Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Bubbly and hyperactive high school girl Hajime is the newest member of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a group of secret superheroes sworn to protect the earth from alien invaders. Together with the power of their NOTEs, (magical notebooks used for communication, clairvoyance, and power-ups,) they harness their own spiritual energy against a rubix-cube-like body-snatching menace known as the MESS. Unfortunately, Hajime's not big on doing things by the (note)book, which infuriates her team mentors Sugane and "Pai-Pai" and intrigues the team's less stuffy members like O.D. and Utsutsu, as well as the team's mysterious master "J.J." Together, they must settle their differences and...
Wait, that's not the story. After just two episodes have passed, that's not what this story is about anymore at all. Let's try again.
Rui Ninomiya is a girl of many secrets, one of which is her omnipotent control of the growing social media phenomenon, GALAX. With GALAX, anyone can be a hero, from cop to student to housewife, as any request submitted to "X" is met with a scouting signal to other users in your area for assistance, answers, or just plain old camaraderie. It's a social network that uses anonymity to destroy anonymity, and really bring people together to take on whatever challenge the day might bring. GALAX is also exceptionally good at weeding out detrimental or incompatible users, making the program a flawlessly safe experience...or so Rui thinks.
No, that's not right either. The story changes into something else just as quickly as it changed the first time. What do the CROWDS have to do with any of this? Who is this Berg Katze person? How do the struggles of the Gatchaman and GALAX tie together?
When it comes to figuring out what Gatchaman CROWDS is even about, the journey speaks louder than the destination and the process of discovering the story's real goal is its own reward, for better and worse.
As the plot summary above may indicate, Gatchaman CROWDS is a hard anime to describe plainly and even harder to approach critically. It leaves a sort of impossible impression: bizarre and yet conventional all at the same time, highly idea-driven and conceptual yet shackled to its own overcomplicated minutiae. The meat underneath may be hard to describe and approach, but the garnish on the surface is eminently watchable. Right from the start, CROWDS is eager to entertain with its unique design aesthetic, vivid color palette, cool pump-you-up music, and an immediate dive into action and comedy above all else. It's a wild ride from the start, but it's in no hurry to explain itself, and often begins morphing into a completely different show before you're even used to the last one. It feels like a story that starts in the middle, jumps to the climax by episode 5, and then rolls around in its own glorious climax for the entire second half. The one common element in the show's various narrative transmutations is the thundering megaphone of series showrunner Toshiya Ono's Impossibly Strong Point Of View. Whether CROWDS' mad experimentation succeeds or fails to the viewer largely depends on their alignment with and understanding of that POV, so rather than trawling the show's exciting top layer for peripheral pros and cons, this review will mostly be focused on just what the heck any of Gatchaman CROWDS is supposed to mean and where it could possibly have come from.
Of course, there's no harm in starting on the surface, and that top layer of Gatchaman CROWDS is all cream and sugar. It sports some of the most comfortable use of cel-shaded CG in anime thanks to the similar use of color in its hand-drawn animation. Character models are not only intensely distinct from one another, but unique on the whole, (especially the busty, cat-mouthed, floofy-haired Hajime.) All the world and its people look like they were sliced right out of a gingerbread house without being too gaudy and candy-colored to take seriously. It's the combination of bright and muted tones, along with the soft glaze of highlights and rounded shapes (once again, most evident in Hajime's hair and face,) that makes CROWDS pop so much visually. It's saccharine chic, so to speak, especially in the flamboyant yet fashionable designs of Rui and Berg. The animation never quite fulfills the potential of the art design, but there are some beautiful bits of action and character animation here and there, and even when the show dips into the valley of its budget, it never really falls apart, (although it has to rely on a half-length recap episode and a wealth of repeated footage to hang in there.) It's clear the show had money problems, but they weren't enough to sink the effort or leave it without some gorgeous imagery, assisted by CROWDS' exciting (if overused) musical themes. It's filled with more talking and less action than you'd expect at first glance, but there's still plenty of well-staged action in CROWDS, appropriate for a show tying itself to an action franchise...although that's more in-name-only than expected as well.
