Disaster Report: GATE

Whenever I’m asked to talk about bad anime that I’ve seen, I usually don’t have much to talk about.  That seems to be kind of unusual, at least from my perspective.  Most of my peers in this fandom grew up in the bad old days of the 1990s when the vast majority of anime available were crappy OVAs, and there are plenty of others that will watch something bad yet popular so they can keep up with the latest social media discourse.  As for me, I’m heading into my seventh year as an anime fan and I’m still playing catch-up with older classics and a seemingly endless backlog of notable shows from more recent years.  Making time for bad shows didn’t seem like a good use of my time.

Recently, though, I’ve been rethinking this point of view.  It’s not like I’m a stranger to enjoying so-bad-its-good media.  I grew up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  I hung around sites like The Agony Booth and Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension in their glory days, sites where notorious flops and weird cult films were broken down in epic, long-form essays.  I’ve always been a fan of Nathan Rabin’s ongoing series My Year (now My World) of Flops on The AV Club, where he writes about movies and other pieces of media that failed, faltered, or simply were unable to be appreciated in their own time.  So why couldn’t the same be done with anime?  Why couldn’t someone do critical essays on the epic failures, the shows everyone love to hate, and the shows that were simply too weird and taboo even for anime fans?  Thus, Disaster Report was born.

Naturally, I had to set some ground rules for myself.  I couldn’t just pick a show solely because someone said “this anime is bad and it sucks.”   There had to be an interesting angle, something for me to explore beyond its ineptitude.  I wanted to focus on the notorious flops, the production disasters, the big hits with deeply devise fandoms, and those shows with content too insidious or too extreme even for most trash-tier waifu lovers.  I wanted to focus just on the example that could be found through legal streaming as I had no desire to hunt down some obscure OVA or massively out of print series for the sake of novelty.  It had to be complete, so anything that might qualify that has an ongoing or upcoming season would have to head to back of the queue.  So with a concept in mind and rules laid out, just where would I start?  My answer turned out to be not too far away.  Specifically, it came from our illustrious site founder Jonathan.  He’s got a tolerance for bad anime that few can match, so when he goes on the record as hating something you KNOW it’s truly, unforgivably awful.  So when I remembered how he ranted about a middling pile of light-novel-fueled fantasy garbage known as GATE a few years back, I knew that it was the perfect choice to kick this feature off.

The premise sounds innocuous enough.  It’s not all that far removed from the scores of self-insert otaku fantasies that rose up in the wake of Sword Art Online.  It’s about Youji Itami,a thirty-something otaku divorcee who serves in the Japanese Self-Defense Force mostly to feed his doujinshi habit.  He just happens to be in Ginza when a magical gate appears in the middle of the street, spewing forth a vicious army of various fantasy creatures that slaughter hundreds of civilians.  Youji uses his military training to save the day, earning himself a promotion and the opportunity to lead his own squad into the newly named “Special Region.”  Together, he and his team gain a team of cute waifu-ready girls, win over the people, and fend off the machinations of forces from both their own world and those within the Empire.  So why is GATE taken to task more often than its many, many peers?  Well, those other shows aren’t literal propaganda.

I’m not exaggerating in the least about this.  At one point, Itami declares "We're the Defense Force!  The people love us!," and the show tries its hardest to sell its audience on this idea.  First and foremost, it paints anyone who would dare to oppose the SDF's efforts as villains of the highest order.  This isn't just limited to their opponents within the Empire, most of which are nothing more than violent, cackling madmen.  It portrays the leaders of the USA, China, and Russia as schemers looking to take control of the Special Region as a way to gain resources or control their populations.  There's even a subplot where the American president tries to blackmail the Japanese Prime Minister into letting him essentially kidnap a number of Special Region citizens.  That alone is pretty galling, but GATE is no kinder to the Japanese characters who criticize the SDF than it is to the foreign bodies. 

Those in-story politicians who would oppose or criticize their efforts are shown to be selfish, biased, or obsessed with maintaining a good public image instead of helping others.  The media is treated no better, as near the end a skulking photojournalist is shown to be manufacturing a story about the SDF's waste and laziness to fit his views.  Meanwhile, everyone from the defense minister down to the lowliest rookie is portrayed as good, just, and noble.  They never question their orders, never doubt their actions for a moment, and every act of deception or violence by Itami or those under his influence are justified within the story.  Sure, we're shown that the Japanese also want to exploit the resources of the Special Region for their own goals and are shown mowing down soldiers by the thousands, but it's OK when everyone who opposes you is treated like the cartoon bad guys they literally are!  When it comes to the SDF in GATE, you will either love them or you will despair.

