A Certain Scientific Railgun: A Tale of Which True City

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This essay covers material from the “Level Upper” and “SisterS” arcs, found in both seasons 1 and 2 of Railgun.

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It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. She made the best of friends. She met the worst of enemies. She fought with the best of them. She was beat by the worst of them. She saw her dreams fulfilled. She watched her aspirations shatter. She experienced elation. She experienced despair. She felt powerful. She felt powerless.

She loved. She lost.

The gleaming skyscrapers that line the urban canopies. The vandalized streets that strewn the urban dirt. Where the iconic windmills turn. Where windmills still iconic don’t. A place where aspirations come true and people become extraordinary. A place where dreams die and people struggle being ordinary. It is the fount of achievement. It is the source of resentment and exploitation.

Two sides of Academy City. Which side is the true Academy City?

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For anyone familiar with works by Charles Dickens, who wrote A Tale of Two Cities, the thematic threads should appear similar. Railgun and her friends are out enjoying themselves in the city when empowered thugs start causing mayhem. They then set to work individually trying to calm it. It’s an innocuous enough introduction, but it’s in this introduction that illustrates out front that not all is well in Academy City, and that, in hindsight, the so-called “Darkness” of Academy is so for two reasons.

The first reason is class Level struggle.

Conjure any images you have of Haves and Have-Nots. The students which make up the vast majority people in Academy City are divided according to so-called Levels, conceived officially as between 1-5. These students can tap into esper abilities, abilities awakened in them by special treatments and procedures, abilities which, for the most part, are unique to each individual. However, numerical designations were developed to record the degree by which students could tap, control, and shape their individual abilities at will. 1 represented bare manifestation, while 5 represented complete mastery. 2-4 were tiers above and below, respectively.

Then were the Level 0s, individuals that, despite the special treatments and procedures, exhibit no appreciable signs of esper powers. They are the individuals that, officially speaking, shouldn’t exist.

With designation comes differentiation. With differentiation comes stigma. It creates a hierarchy that, regardless of whether or not it was intended, causes friction between the different Levels that comprise it. The city uses their Level system to determine the distribution of money allowances, living arrangements, schooling, giving the best performing students the most and the best while giving the worst performing students the least and worst. This way of doing things is supposed to supplement personal ambition and encourage students to work harder and smarter to reach greater Levels. With merit comes psychical and social mobility, but regardless of whether or not it was intended, what it also achieved is tension plus between the different Levels. Inferiority complexes and superiority complexes are forged as a by-product, if not outright product, of this Level system because of how it compares people. Comparatively speaking, there will be winners and there will be losers.

The exception are the Level 5s and Level 0s, who, respectively speaking, are always winners and always losers.

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The Academy City which Mikoto Misaka has always been familiar with has always been one of pretty high rises and spinning wind generators. She’s worked hard to become as successful as she now is in her city, but hard work was all she thought was necessary to achieve it. That, and the opportunities her urban home offered in order to unlock a potential she believed was within everyone to tap. She had everything a girl living in her city could want outside of a boyfriend. And she had powers, esper powers to the highest level officially conceivable. She was a Level 5 electromaster, one of only seven Level 5s in existence, the Level 5 “Railgun.” It was something to be proud of, yet she always felt it was something anyone in this city, with enough elbow grease, could attain.

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The Academy City which Ruiko Saten has always been familiar with has been one that’s always been mixed. She enjoys whatever glamour in the city that’s available for her to access, just as much as anyone, but unlike the Level 5 Misaka, it’s a glamour that the Level 0 her could only access so much of. It’s an ego-crusher for the Level 0 her that can do almost nothing, to hang out with friends like the Level 5 Misaka that can do almost anything. Everywhere she goes in city and society are filled with people with powers, people that are implied to be objectively better than her. Suddenly, reality seems to confirm this when she tries to be the hero her friends always happen to be and attempts to save someone from a bunch of thugs, only to be reminded how powerless, useless, and small she really is when she’s manhandled and requires saving herself. And who to save her and send her into further depression than another overpowered friend.

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As Saten’s character arc, the Level Upper arc is the culmination of the show’s commentary on social inequality, with episodes before and after building to and off, respectively, the low feelings fostered by a theoretically merit-based system that, in reality, includes what are effectively castes. This system of stratification, in effect, is cruel enough to those living in the lower castes to suggest that social mobility is possible if you worked and wanted hard enough for it. Except for many lower Leveled individuals and, most of all, Level 0s like Saten, who’s put effort and ego and has received nothing, absolutely nothing, back, it’s humiliating.

To city and society, it’s not like you can’t do it, which is already discouraging. It’s that you won’t do it. It’s not an arbitrary matter of birth. It’s that you’re lazy. You don’t want it hard enough. You deserve getting spat on because you earned your shame.