Extensive knowledge of the classic 1970s Gatchaman cartoon (broadcast in America as "Battle of the Planets" in the early 80s) isn't necessary, but some familiarity with the franchise's original ideas goes a long way to making sense of CROWDS. At no point does this series clarify what a "Gatchaman" is, how long they've been on Earth, or what society's relationship with the science ninja superhero team is like. Since Gatchaman is a classic franchise in Japan, often considered to be a major progenitor of tokusatsu series, the assumption CROWDS makes is that the Japanese audience will flash back to the strong themes and goals of the original series, and just store them in the back of their brain while watching CROWDS, even though the only things they share are common names, terms, and bird-themed powers. (Powers in both are summoned with a call of "Bird Go!" and avian imagery pops up in pips during CROWDS, but its cel-shaded CG battlesuits are hardly bird-like overall, making the connection extremely tangential.) Still, Gatchaman was a story powered by intense optimism. Along with its focus on environmentalism, it was a passionate defense of technology as a tool for good, even if more villainous forces would use that technology to inspire fear. As it turns out, this thematic root is the entire reason for the "Gatchaman" in Gatchaman CROWDS. This new series is an updated subversion of sorts, aimed squarely at otaku who have grown up with Gatchaman in some form: either its original iteration, continuations, or the dozens of tokusatsu series inspired by its ideas about heroism. The theme song's culminating line "The Crowds are calling my name!" summons forth not only a target audience in these otaku, but the surprise focus of the story itself. Apparently, this show has been watching you.
The truth is that the Gatchaman are not the star players of Gatchaman CROWDS. The star players are the CROWDS, who first begin to take over the show in episode 2 and only increase in power with every passing episode, (much to the chagrin of wannabe hero Sugane.) So the real question becomes, "Who are the Crowds?" Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say that the CROWDS are contents as labeled: they are Us. They are All Of Us. From there, this show's worldview comes through so strong that it's practically a manifesto, and it reads as follows...
First: Humanity is basically good. Second: The inequality of power and knowledge is the root of all evil. These evils are weaponized through corrupt corporations, monopolized systems, and yes, even the needless glorification of "superheroes" that save the "common man." Therefore: Pure distillation of information and power across the population, without bias or curation, will result in a self-regulating, anarchic force for the healthy, progressive evolution of society. Thanks to the internet, this fantastical ideal is more possible now than ever before. This can be seen echoed in forces like Anonymous and 2chan in the modern day, and indeed, the CROWDS' depiction of internet discourse is broadcast in the bite-sized-stream-of-consciousness language of Twitter, niconico, and 2chan. So why not "weaponize" it for good? Who really needs the Gatchaman? They're not useless, of course. They are superheroes after all. However, in almost any other story, that would be the end of the conversation. The common man would have to voice his support and then sit back on his hands and let the heroes save the day, because that's just the way things are...but not here. In many ways, the Gatchaman are simply "the common men we see the story through" out of convenience, but they too are just a part of the Crowds, because they too are just a part of the world.
In practical terms, Gatchaman CROWDS sees the now globally-networked world we inhabit as a "sleeping God," a dormant power capable of "updating the world" that should be forced awake through a sort of anarchic democracy. This is not necessarily an anarchy of power, which is more practically specialized through the roles people naturally slide into (cop, student, housewife) in any societal order, but an anarchy of information. "Information should be free!" shouts Gatchaman CROWDS, and it illustrates this through the "bugs in the world's system" caused by misunderstanding, greed, isolation, and incompetent leadership. The prime minister can only evolve into a proper leader by absorbing the voices of All the People. Rui Ninomiya can only become a competent administrator of GALAX by giving it completely to the people. The world can only be "updated" if the entire world is involved in the motion...no one person can do it, superhero or not.
