One vs. Many: Gatchaman Crowds Insight

Warning: Some spoilers for Gatchaman Crowds Insight, many spoilers for the original Gatchaman Crowds

Gatchaman Crowds was an incredible work of fiction. Even going beyond the immediate realm of anime, Tatsunoko’s remake of their 1970s classic was incredibly clever, intelligent, and challenging. Presenting a story and world that asked how an age of social media, crowd-sourcing, and gamification might affect the very ideas of heroism and altruism, the mix of sociopolitical commentary and vibrant visual presentation made it unforgettable. Back when they announced the sequel, Gatchaman Crowds Insight, I was excited but also skeptical as to how they could possibly follow up on the original. After all, this isn’t the kind of series where you can just set up a new villain to fight or upgrade the characters’ powers, and the finer details of its philosophical ending was such that further scrutiny might benefit its messages less than just leaving it open ended.

Whether or not Gatchaman Crowds Insight is an improvement on the original is debatable, it turns out to be a worthy successor, taking the ideas of the original series and expanding them into, of all things, an examination of the danger of overvaluing a “harmonious” society, as well as an exploration of the conflict between the concept of direct vs. indirect democracies.

Gatchaman Crowds was a series featuring five unique transforming heroes who use their special powers to defend Japan, but the arrival of a program called GALAX that could enable ordinary citizens to gain superhuman abilities and help out in times of trouble changed things. By the end of the series, GALAX had gone under trial by fire, its strengths and weaknesses forcefully put on display, with a controversial decision based in faith in human decency being the outcome.

By the start of Insight, GALAX creator Ninomiya Rui has joined the Gatchaman team, allowing his perspective to influence the team, but soon after arrive two important individuals: a new Gatchaman member named Misudachi Tsubasa, and an alien named Gel-Sadra. A being that can sense mood, Gel-Sadra believes that, if everyone’s minds are united and in agreement with each other, then conflict would end. Underlining all of this is a new attempt to bridge the modern age with democracy, full-on popular voting via smartphone, which inevitably has both its advantages and problems, including fostering conversation and the threat of mob justice.

Altogether, the series takes that idea of social media and heroism and pushed it further to examine the challenges of political power and reform. What makes this anime especially impressive is that, similar to the first series, the solutions that come out carry a great deal of nuance that encourage you to think. In fact, that is probably the core value of Gatchaman Crowds Insight, to step back and really consider how words such as peace, harmony, and more embody so many meanings that are capable of both empowering and manipulating people, even if there is no conscious intention.

As with the original Gatchaman Crowds, the linchpin of this series is its main heroine, Ichinose Hajime. She is perhaps even more important to this newer series even as she seems less prominent overall. One potential criticism of Insight is that it goes overboard with positioning its characters as representatives or mouthpieces for various beliefs (the series goes as far as to have characters recite lines of philosophy on occasion), but Hajime’s inquisitive nature that amazingly combines both skepticism and optimism presents her intellectualism in a way that is fun and accessible. While intellectualism is usually thought of as being wordy and philosophical, in the case of Hajime it’s the way she employs the Socratic Method through her fairly limited vocabulary that becomes that ray of light in the shadow cast by the tyranny of the majority. The visual emblem associated with Hajime and only one other character in the series, a gray speech bubble derived from Gel-Sadra’s alien powers, and the truth of its meaning, are key to understanding Gatchaman Crowds Insight and its critical nature.

Nowhere is Hajime more representative of the series’ values than in her relationship with the previous series’ terrifying antagonist, Berg Katze. At the end of the first Gatchaman Crowds, it is revealed that Berg Katze is now inside of Hajime’s body. Every other person was consumed by their doubts because of how Berg Katze brought out their very fears, but Hajime is somehow able to keep him in check. In this situation, many works would have had her suffering at his constant and unyielding presence as the most dangerous kind of devil on the shoulder. Alternatively, they might have made it a metaphor for some internal conflict. Instead, Insight uses it to show just how powerful Hajime’s way of thinking is. Rather than ignore Berg Katze, she is willing to engage in dialogue with the alien, somehow gleaning useful information from someone who’s actively antagonistic towards her and shutting down the conversation when she needs to. To a lesser extent, she can be seen doing the same thing all of the other characters, especially Tsubasa, whose “get-it-done” attitude contrasts with Hajime’s nature, and it overall shows how much Gatchaman Crowds Insight values that questioning of not only established norms but the very formation of them as they happen.

