration of video game mechanics into business practices.) But as people in the know have already pointed out on Twitter, Crowds does a pretty good job of pointing out the pluses and minuses of the theory. A world that has been “updated” by GALAX, where everyone helps each other out of goodwill rather than reward, is appealing, but can the center hold when GALAX’s entire system revolves around rewarding people with points? Again, rather than take a side on the issue Crowds presents arguments for and against both sides. The mysterious leader of GALAX’s heart is obviously in the right place, but the flaws of the system are apparent from the beginning and only become more obvious as the show continues. With two episodes left in the series, Crowds’s final stance on the issue is left undecided.

5. Gatchaman Crowds is hilarious.

With all that talk about social media and gamification, you’d expect the show to be a real drag. Certainly, the series spends so much time carrying the weight of its themes in the early going that it took some people I know a while to really warm up to the show. But it’s worth noting that despite the fact that much of Crowds is a thematic exploration or dialogue more than anything else, the series refuses to take itself entirely seriously. Though the series is in many ways heavier than its predecessor Tsuritama, its heroine’s buoyant personality coupled with a good helping of quirky humor keeps the series humming. You know you’re in good hands when episodes begin with alien “panda” Paiman (the leader of the Gatchaman operation) riding around an apartment on a cleaning vacuum while eating watermelon.

6. Just about every character gets an arc that pays out mightily in the final stages.

This isn’t necessarily apparent at first. Early in the show’s run, Natasha pulled me aside on Skype and said something along the lines of “none of these characters have arcs! Except for so and so!” In the early episodes, this certainly appears to be the case, with Hajime overwhelming the rest of the cast through sheer energy and discussion of social media eating up time that could be spent on character bonding. But by the end of the series, Crowds performs a kind of writing jujitsu and it becomes clear that almost every member of the main cast is at a different place from where they started. The last few episodes are an endless stream of fantastic moments where the Gatchaman claim their agency against forces (both physical and metaphysical) that have kept them constrained for years. As hopeless as it seems in the early going, rest assured that each character’s respective climax is worth the time taken to get there, and entirely fitting with what came before.

7. Berg Katze is the scariest villain of the year. 

Berg Katze isn’t necessarily the most empathetic villain of the year; that would be Shinsekai Yori’s Squealer. But Katze has something that Squealer doesn’t, which is that he’s terrifying. Not because of some tragic backstory, not because he’s scarily powerful, not even because of the danger he poses to Hajime’s friends. Rather, Katze is terrifying because while his behaviors and actions are totally out there, they are grounded in something essentially human. Katze is an internet troll as a sentai villain, able to take on any form and rebuff any attempt at retaliation with a flick of his tail. He’s indestructible, unfeeling and probably capable of obliterating the entire world with his powers if he wanted to. Instead, he chooses to turn entire planets against itself, and Katze is never scarier than when he uses humanity’s own tools in order to give us the opportunity to destroy ourselves. In addition, while Hajime is a static character and Katze is a static character, the two have crazy chemistry whenever they interact. Hajime’s conversations with Katze are probably some of the most dynamic bits of writing in the series, and legitimately unlike just about anything else I’ve seen from anime in general.

8. Gatchaman Crowds is a superhero series that advocates nonviolence.

Over and over again, Crowds demonstrates the importance of using communication and empathy to solve problems rather than violence. Hajime solves the MESS problem by being the first person to try and understand them rather than destroy them, similarly, every attempt to engage Katze physically meets in total disaster. Humanity’s only path of victory lies in trying to understand the opponent’s point of view and proving that humanity will choose love over fear and selfishness, every single time. It’s ironic that the series chooses Hajime, a character who finds communicating extremely difficult, as its protagonist, but thankfully despite her eccentricity she proves to be something new: a sentai hero who believes in enabling people rather than protecting them through strength of arms.

