As much as I’ve appreciated how Isayama’s psychological action drama has grown in maturity, arguably as its audience has, I think I’ve always felt a certain fondness of the first season of ‘Attack on Titan’. It could be said that the compellingly efficient writing puts it above the rest, but I think Tetsurou Araki’s more significant role, in the beginning, makes up the difference. As much as I had my problems with how the series chooses to develop its narrative, which you can read about in my review of the season, Araki’s shot composition is so incredibly memorable that I still think of them when my mind has nothing else going on. His directing work has a great sense of energy that might not work for season 4’s comparably bleak perspective, but fit perfectly when he was the leading director. I had a lot of respect for the guy and how well he was able to distinguish himself in the anime scene, and then I watched Guilty Crown and realized how many chains he must’ve been constrained by.
This review will contain spoilers
Tetsurou Araki’s melodramatic action-romance ‘Guilty Crown’ takes what it can from Evangelion, leaving what would make its audience uncomfortable and incidentally what makes it so revolutionary. It follows the loser nobody Shuu Ouma, a socially autistic high schooler who spends most of his time at home or in his makeshift studio, who happens to run into the internet artist ‘Egoist’ or Inori Yuzuriha. All the while, a dangerous virus is spreading, and when she is taken into custody by the police and Shuu runs after them to find out what Inori has done, he learns of the power of voids, the weapon of the soul. And the way in which this weapon is acquired by reaching into the chest of a soul’s holder could not be more symbolic of one of the series’ most noticeable quirks.
Araki certainly is no stranger to heavy sexual imagery, the infamous sniper scene in Highschool of the Dead being an apt example of this. There is however a great sense of exaggeration in (what I’ve seen of) that series, which I can sadly not say of ‘Guilty Crown’. It has all of the tropes you would expect in an anime made for horny teens; every female character wear costumes that masterly define their breasts which the animators try their best to do as well, the cinematography could not stand the urge of not cutting to someone’s ass every other minute; redefining the concept of the male gaze, and at one point comparing its female lead to a doll. And although sexualizing your character is not an issue on the face of it, it does put a large portion of its characters in a difficult position. The series tries very hard to make its characters “fun”, but without any agency, its female characters are often left to spend their time marginally advancing the plot, experience half-baked character arcs that inevitably don’t lead anywhere, and look cute. And seeing as how much screen-time they are given, it doesn’t make for an especially captivating narrative. You would hope that the rest of the time would make up for this.
After Shuu rejects Gai’s offer to join their resistance group, he is surprised to see Inori in his class introduced as the new transfer student in his class. And if it wasn’t already made clear by this point, Shuu is very satisfied with his life as a social recluse and so is upset when it is revealed that Inori will also be living in his apartment. He is forced to change his philosophy towards his own life, and this is a very important aspect of his character. You could almost say that considering the topic I talked about before, the series is tackling the audience they are *marketing* it towards. Shuu is incredibly annoying. Aside from his scummy behavior regarding his “possession” of Inori, he often projects his flaws on other people and is framed as a sort of misunderstood hero, yet we’re never really given a justification for empathizing with him. There isn’t an especially clear desire in him to become a better person that we can cheer on even if he fails at times, a history that would explain his behavior, or even being anything more than a mediocre anime male lead without a personality. But on the other hand, I think there is a depth to the series that might not be touched upon by just describing Shuu as an annoying kid. To really understand my point of contention with the series, my ambivalence, episode 13 ‘Confession: Sacrifice’ is I think a crucial portion to why the series landed so badly for me even in comparison to any other “pandering weeb-ie show”.
As the virus continues to spread, the government sees it as an excuse to exacerbate the regulations put on the district where Shuu lives, until the very walls surrounding them move inwards. He creates a society inside of their high school (none of the teachers are there anymore, don’t think it is explained) to maximize the vaccines they’ve acquired until they can escape their shrinking coffin. But as the vaccine supply is diminished and Hare is killed because of an accident, he believes that the only way for him to keep everyone safe is to remove his empathy into his resolutions as a political leader. To effectively create a fascist government for the greater good (the greater good). And I would be dishonest to say this wasn’t at least compelling. After 15 episodes of cheery slice-of-life and dramatic action, the male lead setting up a government based upon peoples’ “soul number” is certainly shocking. And the way the series executes upon this is equally so. Whereas you would imagine a 1984-like narrative to portray its leader as a force of power rather than an individual, Guilty Crown goes in the opposite direction. The series is incredibly interested in how the people feel about Shuu’s command, but also how he feels about his own. While Shuu is most often portrayed as a husk of who he once was, apathetic in the face of the pain that he has caused, we see glimpses of his true feelings on his actions. How he has been led to believe that he can only guarantee his peoples’ safety by turning them into cogs in the machine, not recognizing whether or not they’ll still be alive at that point. And when the people are liberated two episodes afterward, the series continues on this route. For the better or worse, humanizing the person who just used his past comrades as slaves. Ultimately, who are we to blame for the horrible actions made by humans. Can we simply put it on the individual, ignoring the world around them that caused the person we see now to exist? It is an interesting question, yet the way the series deals with it feels *off*. As said before, while I can sympathize with Shuu making mistakes, being human, it really ends there. In one of the last episodes, Inori is asked why she fell in love with Shuu and gives an almost cathartic answer.
“Shuu has suffered, and doubted, and made mistakes, and he was ashamed of his ugliness. But the reason I love him is… Shuu’s human. He’s heartbreakingly human. That’s why. Even though I’m only a vessel… I still got to fall in love… like a normal person.”
Isn’t it beautiful? How perfectly it describes the way in which the series tries to justify him, to make us understand Shuu. “He’s pretty shit, but we’re all human you know”. The central philosophy from this can be inferred as one deeply ingrained in the postmodern, by virtue of our human condition, reality, any objective morality and justice should be disqualified. Shuu was an asshole, but he was also human. Having made mistakes dictated by his psychological state and environment, he can learn from his past. At the end of the series, Shuu finally learns to stop hating himself because of his past actions and moves on. But what do we make of this? Where do we go from here after Guilty Crown? Can we really let Shuu get away with a slap on his wrist after what he has done? Should we? Luckily for us though, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. Is the central message of the series really that no one should be judged for their actions? Of course not. The series is filled to the brim with over-the-top bad guys, who execute whole districts “just in case”, and they’re not exactly given the amount of remorse as others are given. There really isn’t a consistency to Guilty Crown, a fact that was clear from the beginning. In the end, our actions are a reflection of the society we live in, and the fact that we are humans incapable of moral perfection means that there’s no reason to restrict our forgiveness. However, this fact should only be relevant when Guilty Crown says so.