‘Gatchaman Crowds': Four Flights Inside The Most Radical Superhero Reboot of Right This Minute
Feeling tired, True Believer? Worn out by superhero controversies? Convinced that vital issues are out there in the genre sphere, deserving of discussion, but suspicious that the typical online back and forth amounts to so many weedy paddles ’round the sunken perimeter of a draining pond? Were you nonplussed when Harley Quinn rode that wrecking ball naked into Batwoman’s wedding the other week? I have difficulty even keeping things straight anymore, and it’s not because the underlying topics are frivolous or unimportant; I just think there are richer, weirder superhero terrains to explore.
So take my hand, tiger! Let us turn our eyes east, for just one post, to the wide world of anime! You remember Battle of the Planets, right? WELL YOU’D BETTER FORGET IT, because there’s a new Tatsunoko superhero cartoon in town — twelve episodes in total, streaming for free with English subtitles — and it’s a hell of a thing: Gatchaman Crowds.
Be warned that this is no mild-mannered remake; it ejects the entire “classic” cast of the 1980s animations you might remember, bins the bird costumes and dares call into the question the very utility of fight scenes in superhero entertainment. Despite this, it is distinctly respectful of its ancestor on the level of broad metaphor; one suspects that while director Kenji Nakamura and head writer Toshiya Ono may not consider themselves beholden to past series’ expectations, they do, apparently, retain some fondness for the Gatchaman idea.
Crowds is also very thoroughly a modern television anime production, flattering the peccadilloes of its small target audience in a way that makes the show unique to consumers of western superhero stories… and maybe a little problematic too. But we needn’t fear truly “problematic” works, dear reader, for they harrow our certainties in a manner that demands a finer navigation of clashing values and signals! Here, in this spirit of adventure, are four categories of special focus:
Surprise! At this very moment in time, you are on the Internet! And while I know you’ll never, ever click any of the Twitter or Facebook buttons with which this page is poignantly festooned, you nonetheless might find the time to tweet about this article (“what a blowhard”) or update your status (“anime is the worst”) in commemoration of its contents. In response, you will be showered with favorites and retweets, unless nobody loves you.
This is life. Or, perhaps, it is “life,” because commonly used social networking platforms tend to augment the everyday experience with a device borrowed from video games: scoring, by which your accrued numbers offer a faux-objective analysis of how well you’ve succeeded on your coffee break as a witty and informative and otherwise valuable person. Likewise, while sites such as Reddit and Tumblr do offer a simple, streamlined means of accessing news and/or pornography, they also afford the reader an opportunity to participate in heroic quests against harmful social manifestations, the costs of participation in which are typically nothing more onerous than remaining seated and reading and typing, just like your favorite MMORPG.
Gatchaman Crowds fully ascertains this legacy of gamification. Where the famous Science Ninja Team once faced the threat of Galactor, an evil organization of caped ‘n cowled dastards at the beck and call of a malevolent flickering rooster head (or something), the new crew must contend with GALAX, Japan’s hottest social media app, which has been embraced by the young (and not a few of the old) (and, strictly speaking, certain members of the Gatchaman team) as not just a means of setting up high school play dates but a revolutionary catalyst for the benefit of society. Basically, GALAX is like an enhancement of Twitter’s real-life, Japan-tested Lifeline feature, fused with an addictive Facebook game. Applicable users are periodically notified when trouble appears ready to strike – anything from a traffic accident to a tainted milk outbreak to a news-making catastrophe. Like good internet detectives/superheroes, users are then free to volunteer their time so as to solve the problem, in exchange for tinkling, self-evidently valueless ‘points’ toward a better, safer, ethical, moral world.
And yet, the question arises: who are the elite admins drawing attention to these problems? In fact, to disregard metaphor for a moment, who draws your attention to causes for justice online? When you see your whole Twitter feed blowing up over Grand Theft Auto 5, learned and concerned essays flying left and right, isn’t the occasional suspicion raised that you’ve all been maneuvered into behaving as unwitting advertising agents for the monied establishment interests behind the national visibility of such popular distractions?
