It's through fantasy that we come to terms with our demons, both as individuals and as societies. As youngsters, our demons manifest as bad guys who (so we are told) can be overcome with the right amount of effort and heart. Then later in life the demons of the real world are unmasked not as singular entities, but abstract forces beholden to no one controller — less personal, more nebulous, and thus all the more terrifying. Small wonder [C] - CONTROL begins as being a story about the first kind of enemy, and only reveals itself over time to be about the second kind. The enemy here is not the mysterious world of the "Financial District", or its "Midas money", or even the combatants who inhabit it. It's human avarice itself, and there is no fighting something that stems from being human, period.
Most any anime with a sufficiently creative premise wins an attentive audience, but [C] - CONTROL (or just C) is fascinating for reasons far beyond its core gimmick. For one, it has great ambitions for its concept: it uses it as a window through which we peer at how a slew of sharply-defined characters deal with the temptation of being able to buck the system ... albeit at a cost. You can get away with it for a little while, and you might even enjoy the ride, but at some point the music has to stop and there's going to be chairs missing — and it might well be because by then you've pawned them all.
Mortal combat for (and with) filthy lucre
Most fantastic anime that deal with modern-day Japan in some fashion steal straight from the headlines, either past or present. If it isn't the country having been defeated in some disastrous war or having its sovereignty usurped (everything from various incarnations of Ghost in the Shell to Guilty Crown), then it's the economic implosion of the the post-bubble years. C opens with a bit of #2 and #3: after Japan's economy tanked, the "Sovereign Wealth Fund" — which injected money into Japan's economy from the outside — kept things from collapsing completely.
But for most people, like college student Kimimaro Yoga, things have not improved. His two part-time jobs at convenience stores in different parts of town barely generate enough money for him to keep a rabbit-hutch roof over his head, pay his tuition at college (he's studying economics, appropriately enough), and keep him fed. With his parents both gone, he's got no safety cushion — not like his would-be girlfriend Hanabi, who's only friendly to Kimimaro but apparently reserves her affections for a rich boyfriend.
For Kimimaro, poverty isn't a badge of honor; it just plain sucks. He doesn't even have the spare change to throw into the kitty for a student drinking party, and he resents how poverty isolates him in more ways than one. He could probably get rich if he put aside some degree of his dignity or integrity, but he can't bring himself to do it, and he hates himself all the more for it. But then he looks at the sagging, fiftyish, unmarried face of his convenience store co-worker, and sees a future he knows he can't afford to inhabit.
Then Kimimaro is offered a way out, when a strange fellow named Masakaki enters his life and offers Kimimaro a shot at participating in a kind of supernatural, financially powered, gladiatorial combat arena. Masakaki — half Willy Wonka, half Mephistopheles — is nothing if not a persistent salesman for the power and pleasure afforded by the "Financial District", that alternate dimension where Kimimaro uses a specially-powered "Asset" (part Pokémon, part stockbroker) to battle other potential moneymakers. Winners quite literally take all there: the money you wrest from your enemy "Entrepeneurs" translates into gobs of real-world cash, but losing out — or, worst case, going bankrupt — means whole swaths of your future are sliced out of your life like so many patches of weeds.
Cash rules everything around them
Kimimaro can't deny how having that much more money in his pocket feels empowering. But he also can't close his eyes to the way there's a real-world cost associated with both losing and winning. In an early, jarring episode, Kimimaro faces off against none other than his own economics professor, a man with a wife and children. The professor loses the battle — and loses his children, both the ones already existing and the one that was to come. He and Kimimaro are the only ones who remember, and Kimimaro is faced with not being able to write this off just because it happens to someone else. His gain has also become his loss.
Politics inevitably exist when more than one human being is present, and the Financial District has its own politics of a sort. A faction of Entrepeneurs, under the leadership of one Soichiro Mikuni, has been using carefully-moderated combats to avoid having reality too badly upset. Their strategy is to keep their wins down to the smallest of margins, the financial equivalent of controlled burns that prevent an entire forest from getting torched. Kimimaro would rather not wreck the real world if he can help it — especially if it contains people like Hanabi, or his professor, or his own father. The latter, from what he has unearthed, seems to have discovered the District on his own and committed suicide when he bankrupted himself. Losses in Mikuni's own past tempted him into the District as well, and it's he who gives Kimimaro an older-brotherly speech encouraging him to find something to use his money for. What good is money if it isn't spent?
But spending the money generated in the Financial District has ugly side effects, and they don't all show up at once. Only other Entrepeneurs can see such money for what it really is, and too much of it injected into the real world means it's coming into existence at the expense of other things. Soon Kimimaro's sense of what to protect begins to encompass even his opponents — at one point he fights Kō, a celebrity with a charity foundation, but does his best to keep the charity from being collateral damage — and his own Asset, Msyu, starts to inspire curiosity in him about what part of his future she's meant to represent.
Unfortunately, he might not have time enough, or enough a future, to find out. The IMF has an agent of their own, a certain Jennifer Sato, nosing around inside the District, but the more she uncovers about the exact effects of the District on the real world, the less inclined they are to do anything. Too Big To Fail, indeed: shutting down the District may prove just as disastrous as letting it run uncontrolled. And soon there comes a point when there may be no choice but to pull the plug, where Kimimaro will have to fight Mikuni to make it happen, and where Mikuni's sacrifice of his own future may only do more damage than it tries to repair.
