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.)