Of course, every God needs a Devil, so Gatchaman CROWDS gives us Berg Katze, an androgyne child-brained trickster alien who acts as an "anonymity spirit" of sorts, and can only appear to the public when he adopts the appearance of a stranger, stealing their identities with a smooch. He shares these surface characteristics with the Berg Katze from the original Gatchaman, but underneath that initial mask is a very different character, motivated by the story's need to reflect the dark side of technology's effect on societal evolution. So, Berg is a troll: literally. Berg Katze is an alien manifestation of "the internet troll" that lies in all of us, and yet, Gatchaman CROWDS argues, is true to none of us. He borrows faces and speaks exclusively in lies, but his greatest fear is being ignored, and this betrays a contradiction that unfortunately bleeds into the overall story on a very deep level. Berg doesn't really exist if you don't want him to, and therefore the concepts of evil, malice, and deliberate cruelty don't either. In the hyper-optimistic world of Gatchaman CROWDS, internet harassment isn't real because "you can just turn it off!" in the words of Hajime. Trolls are disingenuine because anonymity turns people into liars and thieves in an effort to assert some kind of strong identity...not for the far more obvious reason that anonymity gives people the freedom to express their true selves without consequence. "No, that's all wrong!" CROWDS asserts. "There is no evil. There never was. Information should be free, and only then we will all be free, and the trolls will go away."
This is where Gatchaman CROWDS goes from waltzing through high concept sci fi to tripping over its own dodgy doggerel. Its goals are noble and its conceit inspired, but the elephant weighing down all those ambitions is a wrinkly gray bag of bad plotting, worse characterizations and unfortunate implications. When Hajime tells Rui that internet harassment isn't real because "she can just turn it off!", it flies in the face of the situation's reality. Rui doesn't just have an online presence: her life and extremely lucrative career is the social media system she has created, and it has now been weaponized against her. In fact, she's literally being "doxxed" and some of her most important secrets are being aired to the general public along with threats. The show gets around this by concluding that it was her fault for having secrets in the first place, and once she becomes more honest about them, the public will just forgive her.
This is an awfully bizarre and insidious belief for such an optimistic show to promote, but it's clearly the message as reflected by heroine Hajime, who blatantly airs any secret she is trusted with immediately and has no problem with the press and general public invading every aspect of her life because she has nothing to hide. Somehow, this way of life goes swimmingly for her every single time. Actually, everything Hajime does is 100% perfect. She never makes even a single mistake. Hajime (or "beginning,") is a flawless force for good every step of the way because she is Ono's perfect ideal for humanity. She is what he views as the "beginning" to an evolved society. Unfortunately, she's also a ludicrously unrelatable character, both a five-star poster girl "Mary Sue" and a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" all rolled into one with no complexity or nuance beyond those fantasies. She is an impossible human, and yet the show demands that we aspire to her impossibility if we share its vision of a brighter world.
The show's frequent betrayal of its positive message with childish attitudes toward serious issues reveals the truth: Gatchaman CROWDS is in touch with current technological trends, but woefully confused about human nature. Sadly, this was clear from the beginning of the show. Rui is the closest Gatchaman CROWDS gets to a complex character, but even she gets saddled with a clumsy "let me explain my entire motivation" monologue that rambles on into infinity and is so lazily executed it's downright embarrassing. Her character arc is unsatisfying not just because it punishes her for the "crime" of being a reasonable person, but because the show never really gives us a chance to see Rui at her best. We are introduced to Rui as she is already paying the price for her deal with the devil, but we feel robbed of seeing the struggle that led to it, the reward she believed in, or how she progressed from one point to the other before being spit on by the narrative for flaws we've barely seen explored. This is true of every character thanks to CROWDS' completely baffling pacing choices. It changes character focus as haphazardly as it changes plot focus, and all the other character arcs are identical: somebody with exactly one personality trait has a problem because they don't see the world in the same perfect way Hajime does, Hajime enters their life, they realize that she is flawless and has all the answers, and their problem vanishes. (This eventually happens to Rui too, but at least there was slightly more variation present before the inevitable Hajime-worship set in.)
The character writing is minimal at best and abysmal at worst. The show doesn't really seem to understand people. It sees emotions as something that can be flipped off with a switch, and society as a machine where all the pieces are inherently good and willing to work as beautiful little cogs in the collective just so long as they are all treated equally. "Trust and give freely to everyone and they will become the best of themselves" is the thesis statement, but the unspoken assumption is "Trust and give freely to everyone and they will act in the most efficient and positive way possible." This has proven to be horrifically untrue in light of real-life social media scandals that were fueled by the disclosure and free access of information that should have remained privileged. Most people are highly emotional and illogical, especially under the guise of anonymity, and will act out of malicious intent given even the tiniest platform. Widening it only makes their evil acts more powerful, and they don't need an excuse of powerlessness or misinformation to be angry or monstrous.
