Gatchaman Crowds is a very interesting anime. For one thing, it stands out among most shows that air in a given year, not only having political dimensions to it but actively attempting to say something about the world and how it’s shaped by people as political actors. It uses the framework of a tokusatsu-esque hero show to question what heroism really means, how much power individual people could have and should have, and the ways that technology will inevitably shift democracy and the way we interact with the broader world. These aren’t ideas anime has never explored before, but the way it does so is unique, and even doing so is pretty uncommon in the first place.
Season 1 of Gatchaman Crowds presents the idea that people can be bad and thus heroes are necessary to save them. Berg Katze is the instigator for all of the conflict but they are not the actual driving force behind it. It’s individual bad actors who raise the stakes and put things in as dangerous a position as they get. However, the show does not blindly accept this pessimistic view of humanity. While the Crowds serve as tools for people to act according to impulse, breaking down the notion of civil society, they eventually serve as tools for the bulk of the population to protect themselves and help others as soon as they’re made available to all. Gatchaman Crowds serves as a thesis, stating that humanity is capable of using its new tools to grasp a deeper democracy which comes from the base of society, with the masses acting as heroes themselves, rather than relying on an enlightened few.
The second season, Insight, serves as an antithesis to Crowds’ thesis. It shows the challenges of relying on a participatory democracy. It presents the idea that the broad will of the people can become incredibly dangerous and, if people surrender their power to a broader representation of the general “mood”, that a reactionary atmosphere can quickly develop in which dissent is not tolerated. It also makes it clear that the introduction of the Crowds was not smooth and totally effective. After all, Gelsadra’s awful regime sprung up in reaction to the overreach of the Crowds. Insight does not outright claim that democracy is a bad thing but it presents significant challenges to the positive ideas present in Crowds.
What’s quite interesting about the series is that it never presents a synthesis, a true conclusion. Crowds introduces the show’s ideas and beliefs, Insight challenges them without fully rebuking them, but the show never comes to an ultimate standpoint. Instead, it’s left up to the viewer how to take the developments and ideas that the show has presented, how to create your own synthesis.
As such, any reading of this show is going to be deeply influenced by your own political ideology. That’s true for every work since all art is political, but for something like this, which is both expressly political and quite ambiguous on its ultimate positions, that’s truer than ever. Basically, bear in mind that you will likely have a very different interpretation of the show if you come from a different perspective to me. I’m not necessarily trying to say that mine is right, merely that it makes the most sense given how I see the world and politics in a broader sense.
Gatchaman challenges the idea of a selected hero, someone who stands somewhat apart from broader society, protecting it in an almost paternalistic sense. But it does not totally reject this. The Gatchamen become incredibly transparent and driven by the general will of the people as time goes on, but they never abandon their role.
However, if we look at superheroes as optimal extensions of the state, I think we get an interesting picture of the role of the Gatchamen. The Gatchamen aren’t antagonistic to the Japanese state, not in the slightest. But the way they shift as Hajime joins is quite interesting to look at. Hajime is good friends with many of the political leaders in her city but she never treats them any differently than anyone else. She respects them for being good people, not for being the mayor or the chief of police or some such. The Gatchamen, who start out the series as a secretive organization which, for all intents and purposes, act like any other superhero organization, broadly doing what the average liberal democratic state should do, quickly become different after Hajime’s introduction.
I’d posit that the Gatchamen still are public servants, perfect bureaucrats as it were. But they are not public servants of the Japanese state. No, they’re servants of a new, burgeoning state, an organically built state which gains power from the people who influence their own communities. They are not the servants of a liberal democratic state, but of a new, radical, transformational one, one which is capable of changing everything.
The clearest example of this is the fact that the Gatchamen are of society. Traditional superheroes, while working within society, generally act as their “true selves” when putting their abilities to use. That is not the case here. Look at Hajime for instance, who not only acts the exact same before and after becoming a Gatchaman but actively declines the traditional role of heroism in favor of one which relies on the people she cares about to save themselves, with her role merely being to help that along. She does not see herself as estranged from the broader populace, she is one of them, one of many young people who sees the potential for a fundamental shift in the way society works. Even before becoming a Gatchaman, Hajime was the sort of hero this show admires.
If anything, I would say that the Gatchamen are simply highly revolutionary members of the currently existing society, those primed to support revolution but not necessarily lead it in a paternalistic sense. They merely want to do their best and help others through it, and it’s Hajime who awakens this idea in them.