That propaganda didn't come about by accident.  The original writer, Tanaka Yanai, is himself a JSDF veteran who publically holds a lot of extreme right-wing views about the role of the SDF and about kicking foreigners out of his country.  Amazingly, his views have actually been toned down over time as GATE moved from the internet to a published light novel, and then again when it was adapted into a manga and an anime.  Still, those messages resonated greatly with the right-wing elements of Japanese sites such as 2chan, and they still remain the series' biggest fans.  It also seems that the real world JSDF has no problem with what messages GATE has to offer.  If anything, they've given it their stamp of approval.  They helped sponsor the show, gave the production access to reference materials about their uniforms, weaponry, and procedures, and even used the characters as part of a recent recruitment campaign.  In recent years, the JSDF has been employing all sorts of cute, otaku-friendly strategies to help bolster their ranks, and in GATE it seems they found the perfect long-form commercial for otakus.

That pro-military angle only helps to highlight the fact that this is basically a story about colonization.  It's about a modern country forcing another, less technologically advanced nation into submission through trade, political persuasion and pressure, and military technology that the natives cannot even comprehend.  As much as the show tries to paint the actions of the SDF and the Japanese government in this show as purely noble, curious, and humanitarian, they're behaving just as possessively and strategically as the countries they try to demonize, much less the countless real-world historical examples that you're all comparing this show to in your heads right now. 

It trades especially hard on the notion of coca-colonization.  Time and again, characters from the Empire will stop in their tracks to declare the superiority of Japanese goods and culture over their own.  Their food is superior! Their baths are superior! Their traditional wares are superior! Their earthquake preparedness is superior! Their government is superior!  Most importantly, their military, weaponry and its members are superior in every fashion possible!  This is not a subtle show, much less a politically correct one.  Instead, it's a hoo-rah political power fantasy tarted up with some otaku fantasy dressings.  I can see why this would go over well with Japanese otaku, but I can also see why this would be held in disgust by more than a few Western viewers.

Just like most power fantasies, GATE is a series that glorifies violence.  That's not all too surprising considering that this is a story centered around a real-world military force, but it's hard to miss that on a very literal level violence is always the answer in GATE.  Be it a battle with enemy armies, a menacing animal, or even just a panicking horse threatening to trample a person, the answer is always 'shoot it until it's dead.'  In the first few episodes, Itami's squad end up killing sixty thousand people over the course of a few days and all of the soldiers treat this as if it were nothing.  Somehow the violence feels worse because of the stark difference in technology between the two forces.  It's not even that the other side is technologically outclassed, it's that they can't even begin to comprehend such technology!  It doesn't feel fair when one side uses bows, polearms, and tortua-style defense and the other uses assault rifles, mortars, and fighter jets.  Yes, there are ambassadors and negotiators at work trying to get the peace process going, but those are mostly secondary to the actual, literal battles.  Maybe it just didn't sit well with me because this series doesn't just glorify violence, but also revenge.

In particular, it poses the notion that revenge is a perfectly healthy way of coping with trauma.  This is made most literal in the second season with GATE's token elf girl, Tuka.  She is the sole survivor of a dragon attack, and her response to her father's death is full-on denial.  She convinces herself that her father is simply away and spends her days searching for him around the village that springs up around the military base.  She wanders to the point of exhaustion, but Itami refuses to take responsibility for her.  Eventually it gets to the point where Tuka deludes herself into believing that Itami is her father.  He plays along with this for a while because he doesn't want to traumatize her with the truth, but eventually everyone agrees that the only solution is to go off to the next country over and kill the dragon in revenge.  Anyone who knows a thing or two about psychology know that this is not how treating this sort of trauma works, but here it works like a charm.  In the middle of their battle, for no real apparently reason, Tuka has her moment of realization and immediately is returned to normal.  Other instances aren't quite as obvious as this, but the moral is always the same: violence is good and revenge will always make you feel better and leave no lasting effects.

There's a lot more at fault with GATE than just its politics.  Its biggest problem is its protagonist, Youji Itami.  He might be the biggest goddamn Gary Stu I've seen in an anime since Sword Art Online's Kirito.  You wouldn't think that would be a problem at the start.  As a thirty-something divorcee with a full-time job, he's already got a good decade in age and a lot more responsibility than most protagonists in these sorts of shows.  Sure, he's still an otaku, but for once he's shown as one who has managed to find a nice balance between his work and his hobbies.  Only one of his squadmates regards his otakudom as anything other than normal, and her disdain is mostly played as a joke.  It's a shame then that the show forgets that older otaku before the end of the first season so it can try to turn in him into just another big damn hero.

