An undeniable hit of the summer season, Lycoris Recoil was generally content with being a slice-of-life anime in a sci-fi action setting. While many episodes featured some stylish fight scenes and shootouts, Chisato and Takina’s friendship and personal growth formed the emotional core of the show, spawning a flood of fanart and inexplicably turning “poop parfait” into meme. But throughout the series, and especially in its second half, Lycoris Recoil addressed more serious themes, particularly with regards to how state-run authorities preserve national security. One of the most compelling aspects of the show is the fundamental (and, so far, unresolved) paradox of its setting: a peaceful, utopian Japan maintained by Direct Attack (“DA”), a secret police force that, as far as the public knows, does not exist.
The “techno-utopia/police-state-dystopia” backdrop has been a staple in science fiction for at least a century. The civilizations in novels like Brave New World, and in films like V for Vendetta and Equilibrium, are perfectly ordered and peaceful, at least in theory, because state authorities place severe constraints on what the public can say, do, or even think. In practice, the reality of these imagined utopias is far grimmer. The citizens who understand the situation live in constant fear of being silenced or censured, and invariably some of them form resistance movements, either to experience a taste of individuality away from the state’s watchful eyes, or to plan a rebellion that topples the whole order. What emerges is a setup in which a powerful political elite is pitted against the ordinary citizens they purportedly govern.
Almost universally, these works assume that trading personal freedom for peace and order is an unacceptable deal, and that most audiences will identify with the resistance to authority rather than the authority itself. Who in their right mind, for instance, would be an apologist for “Big Brother” from 1984, or interpret the Rebellion from Star Wars as anything other than a noble, heroic cause? Lycoris Recoil, on the other hand, complicates this traditional setting by subverting the usual arrangement: the DA and its agents are the protagonists, the resistance trying to bring them down are the antagonists, and the series has refused to seriously advocate for either side over the other, at least for the time being. The result is a well-meaning but problematic state agency fighting against a well-intentioned but flawed reactionary movement, and a story that genuinely engages with issues of authority, security, and political power.
Right from the outset, Lycoris Recoil establishes a futuristic Tokyo devoid of crime and violence. The task of protecting the public mainly falls to the highly trained officers of DA known as “Lycoris,” and the series’ central characters, Chisato and Takina, are two of the organization’s best agents. With a sophisticated intelligence apparatus and vast resources at their disposal, DA and Lycoris are tasked with pre-emptively eliminating threats to Japan’s national security—generally through lethal force—before an attack can be carried out. As a result, Japan has ranked best in the world in public safety for eight consecutive years. DA faces its first real challenge, though, when an illegal arms deal goes wrong, and hundreds of guns go missing. The man behind the deal, Majima, is later revealed to be a smaller piece of a larger plan, but he has an agenda of his own.
Presenting a secret police force like DA as the good guys can pose some obvious challenges, and it only works in Lycoris Recoil because DA is depicted essentially as a counter-terrorism agency that’s very good at what they do. In the first episode’s opening montage, set to the cheeriest music possible, the threats they eliminate are the most obvious of villains—masked terrorists with suitcase bombs, knife-wielding gangsters, and the like. It’s a neat arrangement, as the bad guys are disposed of, and life goes on for the public, which remains unaware of both Lycoris and those they silence.
As tidy as their operations may be, the very nature of DA still causes definite unease. They act as a fully autonomous entity, free from oversight, and any accountability for its actions is handled internally. They also see their methods as completely acceptable, even virtuous, and firmly believe that the ends justify the means. Unsurprisingly, many of its members acknowledge all of this and unquestioningly defend DA’s actions and protocols, but oftentimes, their rationalizations can be just as troubling as the organization itself. Take, for example, the Lycoris commander Kusunoki’s assertion in Episode 10 that DA’s members “surpass government structures” and are “nurturing the peace and morals of the nation,” or even Chisato’s opening narration, “we cannot allow the existence of people who disrupt our society”—all of these statements carry an ominous, almost authoritarian undertone that reeks of self-righteousness. Perhaps most unsettling, though, is that the public is not even aware of DA’s existence at all. Not only is DA adept at keeping their activities quiet, but when the violence of their operations spills into the public eye—as it does in the train bombing incident in Episode 4—the government-run news media quickly covers it up with fake reports.
