The recurring philosophy espoused by Gatchaman Crowds‘ protagonist Hajime, as events gradually worsen, is that “switching off” – taking time out from social media – is often the best response to problems. It sounds a reasonable perspective, and its virtues are shown in how characters who do just turn away get peace of mind and breathing space from responsibility. Yet the crucial term here is turn away; respite can only come in times of crisis by divorcing oneself of responsibility. It is set against the fact Hajime and her companions are supposed to be superheroes – an empowered (and in the eyes of social media entrepreneur Rui Ninomiya unaccountable) elite whose powers permit them to do the unbelievable and thus, surely, must be held to a higher standard of conduct.
Immediately prior to the events which began the crisis which has come to define the plot, Crowds came to a climax with a confrontation between Rui and Hajime, in which the opposing ideologies – superheroes versus society – were laid out. Rui’s vision was a world where traditional power structures were distributed among society in order to prevent anyone falling through the gaps – arguing that superheroes and governments were inherently inefficient and could not help everyone all the time. The hypocrisy inherent in this was already hinted at – Rui’s machine to curate society, GALAX, was shown to be reliant on illegal surveillance and mobilising people into immediate action on a hunch. Furthermore, the “Hundred” and the “Crowds” – the actual powerful force of GALAX that steps in when the people fail – represented a new kind of “vertical”, hierarchical power structure – Rui was reducing society’s reliance on traditional authority by increasing its reliance on Rui. It was this which allowed the crisis to occur; the alien Berg Katze, with whose help Rui had built an empire took control, becoming Rui’s doppelgänger and corrupting the ideal. This new Democratised society was as reliant on one fallible leader as the one it supposedly replaced.
On the surface, Berg Katze’s betrayal can be seen as a thin commentary on online fraud and the radicalisation of activism by extremists – it makes a mockery of Rui’s philosophy and justifies its actions in this way. Yet it does more than this; Katze cannot be defeated by Hajime and her fellow superheroes, either and its greatest coup is empowering all of society. Rui’s “Hundred” were carefully picked people to be given actual power in this new society. What Katze does is give everyone that power, revealing clearly both Rui’s hypocrisy (a democratic in the tech world sense of no hierachy – democratised – society built around a collective of “the best” people is no different to the obsolete vertical society) and also the failure of “democratisation” as a concept. Katze gives everyone equal access to power and tells them to make changes – the result is destruction and self interest because there is no structure of decision making. This could be seen as a pessimistic, conservative view of society – it has echoes of the conservative fear that without hierarchy and “values” there is only an anarchic destructive proletariat but in Crowds it is framed differently. It is shown as an extreme extrapolation of the illusion of power that “democratisation” brings; the mutation of questioning authority into rejecting expertise. Even a truly free society needs to defer to expertise rather than act on instinct – and Katze has allowed people to make snap decisions.
This all leads, then, to a situation where Rui is completely powerless and demonised, and the superheroes are equally impotent. Faced with aggression from those affected by the destruction Katze has caused, Hajime encourages people to switch off and calm down, reassuring society in cute press conferences to rebuild image but shying away from hard decisions; when the leaders of the Gatchaman team can’t be sure if they will stop Katze, or how they can do it, Hajime’s blithe insistence that they shouldn’t let it get to them shows the limitations of it as a philosophy. It gives Rui and Gatchaman breathing space but does not address the problem of Katze – indeed, it does not encourage Pai Pai, the lead doubter, to make a decision. This ultimately shows the limitation of “switching off”; it is a way of avoiding the symptoms of a problem (angry bystanders) while putting off action on its cause (Katze and his angry mob).
Crowds is offering a very complete destruction of the naive technological ideal; Rui is a character who goes from true idealist to true activist in order to fix the problems dealing with Katze caused, while the fallibility of the Gatchaman team avoids smug anti-technologism; traditional power structures can’t stop the empowering effect of social media, but at the same time without due checks and balances that ideal can collapse. The recurring theme of social media being a useful tool which one can switch off at any time is ringing increasingly hollow, though, and perhaps in a world where abuse of social media is a real issue – and Hajime’s optimism is used to dodge that problem’s causes – it is the message Crowds offers with the most resonance. Katze and his hedonistic mob represent all of the problems misuse of technology can cause – and all switching off can do is mask the symptoms.