Over the years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with how Hollywood and entertainment media at large has been portraying superheroes.
Gatchaman Crowds has my back and shares in this opinion.
It is a series of broadside confetti canon blasts exuberantly rebelling against and reconstructing the very genre of entertainment it knows can thrive in the precise areas it has been casting aside.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was a 1972 series that engineered itself on positive uses of technology for human progress, conservation, and the environment. Adapted for the English speaking world in 1978’s Battle of the Planets, these superheroes wore bird-inspired costumes and had a fleet of giant robots which often saw use in the defense of various natural resources. It is not uncommon for supervillians to have eyes on things like uranium, oil, or the town water supply to deploy their nefarious schemes after all, and in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s cultural space that would generate things like Greenpeace and Earth Day, Gatchaman was a very natural product of its own times.
The series has had various reappearances since then, with the previous one being a three episode OVA reboot from 1994.
Gatchaman Crowds intimately understands that it is in a very tough position. Its franchise has been long dormant, and the world of 2013 is in an extremely different place given all that has transpired on the global stage after the last entry, let alone the original. The superhero genre itself has undergone its own shifts as well. The production team knew it needed a new focus, a fresh direction, and at the same time it needed to go back to basics.
It had to be “Gatchaman”, and yet, not Gatchaman, as it were.
It needed to pick a new topic to address that would be relevant for the world it was entering.
As you may have been able to surmise from the title and leadup, Gatchaman Crowds is a superhero show for the social media age. A world where everyone is constantly plugged into the internet, where news travels instantaneously via Twitter and Facebook, YouTube videos and live streaming share personal audio visual interactions with those miles away, trolls and misfortune lovers are constantly looking for their next hit, and you can not control what happens to your information once it gets out.
It is also a show taking that concept and exuberantly, aggressively, and triumphantly running with it to show every other competitor and genre leader that I Can Be A Hero Too is a very valuable sentiment to have.
Superhero media, primarily in comic books and film, have been in a sort of funk for a long time now, since the doors were blown off back in 1986 with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. While the more extreme cases from the height of the 1990’s have subsided in some respects, I need only point to the body count of 2013’s Man of Steel to show that the format and many executives in charge are still in this mindset of requiring Existential Brooding and Terrible Human Tragedy to Raise the Stakes because Being A Superhero is Serious Business that must be Taken Seriously.
Consultants put the death toll in that movie at close to a quarter million, by the by, with more than one million additional civilians injured.
In a Superman film.
While I certainly think there is a time and a space for darker explorations of superheroes, I do not think anyone would begrudge me that this has also become the default operating space for many of them. It has generally been merely different levels and gradients of dark, rather than light. And this is true across continents and formats.
While I certainly saw and very much enjoyed films like The Avengers in theaters, superhero media has, essentially, been grinding me down over the years. It has been making me as grey as their color schemes, as they attempt to make everything look Real, Imposing, and Dangerous. I do not feel so much excited that the day was saved that I am glad I can breathe again and go home after The Tension You Can Cut With A Knife as we watch The Power Fantasy get the job done.
I have not been Happy, is what I am getting at, in that very particular of childlike wonder ways where I would want a whole birthday party themed after such heroes.
Some would say that is because I have become older, and such an entertainment experience would be impossible. I am more cynical, and so too are the superheroes.
Gatchaman Crowds sits at the table laughing hysterically at those naysayers, because it just made a bunch of origami party frogs to fling around. And it wants to show you how to do a lot of other things too. Scrapbooking, social media habits, and how to save the world and Be The One Who Rescues The Day.
And I am not kidding about a single word of that.
The central protagonist of the series is a one Hajime Ichinose. A sixteen year old stationary aficionado and a consistently curious individual, she begins the series absolutely ecstatic about her newest notebook. An upbeat and positive young woman, she is dedicated to helping her community and making personal connections with people. This is something she is already doing prior to direct access to superhero Gatchaman powers. Her choices routinely commented on and causing much confusion by her team partners, she would rather talk to her opposition than fight on sight. She has a desire to know where they are coming from, what their perspective is. An “enemy” is merely a puzzle box, which in turn means it is a game that can be played and enjoyed for the fun of both parties.