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The final straw for Saten is when she ends up consulting her Level 5 friend Misaka, who, despite the best of intentions, seemingly confirms to Saten what she’s been suspecting in the ugly recesses of her mind all along. Misaka has power because she worked and wanted it hard enough for it, and those power trips to Misaka have only been milestones. Saten doesn’t because she’s seemingly worked squat, and power is something she came to the city for in the first place.

I wanted it. I worked for it. So hard. So badly. How is it fair that I don’t have it? That she has it? How!? How can you say it doesn’t matter? Easy enough for you if you’ve never had to live in my shoes, in our shoes!

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So now it’s Misaka’s turn to be small, useless, and powerless.

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The second reason is machine callousness.

“Regardless of whether or not it was intended” is a statement I’ve already mentioned twice, and, if everything about the Level system wasn’t conveniently built enough, all this inequality is, in fact, intentional, or at least predictable. Above the students who are organized in the system are the creators and organizers of the system itself. They are the scientists that transcend the system and use the system and its hapless participants as laboratory and lab rats, respectively, to run experiments for the pursuit of their own knowledge-driven ends.

They’re scientists, after all, and scientists have to be objective about things in the pursuit of truth. Like the supercomputer satellite Tree Diagram orbiting above Academy City, they can’t have irrational things like people’s feelings get in the way of their research to create the first Level 6 esper, an esper being that’s the closest scientific equivalent to a god. Philosophically speaking, god is a term to describe the ultimate truth. The Level Upper failed to produce the sought after results despite the espers the scientists experimented on.

So the Machine in Space tells the Machine Men below that the sought after results can be achieved another way: Have the strongest Level 5 defeat and slaughter “X” number of espers. That “X” surpasses the tens of thousands. Where in the world would you get all those espers?

Why, in Academy City of course! Inequality, experimentation, human rights… who cares!? Academy City is a laboratory full of guinea pigs to vivisect at our choosing. Whatever happiness or sorrow you felt in this place are just by-products, subordinate to our grand aim. Hell, if you’re that concerned, the test animals this time around are just clones, so humanitarian concerns don’t even apply here. Seriously, think about this rationally…

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…except those clones are Misaka clones that, despite what they’re told to do and end up dying doing, are human to the most minute degree. They like sunrises. They like cats. They like black tea with milk. And most of all, in their own inexperienced, awkward ways, desire human affection, human connection with their big sister Mikoto Misaka. And yet whatever the proud Railgun, does, she cannot stop the Machine. The Level 5 Misaka has seen the “Darkness” of Academy City. The Level 5 Misaka has fought the “Darkness” of Academy City. The Level 5 Misaka has lost to the “Darkness” of Academy City, because to the “Darkness” of Academy City, she’s just Misaka.

Misaka, like Saten, who, in the grand scheme of things, can do nothing.

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Misaka, like Saten, who’s powerless. Useless. Small.

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To think that Academy City is otherwise is meaningless. The “Darkness” of Academy City and Academy City are seemingly inseparable. For many of its founders, Academy City was established, after all, to cater to their unethical whims.  The only meaning there is to destroy Academy City. Misaka begins thinking this the more desperate she becomes, the more and more images of her mutilated sisters flash before her.

Except… who cares?

Who cares if Academy City was founded for that purpose? Who cares about the scientists’ machinations? Who cares if all the happiness and sorrow I felt until now were by-products? It may condition some things, but it invalidates nothing important. The wonderful memories I made were real. The friendships I made are real. The friends I came to love are real. They’re real because I say they’re real. I believe they’re real, and they all came about because… because of Academy City.

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There are good things in Academy City. There are good people, and it’s because of both that Saten and Misaka are able to continue on. They love Academy City, and they want to continue fighting to protect what they love.

Are there two sides to Academy City? Two cities? What is the true city? Which is the true Academy City?

It is the city we think it is, and to Saten and Misaka, while it may be a city of darkness, it is also a city of light, family, friends, and love.

The darkness isn’t absolute, however. However, if Misaka wants to make a difference in Academy City, she cannot do it alone, even as the Railgun.

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7 thoughts on “A Certain Scientific Railgun: A Tale of Which True City

  1. >class Level struggle

    You know, it would be pretty interesting to see a Marxist critique of Railgun, because the Level Upper arc was a fascinating portrayal of the social dynamics and hierarchy in Academy City. It’s a pity the arc never really answered the big questions it asked. In the end, the level system never changes and Saten is still left weak and powerless. Only her perspective on the situation has changed.

    The question that remains on my mind after reading this post is this: is Academy City even worth protecting? When the individual people are good but the system itself is inhumane, there’s no use attempting to protect the system. Of course, Misaka and co. do fight against the obvious examples of corruption when they see it, but when the entire point of the Academy City is to rank children against each other for the sake of researching their powers and performing experiments on them, you have to realise the system is inherently exploitative.