With Gatchaman Crowds, at least, the answer is simple: GALAX is, of course, moderated by Sōsai X (aka: the Luminous One, Computor, Leader X, etc.), who, for old times’ sake, is still a flickering thing on a screen, if not quite so bird-themed. However, the new Sōsai X is less prone to supervillain speeches than quiet, data-mined analysis of local and national troubles; ostensibly, it remains in the control of archetypical youth tech genius Rui Ninomiya, although it quickly becomes obvious that this Leo Quintum-like character’s genuine interest in refashioning the character of a just society along decentralized, vaguely anarcho-socialist lines is at odds with certain alien powers, who, for private reasons, wish to see the fabric of society disrupted to the point where the whole human endeavor goes up in a big red blaze of self-interested flames. The Internet can do that too.
Sadly, Rui — who, incidentally, is a practicing transvestite, which we’ll explore in a bit — has already accepted alien help for one important aspect of the plan: the secret, elite forums of GALAX, where special users are tasked with counteracting the toughest threats with ad hoc superpowers drawn from their very souls. It’s called “CROWDS” because while all Internet users are empowered, some are more empowered than others.
That’s the premise of the show: Grant Morrison’s JLA vs. Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency, with the stability of human society on the line. Simple comparisons, yes, but the tone of Gatchaman Crowds is foreign indeed.
So what of the Gatchaman team itself? Noble Ken (the Eagle), and sweet Jun (the Swan)! Oh what heroic battles they waged across a troubled Earth, or maybe outer space, depending on which version of the cartoon you saw!
Television anime, however, is not what it used to be. Audiences have shrunken, mass-appeal time slots have vanished, and toy companies are no longer footing the bill; as a result, many programs have narrowed their focus to service the very particular needs of super-devout fan clusters who’ve proven themselves willing to buy the costly home video editions necessary to keep everything solvent. This has resulted, for example, in not a few series focused on rousing warm, paternalistic feelings in the male viewer through the endearing depiction of young girls (see: moe), as well as certain lady-targeted efforts best embodied at the moment by Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club, a sports anime which objectifies its cast of high school boys in exactly the way you’d expect of panty-flashing girls.
But don’t let the bishonen fool you; the ranks of anime creators are overwhelmingly male, enough so that when last year saw the release of Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine — a reorientation of one of the great anime franchises around an unscrupulous sexpot plucked from the midst of an otherwise all-guy cast — the show became instantly noteworthy as merely the product of a female director and female head writer. These things just don’t happen very often.
Gatchaman Crowds‘ production crew, in contrast, is very male-dominated, but it can’t help but recall the Lupin show. It too is a self-consciously “weird” version of a storied franchise — its initial release was timed to support a very orthodox live-action movie adaptation of the property — and, like Fujiko Mine, it uncategorically rejects the primacy of the masculine point of view, instead demanding attention be paid to theretofore minority perspectives. Which perhaps requires some unpacking.
This is Hajime. In an earlier time, she might have been called June, or Jun, or even, per Battle of the Planets, “Princess,” which, in a rare instance of a Japanese program winking at its own American adaptation, several older men call her at one point (“hime-sama”), though she quickly replies that her name is not Princess, it is Hajime. She says it in a cheerful way. She is always cheerful — almost spasmodically so. The first we see of her, she is barely restraining an ecstatic fit over a new notebook; later, relaxing prone at lunch, alone on her high school’s roof, she encounters an outer space wizard (voiced by original Ken the Eagle Katsuji Mori!) who coaxes a superhero smartphone out from her chest, prompting what sounds like a cosmic orgasm from the happy teen, knees buckling and bust heaving, her Gatchaman powers activated with a satisfied sigh. As you might guess, she is really! really! stoked! to be a superhero.
