09 May 2017
Back in 2015, when I first watched and reviewed this second season of Gatchaman Crowds in streaming form, I called it "the year's most vital and important new anime". It's fair to say that a lot has changed in the world around us in the intervening two years or so, and with that in mind does Insight live up to its suffix in the middle of 2017?
The show begins with an "episode 0" which itself starts with a very brief recap of some of season one's most pivotal points. Sadly it never finds time to delve into the events of that first season's Director's Cut for its final episode, which is vital viewing yet still not legally available in any English-speaking territory and will surely make for some awkward moments as viewers try to reconcile the end of season one's home video release with some of what's going on here. In particular, you'll possibly have no idea why Berg-Katze, the villain from season one, is now living in Hajime's chest (it is a spacious home, I suppose...) so my advice is to just accept it at face value and carry on.
Anyhow, that whole mess aside this short opening gambit also introduces us to Insight's initial threat - a nefarious and loosely structured organisation known as VAPE who are using the CROWDS technology pioneered in the first season for ill rather than good. We get our first look at this via an ambitious and well-structured action set piece that is a clear hook to draw the viewer in for everything to come... and boy is there a lot of to look forward to.
With VAPE's influence and malicious activity spreading, a backlash against the CROWDS technology begins to grow - yes, this ability to use a smartphone app to remotely help others in need can be a real boon to humanity, but the fear of people abusing that power is becoming too great for many. As this debate rumbles on in the public sphere, so the Gatchaman find themselves with two important tasks to deal with - firstly, the emergence of a new member of the Gatchaman team in the form of enthusiastic rural girl Tsubasa Misudachi, and secondly, the arrival of an alien visitor known as Gelsadra.
Both characters are pivotal to the events that follow, but it's Gelsadra who makes the most impact thanks to his ability to manifests the thoughts and mood of the populace as speech bubbles above their heads, effectively allowing him (and others) to "read the atmosphere". This certainly sounds like a convenient ability to have, but this seemingly innocent revelation is the first step into disaster for Japan - while VAPE are still at large in their goal of proving that mankind are merely "apes" who shouldn't be trusted with progressive technologies, Gelsadra's desire is to see the populace unite as one voice. Ultimately, Gelsadra's growing celebrity status and seemingly good-natured desire to unite the nation sees him running for political office in the wake of VAPE's terrorism reaches its zenith, but while his idealistic views may resonate with the populace it also carries hitherto unseen dangers.
In all honesty, a review doesn't do everything that Gatchaman Crowds Insight sets up and then executes superbly upon justice - you could quite literally write a book about the many facets of its socio-political commentary. What is truly impressive about the show viewed through the lens of 2017 however is just how unerringly on-point it is. Its discourse around populism, political apathy and an unwillingness for the public to tackle difficult issues with the nuance they deserve, and the part the media plays in trivialising these difficult issues while effectively turning politics into sport - it's all present and correct, from as series that all-but predicted Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump (and other similar candidates elsewhere in the world) in everything but name. We often find ourselves asking how a series stacks up a couple of years after its initial viewing in this world of streaming anime, and in this case Gatchaman Crowds Insight's legacy is a firm "we told you so".
Not that this suggests that the show and its narrative should be consigned to a fascinating piece of history, as the show's discourse extends in to where we find the world right here and now. Gatchaman Crowds Insight isn't just the story of politics and the issues inherent to any modern democratic system, it also firmly pins responsibility on us too. The show's pivotal concept is ultimately that of "atmosphere" - the zeitgeist of the moment that can be amplified to create an environment where conflicting ideas are shouted down or even violently repressed, and pushing against the boundaries of democracy to shift it towards a place where its tents become little more than a sideshow and the populace actively embrace letting someone else take their decisions for them.
It's this concept that resonates the most strongly in 2017 - in a country where swathes of individuals with conflicting views are labelled as "saboteurs" on one side and "ignorant racists" on the other, there's clearly a fight to control the atmosphere of the UK from the highest echelons of society, and Gatchaman Crowds Insight warns of the dangers of that attitude if left to fester and grow. Look beyond the colourful depiction of that concept within this show and the deeper implications of what is discussed are chilling, bolstered by perhaps the show's starkest moment as a Japanese World War II survivor compares the events at hand to those which led his country into such a brutal war.
Setting its politics aside for the moment, Gatchaman Crowds Insight isn't a beautiful series to look at but rather a highly effective one - character designs are strong throughout and instantly recognisable, the show's use of CG for the Gatchaman gang's transformed hero modes feels like a step up on the first series, and the bright and colourful look of the series helps to lift what is sometimes a decidedly dark story thematically. All of this is aided ably by the show's terrific soundtrack, which serves as a superset of the already stellar music from the first series further fleshed out with some superb new tunes.
The presentation of this UK release is also solid in its own right - at times the Blu-ray editions subtitling capabilities simply can't keep up with the swarm of online text from chat room comments and the like, but it never feels like you're missing anything too pivotal and the English translation is mostly strong. The English dub for the series is likewise decent enough and certainly does everything you'd expect of it, even if it doesn't quite hit the emotional tone of the highs and lows of the show in quite the same way that its Japanese voice cast achieve. Only the continued omission of the Director's Cut of season one's final episode casts any kind of shadow over this western presentation.
In truth, I can't think of many anime TV series that are as intelligent and thoughtful as Gatchaman Crowds Insight, which takes its strong first season and uses it as a platform to discuss even more difficult topics with an assured confidence that it ultimately fully justifies. In the month leading up to a General Election here in the UK, the series almost feels like required viewing for anyone planning to vote (or, indeed, anyone foolish enough not to). No matter your own political persuasion, this isn't a story of left versus right (although it does ponder reactionary versus progressive politics in its own unique way), but rather an analysis of modern politics and how it intertwines with the media, social media, and our everyday actions, and what can happen when those interactions become skewed in dangerous ways.
If that sounds boring, then you should also rest assured that this is a series that is as entertaining as it is informative, wrapping all of this thoughtful fare into a bright and breezy package to make it all palatable. Make no mistake though, you'll find few anime as important as Gatchaman Crowds Insight - watch it, and you'll have plenty to think about for months or even years to come.