As the story progresses, we're told a lot of things about him.  Often that's very literal, as some random supporting character will often explain these details for the benefit of the others. He's apparently some sort of idiot savant, as he both flunked out of officer school but also successfully completed ranger and special ops training.  He says that he'll always choose his hobbies over his job, and yet he behaves like a model soldier and knows just how to manipulate people to get his way so he can go save some more people single-handedly.  On the rare occasion that Itami's actions go against orders, the story just hand-waves away any consequences.  It certainly helps that Itami seems to be the most well-connected man in the SDF.  It's not just that all the other soldiers like him; he seems to be pals with a bunch of superior officers, the head of intelligence, and even the goddamn minister of defense!  Even his ex-wife can't hate him, since she only married him out of convenience and divorced him because she care too much to see him sent off to another world.  That's not even taking into consideration the growing harem of fantasy-world girls hovering in orbit around him at most times.  Just as everyone loves the SDF in the world of GATE, so too does everyone in-series loves Itami.

There's just one problem: you can't build a proper character arc around a character that never faces a proper challenge.  Itami's time in the Special Region never changes him as a person.    His otakudom never gets in the way of his work or gives him any sort of new perspective.  He doesn't seem all that interested in the world of the Special Region and doesn't seem to take anything away from his time there.  Imagine what Itami could have been like if he didn't always know what to do in any situation.  Imagine if he had to grow into his leadership role because he was an under-socialized otaku.  Imagine if he had to learn and adapt to this new environment from both his fellow soldiers and from the friends and associates he makes along the way in the Special Region.  He might have actually become a true character instead of some self-insert fantasy.  The sad thing is that there already is a character in this show who gets to exhibit not only heroism, but also a proper character arc: the ludicrously named Princess Pinya Co Lada. 

At the start of the series, she's eager to prove herself and her legion of lady knights as true warriors but also shows annoyance about how her father dismisses her efforts and uncertainty about her abilities as a leader.  Once she realizes the kind of firepower she's up against, she commits wholeheartedly to becoming the negotiator in the name of peace.  Her beliefs and resolve are tested when her elder brother leads a coup, but in the end forces from both worlds come together to save her and her struggle is rewarded with the role of regent to the Empire.  The show doesn't always take her seriously, as there's a lame running gag about her turning into a fujoshi after spending time in Japan.  Still, she actually changes as a person.  She has faults and problems that she must overcome over the show's run and she wins the day more through intelligence, compassion, and steadfastness than she does through violence.  In my mind, she's the true hero of the series, not the Tenchi Misaki-wannabe in fatigues.

It's a shame then that all of the other women in the series are literally treated as prizes for various other men in or associated with the SDF.  I'm not joking, by the end of the series many of Itami's associates are all but handed random supporting characters to be their girlfriends.  Itami's efforts net him three, arguably four women to choose from, although in true harem tradition he never gets too particular about any particular girl. Even more ancillary characters like the ambassador Sugawara get their reward as well, although in his case it's accepting a 12 year old noblewoman as his future wife to save her from enemy forces.  Here not only is the notion of treating women like rewards reinforced, but it adds a touch of lolicon to the mix in case the otaku were getting bored.

Let's take a step back, though. What if you're not the sort of person who looks deeply at the anime they watch?  What if you're the sort of person who just wants to shut off their brain for a bit and enjoy a bit of animated violence and cute anime girls?  Well, you're still not going to get much out of GATE because compared to its peers this is a cheap, half-assed sort of production.  I was shocked to see A-1 Productions attached to this.  These days they're known for lavish fare like the Sword Art Online franchise, but even lesser works of theirs like Vividred Operation manage to look a little more flashy than the norm.  GATE is an exception to the rule.  I strongly suspect that this series was thrown to the studio's equivalent of the B-squad, right down to the choice of director and series composer.  The former has a background mostly in directing one-off episodes and storyboarding.  The only other time he's directed a series was the first Love Live series, and let's be honest: no one was watching that for the direction.  The latter has served as series composer for a lot of middle-of-the-road fare, save for the exception of Monster.  Even then, they clearly didn't add much to it, as that series is notorious for how closely it hewed to the original manga.  That's a trick that works fine when you're adapting Urasawa, but not so much when adapting some amateur's light novel.