Hajime will cause problems for some viewers. She is sugary, hyperactive, extremely silly, and prone to moaning theatrically over whatever she deems fun or cute, which accounts for virtually everything in the universe. Nary a moment’s silence is possible when she’s around; voice actress Maaya Uchida even covers for gaping lapses in onscreen character movement with extra squeaks and coos. The animators, meanwhile, burden the poor girl with Wally Wood-on-Power Girl-style ultra-boobs, which occasionally dominate the mise en scène. Many, as a result, will find this protagonist to be extremely annoying and possibly gross, and I’ve learned through hard experience that any major element of a fictional work that an observer finds lame or ridiculous or dorky or wack will immediately short-circuit any possibility for intellectual or emotional appeal.
That said, a long game is being played; long enough that when Our Heroine starts dropping Vic Sage-worthy philosophical queries on the nature of heroism in Episode 12, it seems totally in character. Hajime might be embarrassing, but she is never embarrassed. Indeed, she is flagrant. She acts with total self-assurance in every situation, rapidly disarming threats with a twinkle in her eye. She never needs to be saved from anything, ever. She is quite giddy in defying provincial authority and the common wisdom, eventually winning her team over so hard that ten unbroken minutes are expended in the series’ penultimate chapter detailing how she is basically the greatest human being who ever set foot on this fallen world. She likes arts & crafts, and stuffed animals. She is unabashedly girly, yet the undisputed star of a superhero show so beholden to her perspective it’s willing to fashion a major dramatic beat around a line like “you’re prettier without makeup.” Forever Evil wouldn’t dare such transgressions.
One suspects a small war is being waged.
If you think Hajime is a typical anime girl, you’re partially correct. There’s even a term of art for her specific character type: genki. However, this is not the character type you generally rely upon if you’re chasing “wide” subcultural appeal today. That role is better filled by Gatchaman teammate Utsutsu: a barely-dressed green-haired lass who pouts gloomily, eternally, looking like a sharp breeze could snap her in half. She is basically the ‘obligatory kid’ of the team, Jinpei (the Swallow) cannily updated to the sort of uber-moe lolicon fetish doll who doesn’t seem capable of using the bathroom without assistance. For added feels, her power set is a direct lift from two Chris Claremont favorites: Rogue, who cannot touch people without sapping their life force (though Utsutsu can also opt to charge people up with her energy stores, thus weakening her), and Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, for that extra kick of disassociation. What lonely fanboy wouldn’t fall in love with this charming pet in the form of a girl?
Perversely, though, Gatchaman Crowds declines to put Utsutsu in the proximity of a milquetoast male identification figure. (She has a “daddy,” but more on him later.) Nor does it remain still and observe her running through adorable routines with little friends in super-cute stasis. Instead, Utsutsu and Hajime develop a rather close friendship — more a borderline crush on the younger girl’s part — which primarily serves to maneuver the moe stereotype into a slightly less obnoxious, more self-respecting place. It can be argued, of course, that the show is having its cake and eating it too; surely there’s no more boring an exercise in lonely boy wank than to tease a faint lesbian tension between a pair of female characters, right?
Except, the guys are kind of like that too. Sugane (right) is the youthful Ken type, albeit very blonde and certainly no longer the team’s leader, and Joe (left) is… Jō (the Condor), basically the only original Gatchaman character left more-or-less intact. I guess impulsive bad boys are perennial, except instead of a super-cool race car driver, Joe is now (GASP!) (CHOKE!) a civil servant.
There are ladies at Joe’s workplace, of course, but it’s Sugane who flashes just the right look of… admiration at exactly the right moments, drifting back, eventually, to a tearful boyhood incident in which Joe hoisted him up on his manly back and whisked him away from peril. Basically, this is a technique to entice lady viewers. It’s not an expression of realistic homosexual longing; it’s code. It’s fan service, meant to encourage shipping, which is one way to assure the devotion of certain viewers long enough to fork over a hundred and fifty bucks for a Blu-ray set.
The thing is, Gatchaman Crowds goes so far with the fan service, it eliminates heterosexuality from the “text” entirely, by its very determination to flatter the interests of heterosexual viewers. It actually queers itself.