The Gatchamen are highly divided in how they want to accomplish their goals but their actual unity of ideology is clear when it matters most. They fundamentally want to believe that humans can work together in harmony and create a better world for themselves. If I were to assign a real-world ideology to them, it would be something resembling anarcho-pacifism. And they all come from positions which tend to be revolutionary in the first place, while not casting off those in other positions. Aside from Paiman and OD, they’re all very young, though they’re not delusional. They see the difficulty in creating a new world but still have hope for it. At the same time, they don’t fall into the trap of oppositional generational politics, blaming the past generations for our current problems. Hajime and the others proudly work with those of any age to create this better world, as is necessary, since you can’t change things without solidarity and spite towards those older than you will only set back progress.
Another interesting thing about the Gatchamen is the fact that they’re all quite “weird’ so to speak. I mean this in multiple ways. All of the characters have unique ways of seeing the world and interacting with other people. Hajime for instance often seems bad at understanding social cues, but she has a ton of friends and is quite good at getting people to interact in good faith. The way she thinks is clearly different from the average person, but she’s never put down for it in any way.
The Gatchamen are also weird in that they’re queer as shit. I mean seriously. OD and Rui are obvious, given that one is basically an okama stereotype — though certainly the least objectionable example I’ve ever seen — while the other is either a crossdresser or non-binary, but either way, not someone who’s conforming to general norms surrounding gender. But I think it’d be silly to not go further. These characters are all queer-coded, if not explicitly so. Sugane’s admiration of Jou often feels somewhat romantic in nature, Hajime and Utsutsu’s relationship hardly seems platonic, and Tsubasa’s feelings towards Hajime in the second season definitely feel like a crush in some sense. When you throw in the fact that both Berg Katze and Gelsadra don’t fit human ideas of gender, you get a cast which is possibly more queer than any other in anime. It makes sense that these people, who are of society but through their difference estranged from it in some sense, find the desire within them to change things in a way which makes the world more free to those who live within it. It’s their understanding that said change will come from the populace and not from the entrenched state that makes them revolutionary. They are, in a sense, queering the idea of superheroes in the first place and once again Hajime was the inciting agent for this.
And this is all demonstrated in season 1 of the show. It really proves the power that these young radicals can have when they work together with the broader population. It’s Rui’s eventual decision to give CROWDS to everyone that truly creates a free and democratic avenue for change. The Gatchamen help defeat Berg Katze, sure, but it’s the actions of the masses that truly stop their attempt at destroying society from coming to fruition.
Season 2 can seem anti-democratic to some. But I think it’s better understood as representing the danger that leaders can present. When one is allowed to become the leader, even if that one is merely a representation of subconscious will, then things are going to go bad. It’s not the increase of democratization that led to the events of Insight — instead, it’s the fact that people are willing and able to give up their power in order to live a simpler life. And that’s understandable, as most people aren’t going to want to dedicate their time solely to politics. There’s certainly an appeal to having things be decided for you. There’s a reason representative forms of government are the norm after all. But they present serious problems as they put too much power in the hands of too few people. That, I believe, is the danger of allowing people to lead us who have too much power, as they’ll quickly become dangerous even if they’re benevolent and acting towards what people want. Our conscious and subconscious desires can be quite different, and we need to make sure our subconscious impulses don’t reign. In a world where technology makes truly democratic society such an easy prospect, allowing leaders in the first place is probably a bad idea. After all, the Gatchamen are not acting as leaders but solely as bureaucrats. Gelsadra’s failing is that they did not do the same thing.
But again, that’s not against democracy. It might seem like that if representative liberal democracy is your only framework but I see it differently. As Crowds constantly brings up, our newfound technology allows us to do many things, one of which is implementing bottom-up democracy where the role of representatives will be minimal at best. The decision offered at the end of Insight, where people can truly make their own decisions with time to think about it, is the vision for the future that I believe Crowds best presents. We can engineer a system where people have more direct control over their lives while limiting the power of the mob mentality. It would take work, certainly, but we can all be heroes and build towards this.
Heroes are not useless, and neither are the Gatchamen. They stick around in the end. But their role is merely to serve this fledgling state, the state of the Crowds, up until the point where they’re no longer necessary. As has been fairly commonly accepted since the Enlightenment, power comes from the people. And as time marches forward, the people have the opportunity to truly seize their own power and build a more free society. They can all be heroes of their own. It’s not a foregone conclusion, it’ll be hard, but I’d certainly like that.