No future in Japan's dreaming
What's fascinating about all this is how most every plot element and story development of C parallels some aspect of real-world economics, and how the most devilish aspects of each are conveyed with the alluring glitter of dark fantasy. The concept of gambling with your future, for instance: given that one of the ways I was sobered up on the concept of credit cards was that they amount to borrowing against future income — and often at obscenely high rates of interest — it's hard not to see how the way bankruptcy literally empties out people's lives in C is only too close to the truth. The most striking early example is Kimimaro's professor, whose loss of his family is only the tip of the iceberg. Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'till it's gone? The short answer, at least for many of the players here, is "no". When Mikuni's machinations avert one disaster for the country at the expense of making life all the more miserable, and a character is inspired to remark how "over a decade of this country's future has been lost", it again isn't hard to figure out what's being referenced.
It's no accident, either, that the Financial District is a game arena, since capitalism itself is largely a zero-sum game in which gains only come at someone else's loss. Ideally, the system would support fair trade and free enterprise in its best incarnations, but the District has no such idealism. Only Mikuni's gaming of the system brings to it anything remotely resembling balance and fairness, and in time that comes at a cost to both him and the rest of the world that proves unsustainable. Kimimaro, too, knows the cost of participating in the system only comes at a price that can only be paid with one's eyes shut: even if you win, you still lose, because of what it costs the rest of the world you still have to live in. "I don't want to win, but I don't want to lose either," Kimimaro tells Mikuni at one point: he simply wants an unmolested existence where he can earn a respectable living, not participate in the winner-take-all, loser-go-home-and-cry culture of success at all costs.
Kimimaro's cry echoes that of his older coworker at the convenience store, a man old enough to remember a Japan where a job lasted a lifetime and guaranteed you a future of some kind. When Kimimaro learns to what degree his Midas money is nothing but blood money (the cynic would ask: is there any other kind?), he sets fire to his earnings, bringing to mind Allen Ginsburg's Howl, with "the best minds of my generation ... burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall". Maybe the only winning movie is not to play, but that turns out not to be an option either. As someone else once put it about entropy, you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't even quit the game. The only hope lies in forcing the corrupt system to devour itself — and even that only provides the world with a brief reprieve before human avarice starts the wheels (and money presses) turning again.
If one of the themes of the show is money's ephemerality — now it's worth something, now it's not — it seems doubly relevant in the dawning age of both cryptocurrencies and exotic financial derivatives. As I write this, the jury is still out on whether or not using GPU cycles to run Bitcoin miners generates the kind of value worth paying real-world dollars for, but the whole exercise has reawakened in people a fresh sense of how ultimately arbitrary money is. Arbitrary, but not meaningless: it's people who invest money with meaning, and who would make something like Bitcoin into either a useful tool of commerce or a worthless speculative indulgence. But Bitcoin's speculative nature pales in comparison to the manifold billions of synthetic dollars created with a free hand in the wake of bank deregulation. That, if anything, is the real source of the inspiration for the black-label "Midas money" that floods the real world in C, visible only to those who have already pierced the veil of the Financial District. The fact that they know it's all "virtual" doesn't make them any more immune to its charms, its seduction, and ultimately its deadly fraudulence.
The Noitamina programming block will be ten years old in 2015, and there's scarcely been a year when it hasn't delivered shows one, two, and sometimes three cuts above the norm. C is one of the finest shows delivered so far for that lineup, and it's doubly surprising that it is not only an entirely original work but a Tatsunoko Production creation, a studio generally best known for exploiting its existing stable of intellectual properties (Yatterman, Casshern, Time Bokan) or for its hired-gun adaptation jobs (Sket Dance). C was written by Noboru Takagi, he who also gave us the equally diverting and inventive Baccano!, and director Kenji Nakamura's other productions — Mononoke, Trapeze — all sport visuals are delirious and creative as C. Another element that deserves singling out is the creative score by Taku Iwasaki (Witch Hunter Robin, R.O.D - Read Or Die, Gurren Lagann, two of the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs), which includes such memorable moments as extracts from The Wealth of Nations (spelled out in the CD's liner notes, no less), read over a throbbing downtempo groove.
One complaint levied against the show is that the combat sequences come off as arbitrary — that the fight mechanics are mostly a matter of whatever they can get away with in the moment. Arguments like this always seem beside the point: the intent and the attitude behind the fighting here is more important than the exact mechanic. I always felt the fight mechanics in shōnen action shows (from which the battle here is clearly derived) were all arbitrary anyway: they existed not to demonstrate the workable logistics of such a fight, but to embody the spirit of the combatants. C knows this, and acts on it: look at the scene where Kimimaro and Kō fight. It's cut off in mid-clash to make a storytelling point — namely, that the outcome of that battle isn't nearly as important as the mindset each of the fighters has brought to it. A show this creative should be driven by its ideas, not by what categorical homage it must pay to its forebears, and the extent to which they pull that off here is heartening.
One of the dangers of making our fantasy real, even just as entertainments (although, when is anything "just" entertainment?), is how those realizations have a tendency to metastasize. Not because the line between fantasy and reality is porous because of wish-fulfillment, but because we can't help but see how today's real-world nightmares are composed part and parcel of yesterday's fever dreams. I read in the real-world news about how banks around the world have conspired to manipulate interest rates, and hear how economic decisons that affect the lives of billions are not in fact being made by people who are willing to give the evidence a proper hearing but by people in the thrall of their opinions and emotions — and suddenly C seems less like a fantasy, and more like it's barely ahead of the facts.