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Tom Arden is watching, warning against surprise attacks…

The colourfully mad Gatchaman Crowds is one of those anime which isn’t happy unless it’s doing umpteen things at once, all seeming completely different. It’s a campy, lowbrow action show and a thinky piece of SF and an otaku series with a taste for the meta and it’s anxious to engage with the real world. You can watch it just for the tangerine colours and the shouty panda. But if you want more pointers, read on…

THE STORY. A team of heroes, the Gatchaman, are defending Earth from various alien threats. A new member is recruited, the shiny happy schoolgirl Hajime, who starts questioning and changing everything. Elsewhere a crossplaying revolutionary is using a computer network to change the world, and a grinning red-haired demon lurks in the shadows…

THE DIRECTOR. Kenji Nakamura has made a name for himself in recent years as the creator of eye-scaldingly colourful TV anime, including C-Control, Tsuritama and Mononoke (not to be confused with Princess Mononoke). Apart from the look of his shows, he also has a liking for childlike, spontaneous protagonists. Gatchaman Crowds is dominated – or steamrollered – by the effervescent Hajime, who’s so manically merry her critics have dubbed her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. Perhaps she is… but then Nakamura had already broadened that type by having a Manic Pixie Dream Boy at the heart of his series Tsuritama a year earlier (it has aliens, and fishing). Hajime’s questioning, fearless, cosmically generous attitude also recalls some versions of Doctor Who. And there’s another thing…

THE ANTI-SHINJI. Arguably the whole point of Hajime is that she embodies the excitement and joy of being in a hero anime adventure, using marvellous powers and technology for good. Twenty years before, Evangelion defined a long strand of anime by crashing a neurotic, self-hating basket case called Shinji into the big robot genre. You can see Hajime as an equal and opposite reaction, a pointed Mary Sue.

THE BADDIE. Gatchaman Crowds’ Japanese voice-cast is dominated by the wheedly, whiney, maddening tones of the villain Berg Katze, who sounds like Batman’s Joker on acid (or at least on more acid than usual). Put it down to the extraordinary vocal range of voice-actor Mamoru Miyano, who was the anti-hero Light in Death Note and the ‘mad scientist’ Okabe in Steins;Gate. There’s more on Berg Katze below.

THE SETTING. It’s a real place – the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, with a monorail running though it (video here). Live-action images of Tachikawa appear under the show’s opening credits. Tachikawa is also a fallback emergency centre for the Japanese government if it becomes necessary (spoiler: in Gatchaman Crowds, it does). More information here.

REAL WORLD REFERENCES. We’ve banged on in this blog about the outrageous ways that real, near-the-knuckle Japanese traumas can pop up in seemingly fluffy anime fantasies. Early in Gatchaman Crowds, the demonic villain Berg Katze impersonates a series of Tokyo citizens to murder those around him; he stabs people and crashes cars into them. It’s a reference to a horribly real event, the so-called Akihabara massacre in 2008, in which a man murdered seven people and injured ten more. The perpetrator, Tomohiro Kato, is now on death row. Gatchaman Crowds also makes clear references to an even more recent Japanese trauma: the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Much of the series revolves around a wildly popular computer network called GALAX, which people navigate using cute avatars. This may have been influenced by Mamoru Hosoda’s film Summer Wars, and also by the real Japanese network “Ameba” (which is similarly based round cute avatars). As we’ve noted before, anime isn’t blind to the dangers of social networks – Perfect Blue covered trolling in 1997 – but still it seems optimistic about its capacity for good.

HERO POLITICS. Gatchaman Crowds includes knotty debates between old-style superheroes, a popular revolutionary and even a fictional PM. We won’t get into the details, but you might bear in mind a famous line from Pixar’s The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super, no-one will be.” Many reviewers claimed this endorsed social elitism, or even the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, though Incredibles director Brad Bird claimed that was nonsense. It’s unlikely the Gatchaman Crowds staff had Incredibles in mind, but much of the series still plays like a sly response to that sentiment.

WHAT ON EARTH DOES GATCHAMAN CROWDS HAVE TO DO WITH GATCHAMAN/ BATTLE OF THE PLANETS? Okay, the big question. When you’ve got a series called Gatchaman Crowds, it seems obvious it must be linked to Gatchaman, the landmark action anime of the 1970s which we got in Britain as Battle of the Planets. (There’s a full history of the original series on this blog.) Moreover, both Gatchamans are produced by the same studio, the venerable Tatsunoko. Bewilderingly, though, Gatchaman Crowds is radically different from its predecessor, in set-up, tone and pacing.

So why call it Gatchaman? Partly, it seems a bit of self-conscious genre positioning, a nod to savvy otaku that the show knows its anime history. You could see “Gatchaman” as standing not just for that specific series, but for the whole heritage of battle teams saving the world from evil; dedicated, inseparable, invincible. It’s an ideal, and Gatchaman Crowds likes to get rival ideals arguing.

However, there are specific echoes of the old Gatchaman in Gatchaman Crowds. It’s complicated to untangle them, especially as the Gatchaman characters had all their names changed in Battle of the Planets. But here goes…

–          Two Crowds characters share names and traits with old-school Gatchaman characters. Both anime have baddies called Berg Katze (or Katse), renamed Zoltar in BOTP. Even in the old Gatchaman, Katze was manic and gender-ambivalent; see below. Both series also had cool male players called Joe (Jason in BOTP)… though Joe’s coolness is subverted later in Gatchaman Crowds.

–          Gatchaman Crowds features an A.I. called Sosai X… which was also the name of the malign alien entity in Gatchaman (called the Great Spirit in BOTP). Both have stylish abstract appearances, speaking to characters from giant screens.

–          However, the old Sosai X was Katze’s master. The Crowds A.I. is allied to another character, Rui… who we later learn is linked to Katze (the Crowds version). That may help explain why Rui is into crossplay, shifting between male and female clothes and identities. In the original Gatchaman, Katze himself was a hermaphrodite, transitioning from man to woman. The BOTP version strangely omitted this detail!

–          There are also smaller visual Easter Eggs in Gatchaman Crowds. Examples: recurring images of swirling birds that recall the old Gatchaman team in flight; Joe summoning an image of a fiery phoenix, recalling the original Gatchaman’s fighter plane; and groups of people called the “Crowds,” who sometimes wear green masks, resembling the garb of the goons in the old Gatchaman. (In BOTP, these goons were soldiers from the planet Spectra.)

THE SEQUEL. Gatchaman Crowds is due to return to Japanese TV this summer! The sequel, Gatchaman Crowds Insight, will reunite the main staff and cast, including director Nakamura.

Gatchaman Crowds is released on UK DVD by Manga Entertainment on 27th April.

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