It takes a lot of courage to be a hero. It’s the element of escapism in fiction that allows the audience to take danger for granted, and even when the repercussions of a hero’s failure lead to tragic results, the tragedy is commonly presented in a dramatic way, and doesn’t convey a sense of dread or darkness that reminds people of their mortality.
I live in a condos 26 storeys up, deep in the heart of Toronto. The weather is hardly ever as extreme as that portrayed by other parts of Canada; we’re never too cold, too hot, or anywhere in between. Springs and autumns last for only a few days each year. We never get struck by hurricanes or tornadoes, but storms that pass by here are so finicky and come out of nowhere that citizens are often, if not always unprepared for the dangers that may occur. Everyday conveniences necessary for life become life-threatening. When those circumstances arise, who are the heroes? What do they do, and what does it take to become one?
What fascinates me about the near-futurism of Gatchaman Crowds is how the GALAX system’s social network requests the abilities of everyday people to provide service to those in need in unexpected situations. The hero’s call, as commonly known and extensively studied in literature, is made almost mundane, that anyone with the right skill sets can rise to the occasion and become someone’s or even an entire city’s saviour. While this concept is explored to an intriguing extent, the context of GALAX’s existence being in a genre series puts a sort of dramatic lens on the possibilities.
Crowds was a strange series for me to watch, as the context of my experience of this show was once again unique to the circumstances in which I lived. Episodes 5 and 6 involved a tunnel collapse, and occurred almost exactly a month after the flooding that occurred in the Greater Toronto Area. Stuck in a tunnel with her other GALAX offline buddies, Hajime jumped at a call that never came to her. She simply burst out from her bus and led the effort to assist those stuck in the tunnel, in cars, and elsewhere. The other citizens, glued to their smartphones, heeded to light, yet monotone instructions from X:
More than twenty vehicles and approximately sixty people are trapped in the debris. Their rescue is a priority, but there is a risk of fire. Please move with caution. Please evacuate children and the elderly from the accident site first.
A young woman clings to her phone, somewhat startled by the sudden alert that she receives during the commotion:
Please take advantage of your skills as a nurse. Your skills are needed right now.
Everyone not trapped in a care look up from their phones at the wreckage ahead, and they nod in unison. They all answer the call, potentially unaware of the risks involved in mobilizing within a dangerous, enclosed location. They are moments away from falling debris, automobile explosions, gas leaks, electrical fires, and whatever else. They charge forward and try to help.
I applaud the people in the tunnel at the end of Episode 5 of Gatchaman Crowds, and I appreciate the courage that they collectively gather. Two men pry open the door of a crushed car with crowbars, freeing a woman and her crying baby; yet, the moment is temporarily lost on me when Rui comes in with the Crowds and supposedly, heroically, cleans house in the tunnel. Fallen debris is carried away as if they are styrofoam; sliding doors are ripped away from their vehicles like they’re nothing; rescuees fall neatly into enlarged hands and lowered down to the ground with nary an injury. There’s even an action movie-esque “run away from explosion” moment thrown in for good measure that completely removes me from the urgency of the disaster. I’m watching a superhero show again, and there aren’t any heroes in sight.
It’s in episode 6, and Utsutsu’s realization of the limits of her powers and resulting feelings of helplessness that clinches the reality of the situation. She reaches out towards those who she wants to give her life force to, but can’t break past Joe’s grasp on her. Her normally melancholic demeanour is pushed to its furthest when she realizes that she wants to help, but can’t. I see her defeated, green eyes widen as a wave of panic washes over her. She desperately fights to break free from Joe, but he pulls her back. While they eventually work together to save those who were injured in the explosion, it’s that moment of sheer helplessness, and the feeling of absolute defeat that weighed so heavily on me, not too far removed from my own tunnel-like experience.
I was eating dinner at the concourse level of my condominium, one floor underground. I bought a half-chicken and mixed vegetables meal at the concourse grocery store, and the flooding waters seeped in through the elevators nearby. Trickling eventually gave way to a full downpour; the doors of the elevators that I normally take on the way back to my building were shut tight and without power, and the lobby area resembled that of a fountain exhibit at a modern art museum.