Which is where things get interesting, and perhaps troublesome.
There are two other Gatchaman team members. Paiman is a vaguely sinister but mostly incompetent lil’ alien panda, his presence perhaps obliged by the 2011 otaku mega-hit Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which re-popularized the animal mascot type. More importantly, there’s OD (above), a 300-year old half-alien gay camp stereotype who serves as den mother for the whole group, sometimes grimacing over the bottomless destructive potential of his own Gatchaman powers, which may well annihilate the Earth if ever unleashed.
OD is Utsutsu’s guardian, and I admit it’s a funny prank on certain sectors of the viewership to make this potential “identification” figure a veritable participant in RuPaul’s Drag Race. However, OD, more than any other character in the show, does not have hobbies or interests enough to succeed on reality television. He does not have a lover., though he expresses the occasional interest in a sexy guy, for comedic purposes. He is like the gay neighbor in a ’90s American sitcom. He is not even really human.
Instead, he is a mincing, sashaying, lipstick-wearing signifier of exoticism, conjoining male and female traits in a manner digestible to lazy viewers. He is also, perhaps, a taking from a minority culture for majority enjoyment; the erasure of homosexual reality, sacrificed to tickle the erotic and cosmopolitan urges of a stationary mass.
This, to my mind, is the primary threat facing the Gatchaman team. In true superhero form, it has origins in their past.
Berg-Katse is maybe the most notorious element of the original Gatchaman: a vile underling of Sōsai X, fused in the womb from male and female twins, resulting in sexual variance. While hidden for the most part under a swank purple coyote getup, the implications of this origin nonetheless proved too hot for the old American adaptation, Battle of the Planets, which, through the magic of rewrites and overdubbing, split the character off into two distinctly gendered entities.
Clearly, there is no need for that in the 21st century. An alien shape-shifter spearheading the “big red blaze” plan for Earth’s future, the Berg-Katse of Gatchaman Crowds is an uninhibited homophobic nightmare in heels, all flowing red hair and wailing peals of laughter. He’s an ex-Gatchaman too, capable of enveloping men and women alike (but mostly men) with EVIL SMOOCHES that allow the villain to absorb his victims’ darkest desires and make them a reality; it’s a bit like Crossed, except everyone keeps their pants on.
Instantly, a problem arises. Berg-Katse, a transsexual-coded character — though do note that “he” is specifically, in-story, an alien being without a literal sexual makeup (his voice actor is male, so that’s the appellation I’ll use) — is the only member of the cast to frequently take action in a sexual manner. The result is evil and mayhem, every single time, while the heroes plan their activities in a fan-fiction-friendly bubble of undisturbed potential.
Admittedly, this is nothing new to superhero fiction. Fredric Wertham and Harvey Kurtzman alike had isolated sublimated sexual desire as a key component of the violent superhero power fantasy by the early 1950s, and hair-trigger Hajime does little to disavow that theory. Instead, she pivots laterally, rejecting violence as a necessary aspect of superhero power.
There is a certain amount of gender determinism to this tactic, as well as a little pragmatism. The female Hajime, a novice superhero — Paiman frequently calls her “dōjinshi,” which is something of a pun; the term is often used to identify amateur manga publications, many of which utilize preexisting characters in unanticipated situations, a notion which arguably applies to any superhero revival — acts in open defiance of the team’s male seniors, all of them “punch first, question later” types beholden to age-old paradigms of bloody confrontation. Hajime prefers communication, an impulse at odds with classical superhero tropes like the secret identity and the hidden lair and the cover of night; to her, the power of the superhero concept is its capacity for inspiration through direct engagement with society. Slaves to a constrictive, macho, emotionally repressed male perspective, the Gatchaman team pre-Hajime (and, metaphorically, pre-this-show) are “caged birds,” awaiting liberation from their prejudices.
