Change; Tetsuwan Birdy Decode Episodes 3-4

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The show marches on, but not quite in the direction I had anticipated.

The big theme of episode three was Birdy and Tsutomu trying to find a balance between their lives, and Tute was really the person trying to push them to develop some kind of harmony or equilibrium. Birdy’s response to Tute’s criticism of Birdy’s disregard for the fact that Tsutomu actually has a life that he has to live was rather immature however. Birdy was willing to acquiesce to Tsutomu and Tute’s request that she not simply take control of the body, but did so only because Tute was asking her to; in the same way that a child will dejectedly slink away and do their chores after some chiding, Birdy hid herself away within the confines of her own mind and let Tsutomu go about his life. But that’s not what I would call balance; it’s just trading one extreme for another. And I think that’s what Tsutomu realized when Bacillus attacked him at the school: as much as he would like his life to be separate from Birdy’s, they aren’t. It is this imbalance that Tsutomu and Birdy have during episode three that ultimately is responsible for Tute’s death at the end of that episode.

Tute went out and tried to find Geega/Bacillus for Birdy since she and Tute conceded to Tsutomu’s demand that he be left almost wholly to his own devices. When Tute eventually did find Bacillus though, he was completely unprepared for the fight that was to follow. Eventually, as a result of this fight, Tute does die immediately after Birdy finishes off Bacillus with an “Elemental Capsule”. Tute’s death was very striking, as I hadn’t really seen it coming, and the flashback Birdy has to the day when she met Tute was very touching. However, I have to say that Tute’s death as it stands on its own in episode three lacks any sort of weight to it. The partnership between Birdy and Tute (while obviously being present) was not a stressed aspect of the show, thus we cannot identify completely with Birdy’s loss as we aren’t privy to the complete dynamic of their relationship. The flashback, despite how touching it is and how it does clue us into the relationship between Birdy and Tute, is actually a very crude and lazy way for the writer to try and gain sympathy out of the audience, especially considering how it comes after Tute’s death.

A death doesn’t have to be personal to be powerful though. John F. Kennedy’s assassination shocked the nation, but it’s not like everyone in the United States was his best friend or anything. JFK’s assassination was powerful because of two reasons: 1) No one saw it coming and 2) It was a game-changer for politics. We see these same reasons play out in Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica with Mami’s death at the end of episode three. No one expects anyone to die in a magical girl anime, especially in the third episode, and Mami’s death signals a sharp change in the direction of the entire show from bright and happy to horribly soul-destroying. Tute’s death doesn’t actually change anything in the characters or the direction/tone of the show, making it almost meaningless.

The Birdy of episode four seems almost completely unaffected by what happened to Tute. If Tute was her best friend, her partner, then we should expect some sort of mourning to come out of her, some sort of greif — but there is nothing. I’m not even just talking about the open almost-depression I expected, there isn’t even a hint that Birdy is going through a more subtle form of greif or trying to hold her emotions back; there’s just nothing. This decided lack of follow-through on the part of the story is not only a disservice to Tute and his death, but also a disservice to Birdy and the rest of the show. Tute’s death is supposed to be an event, and to not explore its effects and ramifications for the larger world is just lazy and sloppy writing that goes even beyond anything I would’ve ever done as a writer. If exploring the dynamic between Birdy and Tute after the fact is bad writing, then to not explore it at all is complete shit.

Furthermore, in what is supposed to be a cathartic dénouement to episode four Birdy declares that she doesn’t need another droid to replace Tute because she has found a new “buddy”: Tsutomu. Am I the only one that this simply doesn’t sit right with? For Birdy to say something like that is completely unfounded for one; she doesn’t really know Tsutomu well enough to claim to be his friend and they simply don’t have the well-developed relationship for that sort of declaration to mean anything. There is also the fact that in Birdy’s flashback at the end of episode three she immediately termed Tute her “buddy” as a child, so to call Tsutomu that is to imply that he — a human boy that she barely knows — is replacing Tute — her nearest, dearest, and almsot only friend. Where is the basis for any of this? All in all, I think that Tute’s death was not executed as well as it could’ve been, and that both the build-up and the follow-through were poor and lacked any real weight too them.

