Writing on Concrete Revolutio with my set of intentions, at this particular point in time is like trying to defuse a bomb while riding a jet-powered unicycle, riding on the back of Godzilla. The simple solution would be to pick but one ball, and trust the rest of them to take care of themselves. However, I’m going to be greedy, I’m going to be human, and attempt to succeed in several of these tasks I set myself out to accomplish.
The first task is that I want to get people to watch this show. I believe this show is good, on a small and personal character-moment level, and on a bigger social-commentary level. This show engages in a dialogue with its existence as a media piece, with other creations in its specific genre (of superhero narratives). The show even goes boldly into taking a look at some of Japan’s more turbulent recent history, while casting reflections on Japan’s current political discussion. This show is very much worth watching, and as such, a write-up about it that would be spoiler-free and aiming to convince people of that fact would be something I’d be happy to see written, as the show’s second cour is going to air starting next Sunday, and I’d like people to give it a chance. However, that’s not the style of write-up I’m more interested in writing, so I’ll have to balance the two, and this write-up will contain a fair amount of spoilers, but should be readable even if you are yet to watch the show’s first half.
Concrete Revolutio a show that’s not always clear in what it is about, and how it goes about it, so we’ll start there: Concrete Revolutio (ConRevo or Conrevo from here on out) is a show about the Cold War. Wait, what? A Japanese anime series about the Cold War? Really? Yes, really. One of the biggest influences on the show is Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, Watchmen (the show’s “We are Claude!” scene is a direct reference to Moore’s V for Vendetta’s March of the Vs scene). The show’s present takes place mostly in Japan’s late 1960s, while its post-time-skip content is mostly placed in the first half of the 1970s. And what it addresses is somewhere between “Very Japanese” and “Very Un-Japanese,” at least in terms of how we see modern Japanese culture, at least via the lens of their popular culture.
Japan has a perception of a rigid society, where people follow the path charted for them by society, and aim to please those around them, while avoiding conflict. Yet the show revolves around a period of unrest in Japan, where the Japanese population protested, quite violently, and was also put down violently by police, against Japan’s involvement in the American war efforts in Vietnam, and American military presence in Japan. The discussion on Japan’s pacifism, and its subservience to foreign powers, is very much alive today, in series such as Gate, but as I intimated in this comment, this has been a relevant topic in anime for a while now, with shows such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex broaching the topic over a decade ago. The material Conrevo covers shows Japan has been engaging in this discussion for decades, and this quest against erasing the history of such discussions is part of what Conrevo is doing.
What makes up “Cold War stories” such as Watchmen? They’re often stories without right and wrong, where “your side” engages in unscrupulous behaviour, and where operatives in the field, from opposing super-powers, usually trust one another more than they do their own superiors. Cold War stories are very much stories about grey morality, of growing up and growing disillusioned with the world. They’re stories about a world that has lost its innocence after World War 2, and over the decades that followed also lost belief in a shiny flash of justice that could end war, and lead to a better world.
Conrevo is a very un-Japanese show, in that it focuses on disagreement, on politicians who are lying to the population, on police brutality, on a government bureau set out to protect a certain group by depriving it of its rights. But on the other hand, Conrevo is a very Japanese series (some might say “Confucian-Chinese”), where it explores the concept of “Face”, that more than one must follow “Justice”, the goal is to appear to be just. It’s a show about the tension between individuation and living up to expectations. It’s a show where an argument is held between the position that to be human is to not be a tool, but to be an individual who makes their own decisions, and a position that to be human is to be in a relation with others, which also means navigating expectations.
ConRevo might be a Cold War Story, but it’s a story that could only be told today, after the Cold War has ended. Dreams have died, but what then? The show’s very second episode very clearly tackles the theme that keeps resounding through its run afterwards, where children get to view things in black and white, where things are simple. Fuurota the shape-shifter cries, imploring that he wishes the world remained simple. The childlike shapeshifter wanted the world to remain constant. Colourful world, but in shades of grey and white, and without “justice” in sight.