Or, as the title of Episode 4 indicates, above the din of poor Joe futilely attempting to shoot the elusive Berg-Katse, who feeds on rage and despair: it is “Kitsch.”
This is not an unexpected move from director Nakamura. While I doubt anyone involved with the creation of this show has read any of the American superhero comic books which reflect similar concerns — right now I’m thinking, counter-intuitively, of Neil Gaiman’s & Dave McKean’s vehemently feminist, anti-violence, altogether paradigmatically po-faced Black Orchid from 1988 — the general disposition of the show is nonetheless in line with that of such genre dabblers as novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose script for Marvel’s excellent 2007-08 Omega the Unknown revival betrayed little fondness for superheroes en mass, but sensed a good deal of metaphoric possibility in a very specific iteration of the genre.
Nakamura is similarly highfaluting, having made his directorial name on deeply weird low-visibility television projects like Mononoke (2007) and Trapeze (2009); he has since channeled his energies in a more commercial direction, cleverly insisting on blazing color schemes and flattening visual design flourishes to cover for the fact that TV anime doesn’t always have the time or money for a whole lot of… animation. The mid-series slump hits Gatchaman Crowds hard enough that Episode 6 looks composed in Flash. Quickly! Cut to Gatchaman headquarters, which looks like a Paper Rad wallpaper from 2005!
It is fortunate indeed that Hajime is such a pacifist; this way, the production team doesn’t have to waste so much time on labor-intensive action scenes! Ill-fitting CG is used for these scant bits, all the better for shining up the eleven million Tron: Legacy neon tchotchkes bedazzled onto everyone’s updated costumes, which are a bit like contemporary tokusatsu designs, only Jim Lee-bad. Believe me, you’ll soon be begging for extended scenes of character interaction, tenuously linked to each episode’s 101-level art history title. “Forgery”: Berg-Katse steals someone’s identity! “Futurism”: GALAX is a new socio-political project, carrying a whiff of totalitarian potential! It’s a shame the program wasn’t game for “Mannerism,” with its incongruous, studied application of age-old virtuosic traits to an intellectualized breed of art qua art.
Instead, for Episode 7, we have “Abjection”: a showcase for Berg-Katse, the last horny being in the universe.
It comes to pass that Berg-Katse is challenged by the boy genius Rui Ninomiya, who, despite having benefited so much from CROWDS, is horrified and disgusted by the alien’s appetite for destruction. As I’ve stated before, Rui is a transvestite, prone to wandering the streets in exaggerated feminine garb like bunny ears and a flashy pink wig. No explanation is given for this propensity — his “undressed” look may or may not be visually inspired by the distinctly feminine-sounding lead singer of White Ash, the band which provides the show’s theme song — but literarily we might see it as indicative of the ability to assume alternate personae online; to become better, smarter, and more attractive than you are. In superhero genre terms, it is also an alter ego: Rui even has a superhero name, “LOAD,” a truly riotous (if probably accidental) double entendre.
The assault goes poorly. Berg-Katse rises into the air, and his prehensile, rather phallic tail strikes out to destroy the assembled CROWDS, knocking dozens of users into a catatonic state. The appendage then slaps the glasses off of Rui’s face, pummeling his mouth over and over, until he is strung up on a tree in his skirt and boots for a good, hard whipping, gasps and yelps spurting from his agonized throat as the male members of the Gatchaman team, the only ones present at the time, debate what to do.
These are enormously sexualized images. It’s basically a rape scene, save for the lack of rape — sexual violence as pure artifice (in case the art history titles weren’t tip-off enough). Rui is saved when Sugane scoops him up in his arms, Superman & Lois style. Joe also leaps into the fray, but Berg-Katse emasculates him with a super-kiss, plunging him into a bog of frustration and impotence. Then, the villain crouches over young Sugane, lasciviously intending to gobble the spirit hot from his mouth, until a just-arrived Hajime screams YOU PERV! and kicks at him: even she has her limits, one supposes!
Rui, meanwhile, is left ruined; just another used tissue. A broken toy. See how the camera leers up his skirt!
