What’s this? A new post on Paragraph Plague? More than half a year since the last one? That does in fact appear to be the case. I don’t know how indicative this may be of anything, beyond the mere possibility of infrequent, casual additions to this blog in the future. But for now, let it be known that in this one instance of solidarity, my frustration towards a single piece of media was enough to shatter seven months worth of silence and drag me out of my social media hole, bile dripping from the mouth. Congratulations on that, Gatchaman Crowds Insight.
Hmm…social media…GALAX…Gatchaman Crowds…yeah, that’ll do as a segue. You’ve still got it, Nova. Swish.
So here’s the thing, in case you couldn’t gather already: I am not a fan of Gatchaman Crowds.
I have made no secret of this. And when I’ve attempted to explain why in other venues, I’ve found my own arguments often fatally circle their way back around to “details first” story analysis. “The show doesn’t understand how the government of its own setting works; GALAX is a poor man’s amalgamation of the wealth of ideas presented by Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…”, and so on. As a communication major and strong advocate of “learning from history”, these botched details bother me immensely. But I can understand why they wouldn’t bother others, and why such arguments fail to carry weight with a lot of fans of the show. Because Gatchaman Crowds is, purportedly, an “ideas driven show”, and the methodology surrounding its praise seems to be that as long as the ideas it presents are reasonable and address important matters, they become more than worth the expense. I can understand that much.
But as the saying goes: it’s not what a story is about that matters, it’s how it is about it. And watching Gatchman Crowds Insight helped remind me of this. It’s not the conclusions the show reaches that are the primary source of my disdain: it’s the path it takes to reach them. And this is perhaps fitting, as Insight itself works in a reverse order of thinking: it has little regard for why people make decisions, only for the decisions they inevitability end up reaching.
That is but one way in which Gatchaman Crowds is, as far as I’m concerned, a tangled mass of contradictions. It disallows blind faith at the same time it puts its main character on a pedestal. It advocates for a slow and methodical approach to problem solving in the same show that features flamboyant superheroes shouting attack names at indiscriminate enemy hordes. It encourages open-ended interpretational thinking and then lashes out at anyone who gives the “wrong” response. And, most damningly, it presents itself as a profound believer in the capacity of mankind to grow and be uplifted, while behind the mask it harbors a secret ugly hatred for them.
The contradictory and ramshackle nature of Insight is no clearer than in its depiction of the common people and the “atmosphere” they create. Consider how the Kuu-samas are established as a threat, for example. After the Kuu-samas begin to devour people in their attempts to make all “become one”, anger is levied towards the Gatchamen, who had earlier declared that the Kuu-samas were safe. Then later this anger is exacerbated when the Gatchamen attempt to…err, restrain the Kuu-samas from eating anyone. There’s barely as much as a time lapse between these events, and the public fervor against the Gatchamen is equal in volume both times; the show is simply trying to turn the public against the Gatchamen in two simultaneous yet incompatible ways, within the same episode. Expand the scope past individual episodes to the show as a whole and the cohesion issues worsen. The first act of Insight is dependent on the idea of there being the exact sorts of people who wouldn’t as much as bat an eye to the defeat of a Gatchaman, and yet when that time comes in the finale, seemingly everyone is sympathetic, and the people that would be exceptions are suddenly nowhere to be found. Hell, lest we forget, the existence of rebels and trolls was integral to the plot of the last season as well; are we really meant to assume that, for every inch forward the sequel takes to make any sort of sense, those people simply no longer exist? There isn’t a city full of living, breathing individuals being created here: it’s a prop, a lever to be pushed and pulled in whatever direction it takes to turn the gears of the plot.
