The Winter 2017 Anime Preview Guide ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept.
How would you rate episode 1 of
ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. ?
What is this?
The Dowa kingdom is a unique republic made up of thirteen member districts. Though each of these districts are somewhat autonomous, they all tip their hats to the ACCA organization, whose Inspection Department is tasked with making sure all the districts of Dowa are running efficiently and legally. Jean Otus is the vice-chair of the capital's own inspection department, and thus often finds himself running over audits and surveying the work of his subordinates. Jean's work is tedious and seemingly pointless, but he may find himself running into more excitement than he bargained for soon. Beneath the sunny face of Dowa, an age of turmoil is brewing. ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. is based on a manga and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Tuesdays at 11:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
The first episode of ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. mostly serves to ease us into the mechanisms and atmosphere of its world, which already feels unusually tangible. A lot of time is dedicated to seemingly minor things, such as who shops where for lunch and why, but many of these little details combined create a lovely sense of place that enables us to take part in protagonist Jean's everyday life, feel the wind with him on his rooftop, or the soft evening breeze on a hill overlooking the rural landscape.
So far, less time is dedicated to more than an inkling of actual plot, which might turn away viewers already skeptic about the premise. We meet Jean Otus, vice-chairman of ACCA's inspection department, who excels at a job he himself considers obsolete. We witness him expose corruption on a local scale while apparently, there are much bigger things amiss in this oh-so-peaceful world.
Adult people doing bureaucracy hardly sells itself on its own, but at least ACCA has an impressive staff pedigree to build expectations on. Natsume Ono's trademark droopy-eyed characters are recognizable for fans and non-fans alike, and they're capable of a lot of subtle expressions that are a delight to pause on and study. While ACCA's animation isn't as jaw-dropping as certain scenes of some of director Shingo Natsume's other recent works, the show is nonetheless very pretty to look at, with beautiful watercolored backgrounds, a stylish OP and wonderfully sketchy ED.
Sadly, easing us into the world doesn't go quite as smoothly on the audio side. Some expository monologuing is painfully on-the-nose, with characters being briefed on a job they've been doing for years feeling particularly forced.
Expositioning doesn't get any better in Funimation's English dub, which premiered this week. That aside, the dub is looking to be a very competent effort that captures the characters well. Some things work better in Japanese, such as the rapid swings between the show's general subdued tone and over-excitement in the face of culinary delights among Jean's co-workers. Austin Tindle's Jean sounds more outwardly bored than Hiro Shimono, who always seems to have an almost inaudible bemusement hidden beneath his indifference. This can make Jean appear more rude towards others in English, which is also due to subtle changes in his lines. Where he simply repeats a line of his superior after being briefed on the new audit schedule in Japanese, he comments with an ironic “this is gonna be fun” in English. This also changes the meaning of the scene, as Jean is no longer wondering why the schedule has been tightened (as his Japanese line suggested), making him seem less aware of any possible plotting already going on behind the scenes.
These small reservations aside, ACCA's dub is easily recommendable alongside Crunchyroll's simulcast of the show for viewers interested in a more mature title with a very distinct visual personality.
As a manga adaptation, ACCA's got an interesting push and pull of things working for and against it. On the positive side, Natsume Ono's character designs are one-of-a-kind, brought to life beautifully by director Shingo Natsume's team at Madhouse. They might not be to everyone's tastes, but I love the droopy-eyed lanky fellers that Ono draws, and ACCA's production is solid enough to give these potentially hard-to-animate faces some fantastically subtle expression work, while the world around them exudes a tangible quality that gives a smell and feel to every venue, whether it's the windy rooftop where our protagonist goes to smoke or the quiet apartment where he spreads jam over crisp toast. It's a handsome show with a terrific sense of color design, and it's tons of fun just to look at, with an added bonus if you're a fan who fancies the older gentlemen rather than teenage bishounen. (Not that its main characters are literally middle-aged, but Ono's designs definitely evoke a sense of distinguishment that skews older than most man-candy.)
On the negative side, ACCA strikes me as almost too slavish an adaptation up front. I haven't read its source manga, but it's immediately apparent that this show doesn't have the most accessible premise in the world, and this first episode unfortunately doubles down on that potential weakness by conveying almost everything in bulky monologues and forced exposition. (There's more than a few "as you know" conversations between parties who both already know everything they're awkwardly stating out loud, and the first of these literally begins with the phrase "as you know.") The editing is also pretty passive and blandly imitant of manga pacing; I can tell exactly where the chapter breaks occur in the source material, and they aren't directly labeled in this show like they are in March comes in like a lion. It's not poorly written by any means, the show's clearly playing with several interesting ideas and complex characters, but it's just a little too flat to make a strong first impression.
