Those of a certain age may remember the Seventies cartoon show Battle of the Planets. Although marketed as a Star Wars cash-in it was actually a westernization of the seminal anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972). Hugely popular in Japan, the Tatsunoko production sired two sequels, an animated feature directed by acclaimed samurai film auteur Kihachi Okamoto, a 1994 remake with 'realistic' new character designs and a soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire (!), and the inevitable live-action remake Gatchaman (2013). Two years later Tatsunoko released Gatchaman Crowds which is arguably the most radically ambitious reboot of any superhero franchise ever.
In the sprawling modern metropolis of Tachikawa, Japan we meet Hajime Ichinose (voiced by Maaya Uchida), a near-maniacally happy-go-lucky schoolgirl obsessed with designer stationary and the globally popular social media platform GALAX. By a quirk of fate Hajime also happens to be the latest recruit to Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a group of secret superheroes. With magical devices called 'Notes' they are sworn to protect clueless humanity from the threat of rubix-cube-like alien bodysnatchers known as MESS. On the orders of Gatchaman's godlike alien guru J.J. (Katsuji Mori, who voiced team leader Ken in the original Gatchaman), teenage team member Sugane (Ryota Osaka) takes Hajime under his wing, but quickly discovers the new girl does not follow the rules. Mere minutes after she joins Team Gatchaman, Hajime befriends then reforms the MESS, instantly ending the war. She then reveals her secret identity to the public, sets Gatchaman up with their own YouTube Channel, challenges J.J's divine plan and pushes the team to take a fresh approach to solving social problems. Hajime's devil-may-care disregard for the rules and offbeat idealism infuriate team leader Paiman the talking panda (Aya Hirano) but slowly endear her to teammates Sugane, punk-styled maternal gay hero O.D. (Daisuke Hosomi), monosyllabic green-haired bikini-clad sexpot Utetsu (Kotori Kawai) and cool, laidback Joe (Daisuke Namikawa) the one iconic character returning from the original Gatchaman.
A recent trend in anime has been stories that explore the relationship between technology, geek culture, politics and social activism. Although Gatchaman Crowds builds on ideas established in previous semi-polemical works like Summer Wars (2010) and Eden of the East (2009) it is also a logical development from original Gatchaman's passionate belief in technology as a force for good. In place of the original's cast of brooding, angst-ridden teen heroes Crowds gives us Hajime, a bubbly hyper-optimistic millennial who geeks out at the chance to live out her superhero fantasies for real. In doing so Hajime does what we would all like to think we would do if we had great power: make the world a better place. From Star Wars to Harry Potter or Spider-Man, the narrative arc for most fantasy adventure stories follow the clueless rookie. Unexpectedly bestowed with great power, he or she struggles to adapt to a strange new world, stumbles through mishaps and setbacks, but with the aid of a mentor grows in confidence to learn from their mistakes. Gatchaman Crowds boldly rejects that story arc as soooo last century. Hajime proves confident, capable, comfortable in her own skin and remarkably powerful, buoyed by her innate optimism and unwavering belief in technology as a force for good. Here it is the more seasoned superheroes attempting but failing to mentor young Hajime that find themselves out of step as she cajoles Team Gatchaman to adapt to her world. For Gatchaman Crowds is ultimately less about the Gatchaman than the Crowds.
Who are the Crowds? They are people on the street: him, her, your neighbour, your parents, basically anyone with access to a GALAX app. The true agenda of this thirteen part serial does not become apparent until episode three which introduces Rui Ninomiya (Ayumi Murase), the pretty bespectacled tech genius behind GALAX who often dons a pink wig and sexy cosplay outfits to move anonymously among the citizens of Tachikawa. Oh, and she also happens to be a dude. Indeed Rui ranks among the show's pleasingly diverse range of gay characters. Rui functions as Team Gatchaman's semi-antagonist. He/she is looking to create a utopian society through the use of CROWDS: user-controlled giant bubble-headed digital super-beings that are in effect human consciousness made real with the power to turn dreams into reality. Yet Rui sees heroes like Team Gatchaman as an obstacle humanity must overcome in order to achieve utopia. In his/her mind it is people power not leaders or heroes that change the world. Throughout the story it is ordinary social media users that actually help people and save lives while Team Gatchaman engage in pointless battles. More than a hymn to technology the series reaffirms Japan's faith in a proactive, orderly society. Inspired by what is going on in the streets Hajime shifts Sugane, Paiman, Utetsu, O.D. and even the iconic Joe away from fighting monsters to actively helping their community.
However Rui's zeal for social change leads to an unholy alliance with Berge Katze (Mamoru Miyan). An ingenious update of the original Gatchaman villain this terrifying androgynous alien co-opts the GALAX app to mind-control human hosts whom he/she then drives to acts of homicidal mania. The story re-envisions Berge Katze as the ultimate internet troll: spewing hate indiscriminately, preying on everyone's worst fears and insecurities to create absolute chaos. Yet Katze's bile fails to have any effect on Hajime's unflagging optimism and childlike openness. Not many superhero stories climax with the hero cheerfully ignoring the villain's taunts and singing to him instead but this does. Predictably in an era when geek culture is inexplicably aghast at strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy, some critics pummelled Hajime with dismissive, tiresomely over-used pop culture flip-terms like 'Mary-Sue' and 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl.' Yet far from shrinking away from such alleged 'no-nos' in genre fiction Gatchaman Crowds embraces them like a badge of honour with an exuberance that is strangely refreshing.
If the series is indeed guilty of a simplistic attitude to internet abuse (Hajime laughs off haters and insists all you have to do to silence the trolls is turn them off) the relentless good cheer and idealism of its central protagonist serves the central message. Which is to mobilize society to enact positive social change. In an audacious finale, weirdly comparable to Pixels (2015) only a hundred times better, almost everybody becomes a superhero as Hajime's fascinating and ambiguous confrontation with Berge Katze pits love and forgiveness against blind hate. Gatchaman Crowd's stew of heady philosophical ideas might not make for the most coherent narrative. Yet while enigmatic in parts it remains a stimulating, challenging, consistently compelling wild ride and provides the most fascinating heroine in contemporary fantasy. The Tatsunoko production is also among the most gorgeous looking anime in recent years. Its eye-popping colours, intricate backgrounds and quirky, attractive chara designs ingeniously rework motifs from the original show. Among the slick new costumes devised for the psychedelic transformation sequences Hajime's scissor-wielding robo-Lolita combat suit looks especially cool.