If we treat “the atmosphere” the same way we would a character, this would be piss-poor characterization in its own right. But it’s doubly damaging in a series where other characters, such as Rui and Rizumu, speak of it similarly and base their own decisions around it (debating whether the people can be “updated” or not) as though it were a consistent entity. Worse still, even those characters are prone to doublespeak and meandering. For instance, there’s a scene where X tries to stir Rui from her Kuu-sama-induced apathy by reminding her that the drive to create GALAX was something she conjured from herself, not by listening to others. When Rui proclaims shock at X’s “wisdom” and asks where it came from if not from her programming, X proclaims that “it’s from being around you, and thinking for myself”. So tell me, X: do we become stronger by being individuals, or do we become stronger by incorporating the thoughts of others? Is it possible that the two means of self-improvement need not be mutually exclusive? Because when you paint the issue as a binary conflict between them and then go on to tout yourself as a product of both, it just kinda makes you sound like you have no bloody idea what you’re talking about. Plato’s Republic, this is not.
But I digress…if there’s anything even remotely consistent about the people and “atmosphere” of Insight, it’s that they are prone to making the most ruthlessly idiotic decisions at any given time. At all points in the series prior to events in the final episode, the populace is in a state of being – as the show itself describes – “apes”, to varying degrees. They’re impulsive, easily swayed, go with the flow, and resist difficulty. They attach themselves to broad-sweeping entities of global acceptance like GALAX, or charismatic hero figures to pin their wishes on like Gel-sadra. Purportedly, they never stop to think about the consequences of their actions. The Kuu-sama’s aren’t even really some distant bogeymen in that sense: they are stand-ins for what Insight sees as our base nature. Finding a stop-gap solution to this overarching flaw with mankind is the closest thing Insight has to an endgame. So, pray tell, Insight: how do we resolve this age-old dilemma?
No, really, that’s the actual ending they went with. After nearly an entire season of having its most proactive character wait in the wings while the plot unfolded, Hajime emerges from her cocoon in the final episodes to propose and execute a plan that ranks among the most deplorable acts that I’ve ever seen a self-proclaimed “superhero” commit in fiction. Strip away the pomp and circumstance, and this is a nation-spanning guilt-trip framed as martyrdom. At least in the first season the Gatchamen were shown to be cooperative with pre-existing law enforcement and political institutions even while they were casually dismissing their credibility; here, the Gatchamen have to step in to mop up the mess and assign the accountability for blame when everyone else fails to. Sure, the text itself is very intent on trying to disperse blame equally across the various parties involved, but all I could hear while the Gatchamen revealed their plan to the world was, “NOW look at what you made us do! Maybe NOW you’ll think twice before blindly abiding by majority opinion, idiots!” (only delivered a lot softer, with puppy-dog-eyes). It’s like a J. Walter Weatherman lesson from Arrested Development (“And THAT’S why you always think before you vote!”), except played for half-assed social commentary instead of black comedy.
And to what end? To what degree have our “apes” evolved from the beginning of Insight to the end? They’re still beholden to idolization and hero worship as their means of guidance (and no, trying to dissuade that notion with cries of “Hajime wouldn’t want this!” is overcast by the literal holy light the show venerates Hajime herself with, yet another contradiction the show makes). The core sociological concerns with the mass-integration of CROWDS that kicked the season off have not in any way been resolved, even if VAPE itself is no more. We’ve merely switched from one thoughtless society to another, and the only major difference appears to be the length of time spent on each decision, because by Insight’s logic that is the amendment that will regularly lead the people to the “correct” decisions. How? In what way will the rash, thick-headed fiends and bigots of the world you yourself depicted (and in fact devoted an entire character, Berg-Katze, to embodying) have their ways changed just by putting them in a waiting queue? Never rationalized. We’re just supposed to assume that they will. For all of the talk of people now “standing on their own two feet”, what pushed them to do so was merely that the Gatchamen permitted it, that they became the ones controlling the flow. I’d say it borders on objectivism in that way, but that’s almost giving too much credit to Insight; at least Ayn Rand consistently characterized the people she felt were best equipped to rule the world. Hell, when thought of in that sense, Hajime herself contradicts the messages being sent.
