Welcome to my 100th post! Milestones, no matter how big or small, deserve celebration, and that’s what I’m doing. I’ll take this as a chance to once again thank people who take the time and read my stuff. You are amazing.
What I aim with this post is neither a full breakdown of Gangsta, nor to unravel a hidden gem. In December, Gangsta’s first volume has been licensed here and I realized I missed the series, thus gave it another spin. I intend to talk about some of the recurring themes that are critical to the story and the relationship between the characters, with a dash of architecture trivia. The first part will focus more on the city structure and societal dynamics, and the second part’s emphasis will be on the interpersonal. Enjoy ~
Gangsta is one of those stories that start genuinely cool but end up making you feel things. And we all know how uncool it is to make people cry. At the center of it all, we have Nicolas and Worick, who are called ‘Handymen’ by the residents of the fictional city Ergastulum. We keep hearing how Ergastulum is a place where one ‘shouldn’t stay for too long’ or there’s no way out since daily life is closely linked with violence and blood. However, as the story progresses, we meet the habitants who enjoy Ergastulum and call it ‘home’, despite the hustle. Ergastulum stands on the shoulders of four big forces: Corsico Family, Monroe Family, Christiano Family, and The Guild. Handymen are not officially tied to any group but just two guys that accept requests from them in turn for money.
To briefly introduce the characters; Nic and Worick come to Ergastulum at the age of 12 and 13. Worick has been doing sex work ever since, while the Handymen errands are mainly run by Nic. They encounter Alex, who is forced to become a sex worker through drugs and intimidation. Having no memory of the past and being a stranger to the city, Alex temporarily lends a helping hand to Handymen and through her unfamiliarity, we learn about the inner workings of Ergastulum, the power dynamics between the groups, Twilights, and our duo’s past.
Architecture and History
A quick look at Ergastulum’s meaning would give us very important clues about the setting. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
An ergastulum (plural: ergastula) was a Roman building used to hold in chains dangerous slaves or to punish other slaves. The ergastulum was usually built as a deep, roofed pit below ground level, large enough to allow the slaves to work within it, and containing narrow spaces in which they slept. Ergastula were common structures on all slave-using farms (latifundia). The etymology is disputed between two possible Greek roots: ergasterios “workshop” and ergastylos “pillar to which slaves are tethered.”
Looking at the materials such as limestone, bricks, concrete, and the architectural characteristics that are used for building exteriors (the arcs, stairs, overall city structure) in the fictional Ergastulum had me wondering whether it was based on/ inspired by the traditional Mediterranean style. I didn’t know Ergastulum had ties to Ancient Rome before writing this post but looks like I wasn’t too far off. A quicker way to make a point on this topic is to let the photographs and screenshots speak for themselves 1, 2, 3.
In Gangsta, Nic and Worick wander a lot in the city due to the nature of the job, but one thing Alex quickly notices is how they always choose back alleys where the sun can hardly reach due to high buildings and narrow inner streets over the main roads when they are running errands. Soon, we learn that, rather than a choice, it’s due to Nic being a Twilight. The definition and design of Ergastulum align perfectly with both the overall situation of Twilights and Nic in particular.
To refresh your memory on the history of Twilights, Celebrer is a modification drug that enhances the physical abilities of its user and was particularly developed to create superhuman soldiers during wartime. However, frequent usage results in high levels of toxicity to the body and affects their offspring, ‘Twilights‘. Besides the inherited strength, agility, and heavy dependence on Celebrer, Twilights are born with physical and mental deficiencies. They don’t live for long, hence the name. They have to wear dog tags and depending on their strength, these tags have level indicators such as C/3, or A/0. This is the reason why Twilights also go by the name Tags. Nicolas’ father was a Celebrer user and a soldier and that makes him a Twilight, he was also used as a child mercenary until he met Worick.
Twilights and Ergastulum concept being a slavery and racism metaphor is a very explicit one. However, compared to other series that introduces the topic just to ‘spice up’ the plot, Gansta. does a very good job in establishing the dynamics both on the interpersonal and societal levels. Twilights are barely second class citizens. Although the vulnerable position they are in is a direct result of Normals’ conflict, greed, and interests, Twilights are subjected to systematic oppression, stripped from their basic rights, are seen as a commodity (especially women and kids), and have to reside in Ergastulum only. If any of the Twilights are identified outside, they are tagged and brought back to Ergastulum. Their access to healthcare is severely cut down as well; Twilights are dependent on Celebrer, yet they can’t afford the drug and only have Doctor Theo and Nina looking after the whole city. Doctor Theo produces the Celebrer himself with the materials he buys from the black market because there is no other way to supply everyone with daily doses. It is also made clear in the series that the government helps the extremist groups who hunt Twilights.
Architecture, be it the interior, exterior or city planning, regulates our lives and the way we interact. To quote Richard Sennett:
This desire to free the body from resistance is coupled with the fear of touching, a fear made evident in modern urban design. In siting highways, for instance, planners will often direct the river of traffic so as to seal off a residential community from a business district or run the river through residential areas to separate rich and poor sections or ethnically divergent sections. In community development, planners will concentrate on building schools or housing at the center of the community rather than at its edge where people might come into contact with outsiders. More and more, the fenced, gated, and guarded planned community is sold to buyers as the very image of the good life. It is thus perhaps not surprising that, in a study of the suburb near the mall where we saw the war film, the sociologist M. P. Baumgartner found “on a day-by-day basis, life is filled with efforts to deny, minimize, contain, and avoid conflict. People shun confrontations and show great distaste for the pursuit of grievances or the censure of wrongdoing.” Through the sense of touch, we risk feeling something or someone as alien. Our technology permits us to avoid that risk.4
The wall imagery and the idea of division and quarantining have been used frequently in fiction as a way of either keeping ‘the other’ out or isolating them in a certain area, and “what was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on, “5. It’s no different for Gangsta. I wrote a whole paragraph speculating on whether the ‘gates’ imply a wall and whether this wall encircles Ergastulum or where the Normals reside, relating it to Ancient Rome city walls. However, while I was taking screenshots I noticed that it was indeed Ergastulum that had walls surrounding the city and these gates were entrances, guarded by soldiers. It is shown only once and for a split second though, no wonder I couldn’t catch it. Saved myself the embarrassment there.
Although it’s true that the anime adaptation ends very abruptly, I hear nothing but praises about the manga and I’m very excited that I can easily get my hands on the physical copies. As I mentioned above, Gangsta. doesn’t take its subject lightly and it’s not just another ‘the enemy within’ story either. Twilights are indeed a poorly treated minority group, but even within them women and kids are more vulnerable than men. They do have The Three-Laws concerning Twilights that are derived from the Robotics Law in science fiction.
- They can’t intentionally kill humans.
- They have to obey the orders coming from a Normal, unless it doesn’t conflict with the first law.
- They have the right to defend themselves, so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two laws.
This should bring a peace of mind, in theory, to Twilights but it’s clear as day that they don’t believe that laws will protect them, especially since Nic is very vocal about his disbelief. From their living conditions to healthcare to the very limited options of jobs that are available are all handled well in my opinion. My next post focuses more on the interpersonal, especially Nic and Worick’s dynamic and how they are linked in their scars and trauma. As always, thank you for stopping by, and see you next time ~
1 Walls and City Gates of Rome
2 Origin and Use of Roman Engineering
3 A very thorough presentation on Traditional Mediterranean Architecture
4 Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, 1996 (I’ve read this book with great joy, very interesting and insightful.)
5 Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed, 1974