Rather, that’s the series’s main theme, that there are too many justices, as many as there are people. And if there are multiple justices, then how can you know who’s in the right? How can you be a superhero (“An ally of justice” in Japanese), if you don’t know who’s just? So you find a symbol, or you create one, and then everything that symbol stands for is just, and everything they oppose is unjust. This is why simple messages wielded by demagogues have carried such weight in last century’s Europe, and over the past two decades, the world over. We’re seeking for someone to resimplify the world into “us” and “them”, for black and white.
Earth-chan is the symbol the show picks for this purpose, and she has the form of a child. Childlike innocence, but also naivete and lack of understanding and sophistication. Earth-chan is what the population wants, to be given a symbol of hope, full of bright colours, and easy to digest. But Earth-chan is also the show’s method of criticism of the population and of the media that seeks to create or control such symbols. When we’re introduced to Earth-chan, she comes after a man who holds a bank at gunpoint, because this is “A Clear Wrong”, but she can’t handle the criticism levied by sociologists, and socialists, and the series itself, against modern culture, where the inherent situation the bank created is unfair. It’s unfair, but “accepted”.
And in case it’s not clear enough, the next segment involving Earth-chan (and it’s very much Earth-chan, a diminutive and inoffensive form) has her coming to the aid of a kid who’s undergoing an asthma attack, while in the background we see dozens of air-polluting industrial plants. Her solution? She ties the smokestacks in knots, unmindful of the economic background that gave rise to the plants, and even ignoring that the plants are about to go up in flames as a result of her actions. Earth-chan is the show’s vision of what the population seeks, a clear-cut solution that ignores both the structural reasons for how things are, and what will result from one’s “just actions”. Earth-chan’s justice is symptomatic and immediate relief. Devoid of context, it exists without past or future, solely in the presence. She’s a child, in other words.
Concrete Revolutio’s storytelling method presents to us mostly vignettes, that end up connecting to one another for an overarching exploration of justice, and justices, but one of the main things its time-skipping storytelling method achieves is exactly the opposite of what Earth-chan stands for. What an episode of ConRevo is comprised of is a bunch of events, and then their ramification down the line. We see that every act has consequences, and as the show keeps going along, we also see the actions that led to the situations we see in the “present day” of the show.
Most of it comes down to well-intentioned lies. It’s about lying to people in order to protect them. It’s about taking away people’s rights, and the ability to choose, in order to make sure they’ll be in a position of power in the future, where they get to “choose” to do so to others in turn. But everyone’s a construct of their surrounding, and the question of free will truly rears its head here. Is it one’s fault if they go insane after being experimented on in order to become a replacement for one’s childhood friend? And those who experiment on others and rob them of their humanity in order to better protect the rest of their species, are they “wrong”?
This might be Concrete Revolutio’s biggest failing, and also biggest success, in terms of being a superhero story, a Cold War story, and a post-Cold-War era. It doesn’t give us an answer, but it gives us a plethora of answers to choose from. It doesn’t return us to the happy black and white simple world that superhero stories of old used to paint, because it knows that this very presentation is what leads to the death of childhood at the core of the characters’ emotional arcs. Concrete Revolutio tells us to look at our countries’ past, and how it reflects on modern going-ons. It tells us to be willing to accept that others, even if their version of “justice” differs greatly from our own, still have reasons for their actions – structural reasons, and personal reasons.
Concrete Revolutio tells us there are as many justices as there are people, but rather than tell us that there are as many evils as there are justices, it tells us that by and large, there’s no evil. Just people (be they energy-formed aliens, kaijus from Mars, or man-made robots) who are trying to do their best, trying their hardest for what they believe in. And in a world without a clear-cut Good and Evil, there’s no roadmap to follow. So they fumble, and they lie, with the best of intentions, and they experiment on others, and turn people against one another – but they do so to give people what they want, a happy fantasy.
That might be a bit too charitable of a read, and considering I’m covering the show through the mid-point, it might yet change its tune starkly. And yes, some people in the show are clearly shown to be acting with bad intentions, of manipulating others for their own gains. The show isn’t really saying people cannot harm others, but that nothing is so simple. This is a show that chose a real period from real history as its setting because what it wants to do is look at culture, look at media, and tell us to do the same. It’s a show that says we might not know what’d make for a better world, but that we have nothing else to do but keep trying anyway.