It’s funny, really: one of my biggest complaints with the first season of Crowds was that it was so excited about technological and sociological innovation as to be hopelessly naïve about the mistakes and evils real people can and do commit. But Toshiya Ono apparently read those complaints and backpeddled so far in the opposite direction when he wrote Insight that the result almost borders on misanthropy. Now it’s a show less about the marvels of new world heroism and belief in the human spirit to uphold it, and more about keeping the reckless, filth-smeared masses in line against the threat of their own incompetence. And because it fails to grasp how real humans behave and, more importantly, can’t even create a fictional equivalent that abides by any sort of internally-consistent characterization and development, it can’t even be misanthropic properly. It was easy for me to read the changes in tone early on as a valiant (if still lacking in deftness) effort to try and incorporate some much needed nuance into Crowds, but that isn’t what ultimately happened. Instead, it ended up burying the hope so deep down that you can barely see it past all of the confused, cynical worrywarting.
But again I stress: it’s not necessarily the conclusion itself I oppose. If you want to make a show addressing the fact that humans are impulsive and distressingly hesitant to making meaningfully complex choices, that’s fine. In fact, I would urge you to. There are tons are great works whose engines are fueled by similar coals of bleakness and disdain. The Simpsons engineered many an episode plot around the dangers of mob mentality and the inherent terror of work-a-day dead-end-job American society, and it remains one of the most enduring and critically-acclaimed pop cultural icons in history. Robocop is a sci-fi thriller classic that laced itself with parodical takes on the contemporary media of the day, from vapid news stories to brain-cell-melting sitcoms, painting a sad image of our future. Hell, on the anime side of things, just look at Serial Experiments Lain – one of my all-time favorite anime for that matter – which dove deep into the world of the proto-typical Internet and often returned with terrifying visions of abuse, bullying, spying and violence in doing so.
The difference, again, is in the quality of the writing, and the deliberate utilization of those cynical elements. The Simpsons deftly counterbalances draining depression with mechanically-precise humor and genuine family heart. Robocop uses its scathing satire as a delivery vector for a more immediately cathartic and empathetic story about a man seeking answers, vengeance and justice within that flawed future. Serial Experiments Lain was and is nearly oracular in its meticulous coverage of global communications – both its positive and negative uses – and still finds way to generate real-seeming people like Alice along the way as a means of reinforcing its themes. My point is: when illustrating a radical or subversive point, it’s generally within one’s interest to use a light touch, a sharp wit, or – failing the intricacies of that – a spark of identifiable human soul.
But Crowds? Strip away its brief moments of pretending to be an action show (replete with some of the most visually-repulsive mecha designs I’ve ever seen), its rainbow color palette and its lively Taku Iwasaki score, and Crowds is really just an exercise in taking broadly-written signposts and clashing them against one another until one of them breaks. Peel off the rigidly stereotypical views the characters are meant to embody and there’s nothing left to connect with. Any attempt it makes at believable human emotion is upended by the same juvenile, inflexible, argument-reverse-argument cage match approach to dialogue it uses to convey its messages. It’s directorially flat, it’s surprisingly humorless, it’s transparently manipulative. It is, in short, an “ideas driven show” so innately tied to its ideas that any struggle against the way they are even portrayed sends the viewer careening off a cliff face, unwanted and unloved.
And that’s not how you get people to listen to you. That’s not how you create a compelling argument. Art is capable of so much more than that. I know this, because a movie where a man dressed as bat argued in favor of mass surveillance and extremely conservative crime prevention politics – in an era when civilian backlash against these things is at an all-time high, no less – was one of the most audience-beloved movies of the past decade. I know this, because a show once managed to convince me that a fourteen-year-old girl sacrificing her life and erasing the very memory of herself from existence was a good thing. Proper context – a subsidiary of convincing writing – is everything.
If Gatchaman Crowds Insight is creating controversy and audience division around the idea that “people are foolish sometimes”, then something has truly gone awry at the writer’s desk.