Gatchaman Crowds Explained

by Nick Creamer,

The internet has changed everything, while somehow also not changing much of anything. The context of our engagement with others has been completely transformed by the internet… but we're still human beings, and we still act more or less like human beings do. Gatchaman Crowds is a show about that, among many, many other weird little dichotomies and contradictions of our fundamental nature. It touches on crowdsourcing, gamification, the role of government, complacency, and tiny pandas riding roombas. It's a show about social engagement, a show about the nature of power, and a show about aliens and superheroes. Gatchaman Crowds is basically a show about everything.

The first season of Crowds introduces us to Hajime Ichinose: upbeat teenager, scrapbooker extraordinaire, and the very newest Gatchaman. Gatchaman are classic superheroes, secret fighters who transform into fancy CG suits and “fight evil.” But fighting evil for justice is a pretty old-fashioned idea, and by the time Hajime has introduced Crowds' first “villain” to the joys of origami, it's clear the old methods of “punch evil -> achieve justice” aren't really relevant to the world Gatchaman Crowds is setting up. Instead, the “evil” of Crowds takes the form of Berg Katze - a distant, malevolent trickster who occasionally starts some fires of his own, but mostly just exists to compel others to be their own worst selves. Katze is trolling, Katze is anarchy, Katze is sociopathy. Hajime and Berg Katze form a pair of binary ideas in Gatchaman Crowds - our instinct towards charity, and our instinct towards violence. Through their dancing and the various machinations of the very human characters around them, Crowds ends up taking on the internet, social engagement in general, the nature of political power, and more else besides. This busy idea-tempest picks up early in the first season, starting right off with

The Great and Terrible Internet

The most exciting power of Gatchaman Crowds' first season isn't the Gatchaman themselves - it's GALAX, the social networking platform that will very likely exist in just a few years. GALAX allows people to create profiles that include both their hobbies (facebook) and professional skills (LinkedIn), but combines that with an element of consistent social presence and gamification (foursquare). Meaning that if you're thinking about requesting legal help, you can just plug that into GALAX, the system will connect you with someone nearby who lists law as a specialty, and they'll get a bunch of points for helping you out. Using GALAX, the system's creator Rui Ninomiya gamifies civic participation. Rui believes in a more horizontal society, where leaders are abandoned because everyone contributes through a transparent system like GALAX. Using the gamification of GALAX, Rui is able to convince people to participate out of a love of fun, not just charity. Hurray for the internet.

But of course, the internet isn't a simple force for good, and Crowds knows that. In tandem with its emphasis on the communal potential of online social spaces, Crowds consistently emphasizes their danger and violence. In the first season, Berg Katze essentially becomes the god of trolls, empowering them to take their terrorism into the real world through the supernatural “Crowds,” real-life manifestations of their malevolent avatars. But trolling isn't just framed as some mystical evil force - Crowds gets very specific in its critiques, highlighting both the danger of doxxing and the ugliness of comment sections to cast a harsh light on the negative side of anonymous power. “The means can corrupt the ends” is a consistent refrain in Gatchaman - almost any tool that can be used for great good can also be used for great evil, and thus it is not just our individual motives, but the ways the tools we create influence society in other ways that must be examined. Gatchaman Crowds illustrates this conflict by focusing on very real and present dangers, emphasizing both the magnitude and inescapable nature of online violence.

Crowds' second season expands these critiques beyond intentionally malicious trolls. As the show's priorities move beyond online and social power to engage with the overtly political, it emphasizes how the danger of immediate feedback means all our responses can become violent and visceral. Crowds' second season creates a world where public policy is decided by direct, immediate voting, and in that context, our least-considered instincts rule. Votes are decided based on whatever feels good in a specific moment, and the desire to create simplistic “villains” (something the show has always cautioned against) results in dedicated witch hunts in the name of “justice.” Our new world amplifies the dangers of both antisocial trolling and enforced homogeneity - the internet greatly empowers the individual, but the danger of instant, anonymous power means we must always consider the consequences of our actions. In a faceless online vacuum, that can be a tough standard to live up to… which leads Gatchaman to its second major point,

The Importance of Direct Engagement

Hajime doesn't rely on GALAX to inform her of the world, though she certainly has fun using it. Instead, she uses it both as a tool in its own right and to facilitate direct engagement, like by organizing meetings of her scrapbooking club. While Rui looks to topple leaders by forcing society to assume a horizontal perspective, Hajime engages with the chiefs of police and fire department as they add stickers to notebooks together. When others refer to Hajime by her title or rank within the Gatchaman, she consistently replies “I'm Hajime,” emphasizing her availability as an individual, approachable human being. Just Because! a leader seems distant in one way does not make them an untouchable figure, and Gatchaman Crowds consistently emphasizes the complexity of everyone, and how if we move parallel to those boundaries and engage directly and honestly with others, we'll both come to appreciate that complexity and learn more about ourselves.