So far, the only consequence of these missions and cover-ups has been the public’s continued ignorance of DA. Average people’s lives have not been directly affected, and one may even argue the cover-ups are necessary to prevent panic. Still, it is not hard to imagine such enormous power being abused in the wrong circumstances. “A wolf will still be a wolf, even if he hasn’t eaten your sheep,” as the old saying goes. An unchallengeable “guilty” verdict from a secret police force works fine when the suspect is plainly guilty; much less so if someone is wrongfully accused or judged guilty for more subjective reasons. In the world of Lycoris Recoil, the public is operating purely on blind faith that DA and the Lycoris agents are getting their intel right. If DA gets it wrong, though, they can simply move on to their next mission, while the victims simply have to live with the fallout—assuming they live at all.
These potential dangers of DA’s unchecked power and authority are not lost on Majima, a mercenary who serves as the primary antagonist throughout the series. Initially recruited by Shinji Yoshimatsu, an influential businessman, to lure Chisato out into the open for his own purposes, Majima uses the job as an opportunity to make a personal statement about Japan’s current status. He argues that the peace DA has created is artificial because it is maintained through violence and control. Peace, he says, is “something that isn’t given to [people], but something they have to win and earn.” Hacking into a broadcast celebrating Tokyo’s newly completed Enkuboku Tower, Japan’s latest symbol of its recent prosperity, Majima reveals the existence of DA and Lycoris to the public, with the ultimate goal of bringing down the whole organization. To help accomplish the latter part of his plan, he places hundreds of guns he acquired in an arms deal all around Tokyo for civilians to find and use as they wish.
To be sure, it’s impossible to call Majima a hero or even a protagonist, no matter how righteously he presents himself. He’s fully willing to accept civilian casualties and kill Lycoris girls to prove his point, and he has no real plan for a “post-DA” world, just the controlled chaos of his present scheme. It’s also hard to see any sensible reason for randomly flooding Japan with guns. He claims they’re for the public’s protection, but untrained civilians with guns can hardly defend themselves from DA. Instead, it appears motivated more by his personal resentment for the status quo and a desire to shake things up—hardly a heroic cause, or a constructive one. And his justifications for his actions—he claims he’s “trying to regain a more natural world” and “just balancing things out”—are subjective at best.
Despite his flawed reasoning, it’s impossible to write Majima off as a simple bad guy because he realizes the importance of speaking truth to power. Indeed, the concept of truth is one of his biggest concerns throughout the series, as he warns of the fragility of a peace based on state-sponsored deception and the public’s ignorance of the vast imbalance of power between the government and its people. After all, if a state-run entity like DA mishandles its power, even unintentionally, and innocent people bear the brunt of the damage, what leverage does the public have to hold DA accountable if they’ve been tricked into believing it doesn’t exist at all?
Majima also calls attention, in his public addresses, to the ruthlessness of DA’s methods: he reveals that some 3,000 people go missing without a trace every year, and he openly questions how many of those DA is responsible for. On top of unchallengeable “guilty” verdicts, DA has evidently decided that erasure the only way to deal with those it considers a threat, but it’s hard to accept that an agency with such an inflexible and punitive view of justice is merely “nurturing the peace and morals of the nation.” One can only wonder how many of DA’s targets might have reformed if given a trial, jail time, or rehabilitation. And while DA may claim the moral high ground, any organization that believes in its own infallibility and rigidly adheres to its protocols is potentially blind to its own faults and weaknesses, even if everyone else can see them. When Majima refers to DA as “those who think they’re God,” he’s not entirely wrong.
Considering its popularity and positive reception, Lycoris Recoil seems destined for a sequel, especially since the season finale made it apparent that Majima has opened a Pandora’s Box that won’t be closed so easily. There are still hundreds of guns in circulation in Tokyo, some of which have already been used with devastating results. And, even with the state news agency’s revisionism, Majima’s broadcasts exposed DA and Lycoris to millions of people, so the conversations and rumors are bound to continue. As things currently stand, the series has effectively presented DA’s and Majima’s viewpoints without coming down hard on either side—even if Majima’s and Kusunoki’s “you’re the villain/no you’re the villain” exchange in Episode 10 struck me personally as overly simplistic and a bit of a cop-out. But if a second season decides to explore the messier consequences of unchecked authority more deeply—just imagine a story arc, for instance, where a DA operation causes more public harm than good—then Lycoris Recoil will likely be remembered for much more than just “poop parfait” memes.
Lycoris Recoil is currently available on Crunchyroll.
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