Circling away from Tute and his death, we have Altaria: your typical science fiction fare. We have logic-defying buildings, strange animal-based species, and some non-sensical bureaucracy; which all comes together to create a very unoriginal place. The last few minutes of the episode show us the only parts of the entire planet that I find remotely interesting (although still unoriginal): the ghetto. Most of the time alien civilizations are portrayed as utopian with ridiculously high standards of living for everyone, but Altaria mimics the dynamics of real life by placing what can only be described as an impoverished neighborhood right below the splendorous government buildings floating in the air. In this impoverished neighborhood a fancy car which Birdy tells Tsutomu is transporting some rich people drives by them only to be bombed about twenty feet down the road. The bombing and everything surrounding it in those last few minutes of episode four set up some interesting tropes which definitely piqued my interest in the series again. First though, I have some explaining to do.

The neighborhood Birdy was in I called a ghetto because it is: 1) populated by a sole species, 2) overpopulated, and 3) a place where a bombing could take place. The only kinds of aliens we saw were Altarians, which are suggested by Birdy’s dialogue to be an underprivileged group. While we have no other residential area of Altaria to compare the ghetto to, I would call it overpopulated because there are simply people everywhere and even people sitting on the ground just relaxing or eating food. Bombings typically don’t take place in richer residential areas because there is a higher police presence, a more suspecting populous or both. — All of this comes together to set the Altarians up as an oppressed group.

The oppression of the Altarians is interesting, yes, but hardly original. In science fiction, having an alien (or any other group that is ‘other’ without being POC) stand-in for people of color is not uncommon. “Fantastic racism” is not new, and it is found in X-Men, Avatar, District 9, Underworld, ThorTerminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect; I could really go on all day. Above all though, having alien stand-ins is dangerous and racist itself. This trope takes the real-life narratives of people of color and completely derails them by framing them within a fantasy or science-fiction setting, which removes everything that makes exploring the narratives of POC important: the real world. What we have here is not a brilliant way to subliminally address “the issues”, but rather a cop-out that talks about racism without actually talking about racism — which, guess what, means that they aren’t talking about racism but about a trope that allows the creators of a series to claim to be progressive without them actually being progressive.

However, all of those works that I referenced in the above paragraph are works of the Western (white) world, and Tetsuwan Birdy: Decode is an Eastern work. So while it does use an incredibly racist trope, we have to approach this differently than we would Mass Effect. Instead of something straightforward, this trope as it is used in Birdy is skewed; in reality we don’t have white population or a wholly alien population as the stand-in — the Altarians are depicted to be physically indistinguishable from the Japanese. Since the oppressed people are already people of color, I’m not sure that we can say that the “fantastic racism” applies entirely here. These shades of gray within already gray area of discussion make me excited to see how the entire arc will play out.

Ultimately though, is a story which at its outset decided on Birdy, Tsutomu, and the Ryunka really the place to have a racially charged political plot play out? If the relationship between Birdy and Tsutomu is the core of the show with the Ryunka as the major plot device to explore their dynamic, then how does oppression, racism, and alien politics come into play? I do like Tetsuwan, but how can we justify the messy plot lines that seem to be just thrown together with little to no coherence?

On a more positive note: I love the inclusion of Satyajit Shyamalan as the suave businessman villain. It is something along the lines of the inclusion of Khan Noonien Singh as the charismatic übermench in Star Trek — a break away from the typical thuggish roles given to darker-skinned people of color.

It is strange, Birdy is a mixed bag of science fiction tropes arranged in a mess, but an albeit interesting, way. Even though my reviews are mostly negative, I do enjoy the show and only complain because I see the immense potential Tetsuwan has. I really do look forward to episode five and how everything will play out, honestly!

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7 responses to “Change; Tetsuwan Birdy Decode Episodes 3-4

  1. Tetsuwan Birdy was definitely enjoyable for me too, and I really liked how the second season delved into Bridy’s past. And IIRC the sakuga sequences at the end of S2 are… priceless!

  2. Excellent post. Those first few episodes are indeed a bit sloppy, and that extra-planetary deviation interrupts the narrative that the previous episodes present. The aliens being used as racist tropes – and then becoming quickly irrelevant – is something I didn’t notice while watching the show years ago. Thanks for bringing that up.

    As you said, the series is enjoyable despite its bumps; I wish I could explain why, but it just is. I’m sure anyone who you’ve spoken to about Birdy Decode has told you how different the second season is. I think it even addresses the issues you’ve unfortunately come across in the first season.

    • I think that what keeps the show enjoyable despite how inconsistent it can be is that the show has a certain energy and authenticity to its story-telling that sets it apart from other shows. People don’t like to acknowledge this sometimes but it certainly does matter who tells a story simply because of the attitude behind how they tell it; luckily for us the people behind Tetsuwan have a skill for the story!

      • Wow, that’s a compelling argument. To be sure, Tetsuwan Birdy: Decode, even with its quirky premise, does take itself seriously, and it’s easy to see that.

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