There was no other way out but up. A number of Longo’s grocery store staff approached a group of us who sat and ate in blacked out tables. Among us was an elderly lady with a walker, who would require store assistance to navigate through our only means of evacuating the building, an unpowered escalator on the other side of the elevator area. I abandoned my food and made my way through, but noticed the crowd forming around the elevator. Several of the grocery store staff stood in front of the jammed doors, yelling through the crashing water.
“Can you hear us? We’re employees from Longo’s, and we’re doing everything in our power to get you out of there. Please stay calm. Please do not panic.”
As more people gathered, the shouts of assurance filled with a tinge of panic in the staff’s voices. It was like they were saying this to whoever was stuck in there in order to calm themselves down instead. I was mortified. I had my smartphone, and couldn’t do anything with it. There was no call to heroism. There was a desperate person, or possibly people, stuck in that elevator, drenched with unfathomably cold floodwater. There was no X to tell us who was stuck inside, and internal temperature of the elevator due to the flooding. What if there were children there? What if they were claustrophobic? I wanted to save them, but I couldn’t.
I stood there, dialing 911, and unable to get into contact with anyone who could possibly help. More staff came by with anything that they could find to pry the door open. They smashed garbage cans at the door. They pried away with a crowbar to no avail. Every clang of impact of metal against metal ringed out to my ears, and the only thing I knew was that the sound was a thousandfold louder for whoever was inside.
There was nothing that anyone could do to save whoever was trapped inside, yet, there were other people who needed “saving” as well, those standing around, watching in abject horror. I learned a little bit about how one can be courageous that day. Those who stay calm during panic, and are able to calm down those affected, are also worthy of praise and acknowledgement that the strongest and most agile people are often due. I saw other staffers attending to children who sat at the tables, keeping them occupied while the scene played out. One wonderful woman, who I’ve visited nearly every single morning on my way to work, kept conversation with the old lady with the walker, talking about the Leafs, and how heartbreaking their playoffs were earlier this spring.
For me, my personal hero was one very woman who lived in my condo, a few floors up from my unit. Some time after the scene in the concourse grocery store, I went back to my condo lobby to discover that emergency power had been restored to one of the elevators not affected by the flooding. I was invited to her unit after I had made it apparent to her that I was stressed out about the whole ordeal. I was still worried, and all she did was show kindness and hospitality, even though I lived in the same building as her. She shared a glass of champagne with me, and gave me the rest of the bottle to finish off at home while I wrote. She even gave me another bottle of white wine to boot. She said I would have been able to use it more than her.
I took the stairs back down to my condo unit, and returned to a pitch-black room. I was without power, and my phone was out of battery, so I couldn’t even contact my fiancée (who was still my girlfriend at the time) to tell her I was alright. I overheard conversation that the flood had hit hard elsewhere in the Toronto area; my mom, who commutes back and forth to work every day, was stuck on her train for four hours, and I couldn’t call her either and check if she was alright. All I had was a flashlight, a notebook, and a bottle of champagne, given to me out of solidarity. So I wrote and drank until the power went back up, thankful that I was safe, and that others I knew were safe as well.
“Hero” is an interesting label to give someone, and while the qualities that are often shown in fictional media emphasize physical prowess, not as much attention is paid to emotional prowess. Courage is such a default trait that it easily loses meaning in the portrayals of the genre’s protagonists. I’m happy that Gatchaman Crowds is capable of showing glimpses of that sort of thing through its dynamic and reasonably resonant cast of characters, as well as its usage of GALAX to turn people who we’d otherwise pass by on the street into people who matter. Because the show shuns the super- in lieu of everyday-heroism, we are shown that the tiniest of gestures can have the strongest emotional impacts on people during dangerous circumstances.
While that bottle of champagne was emptied out quickly as I wrote, I still have that bottle of white wine sitting unopened in my fridge, and I’m going share it with my fiancée the next time she comes up to visit. As for that kind woman, I kept in mind her unit number, and left a note for her later in the week, thanking her from the bottom of my heart, and for helping me stay calm during an emotionally difficult situation. I am forever grateful for what she did that day. There were probably a number of people in Toronto who became someone’s hero; to me, she was one of them.