Anime Review: Gatchaman Crowds

Hajime Ichinose is a normal, albeit mildly eccentric high school girl with an obsessive passion for stationary and scrap-booking. One day while preparing for lunch on the school roof, she is approached by an enigmatic figure who tells her that she is to become “the wings that protect the Earth”. The creature rips a strange notebook out from Hajime’s chest and declares her a Gatchaman, a secret warrior for justice that defends the Earth from alien threats. Hajime takes this revelation with about the same nonchalant exuberance with which she approaches basically everything else. Little do the Gatchaman know that their bubbly new recruit and a mysterious lurking darkness are about to challenge everything they’ve ever believed, and the world itself is never going to be the same…

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GatchaCrowds is a shockingly dense show. There’s certainly no shortage of starting points for a review. Internet culture? Subverting Super Sentai shows? The unflappable belief in the goodness of human nature? The god-tier OP? The fact that I probably should have taken better notes?

Okay, let’s start at the beginning. What the hell is a Gatchaman? Well, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is an old Super Sentai-style anime from the 70s about a group of heroes with science-themed powers and bird-themed costumes. Okay, that seems simple enough. So, what the hell is this thing?! While GatchaCrowds is ostensibly a re-imagining of the original franchise, it retains only a handful of its predecessor’s trappings; In reality, it ditches the original’s narrative, setting, and tone for something completely different. So what is the show actually about, then? Why, the internet of course! Eyup, GatchaCrowds is a pretty weird show. It’s also a pretty smart show. And that has everything to do with how GatchaCrowds ties its two disparate motifs together.

How do you make a Super Sentai anime also a meditation on culture and human nature in the digital age? As it turns out, the answer to that is relatively simple: you just personify both the pros and cons of unlimited information and connectivity as respectively the hero and villain of the story. Our principal heroine, Hajime, is a living advocate for transparency and open communication. She believes in the power for society to be more than the sum of its parts, and the power of individuals to enact positive change. She is endlessly optimistic, and constantly asserting her identity with refrains of “I’m Hajime”. She believes in peoples’ base nature to be essentially good. One of Hajime’s first acts as a Gatchaman is to befriend the mischievous aliens known as “MESS” via their common interest in arts and crafts, much to the dismay of her new colleagues. In an era of unprecedented human connectivity, the kind of heroism the Gatchaman embody is obsolete, argues Hajime implicitly. But heroism isn’t the only thing that has changed in the digital age.

Bad people willing to do bad things have also gained a nearly unlimited platform and the power of anonymity. Enter our villain, the alien Berge Katze(voiced by the fantastic Mamoru Miyano). Berg Katze is basically what would happen if The Joker’s twitter account magically came to life. He is the living embodiment of internet trolling and anonymous harassment. He cares only for discord and self-satisfaction, and he gets them by literally stealing other people’s identities. Not content with simple destruction, Berg Katze prefers to light the fires and watch as the people he manipulates fan the flames. Some men just want to watch the world burn, and Berg Katze is out to start a literal flame war. Consequently, this basic premise robs both Hajime and Berg Katze of any general level of nuance. They play out more like forces of nature than actual characters. In another story, Hajime would suck tension and relatability out of a narrative like a Mary Sue Black Hole, but GatchaCrowds is not just another story.

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As I said, it’s a smart show. And it balances out its monolithic non-characters with an equally compelling cadre of supporting characters. Chief of whom is Rui, creator of a massively popular social networking app called GALAX. The slogan for GALAX, “It’s not heroes that will update the world. It’s us.”, is probably the closest thing that GatchaCrowds has to a thesis statement. While Hajime is undoubtedly the protagonist of the story, Rui is the character that entire narrative revolves around. Rui is intelligent but naive, selfless but misguided, and easily the most complex character in the show. And he also rocks a skirt and opera gloves like nobody’s fucking business. The show never explicitly outline’s whether Rui’s cross-dressing is tied to his actual gender identity or just a reflection of his belief in anonymity, but he’s pretty damn fabulous either way. The show bounces between referring to him with neutral and masculine pronouns, so I’m just going to stick to masculine for the sake of convenience.

As for his role in the narrative, Rui essentially occupies the fallacious middle ground between Hajime and Katze, deftly grounding the show’s high-concept ideas in a relatable human conflict and tying the show’s myriad themes to a central core. Rui uses GALAX, and his own eponymous Crowds power to compel individuals towards a selfless horizontal society. And given an entire society of Hajimes, maybe that would work. But the dehumanizing and anonymous nature of GALAX ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword for Rui’s ideals. People are individuals, and will always assert their personal understanding even in a faceless crowd. Rui’s unwillingness to rely on “heroes” simply creates a power vacuum that nearly brings his ideals crashing down around him.

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The Gatchaman themselves(including the lovely Aya Hirano as a talking Space Panda!), while not quite as prominent in the narrative as Rui, are explored well enough and play at interesting take-downs of standard Sentai Hero archetypes for those familiar with them. I could probably write a paragraph about each of them, but I’d be here all night. So just trust me when I say that the characters are good in just about every way I think characters should be good. They’re dynamic, nuanced, well-realized and well-utilized. Each Gatchaman has a role to play in the story, and a distinct arc to go through.

If I were forced to address GatchaCrowds’ weaknesses, they would most certainly be its technical merits. While the show is bursting with style and aesthetic flair(the bird-themed Sentai power-suits all look rad-as-hell), this was clearly a show with a very limited budget and production schedule. The use of CG is pretty liberal and not exactly ufotable-level work. Character models seem a little more fluid and abstract than they probably should be, and the actual animation can be stiff and lifeless. The show also includes an unfortunate recap episode, though it is admittedly one of the most poignant and clever uses for a recap that I’ve ever seen. Probably right up there Lain’s wailing 15-minute guitar solo as far as Best Anime Recap Episodes go.

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Gatchaman Crowds exudes the air of a passion project. It’s messy and loud, and packed with interesting ideas and likable characters. I have the sneaking suspicion the initial pitch for this show was just for a high-minded original Sentai show, and the Gatchaman name was only attached arbitrarily to pull in more financial backers. Still, however or why-ever this show exists, I’m glad it does. Equal parts stylish-as-fuck Super Sentai anime and optimistic rumination on internet culture, Gatchaman Crowds is a hell of a lot of fun. A second season has been announced as of this review, and while I have no fucking idea where they could possibly go with it, I’m definitely excited to see them try.

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