More than anything, I think this is where Crowds truly innovates in the genre. While modern superhero sagas like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy give us flawed heroes driven to obliterate our rights and privacy in order to protect us from ourselves, Hajime instead chooses to open pathways for her friends and extended family and allow them to become the best they can be. Both causes are admirable, and I’m certainly not saying that Nolan’s The Dark Knight is in any way inferior to Crowds. But in a society where an entire generation of privileged male geeks are looking to Batman’s control freak tendencies (or heaven forbid, the Joker’s sociopathy) as a means of asserting their own specialness at the expense of everyone else, maybe we need more heroes like Hajime and co. In many ways Crowds subverts or even (*gasp*) deconstructs the sentai paradigm, but like all the best of its kind it uses that as a springboard to prove why we need these stories in the first place. Why heroes, despite the changing face of society and the rapidly expanding technological sphere, are simultaneously irrelevant and more important than they have ever been.

BONUS: The OP is amazing.

Sorry, Natasha. (Also, for what it’s worth Crowds’s soundtrack is an all-time great, easily one of Taku Iwasaki’s best and handily beating out his work on the second arc of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure earlier this year.)

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15 responses to “BIRD, GO! (Or: Why I Love Gatchaman Crowds and You Should Too)

  1. I’m late to the party, but yes, yes, and even more yes to all of your points. And there are still many more points.

    Gatchaman Crowds seems to get a lot of bad press in the anime blogosphere, with some people being unreasonably vitriolic and bitter about it… and frankly, I don’t understand why. So far this anime is great. It may not be Tsuritama #2 or anything else people expected it to be, or wanted it to be, but it’s almost frighteningly clever, innovative, full of heart, and it seems to be genuinely interested in its themes and what it wants to say. There’s so much going on in each episode, much of it blatant, but (despite what I usually say) there’s a lot of subtlety as well that gives the show a sometimes surprising amount of depth. (And so what if its animation is a bit rough around the edges, it’s nothing horrible, and it still looks great.)

    And yes, the characters. No, they’re not anything terribly unique (save Hajime and perhaps Katze). But god there’s so much going on with them. Take Jou for example, especially in episode 10, where his story finally clicked into place. He’s a burnt-out hero and “around-thirty” man who gave up his dreams both as a hero and as a man; a no-career salaryman living an aimless life, an old-school hero with old-school heroics who faces a “new-school” enemy and finds that his methods don’t work anymore. And in the end he’s saved by Sugane, his once-rescuee and student, who became a hero because he idolized Jou; a new hero for the new world who broke out of his “cage” and learned to fly free. As cheesy as this is, I can’t get over how awesome it is. Yes, we’ve seen new generations inspiring older generations before, but not like this, with all these aspects (some of which are very easy to relate to, if you’re around his age and/or stage in “career.”). And the part where Jou goes “I’m so lame” was pure genius. Aaah, it was so great!

    And this is just one aspect of many many aspects, and the show is not even over yet. I won’t even try to talk about the show in any particular depth until I’ve seen all of it because there’s just so much going on I need to see the whole picture before I even try to tackle it.

    I think many people are missing out a lot when it comes to this anime. Being put off by Hajime – that I can understand. (I don’t mind her, but it was obvious from episode 1 that she was going to be a divisive character.) Being put off by the visuals – OK, I can understand that, too. And even though I didn’t really know what to expect from it, it took a few episodes for me to fall into pace with the show, so to speak. But it seems to me many people simply can’t get over their own expectations and don’t try to understand what the show is trying to do and say. Which is such a pity. I don’t know how this anime is doing in Japan (I never know where to find sales numbers), but it deserves to be appreciated.

  2. I was one of those people that were incredibly hyped for CROWDS. I loved the OP, the visuals and enjoyed Tsuritama and Mononoke greatly, and after a couple of episodes I have to say that the OST is sick. But this show just doesn’t click with me. I’m fine with Hajime and the rest of the eccentric cast, but I can’t bring myself to really care for them. They’re (especially Sugane) pretty ordinary for me, even Hajime (yes, even with her err, gimmicks, for lack of a better word). I found the writing kind of shoddy. I didn’t like how they forced me to think that Hajime was destined to lead the heroes and how she was a visionary and all that instead of proving it to me. So overall this show is just a no-go for me, although I do appreciate the show’s aesthetics and nice ideas,
    I just don’t think they came off right for me. Am I the only one that thinks so?
    Btw, Uchouten Kazoku is my favourite for the summer season. Possible AOTY even, if fall doesn’t have strong contenders.

