What’s it about? Jean Otus and his younger sister live in an apartment building she manages as part of their family’s business, while Jean goes out to work as a federal inspector. On hearing the announcement that his department will soon close down, he goes on one last business trip to check the records in a branch office of ACCA, the organisation running essential services for the 13 districts it covers in the Dowa Kingdom.
My reaction at the end of this episode was “I have no idea what it’s about, but I like it!” So I went back and rewatched it to figure out what was going on, paying particular attention to the bits I zoned out through because they were the dialogue equivalent of a wall of text.
So we can have a proper conversation about it, here’s what I picked up.
In the show’s own words:
“The Dowa Kingdom is a federation comprising 13 autonomous districts. ACCA was created as an entity, independent of the state, with various agencies that are vital to our citizens’ lives. These include police and fire departments, and medical services. ACCA has allowed each district branch to operate autonomously, as well. We, at ACCA headquarters, have been tasked with the oversight of the 13 branches for many years. And for what reason was your Inspection Department created at headquarters? To monitor the day-to-day operations at each branch. Approximately one-hundred years ago, when we were politically unstable, your Inspection Department was created to monitor the outlying districts. Members of your department were stationed at each ACCA branch to oversee data output on a daily basis. Further, senior officials also conducted random audits. The Inspection Department’s raison d’etre was rooted in times of chaotic instability.”
Like I said, wall of text. My eyes glazed over through most of this first time around.
The elite Five Chief Officers in charge of ACCA discuss the decision to close the Inspection Department. They are somewhat divided, but it is taken as a budget measure since its purpose – to detect early signs of unrest – is no longer suited to a stable political climate. At this point, ACCA HQ needs to show trust in the 13 distinct districts it oversees, not scrutiny. However, later on we learn that things could change very soon as fears emerge of a coup d’etat. It’s all sounding a bit Hunger Games, and far more intriguing than a show about bureaucracy and auditing should be.
To add to the intrigue, consummate professional Jean has actually tried to transfer to a different department a number of times. Even though the Inspection Department has long been considered a fossil, his requests have never been granted. Apparently someone wants him keeping an eye on ACCA departments – or wants to be able to easily keep an eye on him.
Even though these plot elements didn’t really sink in the first time around, I was still engrossed to the end and enjoyed my rewatch even more than the first time through. The pace is slow and the direction a mystery for now, but the storytelling feels assured and deliberate. It gave me every confidence – founded or otherwise – that there is an interesting and carefully planned story ahead. I wish they had frontloaded less detail, thinned out some of the info-dump and woven that background in more naturally over the next few episodes in order to make this first episode more accessible. I wonder how many will be put off by the density of it.
I also wonder how people will respond to the style, which I found completely entrancing but suspect may be polarising. I love the look of old anime, like 1970s old, and the aesthetics reminded me of Leiji Matsumoto and Lupin III. However, it is significantly more down-to-earth and understated. A quiet smoke on a rooftop, a side trip to a bakery, a unique lighter design – the show is full of these unassuming details. They nudge what could be a straightforward story into a meander, making it feel less like an anime and more like a novel. I don’t know how explain it, except to say that this show has charisma.
Okay, that’s why I would recommend the show as a show. Now let’s talk feminist merit.
There are two tiers of women in ACCA. The lower tier appear to be akin to OLs (‘office ladies’), and you can identify them by their cartoony comedy overreactions. Also, they wear skirts and they don’t have names. Their main job seems to be rotating who brings in the daily 10 o’clock snack for everyone. They are devastated by the thought that they might not be able to work together again. The patient men stand around smiling while the women emote.
The upper tier of women wear trousers and have both names and jobs. They take part in serious conversations with Jean. They are ambitious, and will no doubt be important going forward. In this tier is Mauve, Director-General of ACCA. Having a woman in the top job does help to offset the gender imbalance, but all of the Five Officers of ACCA are men, Jean, his boss and his second-in-command are all men and of the four women in his team three are so far nameless comic relief. The gap between the two tiers may be narrowed by one of these women, supervisor Eider, returning to HQ to work in the team, but it’s not a great start.
However, ACCA easily clears the low bar for women’s treatment in workplace anime. The option between knee length skirts and trousers aside, the women’s uniforms are identical to the men’s. There is a small amount of body diversity and no enormo-boobs in sight. The camera never sexualises any of the women, and neither do any of the characters. A handful of cartoony moments with the comic relief women aside, this is a pretty neutral stage on which you could tell some pretty feminist stories.
Frankly, the gender imbalance in ACCA probably reflects the gender imbalance of professional women in most organisations, particularly in Japan, and you could make the argument in favour of representing reality over the ideal. Eider looks up to Jean, and may be the ambitious character in between the OLs and Mauve telling a story of the difficulty of upward mobility for professional women. Mauve may well represent a new order where the Five Officers represent tradition, taking action to shake up the status quo for the better. The point is that the way ACCA treats female characters, stories like this are not ruled out.
There’s room for improvement, but this is a strong start to a series that won’t be for everyone. I would feel comfortable recommending this to feminist friends, particularly those who like calm mystery stories. Jean is not a private eye or a gunslinger or a secret agent; he’s a softly-spoken bureaucrat who lives with his sister. This episode raises questions about why certain people seem to dislike him, why others seem to champion his work, why he is able to afford to smoke so many luxury cigarettes, and more. I look forward to finding out all the answers and seeing this story develop, even if I need to rewatch every episode to get the most out of them.