I’d say it was the calm before the storm, but I sure don’t feel relaxed.
We’re back to political world-building and character study this week, a decision that’s worked in the show’s favor in the past and mostly does now. I suspect GANGSTA‘s pendulum swings from thoughtful drama to bloody action is going to continue to be a bit of a sore point for me, as the wider world of Ergastulum fills with increasingly archetypal and over-the-top characters (hello, Eyepatch Girl) who feel absurdly out of place in a series that seemed interested in maintaining a kind of gritty pseudo-realism for its first seven episodes. But that’s where we are, so I’ll try to get used to it.
And even if I can’t, our central trio remains a wonderfully sympathetic and complex ball of uncertain desires and contradictions. Their personalities and relationships with each other ground GANGSTA in a kind of emotional reality even when people are jumping off rooftops and cleaving their opponents in two, so here’s hoping the series can maintain its focus on Alex, Nic, and Worick in the coming war and make me care about the outcome as much as they do.
We learned a few tidbits that tell us more about the people in this world than the world itself, so let’s Bullet Point Rundown the highlights:
- Connie and Marco are a couple. This would be a lot sweeter if Marco had left enough of an impression on me to remember his name (had to look it up for this post), but the scene does a nice job showing their closeness in a few short shots, so it works a lot better than the time allotted would have you think.
- Celebrer simultaneously keeps Twilights alive while significantly shortening their lifespans. It’s important to note that the reason no one’s made a less toxic replacement drug isn’t because it’s impossible with modern science, but because it’s “too difficult,” one more indication of how little value this society places on Twilight lives.
- “Official” Celebrer is too expensive for most Twilights to afford, so Dr. Theo essentially provides an off-brand version for most of the town. This makes me very concerned for Theo’s safety, as killing him would be a nasty way of taking out a good portion of the Twilight population.
- Worick has hyperthymesia, an actual and extremely rare condition where a person remembers an exceptional number of details (such as exact dates and word-by-word conversations) from their past. There’s still a lot of debate on how it works or what causes it, but Worick’s tendency to get lost in vivid flashbacks and difficulty planning for the future fits current information on the condition pretty well, so it’s fair to say that Kohske put in a little research when creating him. I don’t have time for an extensive discussion, but it’s interesting stuff, so I recommend reading up it when you get the chance.
- Erica and a number of other Twilights were kidnapped during an attack on “the institution” (probably an orphanage) something like a decade ago. Dollars to doughnuts those “Twilight hunters” who just rolled into town are part of that kidnapped group as well, meaning that someone has been indoctrinating Twilights to kill other Twilights. Man, this world just gets nicer and nicer, don’t it?
While I wouldn’t call this the most riveting of episodes, the simmering tension and gradual collision of factions kept things from dragging too slowly, and the final scenes promise a showdown and (hopefully satisfying) conclusion to the current Twilight conflict in the coming weeks. It’s unlikely GANGSTA will be able to wrap up all of its many loose ends and arcs in two short episodes, especially given that the manga is ongoing, but if we can find a sort of resting-place for our major themes and characters then I’ll consider this a successful run of episodes.
We’re seeing a little of that movement toward semi-conclusions this week with Alex, who’s realizing she can’t straddle the line between citizen and outsider for much longer. She’s becoming emotionally invested in the lives of the people in the city, but at the same time knows remarkably little about their personal and cultural histories. This ignorance allows her a certain level of detachment, which works as a safeguard if she’s “just passing through” but a liability if she intends to stay in town.
Alex has a choice to make, and despite Connie encouraging her to get out and search for her brother, it sure looks like she’s leaning toward planting roots here. She investigates Worick’s files on the Twilights, helps look after the orphaned child, and spends most of the episode probing various characters (Nina, Loretta, Connie) for information on the city and the people protected and imprisoned by it. The probable confrontation with her brother is bound to complicate things, but I won’t be at all surprised if the real story and eventual climax of the anime is about Alex deciding to stay and fight for the people she’s come to care about.
A similar choice may be looming for Worick and Nic as well, as they’ve attempted to occupy a gray area in Ergastulum politics. One would think this would leave them vulnerable to attacks, but it seems to work mostly in their favor, allowing them to call in help from multiple parties when needed. It also puts them in a position where they could, in theory, bring the city’s factions together against a common foe. The Handymen could be the key to solving this crisis, through tactics and cooperation rather than the brute “lone wolf” force we’ve seen thus far.
As a semi-related aside, GANGSTA continues to tease out information to make the audience reevaluate its understanding of its characters, as Worick’s hyperthymesia puts a new spin on the Handyman’s unique social standing. As Chad explains it, Worick’s memory serves as a kind of double-edged sword, as it would be invaluable as long as you were his ally but catastrophic if he ever chose to turn on you.
I’d figured the Handymen’s decision to remain unaffiliated was mostly about maintaining the semi-freedom they’d been denied in childhood, but turns out it’s as much about survival and necessity as anything: Don’t get too close to any one group, and Worick’s abilities can’t be exploited by any other group. This makes Worick even more of an outcast than I’d initially thought, valued for his skills but kept at a distance because of them. Not all that different from the Twilights themselves, in some ways.
In terms of Manglobe’s production, while character models were (mostly) a lot cleaner, the fight sequences were almost entirely still frames with some motion lines and zoom/pan effects, which meant what action we did get felt rather bland and stilted compared to previous weeks. I desperately hope this means the creative team is focusing on making the last two episodes look amazing, but given recent quality woes I’m bracing myself for an ugly-looking finale.
Still, the director did their best to make up for it with some telling angles and distances. Keeping with Alex’s and Worick’s mini-stories about observation, along with Worick’s remark that there are more unseen “government watchdogs” in town, the camera frequently gives you the sense that you’re spying on a scene you don’t have permission to view. Mid-to-long shots from doorways, tops of stairwells, between the spinning blades of a ceiling fan, and through laundry lines run rampant throughout the episode, giving these moments of intimacy a kind of voyeuristic uneasiness, as well as reminding us that Ergastulum is a town where little is truly private.
I’m reminded of the panopticon, a theoretical prison system imagined by philosophy Jeremy Bentham where the guard can see the inmates but the inmates can never see the guard, meaning they never know for sure if they’re being watched or not. As such, the only way to ensure you’re never caught or punished for breaking any rules is to just assume you’re always being watched and behave accordingly. When expanded beyond the prison system and into society, it becomes secret surveillance: a way to protect people, maybe, but also to homogenize behavior and oppress any deviant actions or opinions.
Ergastulum is that prison-turned-city, a place where people are considered criminals due to the circumstances of their birth, and where those “criminals” are kept in line through strictly controlled life-saving (and life-shortening) drugs and unseen but potentially constant surveillance. In “Land of Confusion,” the camera implicates us in that surveillance as well, making us a part of the ruling authority. No wonder I could never shake the faint sense of discomfort I felt this week.
Given GANGSTA‘s tendency to present these issues but never quite push on them, as well as the fluctuating tone of the manga, I’m honestly not sure how much of this is intentional and how much is just a happy accident of writing an underworld crime drama. Still, these sociopolitical overtones remain (along with our main characters of course) the most fascinating part of the series for me, and keep the story from turning into another entertaining but ultimately mindless action series. If we can see some hints of those ideas being further explored and resolved in the coming weeks, I’ll be one happy blogger indeed.