But all is not lost, anxious Gatcha-fan. Having surveyed the ruins of his online utopia, which Berg-Katse polluted by encouraging trolls and fortune-hunters, Rui finds himself in the hands of the Gatchaman team. He collapses into a shower, wearing nothing but deep welts and red nail polish. Little Utsutsu lays her hands on his skin, making it smooth and whole. He lounges around with the group, clad in nothing but a floppy shirt, his hairless legs dangling loose. Sugane is so embarrassed to learn he is a boy! It’s not a big deal, though; in due time, Rui is pink-haired again, strapping on his combat skirt to TAKE BACK THE INTERNET.
There is much here to digest, though I don’t want to give the impression that Gatchaman: Crowds is a heavy show; it’s very fast-moving and breezy. Conceptually, it appears to be shooting for all-ages appeal, despite a 2:00 AM time slot branding it as otaku-only stuff; the violence I’ve described is never particularly explicit, and obviously there’s no real sex. Hajime even drops the occasional G.I. Joe-worthy PSA on internet bullying, mid-episode, which maybe adults require these days, I dunno.
Again, it’s all part of the artifice, and how you react to Gatchaman Crowds is dependent on your relationship with artifice. Do homosexual or gender-ambiguous characters demand an aspect of realism-as-lived beyond simple verisimilitude? A better question, perhaps: when does the use of stereotyped or surface-queer characters rise to the level of exclusion?
You needn’t look into very many of the less-moderated anime discussion forums to encounter the word “trap.” It’s most frequently used in reference to Rui, because not a few heterosexual male viewers find him very sexy in his girl clothes. “Trap” is slang for a transsexual or transvestite, or really any man who looks like an attractive woman. It’s a geek-indigenous term, derived from a popular Star Wars meme, and some geeks, when cornered, might insist it’s not intended to be a hateful designation; the “joke” is not on feminine subject, but the hapless observer.
That’s the problem. Through this usage, the feminine subject is dehumanized; the whole of their existence becomes nothing more than a comedy routine by which to gauge the awkwardness threshold of the heterosexual observer. Always, heteronormativity is supreme, the eternal norm by which all deviations must be judged as exactly that. “Tolerance” is a power only held by the majority, and thus any shift in the societal paradigm is an option to be pursued solely at their pleasure. Countervailing narratives are novel, yes, but functionally irrelevant. Under this conceptualization, the only utility to “queering” a genre is to inspire moe amidst the majority, and snatch, perhaps, a discarded cracker of acceptance.
I ask you: can a work of artifice, its gay tropes so time-tested for straight appeal, hope to defy this fate, this theft, this violence?
It is generally helpful to refer back to the story at hand. Perhaps the gender-ambiguous characters of Gatchaman Crowds are themselves are double entendres. Berg-Katse, again, is not an in-text transsexual, because “he” is intended to embody negativity beyond male/female dichotomies: greed, selfishness, violence. OD, the hero, embodies all that is good beyond gender: kindness, fortitude, nattiness. But OD is fundamentally of the older generation, and so the burden of change falls on anti-hero Rui, who represents a new reality in which individuals can decide their gender identity for themselves.
And then there’s Hajime, who, like Kermit the Frog, never wants to destroy her adversaries. The true relationship drama of Gatchaman Crowds is between her and Berg-Katse, whom she sincerely wants to redeem. There is room enough in her heart for him.
Ooh, a bit romance novel, that! Maybe a tad paternalistic! Problematic, even! Ah, but one of the niggling, puckish traits of works so pregnant with possibility is that they might function, in cruel part, as a referendum on the receiver’s grace.
It used to be a Science Ninja Team was a great idea. You’d have lots of terrific, competent experts at the beck and call of a super-cool international organization, ready to intervene heroically at any trouble spot.