That the initial opponent of the series, the MESS, take the form of literal Rubik’s Cube organisms, is not without merit. That the primary villain selected / inspired from the Gatchaman franchise, Berg Katze, is a shape shifter, is not without intent.
With every giant grinning teddy bear style verbal truth bomb Hajime drops, about the importance of personal expression, direct human connections, the positive aspects of being able to use the internet as a tool for Great Justice and yet also being able to shut it off when she feels a need to create a safe space, all feels incredibly genuine.
To be absolutely clear: Internet harassment is wrong, harmful, and a very damaging activity. Nobody, for any reason, should have to feel a need to walk away from it due to the emotional tolls naysayers can bring.
At the same time, harassers or even folks having wall to wall coverage about a news story one may be involved in (as would tend to be the case for a superhero like Hajime) are not obligated to one’s attention either.
A key bit of granularity I see in Hajime’s actions over the course of the series is while she does slam into a point where she feels she must disengage from social media for a bit, she also still sees it to have positive merits. She centers herself so as to not lash out in the moment or be overly burdened, returns, and is able to mobilize the helpful aspects of the network in pursuit of stopping the troll-like Katze.
The internet is a tool. And it can hurt, both her and others. But true to her crafting interests she never casts the tool aside for too long. She keeps an eye towards being able to put it to work to make something wonderful. And there is a good core message nestled in that, even if things get a bit jumbled near the end due to a production hiccup and a recap insert.
(Update: The Director’s Cut of the finale later received its own reflection post).
Hajime as a character is an aggressively upfront and honest person who will always speak frankly about what is on her mind, in such a way to create a positive impact rather than as an antagonist or snide force in the conversation. Her casting was absolutely impeccable, and as the engine room driving the entire series breakdown and reconstruction of what it means to be a superhero, I found really essential to giving that sense of heart and belief behind the words being said.
Expression is something Gatchaman Crowds wears like a shiny new outfit all decked out for an attention grabbing night on the town.
From a raw visual design perspective, one can not help but be forced to notice how Colorful and Bright its world is. It is busy, it is eye popping, it has colors slamming into each other in unfiltered ecstasy. It delights in playing with tones and palates, having characters move from shade to cornea scorching hues. This is not a Grim World full of Ever Threatening Danger Shadows. It is a welcoming party, it is happy to see you, and it has a lot of Cool Things it wants to show you.
The world is a Good Place primarily full of Good People.
There are problems that need solving, yes. And bad things do happen.
But it does not mean Fundamentally Good goes out the window.
Peeling into the more mechanical expressive layers, characters constantly change clothing. While Rui Ninomiya, the head of operations for the GALAX social network featured in the show, is the most prominent in this regard as they wildly swing from goth getups to simpler cardigans and everything in between, the characters have wardrobes. They have apartments, and they have normal clothes in them. Days do go by, and everyday attire changes and cycles. Sometimes multiple times a day. A superhero outfit, in the purest sense of the word, is itself an article of clothing. It changes how people perceive you, what they think or expect. The same for the attire of the police, fire department, and other people we see throughout the series. They go through shifts, they spend some days doing one thing and other days doing something else, which require different outfits. And that is all danced with and comes into play.
The same applies to the very words of the dialogue or internal monologues. Words are expressions, words hold power and they hold meaning. They shape and define perceptions. They are part of the core of what we are and what we can do as raw creatures of communication. Words on the internet hold power, thoughts left unsaid hold power, and the active discourse or declaration coming out of ones own mouth certainly hold power. Communication and the expression of ideas is all part of a very large thematic stew, and that they are all addressed as strong individual ingredients in their own right speak well to the strength of reinforcement of the rest of the experience.
If you are familiar with either me as a person or even merely the About the Author section of this little writing shindig, you know that I went to graduate school for International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Now, I have enjoyed more than my fair share of violence and gore spree anime, of that this website has more than ample proof of. But, there is a large toolset and series of perspective lenses which comes from my time working towards such a track in both my personal and professional life that allowed for some really delicious aspects in my viewing Gatchaman Crowds as a superhero work.
