What’s it about? Back in middle school, Tokomiya Shun played video games all the time. Now that he’s a second-year in high school, though, he rarely does. Instead, he works as a cook in his friend Nozomi’s LAN cafe, earning money to care for his disabled little sister and mom after his father passed away in an accident. But when the esports team Nozomi’s father manages disbands and the cafe is in danger of shutting down to its debt, it may be time for Shun to get over his trauma and save his and his friend’s livelihood!
As I watched the premiere of Protocol: Rain, I found my thoughts drifting back to Overtake!!, the Formula racing anime I reviewed about a week ago. Not just because Protocol: Rain was pretty stiff and kind of meh and I would rather have been watching the lavishly expressive pretty boys going zoom in their go-karts, though I must confess that was part of it. No, I was thinking about the parallels between the Formula racing and the esports of Protocol: Rain.
The two sports have a few things in common: one is that while they don’t really look like “sports” per se, they both require high levels of reflexes and skill that absolutely qualify them. Another is that while they are not formally gender-segregated, female participants face high barriers to entry and deeply-ingrained sexism that make it hard for them to access the higher competitive levels. However, while Overtake!! seemed generally unconcerned with trying to represent female participants, Protocol: Rain has two prominent female players right up front. Nozomi and Bakuretsu-san play alongside the male characters without their skill ever being questioned once.
There’s a deep undercurrent of misogyny in gaming culture that only intensifies as the skill level increases. In real life, players perceived as female face discrimination, sexual harassment, uncooperative teammates, and other challenges. Protocol: Rain doesn’t touch on any of this in the first episode which, as usual, is something of a double-edged sword. It’s good to see the girl regarded as competent gamers on an equal level to the boys in the room, without anyone balking at their participation. One of the things that perpetuates sexism in esports is a lack of role models for female players, and fictional, animated role models are better than nothing. On the other hand, that means it fails to confront and examine the gender bias ingrained in the field.
I don’t want you to come away from this thinking that Protocol: Rain is a bastion of gender equality. Not even close. When Nozomi is waiting on customers at the cafe, her and Shun’s classmate, Akito, begs her to sit down and play a game with him and his visiting friends. When she refuses, he suggests she think of it as “customer service.” When she serves them their omurice, they ask for her to write on it with ketchup like they’re at a maid cafe. I know they’re old friends and all, but it really reflects how female service workers are expected to perform emotional labor for their customers beyond their actual job description. After all, Akito promises, they may become regulars if she does what they ask! Her job isn’t to play around with the customers and make them feel special, it’s to take their orders and serve them food. You better bet they wouldn’t be asking this of her if she were a boy!
Then there’s the matter of Shun’s little sister, Mio. Shun seems to blame himself for Mio’s paralysis. My bets are that she and his dad got into a car crash in the rain on the way to doing something for him three years ago, which is why he has such severe survivor’s guilt, but it’s funnier to think it was because of a tragic esports accident so I’m going to go with that until proven otherwise. Either way, Shun seems to blame himself, leading him to work himself to the bone even though she really just wants to spend some time with her big brother.
I’m not physically disabled, so I can’t speak definitively about Mio’s portrayal as disability representation; however, to my eye, it seemed pretty mixed. She seemed to be housebound, spending most of her time in bed except when Shun carried her to the table, rather than using mobility devices to navigate the world. She appears content with her lot in life, hanging out at home and watching dramas on her phone, rather than angrily cursing the world for taking away her ability to walk or dwelling on a supposed reduction in the quality of her life. Shun’s self-flagellation is entirely his own doing and comes across clearly as wrongheaded within the narrative. By spending all his time working, he’s treating her condition as a burden and punishment, rather than living life alongside her the best way they can under the circumstances.
So how is Protocol: Rain, outside of the feminist angle? It’s… fine. A mid-tier sports anime like any other, I suppose. The animation is a bit stiff and often slides off-model, but it’s also fun that the in-game footage is actually janky, old-looking CG graphics. I wasn’t exactly clamoring for an anime about people playing Counterstrike or whatever – I really don’t know anything about old shooters, sue me – but if the concept grabs your interest, I say go for it.