Use the word "ambitious" to describe a creative work, and you typically mean something positive. The people behind it have something on their mind, and they seek to embody those ideas in a work that aims to do more than merely entertain. Concrete Revolutio has so much ambition to burn, it almost self-immolates. But how bright and colorful the fire!
I've talked before about how some properties are endearing not despite, but because of, their flaws. Watching CR helped snap some of that into place a little more completely. There are many things about the show that frustrate me, the biggest being how it threatens to turn into a maze rather than a story. What redeems it is how those issues are the product of high ambitions rather than cynical expectations, and how in time that rubs off on the viewer. There were times when I wasn't always sure what was going on, but there was never a time when I didn't want to find out what that was.
Ball of confusion
The most obvious place CR begins, one obvious at least to Western viewers, is Alan Moore's Watchmen, that alterna-Cold War comic-book fever dream of power mislaid and power abused. The presence of superheroes altered the way post-World War II history unfolded, but at the cost of them being driven underground. My own feelings about Watchmen are mixed — as comics, I think it's groundbreaking; as storytelling, I think it's adventurous; as politics, I think it's addled. But its influence is impossible to deny, and CR is clearly following in its steps.
CR even employs many of the same ideas as its spiritual predecessor. It's set in a Japan shortly after a major, politically divisive war; its universe is populated by everything from sentai-style warriors to magical girls from a "demon universe" to time travelers; and the world of superheroes, superhumans, and metahumans is constrained by denials and official secrets acts.
A universe this sprawling and complex often needs a point of view character for us to enter it. CR gives us the aforementioned magical-girl-cum-witch, Kikko Hoshino. She's dragooned away from her day job as a waitress and into the machinations of the superhuman world by Jiro Hitoyoshi, the transforming-car-driving leader of the "Superhuman Bureau", the clandestine organization tasked with keeping an eye on superhumans and taking them out of the picture if they pose a threat to the order of things. He's not here to shut her down, though; he's here to recruit her, since who better to watch over superhumans than superhumans themselves? And while Kikko is drawn to Jiro, she has to temper that attraction with the fact that Jiro already has someone to dote on him, the semi-immortal Emi, one of the few with powers strong enough to keep Jiro's own in check when they rave out of control.
The Bureau adds another new member alongside the wide-eyed Kikko, an example of how the CR world includes embodiments of the supernatural, too: Fuurouta , the "Ghost Boy", a tousel-headed kid with a penchant for prank-pulling. His shapeshifting and ability to pass through inorganic substances comes in handy when they need a spy. Like Kikko (who is mostly there because of her crush on Jiro) Fuurouta has no discernible ideological component to her motivations. He's not part of the Bureau to be a "hero of justice", the way Jiro does; he's there because it seems like fun, and people like Kikko are great to hang around with.
Clash of the timelines
From the start, CR makes it plain it's not going to talk about this stuff in a simple front-to-back fashion. When Kikko is drafted into the group, it's by way of a subplot involving another metahuman, the sentai-esque Grosse Augen. At the end of the episode, there's a flash-forward, and we see how five years into the future, Jiro is now being hunted by the very group he once fronted. These flash-forwards are eventually joined by flashbacks, wherein we see the group's history and some hints about Jiro's own origins, among them his affection for the disgraced superhero Rainbow Knight.
In the abstract, each episode has its own standalone plotline, typically revolving around a mystery or a controversy in the superhuman world — e.g., the student protests that arise out of the misuse of inhuman superweapons. But the flash-back/flash-forward structure used to bookend and interleave the action changes the context of everything we see. Right from the beginning, we know Jiro is going to leave the group and eventually go on his own crusade, so not only do we have a growing source of plot tension (how'd it come to this?), everything he does within the group comes to be tinged with poignancy.
Other things revealed in the flash-forwards have the same cumulative effect. In one of them, we see Fuurouta re-encountering a character he met during the course of the main storyline, but the years since have placed them on opposite sides of a divide. Fuurouta is brought to tears by how what should have been a simple friendship was not allowed to be even that. It's through such things that the show reveals what to me is its real meaning: how innocence is lost not just once but again and again, as a cultural and a personal phenomenon.
I think now of "Earth-chan" — essentially this world's Astro-Boy, programmed with the same fiery, inflexible sense of right and wrong as a child might have. Whenever the cries of the distressed reach her ears, like some digital bodhisattva, she plunges from her resting place in orbit to save the day. But even by the time she dives (literally, figuratively) into the action, it's all too clear to us that just taking a side and sticking doggedly with it is not enough. The CR world is too complex a skein of power used and power corrupted to allow that. But it's also not a world where hope ever completely dies, and one of the other cumulative effects of the flashbacks and -forwards is to show us how Jiro, and others like him, refuse to let the weight of history's wheels crush them.
