by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Tokyo Revengers ?
Content warning: This episode and review discuss an act of sexual assault. While I have done my best to not be explicit with the description, I felt the topic was unavoidable in covering this episode, and that it would be irresponsible not to broach the topic. Please practice discretion as you feel is best.
With his latest return to the present a big, bloody mess, it's time for Takemichi to dive back into the past, now with a new immediate mission: prevent Draken's death, hopefully preserving the current (past?) Tokyo Manji gang's relatively honest status. The fight that actually leads to Draken's death is obscured in mystery and conflicting facts, but if our hero puts his mind and heart into it, he might just have what it takes save his new friend, his old friends, and Hina in one night.
Right after he figures out how he wound up two steps from losing his virginity to a stranger in a karaoke booth, that is. One of my questions from last week was about what was going on with Takemichi when his adult mind isn't controlling his teenage self, and apparently the answer is his regular old dumb teen brain is back in the driver's seat and making every bad decision possible. Adult Takemichi may have the wherewithal to not cheat on his girlfriend with a random girl who's just trying to make her own crush jealous, but Teen Takemitchy is bursting with hormones and poor impulse control. The resulting confrontation is disappointingly rote, with Hina pummeling our hero offscreen and storming off in a huff, which is about the least interesting way to resolve this kind of conflict. Emma at least seems potentially interesting, but there's not much time to dwell on her before the Toman gang get down to business. Which is when things really fall apart in a way they absolutely didn't have to.
Alright, I've put it off long enough – let's talk about the Manji. So quick and dirty breakdown: Manji is a widely known symbol with various religious and spiritual meanings attached to it throughout Eurasia for centuries, appropriated by the Nazis and consequently forever tied to a fascist empire of eugenicists in the minds of most Americans. In Japan, however, it's still prevalent for its significance in Buddhism and thus still makes appearances in anime and manga that are often quietly edited for international release to avoid causing too much of a stir. Revengers, though, is in an awkward spot where the Manji is integral to its visual and narrative identity. The symbol features in some fashion on nearly all of the manga's volume covers, as well as every Toman member's jacket. Oh, and “Manji” is half of the gang's name for good measure. This presents a bit of a localization problem.
Look, I get it. There's probably no graceful way to handle this. The symbol is too integrated into the show to just edit everything into Xs or whatever. Removing it entirely would almost certainly be against the original creator's wish considering just how prominent it is. Stapling on some translator's note or a disclaimer at the start of episodes is perhaps the most effective solution I can think of, but that still has its drawbacks. In the era of social media and constant barrages of neo-nazi dogwhistles, having your characters sport symbols that, to most English-speaking viewers, looks like one of the most infamous emblems of hate in history is a bad look. Just last season people mistakenly thought Crunchyroll was censoring a lesbian kiss in EX-ARM, so you can only imagine what kind of internet telephone could happen here. So it makes sense to, say, redesign the series' logo for the anime so any random viewer doesn't think Crunchyroll is bankrolling alt-right propaganda. But the way this episode – or at least the release of this episode that's available in my region, I have no idea if there are other versions elsewhere – deals with that makes it borderline unwatchable for several minutes.
Between sourceless beams of light, awkward cut-ins, terribly cropped close-ups, and several insert shots of random scenery in place of character introductions, you'd be forgiven for having no clue what's going on for most of this episode. What makes it worse is this whole sequence is meant to introduce us to the Toman gang proper, revealing multiple new characters who we can barely catch a glimpse of because the camera is terrified to let us see below their necks. What should be a powerful scene of Mikey bringing his army of punks together to call for revenge on one of their wronged members is nearly impossible to follow. I can't say I know what the “right” way to handle this would be, but I can confidently say the tactic chosen here was the wrong one. It's actively undermining a key piece of the narrative, and considering how prevalent the gang's going to be going forward, will almost certainly continue to do so. It actively brings attention to the subject it's supposed to be papering over, and the result is just a mess.
And if we weren't already juggling enough thorny subjects, the inciting incident that brings the gang together in a quest for revenge dunks us into the deep end of the criminal world Takemichi has so far merely dipped his toes in. It's here again that I'll reiterate that content warning from before. If discussion of the topic of sexual assault, and its use in media at large isn't something you want to read right now, I'll advise skipping to the final paragraph.
So, there is a laundry list of brutal crimes we're told Moebius committed against an unnamed friend of one of Toman's members. Beating him, robbing him, apparently doing the same to his family and, most shockingly, raping his girlfriend in front of him. It's a purposefully shocking list of deeds that's meant to jolt both audience and Takemichi out of the relative comfort we've had in the midst of Mikey and Draken's punk-with-heart-of-gold shtick. In that respect it does its job, and to the show's credit we're not shown the events in question in any detail. Just knowing it happened is enough to have the necessary effect, and we're spared anything tasteless or gratuitous. Relative to how plenty of other series have approached this kind of subject matter, it's certainly ahead of the curve.
What we are shown is the unnamed rape victim comatose and bloodied in a hospital bed when Draken and Mikey briefly visit her. There, they're confronted by her distraught father who demands an explanation, which neither can give. It is, in several ways, another example of Revengers' ability to craft emotionally resonant scenes. We see a family torn apart by tragedy, lashing out at a convenient party regardless of them not actually being involved, because they're desperate for someone, anyone to blame for what's happened. Similarly, Mikey resents being blamed for something he's not at fault for, but Draken's better sense wins out and convinces him to sit and take it – if only to avoid hurting people who are already shattering to pieces.
Yet, at the same time, there are details that leave a nasty aftertaste in my mouth. Using the suffering or abuse of women to motivate male characters is a trope older than even this show's already dated yankee aesthetic, and try as it might to spin it, that's still what's happening here. Then there are smaller things, like the father fixating on his daughter being “disfigured” as if her appearance is the most pressing aspect of what's happened. Or that the girl's mother barely speaks a word in the whole altercation. Or how we don't ever learn the girl's name. Each of these elements has some level of justification considered in the text, but together it feels uncharacteristically cheap for a show that has so far handled itself with a lot more poise. It's not enough to ruin the show for me, but it does give me pause in an episode already riddled with outside issues. This feels like an unforced error, and the first time an episode's emotional climax felt muddled rather than cathartic.
So yeah, I'm of two minds on how to think about this episode. The theoretical version absent of poorly considered edits still wouldn't be devoid of problems, but would most certainly be a more cohesive and meaningful one all the same. At the same time, it feels like cheating to judge a show based on a hypothetical better version of it that might or might not ever see the light of day. For now, I guess I'll just hope that whoever is in charge figures out a better way to handle things moving forward. There's still a damn strong story here, and I'd hate to see it mangled.
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