If there was one show that was hard to peg coming into the season, it was probably this one. Partly that’s due to the fact that there were no previews of the show itself whatsoever (which was reflected in the haphazard look of the premiere) and relatively little info at all. You had an undeniably great pedigree with the writer and director (like Rozen Maiden) but a left-field premise that was baffling to say the least – a 40 year-old franchise that seems as dated as bell-bottoms and leaded gas at full-serve stations. The premiere didn’t help much in clarifying things for me. It was very interesting but I felt nothing for the characters (nothing positive, anyway) and it generally felt thrown-together. Happily, the second episode was definitely better – as I’ve said over and over the pedigree of the staff usually wins out, and there were definitely signs of that this week with Gatchaman Crowds. But there are still some lingering issues that prevent me from embracing the series unreservedly.
I’ll address the biggest issue first, as that’s Hajime – I suspect for a lot of people the show as a whole will rise or fall based on their views of her, and I further suspect she’ll prove quite popular. In the first episode I found her way too much to take, dangerously close to a deal-breaker. She – like the ep itself – benefited this week from a little context. Given a premise behind her actions and a sense of who she is beyond a relentlessly throbbing ball of hyper, Hajime was a lot more tolerable for me – but more than anything I still find her an irritant. Genki-girl characters are always a delicate balance – if everything from the character design to the dialogue to the performance isn’t just right they can easily spill over into a grating presence that undercuts everything around them.
Right now, I just want Hajime (and Uchida Maaya) turned down a couple of notches. The “-su”, the V-grin, the pushiness – roll it back a little and things would be fine. A lot of people have compared her to Haru (Tsuritama) but I don’t see any similarity beyond the superficial. Beyond what I see as a huge difference in the performance of the seiyuu, there’s the fact that Haru had a good excuse for his behavior – he really was from another planet, Hajime just acts like she is. Even more importantly Haru was a supporting player, one of the McGuffins that drove the plot and his actions were integral to the arc of the main character from the beginning. Placing this much random overbearing pushiness on the MC’s shoulders doesn’t work for me, at least so far. This episode provided her raison d’etre in the story – she’s the Gatchaman randomizer, the element that shakes up their (and specifically Sugane’s) stale and limited world-view and forces them to reconsider all they take as a given. That really helps – now they just need to dial back the way she goes about it some. Not all the way – I’m not expecting Hitoha from Mitsudomoe here – just enough.
I’m a bit conflicted on the visuals too. Generally speaking I love the look of the show – as usual Nakamura Kenji is incapable of anything remotely conventional, and Gatchaman has a lot of the pastel, storybook look that made Tsuritama so fun to watch. But more so than Tsuritama – or any Nakamura series this early in the run – Gatchaman looks noticeably cheap. He’s not known for detailed backgrounds and they wouldn’t fit the pop-up book motif anyway, but these are really rudimentary. Character faces dissolve, movements are jerky, and the CGI in the action scenes is pretty crude. That’s certainly not a deal-breaker for me but it is a bit worrisome to see the show looking so rough this early. I couldn’t say whether the main issue is budget or time – the premiere definitely showed all the signs (including the lack of promo material) of being finished at the very last moment, and the massive number of Animation Directors credited is another tipoff of that. So far it looks as if Gatchaman Crowds is going to be a test of the ability of supremely talented staff (this week’s Episode Director/Animation Director/Storyboarder Takaki Wada is another industry veteran with a great resume) to overcome the challenges of too little time and too little money.
Despite all that, I think there are hopeful signs in this episode that Crowds can develop into something really good. The ep flashed a real sense of humor, the story gained a lot more traction, and the world-building aspect was pretty stellar. We got a lot of new elements added to the mix this week: subtle indications of the underlying problems in the Tokyo of 2015 (terrorist attacks, Prime Minister under pressure to resign, suicide of the head of idol group “Goo Goo Pamore”), mostly if you were paying attention to the TVs in the background. Then there’s GALAX, the social networking system that Hajime adores that seems to be increasingly taking hold in this world. She references how it was vital after “the disaster”, and we see evidence of how useful it can be in the moment when it gets medical attention to injured civilians in seconds, while there’s no sign of an ambulance. And of course there’s the “collage train” that Hajime takes Sugane aboard – basically a GALAX meetup that includes the likes of the Mayor and Fire Chief joining her in the ultimate goody-goody grandma hobby of collage.
I’m a bit leery of the notion of Hajime being a kind of Mary Sue who fixes everything with her smiles and positivity – the city bigwigs falling all themselves to praise her was a bit much – but we know Oono Toshiya is at heart an innocent who loves to trumpet the power of friendship and goodness, based on Tsuritama, so maybe he can pull it off. And GALAX is undeniably clever and cute, reminiscent of Summer Wars in its presentation. I’m also enjoying Paiman immensely – he made me laugh in every scene – and intrigued by the possibilities for Jou. Namikawa Daisuke is playing him with a kind of warm honey poured over a rusty saw voice, and with his Todai golden-boy background and world-weary cynicism he might present an interesting counterpoint to Hajime. I’m not really bought into the chemistry between Hajime and Sugane yet – her genki excess and his helpless stuffiness is pretty cliche – though it was better than in the premiere.
Adding an interesting wildcard to the mix is Ninomiya Rui (Murase Ayumu), the cross-dressing trap who seems to be the brains behind GALAX. In a show full of larger-than-life personalities Rui offers intriguing possibilities, and right now we’re looking at a scenario where the Gatchaman practice of killing any MESS they see may be fundamentally wrong, and the seeming source for comity and brotherhood in GALAX might be some kind of evil master plot. That would be a really fascinating turn of events, especially given Oono’s seeming reluctance to turn any of his characters into abject villains. More than anything that’s what gives me hope for Gatchaman Crowds – Oono and Nakamura are relentlessly creative artists, and even with the flaws in the first two episodes that creativity is shining through in a big way. It’s hard not to believe they’ll come up with something really interesting in the end – again, when all else is in doubt look at the pedigree and you’ll usually have some idea of what you’re going to get out of an anime. In this case that’s a source of considerable optimism.