Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
In the near future, or possibly an alternate present, legends of masked heroes known as Gatchaman percolate through the public. Unbeknownst to most, the Gatchaman do exist. Led by cryptic vampire-mummy J.J. and his second-in-command, extraterrestrial panda Paiman, the Gatchaman fight alien intruders who threaten Earth's unsuspecting populace. Their newest recruit is Hajime, a young girl whose, er, unusual personality immediately wreaks havoc in the secretive organization. Much to her comrades' consternation, Hajime makes short (and strictly nonviolent) work of the Gatchaman's usual alien nemeses, but there are other, far worse, threats coming down the pike. Like the evil shape-shifter that spends its down time “eating” the least pleasant impulses of those unlucky enough to meet it. And the would-be social media mogul who turns the shape-shifter's powers to his own humanitarian ends, vainly believing that he can control the outcome.
Gatchaman Crowds is very much its director's series. Kenji Nakamura is a distinctive stylist, his preferred look best described as modern art meets anime: deliberately simplified characters, flat swatches of prime colors, art-deco settings, characters and their surroundings rendered as pointedly 2D tableaus. It's a style that draws attention to the medium's illustrated nature and fits well with the odd, surreal stories Nakamura likes to tell. You can tell that Nakamura made Crowds just looking at it. And the series' energy, that sense of free-flowing chaos being channeled into something only coincidentally coherent, is all him. Normally we'd spend a review like this talking about him, and how he shapes Crowds. That is not to be. Crowds may be his baby, and there may be plenty of observations to be made about it—observations that we will get to in due time—but when you boil it down only one thing really matters: Hajime.
Hajime is like a nuclear explosion set off in the middle of Crowds' plot. Other things may be happening, other characters may flit around, but like a mushroom cloud looming over your morning commute it's hard to pay attention to anything else when Hajime's around. Nakamura and his writers clearly wanted a different kind of heroine for their Gatchaman reboot, and they got it. Hajime is a bizarre little creature, a diminutive engine of bottomless energy whose mental processes are as alien as the tentacled Rubix Cubes she is initially asked to fight. She lives for arts and crafts, especially scrapbooks, is physically incapable of standing still, and takes everything, no matter how freaky and weird, easily in stride. She cannot be swayed by others, cannot be frightened, and exists in a seemingly perpetual state of unhinged enjoyment. She's an unstoppable force, forever chugging along on her own path. Those around her either get pulled along or squished underfoot.
She pulls the plot around with her too. The easy groove suggested by the opening episode, in which the Gatchamen would spend each week grappling with a different MESS (the name given to their Rubix Cube alien antagonists), becomes a non-option by episode two when Hajime's weird thought processes spit out a solution that permanently neutralizes the threat. By the end of episode five she's obliterated the secret-superhero aspect of the franchise. Any situation she finds herself in gets knocked in a Hajime-like direction; anyone she fights with ends up dancing to her tune. When writers speak of characters who won't do what they're told you suspect they're talking about characters like Hajime.
For all of Nakamura's innovative visuals, for all of the slick CG fighting, for all that the Gatchaman transformations are completely awesome and Taku Iwasaki's electro-noise score a nonstop audio thrill, for all the secret smartness of the plotting and the strange obsession with androgyny (three of the main characters are transgendered in one way or another), when it comes down to it, whether you love or hate the show will hinge on whether you love or hate Hajime.
And make no mistake, a lot of people are going to hate her. She has only one gear—full speed ahead—and only one tone of voice—an unwavering, aggressive cheerfulness that gets really inappropriate when bad stuff starts going down. She has none of the weakness or vulnerability traditionally used to soften anime girls. She is impenetrably upbeat and indestructibly confident. She doesn't worry, doesn't hesitate, and doesn't second guess. Which makes her really abrasive if you aren't on her side, and impossible to empathize with even if you are. She isn't a character to identify with as much as a character through which to experience an alien and unnatural mindset.
Her first few episodes, in which she plays the incessantly upbeat simpleton, are almost guaranteed to drive certain viewers nuts. But if you stick around, something odd happens: Hajime starts to make sense. Behind her eccentric speech patterns is a smart girl who lives by a rigorous creed of compassion. It is her way to always consider alternate views, to look at the world through others' eyes before acting against them. She does this with punks on the train, with aliens from outer space, and by the end of these episodes, she's begun the process with a planet-destroying monster. She fights, not with force, but with understanding. Of course, when she tries to explain her process it comes out in a garbled mess of manic gestures, strange metaphors, and goofy onomatopoeias, but that's what makes puzzling out her internal logic such fun.
Something similar also happens to the series itself. What at first seems to be a campy mess, what with its sentai transformations, panda-alien humor, and bewildering logjam of cartoonish characters, eventually takes shape as trenchant sci-fi action, full of sharp ideas and surprisingly structured plot symmetries. One character—the idealistic creator of the fictional social media platform GALAX and its AI overlord President X—must contend with the creeping suspicion that, in trying to bring out the best in humanity, he may have given evil shape-shifter Katse the tools to destroy it. It's no sloppy or ill-planned series that can conjure that kind of Faustian symmetry. Ditto a series whose villain and heroine are such perfect mirror images: the girl for whom understanding is a bridge, and the monster for whom it is a weapon. Looking forward your optimism should be appropriately cautious, but optimistic you should be. Unless, of course, Hajime makes you want to stab yourself in the head. In which case maybe you shouldn't be watching.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Unique heroine, distinctive visuals, and a sci-fi plot that firms up nicely as it proceeds; infectious energy and an evilly catchy score.
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