Given Japan’s history with internal propaganda from World War II (deliberately mentioned in Insight) and the more recent controversy over the decision to expand Japan’s military applications on a global scale (a vote made by Japan’s parliament in spite of polls showing that over 50% of the Japanese people were against this), Gatchaman Crowds comes out an especially relevant time. It has a lot to chew on, and I would hope that not just anime fans but people of all backgrounds and interests take a look at this series. Its views are complex and perhaps difficult to digest as a result, but its overall theme, encouraging us as people to think and understand conflict and harmony as being both beneficial and harmful depending on the circumstances, is not to be missed.

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[Waku Waku +NYC Blog] What Does “Insight” Mean in “Gatchaman Crowds Insight?”

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I wrote a post for the Waku Waku +NYC blog about the potential significance of the word “Insight” in the sequel to Gatchaman Crowds. What’s funny is that if I never became a part of Waku Waku I probably would have never known or even thought of this.

Best Anime Characters of 2013

For this year I’ve introduced an extra category to make things fair for the rest of the competition.

OGIUE CHIKA SPECIAL AWARD

This year marked the return of Genshiken to anime, and with it the re-introduction of the character whose very passion and turmoil became the cornerstone of this blog. Ogiue Chika has changed much since I deemed her the best female character of 2007, and Ogiue we see in Genshiken Second Season is not the same as the one which struggled with accepting her fandom. However, it is this very transformation within her which continues to inspire me, knowing that, as her eyes and her expression have softened over time, they increasingly reflect the growth and maturation of otaku culture, and of the positive influence of Genshiken. As Ogiue thrives, so does the club which changed her life, and it fills my heart with joy and discovery to continue to be witness to it. I would write more, but I think that I’ve already said more than enough.

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Armin Arlert (Attack on Titan)

Some of my favorite male characters are guys who are ones willing to take the supporting role, guys who defy the macho stereotypes which continue to haunt characterizations of men in media. Armin reflects this in spades, but I find that he is also great at contributing to how we perceive ideas like power, intelligence, passion, independence, and cooperation. Of the core group in Attack on Titan, Armin is clearly the “brains,” but it’s a specific type of brilliance which allows him to think on a more deeply conceptual and abstract level, and what impresses me most about Armin is this strength in combination with his weaknesses, and how he and his comrades  make up for each others’ weaknesses. Armin is highly observant, a clever strategist, and open to new ideas, but can be extremely hesitant, and to see him embrace his talents in the midst of despair and to take inspiration from Eren and Mikasa is one of my favorite qualities of his character. In a way, this is actually an award for the character interaction for Attack on Titan.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Ichinose Hajime (Gatchaman Crowds)

I don’t think I’ve ever dwelled as long on a pick for best female character as I did this year, but in the end I feel there is no character more deserving than Hajime. To describe her is to engage in contradiction, a character who seems to defy all standards of anime characterization while adhering closely to them.  To talk about her role as the lead of Gatchaman Crowds is to realize that there are few who so utterly represent the concept of a main character as Hajime does, because Hajime is Gatchaman Crowds. Somehow Hajime is a protagonist who’s also a scene stealer, a presence which seemingly warps space around her and embodies all of the quirks which make the show special. Hajime shows that being positive doesn’t mean being naive, that conflict resolution through dialogue and and open mind can be just as thrilling as watching someone throw a punch, and that you can be stubborn about being open-minded. Hajime is simply a force of nature.

Final Thoughts

I find that as much as we like to think that anime is over and done, and continue to repeat that sentiment every year, that innovation (or something like it) continues to happen even in the areas most conventional. To hear that Gatchaman Crowds is ostensibly a remake of a 1970s anime classic is to bring to mind nostalgia grabs and numerous references to the old, or perhaps even a meeting of old and new generations, but Gatchaman Crowds largely defies all of those expectations. Attack on Titan is the big hit to the extent that it feels as if it has surpassed Naruto in its heyday, but even though both are of the ultra mainstream shounen battle manga demographic, Attack on Titan defies numerous trends through its bleak setting and the decidedly unglamorous position even its most important characters find themselves in, yet somehow this is also the source of its popularity. For both Attack on Titan and Gatchaman Crowds, I find that Armin and Hajime truly reflect how different and special each of their series are. Both are not the type to solve problems through violence first, but neither are they characters who are immobilized by the weight of responsibility or ones to abandon society physically or emotionally. They truly feel like characters who are a part of contemporary culture, yet will probably remain timeless.