Its biggest message, beyond even that of understanding others, is to try and seek to understand others, rather than follow blindly. This is a message that runs counter to superhero stories, but which can only come through in a story masquerading as one. As such, this is a show set in a specific time and place, but which can only exist in a specific time and place. In a post-Watchmen, post-The Dark Knight, post-Gatchaman Crowds media setting. It is a show that does what all media hopes for, and engages in a discussion with its audience, and its fellow creators.
And it’s a show that’s worth your time. No matter how the 2nd cour ends up, this show is already part of an important movement in anime that goes against escapism, and tackles the world with panache, and bravery. For great justice.
One of the things I would’ve liked to discuss at length, and which I originally planned to make the core of this piece is to discuss Concrete Revolutio and the discussions that surrounded it from a meta-perspective. I said I’ll discuss this at the piece’s opening segment, but as it would’ve harmed the overall structure of the piece greatly, I put it here, cause I still think it’s interesting:
Concrete Revolutio is a show that tells its story by way of an overarching narrative composed of episodic vignettes which contain multiple time-skips. The show’s construction begins at two distant points in time that gradually grow closer to an event referenced from the show’s opening scene, where Jirou had broken ranks with the Superhuman Bureau and turned against it (If you’re having difficulties following the show’s time-skips and time-line, please reference my episodic write-ups on the show, which contain a weekly-updated timeline as a handy tool while you watch the show).
This form of storytelling lends itself to several forms of narratives. We’ve seen it in 2013’s Kyousougiga and Uchouten Kazoku, two shows where the tragedy at the core of the story (and the time-skip-based narratives) lent themselves to stories about families and tragedy. It’s also not too dissimilar in that respect from Fate/Zero’s storytelling. But while we do indeed grow to think of the Superhuman Bureau as one big dysfunctional family, it’s not really tragedy we have on our hands here. We see how events carried on after, and it’s more of an ideological disagreement than an event that should’ve been averted.
So people turned to look at it as a mystery. But is it a mystery? We know from the very first episode why Jirou had left the Bureau – he had to lie to it in the very first episode, as he did what his job description called for him to do, rather than what his bosses told him to do: He saved a person, and he protected a superhuman. I’ll admit that the show alluding to and circling around this event is indeed a construction that befits a mystery, but not seeing an event does not mean we do not know the answers to “What?” and “Why?” which we do, especially as the show keeps going on. But we know what happens, which is one of the reasons when we finally do see the final breaking moment, we’re left with, “Really? This is it?” But halfway through the episode we see a segment 2-3 months after Jirou leaves the Bureau, and everyone asks him to return, which tells us that the break-up couldn’t have been all that bad.
The vignettes are mostly there for two different purposes. The first is that in a manner quite similar to the Monogatari series or Mushishi, it can use specific superhuman or non-human entities as metaphors, from using androids to question what free-will and love are, to a shape-shifter in an episode about rejecting change, to “monsters” to discussing whether evil exists. The other reason is alluded to in the main part of the piece, so we could see actions and their consequences clearly. Rather than having to remember to connect an act to its consequence 20 episodes down the line, which would dilute its effect.
It was a very interesting show to discuss on Twitter as it aired, but its structure and lack of a strong “hook” from a storytelling or character perspective really didn’t make it easier to recommend the show, or keep people interested. I suggest people watch up to the third episode, which most clearly shows the structure of each episode of the show and what it wishes to do, within each episode, and what its concepts are. But the show as a whole is reliant on the thematic thread that courses through the entire show, and which takes longer to build. And while the show doesn’t start by making us care for its cast much, it does get there, by painting them as people, who are more than anything else, unsure. Unsure of everything. And when the show does want to make us care quickly for characters, as shown in Earth-chan’s episode, it clearly knows how to.
It helps to keep in mind that though we see the world to begin with from Kikko’s point of view, as a character who gets to learn what the world is really like, this is Jirou’s story. His and his conflict’s. His and his past’s, and his future’s. And with him, Japan’s.