Gatchaman Crowds was one of my favorite anime series of 2013: a forward-looking superhero story that combined social media, the ethics of heroism and a call for greater empathy into a collage of old and new elements. That said, it was also one of the most divisive shows of that year. While some sung its praises, others blasted the series for being too optimistic in its diagnosis, of promoting fundamentally bad politics under the guise of progressiveness. The series’s end didn’t do itself many favors, a late-in-the-game recap forcing the creation of a Bluray-only “Director’s Cut” of the final episode that to this day isn’t legally available in the states. The end of the director’s cut – where Hajime, the hero of the story, chooses to accept supervillain and malcontent Berg Katze into herself rather than eliminate him – clearly spells out that human’s capacity to do great evil must be embraced and safeguarded along with its ability to do good, complicating the show’s optimism.
In all fairness, it’s not surprising that Crowds was as polarizing as it was. While Hajime may be both smart and empathetic, devoted to empowering her friends and peers to be their best selves, she’s also a terrible communicator. She’s great at leading by example, but when it comes to one-on-one dialogue she can seem just as alien as Berg Katze himself; is it any wonder that she’s the only one in the whole cast able to communicate with him? At the same time, the internet grows and evolves at a rapid rate these days, and the predictions that powered Crowds already seem a little outdated in 2015. So while Crowds plus its Director’s Cut is fairly complete, a sequel makes perfect sense. And while we’re only four episodes in, I’d predict that insight isn’t just a sequel, but a full-out dialogue with those who watched the original. A clarification of Hajime’s thoughts without which the original series honestly feels incomplete.
insight is hugely ambitious, juggling multiple new plotlines and characters, but two of the most important new additions are Tsubasa, the new recruit, and Gel Sadra, an alien and legacy Gatchaman character. Tsubasa is the wild card of the series, the crux by which the world will either be saved or destroyed. Meanwhile, Gel Sadra brings one of insight’s Biggest Ideas to the table: the ability to represent the thoughts of all of Japan (and humankind?) as colored bubbles that tell you exactly how that person is feeling at that moment. Like Berg Katze, Gel Sadra is devoted to changing humankind. But while Berg Katze sought to sow chaos, Gel Sadra longs for peace, striving for a world where everyone is happy. If Berg Katze is a stinging wasp that brings our worst impulses to the surface, Gel Sadra is a pool that reflects what we want. In this way, Gel Sadra is a great ally for Tsubasa: Tsubasa wants to save people, and Gel Sadra will assist so long as her actions line up with what the people are asking for.
Emily Rand’s written a number of great posts on insight so far, pointing out how the series titles its episodes with advertising terms rather than the art history terminology of the first season. If you’ll permit me to splinter from her conclusions a bit, one of the aspects I find most interesting about insight is how it gets to the core of how we interact with art. As says internet essayist Film Crit Hulk and TV writer/Marvel workhorse Joss Whedon, character conflict is defined by what people want vs. what they need. Artists are faced with similar concerns: people want things from their media, but that isn’t necessarily what they need at that moment in time. Killing off a major character and dooming a ship might not be what audiences want (and if done haphazardly, might not even contribute anything of value to the story!) but pain and uncertainty are an essential part of most stories. Conflict powers drama, and a world without conflict would be endlessly dull.
Superficially, insight is far more generous than its predecessor from the get-go. Tsubasa is easier to relate to than Hajime, a human being rather than a smart but cryptic archetype. Crowds was stingy with its knock-down superhero battles, but insight features them right from the get-go. And while the first season saw the Gatchaman at their worst, dysfunctional and sometimes even incompetent, the second season begins with them working as a team, doling out all the crowd-pleasing moments that you’d expect from heroes at the top of their game.
But then the third episode comes, and the staff reveal their hand for the first time. Rui is incapacitated, the Gatchaman are confused, Hajime is hesitant in the face of Rui’s need to fight for her ideals at the expense of her life. And then:
Gel Sadra’s power is unerringly accurate, telling him exactly what people want at any given moment in time. But what people want, and what people need, are two different things. Gel Sadra is blind to the fact that what people want might not be what’s best for them. As a human being, Tsubasa may be able to compensate for Gel Sadra’s lack of “insight” in the same way that Gel Sadra benefits her powerset. But her impulsiveness, her desire to do good in the face of all else, keeps her from seeing where her friend’s vision inevitably falls short. I’m thinking it’ll be that miscommunication, founded in friendship and mutual understanding, that poses the greatest threat to Hajime and her friends.
In the end, Hajime may be the polar opposite of Gel Sadra, though I’m sure she bears him no ill will. Hajime isn’t great at comforting people, but she’s excellent at giving them the tools to find their own strength. Most importantly, while Gel Sadra wants the world to achieve inner peace, Hajime believes strongly in dialogue, extending even Berg Katze the opportunity to contribute. While people criticized the first season of Crowds (perhaps fairly) for being single-mindedly naive, it’s Hajime whose view may be more nuanced than Tsubasa’s: for her, people’s capacity for destruction must be acknowledged, and work in tandem with our ability to create to produce anything that will last. As someone who’s struggled with depression for years, that’s something I relate to very strongly. Medicine can help, talking with others can be a huge boon, but in the end the only thing to do with feelings of incomprehensible anguish is to make peace with them and move forward, rather than bury them for the short-term. There’s something seductive about total peace, and I don’t blame Gel Sadra for fighting for it. But humans being what they are, I can’t imagine it lasting for long.