The animation is seriously lacking over both seasons.  Most of the time it is merely competent and nothing more, but there are times where blatant effort- and money-saving shortcuts are taken such as pans over stills.  Things only get worse when the show tries to incorporate CGI into the mix.  Normally A-1 shows are better than average at incorporating CGI with more traditional animation, but here the models themselves are stiff, jerky in movement, and badly composited.  It's most notable in the crowd scenes, where the characters are obvious cut and pasted from a small pool of designs and move in a manner befitting an early PS2-era video game.  The visual direction is quite flat most of the time with the exception of one bizarre quirk.  Instead of doing the traditional technique of shot/reverse shot during extended dialogues, the show instead employs a lot of split screens so that both, sometimes multiple parties will be facing any number of directions instead of one another.  Two, three, or even more images may be on-screen at any given time and it adds absolutely nothing to these scenes.  Some might argue that such techniques are a way of applying modern media techniques to enliven drier material and to ensure that no part of the frame goes ignored by the viewer. Personally, I found them bizarre and distracting.  They throw the viewer's sense of where people are in a scene for a loop and a more confident director wouldn't have to fill the screen with split-screen montages just to make sure that the viewer doesn't miss anything.

The visual design isn't any better.  The world of GATE is composed mostly of a lot of half-assed fantasy tropes thrown together with little regard for making them mesh together or something more distinct from the real world.  This extends to the character designs as well, but what really stands out is how bizarrely different men and women look in this series.  Men are mostly plain, tall and square-jawed, and those not in fatigues or business suits look more like rejects from a Fire Emblem game.  Meanwhile, the women all look like cutesy, doe-eyed knockoffs of the ladies of Sword Art Online.  The difference between them is so stark that at time they seem to be two different species, even when all the characters involved are meant to be human.  This is also not helped by the fact that faces (especially the eyes) tend to go off-model on a fairly regular basis.

Beyond the story criticisms noted above, GATE is both poorly written and poorly adapted.  Both seasons end on rather inconclusive and underwhelming notes, as if the writers simply shrugged their shoulders and said "read the light novels".  There are a number of plot threads left dangling, ones that were clearly to be elaborated in later books and seasons.  The main plotline - that of the potential war between Japan and the Empire - is frequently put on hold for episodes at a time while Itami and company wander off to some town for a while or take an extended trip to Tokyo.  This is done not so much to flesh out the world of GATE but instead to give each girl in Itami's harem a bit of extra screen time.  That wouldn't be so terrible if any of them were the least bit interesting. 

Tuka is little more than a blank slate with elf ears.  Lelei the mage is your standard stoic girl whose only distinguishing feature is how quickly she takes to Japanese culture and language.  Rory Mercury is both a bloodthirsty death god priestess in gothloli gear and a demigoddess loli who lives to make Itami feel uncomfortable.  After them, things get vague.  The rest of Itami's squad are distinguished mostly by their gender and a single quirk; beyond them lie a sea of mostly anonymous soldiers, officers, half-animal people, and politicians.  The biggest flaw, though, is that GATE never learned how to show instead of tell.  This is a common fault in shows adapted from light novels, but it's a glaringly obvious one here.  Most of what we know about Itami doesn't come from his words or actions, but from others explaining it to the rest of the cast (and thus the audience).  There are seemingly endless scenes of dull political negotiations that would only be of interest to someone already invested in military minutia and would be more easily skimmed in literary form.

Even the sound leaves something wanting.  The cast is full of mostly seasoned seiyuu, but they are directed in a very unremarkable and stereotypical manner. The score is nothing of note, and the opening and ending themes are generic J-pop fluff. They exist more as promotional vehicles for the voice actors for Tuka, Lelei and Rory than they do as proper songs.  They also suffer from the same lack of animation and style as the rest of the animation, so they are all easily skipable.  When you take all of these faults all together, it adds up to a production that's simply too lackluster to make up for what the story already lacked.

What's strange is that while I didn't like GATE in the end, I didn't hate it nearly as much as I was expecting.  I suspect the reason is that it's simply too mediocre to be truly hateful, even if its messages more than merit it.  While there were some particular scenes that raised my eyebrows in disgust, most of the time it was just simply boring.  As I took notes for this article, I could keep finding ways to distract myself with other websites or tasks instead of returning to the show, as if my own brain was trying to find ways to keep me from watching the rest.  In the end, I'm mostly just baffled as to why this particular series has an American fandom.  American anime fans can't really participate in the political power fantasy because it's so heavily and specifically targeted to the Japanese side.  They also can't really divorce it from that power fantasy and just enjoy it as an animated spectacle because it simply has no spectacle to offer on any technical front.  It's positively paltry when compared to shows with similar premises such as KonoSuba, Re:Zero, or even Sword Art Online.  I'm no fan of any of those shows, but all of them have much more to offer both storywise and artwise than GATE can ever aspire to.  So why would any sensible American otaku settle for a lesser specimen like this when better bits of escapist fantasy already exist?


Popular Posts