Tachikawa City, 2015. A boy genius, Rui Ninomiya, has created GALAX, an altruistic interactive IT system with which he hopes to change the world – for the better. The CROWDS is the go-to site, which enables its members (especially the specially selected 100) to work together for the good of society, rescuing people from accidents and disasters. Unfortunately for Rui (who likes to dress as a goth-loli girl) a shapestealing alien, Berg Katze, has made a Faustian pact with him…with the inevitable result that Rui loses control of his creation and his egalitarian dream becomes a brutal monster that threatens to destroy the city and all its inhabitants. And then the planet. Meanwhile, Berg Katze is having a whale of a time!
However… Tachikawa City is also home to Hajime Ichinose. This sunny-natured girl has made a network of friends from all walks of life, old and young, through her passion for crafts and making stuff. Hajime becomes the latest recruit to the secret Gatchaman team and receives her own special NOTE, a notebook which enables the team members to communicate with each other. Now she can transform into her Gatchaman super-powered suit and defeat evil! Alongside high-principled, katana-wielding schoolmate Sugane Tachibana, she meets the painfully shy Utsu-tsu, laid-back Joe Hibiki, flamboyant purple-haired O.D. (and his cat) and their diminutive but feisty boss, PAI-man (whom Hajime loves to call ‘PAI-PAI’ to PAI-man’s disgust). All the Gatchaman answer to the mystifying instructions given out by the guru-like J.J. Robinson as he snips away, creating paper birds – but only the irrepressible Hajime is utterly unfazed by J.J.’s awe-inspiring mystical aura and chatters away as blithely to him as to anyone else. However, even given the combined powers of the Gatchaman, it seems they have met their match in Berg Katze who demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate everyone through social media, tablets and smartphones. Is there any way to turn the tables on this unstoppably powerful, riddling alien before he gets bored with his games and destroys the world?
Once upon a time, way back in the Last Century, we got to see an exciting animated sci-fi series called Battle of the Planets on children’s TV about a team of heroes with super powers (and bird transformations) fighting an evil shapeshifting alien Berg Katze . We didn’t realize at the time that we were watching a 70s anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman that had been drastically edited and altered for the US children’s TV market. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and Kenji Nakamura’s re-invention of the Gatchaman phenomenon in a fresh new version for a contemporary audience (not forgetting an 80s remake and a 2013 live action movie). There are several little references embedded in the story to the original series, so if you remember it, you can have fun checking them out. (For example: J.J’s seiyuu is Katsuji Mori, the voice of Ken the Eagle.)
First released in Japan in 2013, the fact that Gatchaman Crowds is set in 2015 makes it briefly, strangely resonant and relevant. It’s now. And as the underlying plot is deeply embedded in IT and social media and its potential for doing good in society– or, more likely, creating suspicion and chaos, it’s a timely reminder without being too preachy. Just as in Durarara, texts and online conversations often dominate the action – and the screen, so a pause function is more than useful while watching.
Everything in this tale revolves around Hajime. Her extraordinarily sunny optimism grates at first (as do the shrill voices of both voice actresses Maaya Uchida and Jessica Calvello). But as the story unfolds her unflappably upbeat personality is revealed as the catalyst that brings unexpected strengths out of her fellow Gatchaman. Not since Haruhi Suzumiya has such an energetic and upbeat heroine dominated an anime series.
But it’s not all good. The story is all over the place. The first alien entity Hajime has to contend with, known as MESS, is dealt with relatively swiftly. The real meat of the story – rogue Gatchaman Berg Katze (who makes a truly terrifying villain) – doesn’t really make his presence felt until Episode 3. Then, just as the series seems to be building nicely toward an exciting climax and resolution, suddenly in Episode 11 we find ourselves in a clip show as various characters recall their first encounters with Hajime. Is this significant? Or just treading water? By Episode 12 it’s too late to wind everything up in a satisfying – or even coherent – way. Plot lines are left dangling like streamers blowing in the wind. The final sequence set in 2016 shows that something truly extraordinary may have taken place. (No spoilers.) But how – or indeed why – director Kenji Nakamura (C – Control; tsuritama) leaves to us to imagine for ourselves. Apparently there is a Director’s Cut OVA episode that makes a better ending but Sentai Filmworks was unable to license it, so we’re left scratching our heads and waiting for the sequel.
The voice acting award in the US dub has to go to David Wald who delivers a virtuoso scenery-chewing OTT performance as magenta-haired alien villain Berg Katze (sounding more than a little in places like Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice). Mamoru Miyano’s interpretation of the role is rather more elegantly off-the-wall. Luci Christian as PAI-man ends up sounding too much like an elderly aunt or granny and even though PAI-man frets a great deal of the time and has self-confidence issues, this feels at odds with the way the little panda (“I’m not a panda!”) is drawn and animated.
The atmospheric soundtrack is by Taku Iwasaki (Gurren Lagann, Soul Eater, Black Cat) and, interestingly, harks back to some of his most effective signature compositional techniques: washes of subtly dissonant strings; a solo operatic soprano swooping or singing eerily high against a tonally wandering and destabilizing piano accompaniment.
Opening Theme is the forceful “Crowds” by White Ash with incomprehensible lyrics drawn from several languages (I think) and a suitably colourful, psychedelic and frenetic animation showcasing all the Gatchaman. The more reflective Ending Theme is “Innocent Note” by Maaya Uchida (the original voice of Hajime).
This is the first TV anime series to come from Animatsu – the new kid on the block in UK anime – and a good-looking DVD it is too (there’s also a Blu-ray). Gatchaman Crowds is notable for the inventive visual style alone, with its dazzlingly vibrant kaleidoscope of neon-bright colours and designs. The discs are easy to navigate with no discernible subtitling issues; the extras are textless Opening and Ending Themes and trailers.
Sequel Gatchaman Crowds – insight is promised for July 2015 – so perhaps it will wrap up some of those loose ends.
Visually amazing with its trippy, psychedelic colours and dazzling animation, Gatchaman Crowds is well worth watching – as long as you’re prepared to live with the perplexing conclusion.