In the second season, the importance of direct communication, and how that leads to a necessary reconsidering of your own beliefs, drives a fair percentage of the conflict. Gatchaman Crowds insight stars the alien Gelsadra and new Gatchaman Tsubasa, who together end up headlining a new government where everyone casts immediate votes on public policies and a communal “happy atmosphere” rules. Tsubasa believes that everyone instinctively wants to get along, and if she were just able to champion that instinct in a public way, conflict would cease. People are more complicated than this, of course, but because Tsubasa is unwilling to directly engage with those who disagree with her, she becomes unable to see the limitations of her perspective until she runs into conflict with the one person she allowed to get close to her - Gelsadra.

When a speeding car nearly swerves into a Gatchaman in the first season, Hajime casually responds “maybe they were trying to get their pregnant wife to the hospital.” The importance of putting yourself in another's perspective is constantly emphasized in Crowds, and the best way to accomplish that is to engage with them directly and honestly, letting yourself learn something new about someone else. It's through this direction connection that we both bridge gaps of power and come to see the humanity in others, and it's also through this honest but non-violent challenging of our own perspectives that we grow as people. And these aren't just nice-sounding platitudes - in the modern age, all of this deeply informs how our world is structured, and how politics play out. All of this is tied up in Crowds' third central pillar,

The Nature of Power

In Crowds' first season, leaders are often presented as incompetent fools. Paiman, the leader of the Gatchaman, always favors inaction, relying on cryptic signals from the one who gave them power and taking the path of least resistance. The Prime Minister of Japan is similar - he sees things like online engagement in terms of direct threats to his own power, and crumbles under the pressure when things get difficult. Even the broader nature of Gatchaman Crowds' premise could be seen as a critique of traditional leadership, given it's a show about superheroes where the superheroes end up being way less important than people using their smartphones. “Power is fluid,” says Crowds - people like Rui and Berg Katze understand this, and even Hajime recognizes that much of her own power comes not from her official position, but from her ability to successfully engage with people across social boundaries.

The show doubles down on the ephemeral nature of power in various ways throughout both its seasons. The key nature of “atmosphere” is stressed in the first season's finale, where in response to Berg Katze empowering trolls, Rui gives the power of Crowds to everyone. Rui doesn't bet on a “communal spirit of charity” to make people save the world - instead, he gamifies crisis-scenario civil action in the same way GALAX gamified everyday proficiencies, rewarding people with GALAX-points for making food and helping refugees. But if the first season's finale emphasizes the power of atmosphere harnessed for good, the second season is all about how atmosphere doesn't care whether it's used for good or evil. Gelsadra and Tsubasa's witch-hunt dystopia is entirely founded on the principles of atmosphere, from their meteoric rise to political prominence to the way Gelsadra's direct voting mechanism emphasizes our most immediate feelings. Like the internet itself, atmosphere isn't good or bad - atmosphere is just powerful.

In light of this, it's unsurprising that while consistently criticizing the common failures of leadership, Gatchaman Crowds also takes care to emphasize the importance of expertise. Social power and gamification are great, but there are things only a fire or police chief can do, and Crowds celebrates these heroes just as much as it celebrates the ones in shiny supersuits. Even the “expertise” of having lived through prior periods of social upheaval is lionized, through the way Tsubasa's grandfather ultimately informs her of how atmosphere can be used for great evil. And Hajime, who's still new to many things, often embraces the humility that position requires, seeking the advice of many others before choosing her own course of action. Power is fluid, but this is not a universally good thing - we still need dedicated people who are excellent at their jobs, and we still need leaders who are willing to put their lives and reputations on the line. "We still need dedicated people who will try really hard to do the right thing" isn't the easiest of solutions, but it's par for the course with Gatchaman - the internet is both good and bad, Human Relations are both difficult and necessary, and concentrated power is both dangerous and necessary. With all that said, the show does seem to come down in favor of some points. So let's get to that, and make our way to

The Final Verdict

Things fall apart fairly easily in Gatchaman Crowds. Rui's high-minded goals are twisted towards petty terrorism, trolls end up doxxing innocents, the pursuit of social harmony leads to the hunting down of anyone presenting disharmony, and lots of awful stuff besides goes down over the course of its two seasons. While Hajime represents a kind of charitable ideal, most of Crowds' characters are as flawed as they are passionate, dedicated to long-term ideals but making plenty of mistakes along the way. Embedded in all of Crowds' points is an acceptance of that - an acknowledgment that not only are we all imperfect people who make plenty of mistakes, but that we are also all different people, and even if we were granted perfect understanding, we would still not want the same things. All we can do is our best - use the tools we are given, attempt to connect charitably with others, and be mindful of the power of our own actions. Crowds' ideas go high and low in their interrogation of modern culture and the social animal, but the show arrives back home at a very simple place. “Be earnest, be honest, be kind,” says Crowds. The world's a complicated place, but at least in that small way, we can hope to carry on.

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