Avant Garde, Kitsch, and a Return to Gatchaman Crowds

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No sooner had she muttered, “Man, I’m hungry,” as the camera lingered on her mostly uneaten lunch than I loved Hajime Ichinose. She was colorful and quirky, but had trouble expressing herself clearly through speech. A person of action, she was restless from the moment that Gatchaman Crowds introduced her in her school classroom.

Throughout its 12-episode run, Hajime and Crowds enthralled me, telling a modern superhero story within the frameworks of art history and social media. It inspired me to blog incessantly, chattering about art movements and Constantin Brâncuși while alluding to my own personal resonance. Watching Crowds, and sharing my thoughts, were immensely personal experiences. Now, a bit more removed from my initial reactions to the series, I can safely say that it’s one of my all-time favorites.

And yet, when I heard that Gatchaman Crowds would have a second season, I wondered why.

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Gatchaman Crowds wraps up well, albeit with a few production hiccups in scheduling, and while there were certainly other ideas it could have explored, Hajime’s final clash with Berg Katze effectively brings her story to a close. In the first episode, she was hungry for something she couldn’t quite define – even after the central Galax conflict is resolved she remains dissatisfied until she merges with Berg – and communicating with Berg fulfills her desires. While director Kenji Nakamura never lacks for something to say, I approached any and all news of the sequel with cautious optimism.

That is, until I watched Episode 0 of Gatchaman Crowds insight.

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Insight Episode 0 is part recap and part reintroduction, bridging the two year gap between the original Crowds and insight. The G-Crew fights a new foe, Vape, a group of individuals wearing black masks who virtually appear as red crowds units. They are also behind a rash of anti-crowds graffiti – in spite of using crowds themselves – and activate their cyber partners with the slogan “Kill. The. Crowds.” mirroring Rui Ninomiya’s initial “Play. The. Game.” Fun and fast, insight‘s initial battle reunites the viewing audience with their favorite characters from Crowds, while giving Vape a minimal introduction. It’s hardly a forced nostalgia, but the nature of insight Episode 0 strengthens the preexisting audience’s emotional connection to the original.

In other words, it’s hardly avant-garde.

The majority of episodes in Crowds are named after art movements or terms, framing the content within. This includes the premiere, titled “Avant-garde.” Meaning at the forefront, or at the vanguard, Crowds‘ first episode set the tone for the rest of the series, stating its intention. An avant-garde work aims to challenge existing societal structures, just as Crowds aimed to challenge the sentai genre through the Gatchaman franchise. In an infamous 1939 essay titled “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” critic Clement Greenburg placed the two movements side by side, determining them to be eternally at odds with one another. Something that was kitsch was mass-produced for capitalist purposes, while an avant-garde work creatively criticized consumer culture.

Most interestingly is the examination of avant-garde within a capitalist society. In its avoidance and active condemnation of mass production, avant-garde art became increasingly derivative of the medium itself. Artists were surrounded by other artists and furthered their art for the sake of art. In contrast, kitsch is more of a forced sentimentality or nostalgia, using well-regarded methods or imagery and mass-producing them for the sake of money or simply imitating something beautiful. While kitsch has often been discussed as a threat that dumbs down or caters to popular culture, it’s difficult to ignore how close these two movements have become as time passes.

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The original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman may have been groundbreaking in its time, but as seasons stretch on and time passes, it becomes progressively more unoriginal. This happens with many long-running series. Sentai or superhero shows are especially susceptible as they often already employ seasoned tropes and storytelling methods. Furthermore, they are always marketed to the masses. Crowds‘ fresh take on Gatchaman was successful because of how far removed it was from the original Gatchaman, which was now an icon in its own right.

However, this was only possible within the scope of the original series. Crowds insight is already derivative by nature because it is a sequel to Crowds. This isn’t to say that it can’t be good or enjoyable. However, the initial spark and incisive nature of Crowds will indubitably be lessened ever so slightly in insight. In order to continue, superhero series always require a new “bad guy,” or likely in insight‘s case, new ideas to explore and challenge.

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More specifically, there is the Hajime and Berg dynamic, which insight displays as lighthearted with a somewhat sinister undercurrent. Hajime now sports a red backpack instead of her signature yellow duck one, giving off an ominous tone while reiterating his presence in her body. He is able to commandeer her gatchaman, albeit only for a moment, and while she tells him to pipe down, his presence is never forgotten by the viewer. Almost the entirety of insight Episode 0 occurs at night, which gives it a different color palette than Crowds – a surprisingly subdued one for a Nakamura series – even the lighted scenes are either shot at sunrise or under yellow artificial lighting. It’s a stark contrast in colors to the brightness of the first three minutes, which are all recycled scenes from the first season.

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After her gatchaman rescue duties are finished, Hajime leaves for Niigata to, in her words, meet an alien and the new G-Crew member. Interestingly, the visual introduction to Niigata includes a “What’s Niigata” sign in a park. The sign is part of the N-Vision project, a city revitalization endeavor that calls citizens to action – similar to how Galax facilitated Crowds‘ Tachikawa Crowds Game – for the future of the city.

As previously mentioned, Kenji Nakamura has yet to make a series without something to say, even if the message is muddied. Insight will likely be thoughtful and interesting, albeit no longer at the vanguard. I’ll be eagerly awaiting it regardless, but as a fan of the original I’m already a member of the masses.

6 comments

  1. Your comments on avant-garde reminded me of some of the more abstruse examples in cinema, such as those in Brakahages ouevre or Anemic Cinema – over the years, we started seeing more and more techniques that were once experimental become subsumed into more mainstream cinema, and directors such as Brakhage or Anger in the 1940s through the 1960s searched for other avenues to express themselves in an experimental vein. “Window Water, Baby Moving,” for example, is ostensibly a documentary (as it concerns the birth of Stan Brakhage’s daughter Myrrena) but it presents the birth of Myrrena in an abstract way with a lot of odd angles.

    1. Yeah, I’m inclined to believe this happens in all media. In fact, one of Miyazaki’s largest – and most often misconstrued – criticisms of modern anime is that it is directed by people who grew up on anime as their primary media. Therefore, the medium becomes more inwardly-focused by the year, and more difficult for a viewer unfamiliar with specific tropes to parse.

  2. I don’t know if you’ve already watched it (at least there’s no mention of it in your posts), but there’s actually a “Director’s Cut” version of the last episode of Gatchaman Crowds’ first season. It has quite a lot of new scenes in it that you may find interesting (again, if you haven’t watched it already), although I guess it doesn’t have a lot new in terms of “messages”.

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