Nowadays, this smacks of naivete. Ten million paragraphs above, I mentioned Grant Morrison’s JLA as a point of comparison for Gatchaman Crowds, and that’s not just because the show wraps on a Morrisonian semi-denouement that bespeaks both a sterling faith in the interpretive skills of the audience and a sudden lack of money/time/space. Both works, at least going by Morrison’s first storyline, are concerned with the political relevancy of the “mainstream” superhero idea as a genuine catalyst for lasting change. Many other superhero comics have tackled the same notion. Indeed, several prior anime have concerned themselves with societal issues, ranging from director Nakamura’s own C: Control (2011), to Ghost in the Shell impresario Kenji Kamiyama’s rather silly suspense contraption Eden of the East (2009-10), to studio Gonzo’s 1,000% ridiculous Speed Grapher (2005), a (Pat) Millsian anti-capitalist fable about a photographer who can cause people’s heads to explode, which culminates in a fight with a werewolf inside a skyscraper full of money, among other things.
What’s unique about Gatchaman Crowds, though, is how it defines the political personae of its heroes. The Gatchaman team, we quickly discover, are employees of an intergalactic organization, chosen for their special skills to benefit human society. Put simply, they are civil servants, comparable to Japan’s Self-Defense Force; that the formerly swaggering Jō is also literally employed by his nation’s mighty bureaucracy only underlines this analogy.
It’s something of a canard that Japan’s civil service is an elite system, unusually efficient and detail-minded. However, Japan has also seen six individual prime ministers in as many years. There are complicated reasons for this, but it is sufficient to note that there is reason to lack trust in the efficacy of a central government. A fictional prime minister character in the show stands in sharp contrast to the relatively popular Shinzō Abe: cowardly, indecisive, and altogether slappable, he embodies every fear of where the status quo is again headed.
GALAX, naturally, represents the future. The trick is, Nakamura & Ono aren’t really futurists. They aren’t technophobes either — like Osamu Tezuka’s robots, this incarnation of Sōsai X is born innocent, and can only be corrupted by organic beings — but they present Rui’s plan for an anarchic, liberated society as invariably prone to inefficient squabbles, self-interested co-option and corrupted demagoguery. Berg-Katse, meanwhile, hopes that by bolstering faith in the internet as a curative to social ills, and then undermining that new system, humanity will plunge deeper into disillusionment and violence.
Gatchaman Crowds, then, is both an anti-revolutionary work, and uniquely social democratic. I can’t think of another recent superhero work that not only positions its costumed fighters as agents of a central government, but avowedly characterizes them and their power as a necessary social “good.” Even Hajime isn’t totally against the use of martial force; self-defense is necessary at times, and a little non-lethal electric charge from a concerned officer of the law probably won’t kill ya, creep. Tell me: have the Justice League addressed tasing in their Nu52 party platform?
In the end, though, you can’t expect the internet to turn itself off. Gatchaman Crowds isn’t an academic disquisition (it’s a superhero cartoon), but there’s enough complexity to its depictions of GALAX and CROWDS to communicate the idea that online spaces, super-powered or otherwise, will ultimately serve to mirror and intensify the inequities present in society at large, albeit in more vivified and visceral terms. It’s a show with great respect for the human spirit, but not quite enough faith in the revolutionary impulse to suggest a curative doctrine. Instead, Rui comes to understand the teachings of that great political philosopher, Batman, from his polemical pamphlet series The Dark Knight Strikes Again: you make heroism fashionable, and you’ve got yourself a goddamn movement.
And while it’s probably too much to expect a movement to result from this most peculiar show — pandering yet confrontational, traditional yet radical; so ‘normal’ and yet so strange! — it does offer a unique alternative to the prevailing superhero narratives, and perhaps a vision of where this little accident of history we call a genre might be headed. It is often said that the real excitement in superhero fiction isn’t found in comics anymore; economically, this is undoubtedly true. Comics will never catch up.
But style and substance carry their own value. We would do well to understand these foreign voices, and see how they recalibrate their own superhero fictions. American movies may be designed with international grosses in mind, but not every suggestion of aesthetics needs travel in one direction.