Now that it’s two weeks into 2016 and the aniblogging world is swept up in the winter season, I’m...going to talk about shows from 2015 or earlier. Somewhere in the haze of getting over jet lag, what was possibly the flu, and sleeping most of the first week of the year as a result, I burned through both Gatchaman Crowds series. Superhero shows have always been a good vehicle for social commentary, but Crowds is probably the most comprehensive study in groupthink, interpersonal connection in a digital age, and what it means to be part of society I’ve seen. Its themes and even its title got me thinking about a certain unsung character of superhero shows. Other than the hero or group of heroes themselves, this character is, while often looked over, the most integral part of the whole gestalt! I’m talking about the crowd. Not the Crowds, Gatchaman’s titular human consciousness made manifest, but the masses; the populace. Superheroes can’t exist without them, and how those people act, react, and interact with heroes makes up a huge part of who the hero is - is Hero X a lone wolf whose methods don’t take public approval into account? Is he a diplomat who seeks a solution that puts everyone at ease? If others form the self, then the masses form the hero.

“What makes a hero?” isn’t just something Gatchaman’s protagonist Hajime sings to herself. It’s worth thinking about, especially when it’s a question that’s usually answered by focusing on internal qualities of the hero themselves: bravery, steadfastness, etc. So much of the truth is less dramatic. Other people make a hero. Gatchaman knows this, and another 2015 show - a little thing called One-Punch Man - does too. The way the two shows handle “the crowd as a character” is extremely different.

The heroes of One-Punch Man know it’s all about perception. The fall 2015 smash hit isn’t the first superhero show to tackle the issue of superheroes being celebrities with PR concerns and bureaucracy like any other public facing job, but at this point it’s certainly one of the most visible examples. Saitama (do I really need to brief you on who he is?) and Genos, his cyborg student/friend/fanboy, realize early on that to be recognized as a hero, one must be part of the Hero Association, a giant organization complete with a class system, red tape, and corporate bullshit galore. One-Punch Man dives into this less than subtly, with the Hero Association’s top A class hero and de facto image manager Sweet Mask doubling as an idol who is, behind the scenes, a big jerk. His name is funny because under the sweet mask, he’s not sweet, eh?

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The Tank Top Brothers manipulate the crowd to turn against Saitama

The Hero Association knows that the populace of the show’s world desperately needs saviors. Its near-future version of Japan is made up of cities, denoted only by letters, that are terrorized regularly by all manner of aliens, mad scientists, beasts, and more. In such a world, heroes are as common and diverse as actors and singers. Like with celebrities, different heroes have fanbases, heated internet discussions devoted to them, and carefully crafted personas to maintain. Although the heroes also depend on the crowds for love and exposure, the dynamic of One-Punhch Man is very top-down and one-sided. The people are largely portrayed as helpless and easily manipulated.

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As viewers, our perspective is also squarely on the side of the (good) heroes. Saitama, Genos, Mumen Rider, and others are capital G Good. Most of the time the crowd is painted as stupid at best and capital B Bad at worst. As if the random from episode 9 (above) wasn’t insufferable enough, he also gets the SLIMY BAD DUDE visual coding and looks like Ozu from Tatami Galaxy. Whether intentional or not, One-Punch Man is us vs. them.

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The anime also falls into the cliche of portraying children as inherently having more clarity and eye for truth, justice, and all that good stuff than adults. In crowd scenes, it’s often a child who is the first to cheer the heroes on or turn the public tide. The only time Saitama is shown receiving fan mail is a letter with childish handwriting. Overall, One-Punch Man is an extremely pessimistic show. For all the adjectives that usually gets attached to it -awesome, epic, badass - its world is a cynical one that doesn’t have much faith it its inhabitants.

Crowds also play a huge part in Gatchaman, both the people in general and Crowds, the huge, humanoid blobs that are the consciousness of Galaxters (users of the social media platform GALAX) brought to life. Crowds are introduced as a last-ditch, but helpful solution to emergencies, natural disasters, and more. Their creator, Rui, is afraid that overuse of Crowds will cripple the people from true growth and “updating the world.” Sure enough, those with the power of Crowds not only want to use them more, but use them for their personal gain. The villain of the first season of Gatchaman, the alien Berg-Katze, capitalizes on these selfish desired to throw the world into chaos. It turns out not being the story of Hajime and her team of Gatchaman versus the big bad, but of the people that make up the show’s society being simultaneously the heroes and the villains. The Gatchaman are saviors to some extent, but they’re also just part of the crowd. When Hajime concludes “everyone’s a hero,” it isn’t just shallow talk. Everyone can be everything in Gatchaman, good and bad. With Hajime at the helm of the story, it certainly leans more towards optimism and emphasizing that while humans will be selfish, alarmist, and mess up, they have the power to band together for good. This optimism is never grating or saccharine, though. It’s realistic about the dangers of putting power in anyone’s hands, including the heroes. Where One-Punch Man exists in the framework of accepting the population’s over-reliance on heroes as fact, Gatchaman makes sure to caution even against rooting too hard for its own core group of protagonists.

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Both seasons of Gatchaman deal with how social media and digital connectivity affect the way the hivemind works. With characteristic nuance, it never goes too far into praising GALAX or falling into the “social media is killing genuine connection” trap. GALAX, like Crowds, is simply as helpful or hurtful as its users. We see GALAX used for corrupt means, but our first introduction to the platform is through Hajime’s collage crafting group that brings people of all walks of life together to make art for disaster victims. GALAX isn’t the devil, and it’s certainly not the answer to everything, as Insight delves into more deeply.

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Insight takes the negative consequences of groupthink to their infuriating extreme, showing how blind idealism and taking the easy way out can snowball into a totalitarian state. This is exemplified by new characters Tsubasa and the alien Gelsadra, who just want everyone to get along. But even in this season, when hivemind is the terrifying, amorphous villain, Hajime and Gatchaman remain sympathetic. Through the characters, both superhuman Gatchaman and everyday people, we see how easy and comfortable it can be for even smart and creative individuals to just go with the flow. Even these masses, who become angering in their lack of skepticism and autonomy, are not painted as broadly as the populace in One-Punch Man. Though Hajime is the character we follow most often and most closely, we are able to, like her, step back and see things from all sides thanks to Gatchaman’s deft writing and direction. It’s truly something special, and surprisingly rare, to see an anime that dwells in shades of grey be built on a fundamentally kind outlook.

One-Punch Man isn’t a bad anime, or an unintelligent anime, but ultimately I do think we’re better served as viewers and thinkers by Gatchaman’s uplifting call to connect with and try to understand others. One-Punch dipped its foot into that territory in episode 9 in showing the development between Saitama and Mumen Rider, and at times with Saitama and Genos, but I do find myself wishing that it would occasionally turn a more sympathetic eye to the folks these heroes are serving. Crowds don’t have to be evil, hurtful, or mindless. After all, we make up the crowds, and there can be heroes among us.