The very first thing we see in the new season of Gatchaman Crowds, subtitled insight, is a collective of red CROWDS attempting to assassinate the prime minister of Japan.
So we’ve got a problem.
Gatchaman Crowds‘ first season ended with Hajime and Rui working together to topple ineffective top-down power structures, redistributing that power to the masses, and turning everyday citizens into heroes and the Gatchaman into a functioning and familial team. The power of CROWDS turned their vertical society into a more horizontal one, and while that was a victory for the populists, it’s ultimately not a panacea for all of society’s ills. Evenly distributed power does not mean that that power will always be evenly exercised, and even distribution does not preclude the fracturing of that power into uneven groups.
But enough about that, look! A spaceship just crashed to Earth!
Hmm, I wonder kind of scary extraterrestrial villain the Gatchaman team will have to deal with this ti–
Gel Sadra is a cute little alien greeted with an enthusiastic hug from everyone’s favorite Gatchaman celebrity Hajime Ichinose. Unlike Berg Katze, who now chills out in Hajime’s boobs (so look forward to a lot of this shot if that’s your thing?), she’s deemed harmless by Paiman. But similar to Katze, who was able to materialize people’s souls into CROWDS, Gel is able to materialize people’s emotions into little speech bubbles above their heads. They change color and shape–kind of like a cross between a mood ring and an emoticon–depending upon how a person is feeling, and Gel particularly likes it when everyone is unified, when everyone can read and follow the same atmosphere.
People enjoy that feeling too. We like being happy as part of a larger group, and we also like being angry as part of a larger group. Feeling the same as a group means that our feelings are validated by that group, and that in itself is a good feeling. We don’t have big bubbles over our heads, but nonetheless we broadcast our moods constantly, both verbally and nonverbally, online and offline. We put a winking face at the end of a text message. We turn our head slightly away from the stranger sitting next to us on the bus. We spend an entire hour shit-tweeting. We bite our nails during an exam. What Gel seems to do is synthesize the subconsciousness of our body language with the performative aspects of our online presence: a 24-hour emoji that we’re conscious of, but not in complete control of. These make it even easier to read the mood of a crowd, and, more importantly, easier to manipulate the mood of a crowd. Gel herself demonstrates this. The domino effect of the color-swapping emoji provides a neat visualization of the pressure people feel to fall in line with their friends and family.
So what about the flip side, the people who don’t fit in with the crowd? Hajime’s emoji is a blank shade of grey, unable to be read and unable to change, which is in line with what we know about her. She is really good at masking her emotions, and, related to that, Hajime’s priority is always acting and behaving the way she believes will most help other people. She gives strangers the benefit of the doubt, she rushes into danger, she thinks on her feet, she’s inquisitive, and above all she values communication over violence. She’s a natural born leader, a force of nature, and she doesn’t sway with the whims of other people. She’s always listening, but her conclusions are her own. She’s a mad genius and bottomless fount of optimism.
Contrast this with our new heroine Tsubasa, whose emotional state sways so much that we don’t need a color-coded emoji to notice. In season one, Hajime was all about the importance of good PR, whereas Tsubasa doesn’t hesitate to yell at a group of reporters in (justifiable) anger. Hajime’s level of tolerance and forgiveness is a lofty aspiration for most of us, so Tsubasa’s big dreams and hotheaded passions are things we can relate to more immediately. She’s a girl from a small town who wants to grow up to make fireworks that everyone can enjoy. Her first transformation into a Gatchaman is similarly small scale–she does so not to save the world, but to save a little kid (and herself) from the claustrophobic eye of the media. Tsubasa also shares Gel’s desire to see everyone come together under the same banner of emoji, while Hajime and her grey bubble are more interested in an old man playing shogi by himself. We all may wish that everyone would always agree, but that childish naivety (and Gel literally looks like a little kid) ignores that there will always be differing opinions and smaller groups who stray from the consensus, for both noble and ignoble reasons.
One such group, VAPE, is currently busy vandalizing and terrorizing Japan. Rui’s decision to give everybody CROWDS was already being called into question at the end of season one, and VAPE explicitly identifies itself as an anti-CROWDS group, proving their own point by using red CROWDS in the most irresponsible and dangerous ways. GALAX is able to utilize other citizens’ CROWDS to undo some damage, but this self-policing can only go so far. Rui shoulders her responsibility as both creator of GALAX and newly-indicted Gatchaman to intervene where it’s needed and stop the most heinous misuses of the red CROWDS. VAPE, however, continues to gain traction with GALAX users and spread doubt about the safety of the CROWDS system. They don’t seem very good at PR, though, so we don’t know why they don’t want any CROWDS, and they’re quick to use violence as a blunt instrument. As such, Joe dismisses them as a pack of violent apes who need to stop upsetting the balance. The stakes here are higher than a rural family’s squabble, but the same disdain for dissent that Gel expresses can be found in Joe and Prime Minister Sugayama.
If Gatchaman Crowds‘ first season was about vertical vs. horizontal organizations, season two may be setting up a conflict between collectivism and individualism. Gatchaman’s philosophical concerns are a bit more nuanced than a blunt TKO match between ideologies, so I doubt it’ll try to convince us that complete collectivism or total individualism are the answer. Rather, episode one is an acknowledgement that people tend to “go with the flow” and modify their behavior based on those around them. Tsubasa does it, her family and friends do it, and even MESS does it, rearranging itself so it can play rock-paper-scissors, or mimicking the shape of a passing butterfly. This isn’t necessarily a bad tendency; it’s a human one, but it’s one we should be aware of (and one that Gel’s powers make even more explicit). The more interesting question that Gatchaman seems concerned with is how we manage the fracturing of people into different groups, how people in a group perceive individuals outside their group, how majority groups interact with minority ones, and vice versa. The final scene of the episode is the most telling, as VAPE’s leader throws Joe’s language back at him. Both men think they’re up against a group of unruly apes who need to be controlled. Remember, though, that Hajime saved the planet by loving even the worst of us, so I doubt that kind of dehumanization is going to sit well with her.
Thematic speculation aside, Gatchaman Crowds is as cute as bubbly as ever, and it’s great to see all these characters again, working together like one big candy-colored alien family. I love Rui’s cool car and Gatchaman transformation. I love Paiman’s little dance in the OP. I love that O.D. waves hi to Utsutsu on national TV. I love Tsubasa, and I think she’s going to be a great foil to Hajime. I love Berg Katze being shushed by Hajime. I love the :> The first season of Gatchaman Crowds won me over with its big heart and big ideas, and I’m looking forward to another summer of the same. BIRD GO!