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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
So now it’s Misaka’s turn to be small, useless, and powerless.
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…
…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.
Misaka, like Saten, who’s powerless. Useless. Small.
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.
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.