    I guess part of this is a by-product of Railgun’s parent story, Index. In Index, one gets the feeling the level system only really exists for Touma’s Imagine Breaker ability to look more impressive. It’s similar to the Weed/Bloom system in Mahouka in that sense. Since Railgun fleshes out Index’s setting more but can’t actually change the major details from the story, we’re left with this crazy meritocratic system that will never get challenged, no matter how good the good guys are.

    Not that I dislike anything about Railgun’s story and worldbuilding, but it’s certainly not the kind of world I’d want to live in!

    • If you think about it, Academy City is a dystopia. In some way it’s even worse than the world of Shin Sekai Yori. And in Railgun universe, the mass has no way to change the system. A single Level 5 can destroy all of level 3 and below in a few minute. Nothing can stop people like Accelerator to rule the world. Despite all the technology, crime rate is ridiculously high.The author obviously didn’t think very hard about the world he created.

    • Hey, a comment. That’s rare.

      I suppose you could view Railgun’s class (Level) struggle critique in three different ways.

      1) Similar or exactly on point to your concern in the comment. Komachi comes up with some interesting ideas in his LNs, but he suffers from some of the pitfalls of his craft. He likes invoking anime tropes and, more relevantly, he’s not all that great or even consistent a writer himself. Index barely functions as a character (she’s atrociously underdeveloped for being a supposedly “main” one), and Touma’s not that far off himself, at least until New Testament where I think Komachi begins addressing his neurotic desire to shoulder all the evils of the world himself, alone. This set-up could very well be a really elaborate way for Touma to look cool and use his signature “shatter your illusions” gender equality punch.

      2) While the inequality of Academy City’s system is extremely exploitative, you could argue that it’s not far off the mark from the systems of governance that we live under and abide by today, namely capitalism. There will always be people that will be more winners than many and losers than many others as well if you judge everything based on material wealth, and it’s a fact that many people have to live with. It’s a fact are inclined to do exploitative things as a result of at least the cracks of this system, and, to a certain extent, people also have to live with that. It’s probably not like Mahouka’s jargon/jargon system where this kind of meritocratic way of doing things is revered as infallible. The Level system is portrayed postively in certain instances and very, very negatively in others.

      3) The story for the Railgun manga is far from finished, and new narrative volumes of Index LNs themselves are being produced with no end in sight. Misaka and others (friends, allies, etc) continue fighting for what Academy City means to them and what Academy City should reflect in its entirety. Whether or not they’re ultimately victorious is still a conclusion that’s ways off, but she and others have scored some minor victories here and there. It jives with the idea that the original abstract value of something isn’t permanent and inherent, and thus objective and immutable, so however the prevailing number of founders designed the system to originally be, Misaka and others may win in totality and overturn the system to something different.

  2. great article. Having read all the novels from the main series as well, the part where you talked about the level system is especially chilling. For those who discovered *minor spoiler(novel)* the existence of the ‘parameter list’, the ‘darkness’ of the level struggle is elevated to a whole new level. Right after enrollment into Academy city, all students are immediately assessed and recorded in the ‘parameter list’. The list determines the research potential of your power to the city, and from there, it determines the training you will recieve, the drugs you will recieve, and your maxmum level.

    The truth is that many of the students could potentially reach a higher level with better training, but that would be too expensive. Those who have lesser potential are discarded to be eternally level 0, while the level 5’s have entire labs dedicated to them. Which means all of Saten’s struggle were pointless. The entire level system is a lie. Your maximum level was already determined by the city since the start, no matter how hard you try. The students were lied to. The teachers were lied to.

    to fdfgfh, whatever fault kamachi has as a writer, to say he didn’t think hard enough is completely absurd. The reason why many people and I constantly return to the world of toaru is due to the sheer brilliance of the world he builds. Even as an avid science fiction reader, I have yet to see a world as intruiging or as well constructed as toaru. What is stopping accelerator from destroying everything? Well, for one thing he is hardly the strongest entity in toaru, even just taking account the science side. The city itself had long since prepared countermeasures for each and every level 5 in case they go rogue. However much Accelerator thinks he could destroy the world (and he does), he is nothing but a slightly more unruly and rare guinea pig in the eyes of the city.

    • I remember Misaki from the manga scanning through the files of the scientists whose wills she’s high-jacked and inadvertently coming across the “Parameter List” before dismissing it as unimportant .That’s some serious blackmail material she let go if what you’re saying’s correct.

      • Indeed, since its one of the best kept secret of academy city.

        Interestingly enough, the existence of the parameter list is implicitly mentioned in the railgun anime as well. Many of the secrets in Toaru are actually hinted at early on and can discovered through careful deduction. Firstly, it has been mentioned that there are plenty of electro users in acedemy city. Yet the scientist specifically wanted Misaka’s DNA even though she was only a level 1 at that time. That was because they already knew she was a level 5 candidate through the parameter list.

  3. Pingback: Re: Zero – Starting Life in Another World-: The Star of Kararagi, and the Race for Capital | therefore it is

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