One of the subthemes running through the series is the idea of the adverse effects of vertical society. Which is to say, civil institution and cultural structures have advanced to such a point where people can have a larger distrust of those farther below their rung on the ladder, or alternatively folks who are not operating within The System. Several key players in the series operate frequently from central command centers, heights and codifications of their power and theoretical capabilities in the structure. The Gatchaman leader even exclaims in a fit to Hajime at one point that they should be operating like a structured military organization. The internet, as a collective, is a massive game changer and equalizer. People can pitch in for colossal harm or incredible good. It is dynamic, elastic, and chaos. And that is an absolutely terrifying thing in the eyes of some as much as it is also a great opportunity viewed by others.
The series does a very even handed job in portraying this. Not everything the internet or those on the GALAX social media service take part in is presented as wholly positive or wholly negative. It is always a gradient. It generates some big problems as well as really swell positive initiatives. There is a point early on where representatives of the local municipal forces have a conversation on a bus with Hajime, which is entirely addressing the cultural idea that young people are up to no good until you really get to know them. Communities have been more stratified while at the same time being more connected than ever. But small things can make larger differences.
These points on youth and vertical stratification are also addressed in another fashion later on, where Hajime wants the Gatchaman team to visit a preschool. Some responses are given by the members. Somebody hates kids. Someone thinks it would be too much trouble. And so on, and so forth. And yet, if one thinks about it even for just a moment, and is so blissfully clear to Hajime’s outlook, is it not those very children who may desire the presence of superheroes most of all? The most excited, the most genuine expressions of appreciation and Having Fun With Cool People? That this direct connection and positive moment would be able to help drive them to do good things and make a better world? The Superhero, as a figure, has increasingly been made larger than life and outright removed from the experiences of those on the ground. Maybe Batman has a few private words with someone, or the news covers The Avengers. Tony Stark gives a testimony about his weapons systems on Capitol Hill. But they are distant figures as far as everyday life. They have themselves become engrained into one of the negative aspects of vertical society.
Hajime wants the Gatchaman to go to your school and play games during recess.
The Superhero, as a figure then, should be an active part of the community. They should be prominent, visible, inspirational, and accessible individuals. You should not only be able to just look up to them as a fantasy, but as a potentially achievable experience for yourself in many respects. And Hajime was excelling in that regard with flying colors long before ever becoming a part of the Gatchaman squad.
A lot of the great work, the saving of the day, in this series is also done by everyday people. Police, fire departments, even regular folks who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time but can do right by those affected by something tragic or are otherwise in imminent danger. Housewives come. Grandmothers come. Everybody can be the difference maker in a moment of crisis. Even the Gatchaman members themselves do not always actually don their powered up capabilities and attire. They actually spend the vast majority of the series out of costume. Whole episodes go by without putting the getup on. Not every situation requires or needs such things. Saving the day is what is important.
Many lines of dialogue are spent on the idea of “updating” the world, about changing it and creating a social revolution, be it bloodless or bodily fluid soaked. The mechanics of what this would entail, the perspectives and actions which require such modifications or cultural shifts. And a lot of opinions are shown, from the various members of the Gatchaman team to Rui to public officials from different branches to Berg Katze to everyday people saying things completely in passing on the street. There is no single solution the series presents as its wining condition. Even right up to the very end and how the final crisis is addressed, the production is even handed.
Some folks do not like that about this show. I gobbled each and every second of it up.
Because there is no one size fits all equation to just bringing about a massive cultural update. At best, we take things one step at a time in the best way we know how at each moment, past experiences informing us on current options. We have to talk about these things. We will always have to keep talking and being open to the exchange of ideas if we ever want to truly progress as a society. Gatchaman Crowds takes this to heart.
I have not walked away from a piece of superhero media in quite some time that gave me the same unfiltered sense of Happy Childlike Wonder and Having Fun With Superheroes that Gatchaman Crowds was able to generate in me. Doubly so, I can not think of a recent superhero production able to do so with such a well managed message, execution, style, grace, subtlety, and intelligence in its rebellion against its own genre. The series floors all the other contenders in the room with a big grin on its face, and it would really like them to get up off the carpet so their new friends can check out the cool scrapbook it made out of reconstructing the pieces everyone else threw away.
It so incredibly heartbreaking that it is such an exception, that the rules have been skewed so very much over the years.
Gatchaman Crowds is a hero to its genre.
Should enough people come to like it, then we will all be.
Pendant Light is a weekly opinion and editorial space concerning various anime questions and subjects, be it topical or otherwise. Much like its namesake, it might swing around or fizzle out at times.