Fighting imagination fatigue
When we talk about something, we tend to describe what it's most like — what its clear influences are, where it derives its inspirations from, what it's meant to remind us of. Concrete Revolutio lends itself handily to that kind of discussion; tallying the influences, inspirations, and nods-towards that make up the show are enough to keep anyone busy for days. I have to resist doing that, though, because the most important thing about CR — the most important thing about any show, any book, any movie — is not where it comes from, but where it tries to go. The starting point for CR is pure high-concept Western comic-book/manga/anime territory, backdropped by recent history as seen through a funhouse mirror of fantasy.
Where CR falls down, I think, is not in what it wants to do, or even where it ends up, but how it goes about getting there. People use the word complex to describe a work of entertainment in a way that makes me think they're conflating complexity, or better to say convolution, with depth or profundity. A longer and more heavily plotted work is not necessarily a deeper or more thoughtful one. What matters is the worldview behind it, which is why no amount of length or complexity in a story can make up for it being driven by a fundamentally banal outlook (Game of Thrones).
CR is not banal in its worldview, but its nonlinear construction, its snarl of plotting, its parliament of characters make it a challenge to assimilate, and a challenge to determine what its worldview actually is. At first, it seems upbeat, with its glittering seven-color design and its fake offset patterns in the backgrounds (like a Golden Age comic, albeit one art-directed by Milton Glaser) and its wild leaps of imagination — a witch, a transforming robot, and a sentai-style hero, all in the first episode alone! Then the fractured timeline, the show's jaundiced views of power, and the way innocence has a very short half-life in this world all begin to kick in. And yet despite all that I did not feel CR was being merely nihilistic or contrary; it was holding its world's feet to the fire, along with all the people in it. Not all of them get back up, but the few that do inspire others to get back up along with them.
The other great danger of the kind of storytelling CR employs is something I guess could be called "imagination fatigue". One of my rules about storytelling that uses the fantastic is, "When everything is possible, nothing makes any difference." Meaning that a story where a great many wondrous things happen, but none of them matter, is in the long run just as boring as a story where nothing much happens at all. To get around this, you need one of two approaches: you either make up for it with a show of pure style (Space Dandy), or you ground the loonyness of the goings-on in the bedrock of the characters themselves. Give people someone to believe in, and they'll follow them anywhere. CR applies both of those things — the first by way of its style and technique (the gaudy, luscious colors and designs more than make up for the limited animation), the second by way of a cast populated with strongly defined types.
The one downside of the second half of that formula is how Jiro, the ostensible emotional center of the film, suffers from a defect common to many such projects. He's more interesting as a motive force than he is as a character; he's not so much a personality as he is a parking spot for plot points and thematic concerns. Although, in the flash-forwards that show him rounding up estranged members of the team, he does inspire curiosity in us, even if it's around the logistics of what he's doing and not necessarily the emotional significance. That still makes him into the heart of what goes on, although more in the sense that we project the story's emotional needs onto him rather than receive them from him. But at least he's a center of some kind, and the show does benefit from realizing one is needed at all.
Burning from the inside
Of all the things CR attempts to do, there are three things it seems to get most right. The first is in how it uses its alterna-past approach to mine the volatile vein of Japanese history from the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the first generation of anime creators whose works were known to the West, the pivotal political experience of their childhoods was the Second World War (see: Hayao Miyazaki); for the next generation, it was Vietnam and the resistance raised to it by the country's militant left (see: Mamoru Oshii, and perhaps also screenwriter Shō [Fullmetal Alchemist] Aikawa). The unrest unleashed over Japan's role in enforcing the security of Asia against communism made similar movements in the U.S. look piddling by comparison. Much of that finds its way into CR, both by way of imagery (students in riot helmets at the barricades) and thematic material (reflexive distrust with the way Japanese and American power colluded). It's a refreshing source of inspiration.
Second is how CR leverages, and not merely includes or replicates, the aesthetics of the material it's drawing on. When Grosse Augen shows up, or when a team of young super-powered detectives pops into the story, or when Earth-chan zooms in for the rescue, the bright colors and nostalgia-generating character designs have a deliberate emotional effect. We want things to be as upbeat and straightforward as such imagery would suggest, but we know they're not. That said, the show may test the idealism of its characters, but it never ridicules it or suggests that they're fools for trying. The contrast between how things are shown and what they add up to doesn't wear out its welcome.
The third thing, and perhaps the most important of the bunch, is how CR is not complacent in the way it uses its material. It's almost taken for granted now that pop-culture fantasy, at its best, needs to interrogate itself. Give us something we could call a superhero, and you've also got to give us a story about the abuse of power, the inherent difficulty of separating good and evil, and all of the other ways the bar has been raised for this kind of storytelling over the past four decades. It's up to you to raise the bar in return, not just repeat what we already know. Concrete Revolutio starts in pulp-premise territory, but has the good sense not to simply lie down in it like a bed and go to sleep. It burns from inside a little too fiercely for that, and I hope the second half of the show — to begin airing very shortly — continues in that spirit.