Critical Mass: Gatchaman Crowds

What is the best way to describe Gatchaman Crowds? Though I don’t think it’s valid to say that Gatchaman Crowds is Gatchaman “in name only”, it’s certainly nothing like the original. Whereas Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was Super Sentai before Super Sentai was a thing, a team of costumed warriors dispensing martial arts beatdowns and bird missiles, Gatchaman Crowds is far more conceptually driven series that brings up and explores a variety of ideas pertaining to heroism, human motivation, living within an interactive and digitally connected world, and the advantages and limitations of large and small-scale group efforts.

Gatchaman Crowds follows a team of warriors who have the ability to transform with slick armor and powerful abilities. Their newest member is main character Ichinose Hajime, a relentlessly hyper and comfortably honest girl whose sheer energy is simultaneously both exhausting and invigorating. Assigned to fight an alien menace, their efforts as heroes are contrasted by another character, Ninomiya Rui, whose social networking service GALAX brings people together to collectively solve problems, Rui’s ultimate goal being a world where people realize the inherent value in helping others. Two shades of optimism interact with each other, sometimes cooperating and sometimes conflicting.

Crowds was my favorite anime of the summer for a number of reasons. Its presentation is extremely slick, with character designs reminiscent of Kyousogiga and Heartcatch Precure!, and 3DCG work on the Gatchaman outfits that really brings out the individuality of each character. It doesn’t just present a wide variety of ideas pertaining to large-population interactions and moralism, but actively explores them from a variety of angles. Its characters are streamlined extensively, but in a way which supports the overall sense of an exchange of ideas.

In terms of the show’s ability to encourage an evaluation of how we perceive problems, there are two aspects of Gatchaman Crowds which impress me in particular. The first is that it says there’s a difference between criticism and cynicism. Often when a text or a work of fiction presents a “QUESTION EVERYTHING” attitude, there’s a sense that it wants you to feel as if the world is in a neverending death spiral and that trust is a fantasy. As Hajime demonstrates numerous times throughout the series, however, just because you’re optimistic doesn’t mean you’re unable to see a situation from a variety of perspectives, or unable to make informed decisions. The second is that Gatchaman Crowds actually makes an effort to show how there are problems in the world that are best solved without violence, without resorting to an overblown or shallow “killing is wrong” message, or that it’s just a matter of trust.

When the Gatchaman are fighting the MESS early on in the series, strange alien creatures resembling alien rubik’s cubes who take over inanimate objects, it’s Hajime’s ability to think outside the box which allows her to try and communicate with the MESS instead of constantly fighting it out like the rest of the team. However, with the other alien presence Berg Katze (loosely based on the antagonist from the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman), Hajime realizes that Katze is different and dangerous. At the same time, Berg Katze is someone who can’t be defeated through force because of the way it turns the characters’ own fears against them, and so a different and more creative solution is needed.

Speaking of Berg Katze, I find Katze to be a powerful antagonist because of the way its most diabolical skill is attacking people psychologically, whether that’s creating chaos through deception, or by openly mocking a person’s efforts in the most grating way possible in order to compromise their self perception.

As for the role of heroes in a digital world, Gatchaman Crowds reminds me somewhat of Tiger and Bunny, but whereas that series explores the image of heroes with respect to mass media, Gatchaman Crowds explores it with respect to “media of the masses.” In particular, it looks at the concept of gamification, an idea that’s been gaining traction lately, which posits that much can be accomplished if you turn tasks and activities into “games” complete with points and high scores and such, from regular exercise to organizing files for your company. One of the key drawbacks of the concept of gamification is that it appears to imply that people are less capable of accomplishing something if there isn’t a carrot dangling in front, and Gatchaman Crowds asks the viewer to look at this from both sides. Rui’s desire to “update” the world hinges on an almost socialist view of the modern masses in which proletariat and capitalist are able to work together.

Overall, if you really want an anime that encourages you to think, then check out Gatchaman Crowds. It’s thoughtful without getting bogged down by the weight of its ideas, and even if you don’t agree with its conclusions, I think it’s still worth ruminating over what it has to say. You can watch the show for free on Crunchyroll.