There is room for a defense of CROWDS' intended message, but whether you agree with its ideals or not, Gatchaman CROWDS' ghastly character writing can't easily be defended. One moment in particular stands out, when a little girl approaches Rui to talk about her hospitalized father. The two don't know each other at all, but she approaches Rui and asks her to make a grave marker for her dad just in case he dies, "because I think it would be sad if he didn't have one." This is delivered in the same tone a child might use after being told they have to wash the dishes and asking a sibling to do it instead. The scene is technically karmic because of Rui's connection to the father, but it makes no sense for this loving daughter character or any child at all. Far from being dramatically effective, it's equal parts hilarious and mortifying, clearly only in place to drive the plot down its newest stumbling detour (the entire father-character-arc is a horrible misfire,) and all of that stands only in service of the thing that really matters: CROWDS' Ideals. Those ideals might not be completely out of touch with the human heart, but they need a much better writer to prove that, because CROWDS' makes a very sloppy case for its own message.
Tragically, Sentai's dub on this set is well in tune with the show's awkward non-humanity. (There are no other bonuses of note on the home release, and the "director's cut" of the final episode that fills in missing information and dangling plot threads is not included either.) The show is fairly well-cast, with Jessica Calvello's Hajime and David Wald's Berg standing out as nice little inspired choices, but the direction and mix are unsalvageable, making it impossible to take even the strongest performances seriously. Indeed, the show's comedy works a lot better than the drama, and can at least be enjoyed for its original intent as the voice actors ham it up and enjoy themselves from joke to joke. All dramatic delivery falls on its face from episode one and still hasn't improved by episode twelve, as actors belt every line regardless of context in the same exaggerated tone. The already cartoony Japanese version does not do this at all, evident in a scene where Pai-Pai remembers the destruction of her home planet through a reflective whimper in Japanese, but a screwy yowl in English. Nobody sounds like they're talking to one another, nobody sounds like they understand the context of their scenes, and the result doesn't work for the material at all. The script at least is okay, peppered with the odd meme and leetspeak phrase that may be sorely out of place in most dubs, but not in the net-dominated context of Gatchaman CROWDS. No, the script's real problems aren't the odd inclusion of a "ain't nobody got time fo' dat" joke (it really is tonally appropriate!) but some annoying self-aware winking that only exacerbates the dub's complete inability to make dramatic moments work. Early on, Sugane remarks "What's wrong with this girl?" to himself in a hushed tone in the Japanese version, but the English dub supplies us with an exasperated: "We're on a team with aliens...and SHE'S the WEIRDO!" Yikes. That aside, the adaptive script has some nice touches, the actors are clearly trying their hardest, and most of the problem lies with horrendous one-take direction and a flat hot-on-mic mix. Unless you enjoy being relentlessly hammered with overacted lines at maximum volume, this is a sub-recommended experience.
Ultimately, Gatchaman CROWDS ends where it began: an all-caps MESS. There are too many mature ideas without enough mature execution here, leaving only those firmly aligned with its point-of-view from the outset with much reason to care as the narrative spins out of control. It's a buggy early beta of a story, in need of serious updates of its own before its mantra of "updating the world" can resonate with any but the true believers of its worldview. All the same, there's definitely a place for Gatchaman CROWDS in the otaku zeitgeist. Its giant blob of ideas is not only unique, but timely, relevant, and rarely espoused so strongly in fiction. The catch is that underneath all the novelty and pretty colors is a weak story with weak characters tethered to a transient time. Only a year has passed since it first aired, and while CROWDS' ideas are still topical, its stance on those issues already feels out of date.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Unique concept and storytelling style, fresh and ingenious social networking ideas with strong modern-day relevance, captivating art design and color palette, a story unlike anything else out there
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