  3. Look, I’ll give you that CROWDS is a great anime…..

    …but Watamote’s OP is one of the best of the years and outdoes CROWDS’ by far, SORRY WENDEEGO, IT JUST AIN’T HAPPENIN’

    • Look, Watamote’s OP is pretty great and right up there w/ Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei’s OPs…but Crowds’s OP is one of the best OPs of all time. Of ALL TIME!

  4. I wouldn’t necessarily say Watanabe was shown up by Nakamura. You may have not liked the narrative in Kids on the Slope, but that was the fault of the source material; the direction was fantastic. Probably some of the best I’ve seen.

    But I should really go back and give Gatchaman a try. I got about halfway through the first episode before getting fed up with the female protagonist.

    • I’m also gonna throw out there that Stand Alone Complex addresses social media quite well, without being solely based on the evolution of the internet.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I think the fact that Kids on the Slope wasn’t a total mess (due to condensing multiple volumes of material into eleven episodes) was solely due to Watanabe. The guy is incredibly talented and while I think Slope would have been much better had it double the number of episodes, Watanabe’s efforts in keeping the series above water was borderline superhuman. I’m definitely glad I watched Kids on the Slope, I just enjoyed Tsuritama more in the end, if that makes sense? Enjoyed Kids in the moment but Tsuritama was easily what I looked forwards to the most each week.

      The first episode of Crowds is a little slow, and Hajime definitely engendered a lot of polarized reactions when the series came out. But the show really picked up for me in the second episode, and these days many of the series’s most vocal viewers LOVE Hajime. I’d try it again! You might not love it (think it’s a love it/hate it thing) but it’s definitely at least interesting and at most one of the best series in a year surprisingly loaded with them.

      As for Stand Alone Complex…the chat room episode is an all-time great and the rest of the series (both seasons, too) are at a similarly high standard, but like I said the internet is a constantly changing force. There’s something to be said of a portrait of the internet from the early 2000s, but I think that Crowds is valuable because it gives us a picture of the internet NOW. It certainly doesn’t invalidate the older stuff (Lain is still a classic, for example) but I think there’s something to be said for a show that dares to be contemporary. That said, don’t think that Stand Alone Complex (particularly 2nd Gig) has really been equaled by other anime dealing with contemporary politics, so there is that! There’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes and probably a couple of other sci-fi shows but SAC is grounded in modern Japan and its surroundings in a way that those shows aren’t.

  5. I really enjoyed the show early on because the themes discussed were subtly implemented into the story. The last two episodes in particular have become a little too preachy for my tastes. Still, Gatchaman Crowds is one of the top shows of the year for me, and a welcome change of pace to the genre as a whole.

    • It’s interesting, because I’d say exactly the opposite! In the early episodes of the series I was worried that Crowds was leaning too hard on characterizing social media as a relentlessly positive force that could only serve to improve lives, but since then the series has muddied the waters considerably. You could probably criticize the series for the fact that Hajime is a fundamentally static character who is ALWAYS RIGHT but again, that’s a convention the series takes on deliberately in order to make an important point. Though again, while I think everyone should watch this series I don’t think it’s for everyone!

      • The themes themselves have definitely improved–no argument there. It’s just the way they’ve gone about discussing them that’s become a little bit to blunt for my tastes. Even in this respect though, Gatchaman is head and shoulders above the majority of anime, which tends to be very heavy-handed with their messages.

  6. You guys are reading my mind and transcribing it into wonderful words! Here’s another good thing to point out:

    9. It has Homosexuals and transvestites as important characters and they aren’t treated like creepy pedophiles.

    Which is, like, super rare. (Even in western media)

    • Oh, sorry! Natasha (also known as illegenes) is one of the co-writers on this blog, along with Steven (also known as gallifreyians.)

      Thanks for commenting! And I’m glad you liked it :)

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