For a story that will doubtless be more of a character study overall, most of ACCA's first episode is taken up with explaining how regulatory agencies work in this extremely (almost suspiciously) peaceful fictional country. The execution is at once both whimsical and mundane, both immersive in its unique concepts and unengaging in its lackadaisical execution. So it's a character piece that spends its entire first episode setting up the plot, which leaves me unsure of what to grab onto going forward. I don't know much about the protagonist except that he's both hypercompetent at his job and slipping into ennui over it. It's the kind of start that I'm not even comfortable giving a number rating to because I feel like I need more episodes to even know what I'm watching. There could be a lot of potential here (that's good!) but the show may have wasted its chance to grab a significant audience by starting off too lukewarm (that's bad!).
If you're interested in a thoughtful character piece for adults in an unusually complex world of bureaucratic tomfoolery, ACCA might have the chops to be something special, but it's definitely starting out with more prestige than passion, and I wanna know more what kind of "oomph" this story is packing under the surface before I can get too excited.
A clever but inscrutable protagonist surrounded by suspicious characters, traveling around an American-ish setting while something sinister lurks behind an uneasy peace? Looks like someone's been reading Cold War spy thrillers. If you take away the cell phones and video calls (and perhaps the ostentatious black uniforms), the first episode of ACCA feels very much like an old-school tale of international intrigue. Stories like this are often slow to get going, and this episode offers far more questions than answers. If nothing else, it's an interesting shift in tone from much of what we've seen from this season so far.
Despite the slow pacing, this is a fairly busy first episode. It introduces us to the show's fictional country and the government that runs it, seen mostly through the lens of Jean's work as an inspector. It's a nice way to set the scene in a series like this, as it gives an attentive viewer plenty of information without resorting to overbearing narration or stilted “as you know” dialogue. But while we get plenty of exposition, this episode is actually fairly light on information about the story we're being asked to follow. We know there's some kind of power struggle going on behind the scenes, but that's about it.
Jean himself is also something of a closed book, which is very much in keeping with espionage thriller tradition. He's smart enough to be bored by his current job, and wary enough to catch on quickly when he's being followed. On the other hand, we're given very little to go on as far as his own goals or ambitions are concerned. I'm guessing, or perhaps hoping, that we'll learn more about him once he finds some real problems to deal with. For the time being, he's simply too guarded to forge much of an emotional connection with the audience. I like him well enough, I'm just not sure I care about what happens to him yet.
For all its visual style and atmospheric music, I also can't shake the feeling that ACCA is trying a little too hard to be cool. It has all the right elements and they're all more or less in the right place, but it's not yet clear why all of these pieces have been assembled. If there were a more tangible theme or idea driving all this brooding drama, I'd be much more eager to jump on the bandwagon. While I like what I've seen so far, my instincts are telling me not to get too excited until ACCA puts a few more of its cards on the table. For now, I'm sitting on the “cautious” end of the cautiously optimistic spectrum.
ACCA is based on a completed seinen manga created by Natsume Ono, the same mind behind House of Five Leaves and Ristorante Paradiso. As a result, it definitely skews towards older audiences even while having some nods to more typical anime conventions in the goofy (and atonal) behavior of some of the protagonist's fellow Inspection Bureau members. This is, in all, a more mature, almost spy-styled story focused entirely on adult characters doing mundane adult things.
Or is what's going on so mundane? The first episode gives a definite vibe that all is not as peaceful as what it may appear to be. There are hints being dropped everywhere that something big is going on, whether it be the rash of arsons, the sudden change against terminating an Inspection Bureau that's largely irrelevant beyond occasionally catching corruption, or comment made about how the Inspection Bureau would be the first to catch wind of rising unrest if there was any. Comments like the latter are rarely innocent ones in storytelling, and mention of a possible coup d'etat plan in the final scene, combined with a jealous local officer apparently planning to use Jean's lighter to implicate him in an arson, suggest that he's on the cusp of something big and just doesn't know it yet. Perhaps his superiors are having him watched because of how perceptive he's proven to be on catching schemes? Whatever the actual case is, there's a lot of story potential here, and this should be a good title for anyone who appreciates a healthy dose of complex scheming in their anime.
The series is also very distinctive on the production end. Its character design aesthetics are so reminiscent of adaptations of Ono's other works that you could figure that all three came from the same original artist even without looking it up. (To me the visual effect looks somewhat like a cross between classic shojo style and One Piece, and I'm not intending that as a compliment.) The series also seem to have this weird fascination with moustaches, including some cases where the character looks like a woman trying to pass for a man by wearing a full moustache. The inclination towards flowing locks even for older men is also a bit weird. These details and the comical behavior of supporting Inspection Bureau members are incongruous with the overall tone of the content to a distracting degree, and that's without bringing up how the continent map shown in the opening scene is exactly shaped like a bird, something I would expect more from a far less serious series. A more consistent jazz-infused musical score helps make up for all of that, though.
So if you're looking for more mature fare this season then this may be your ticket. I will remain only cautiously optimistic about the title until I see if the tonal disparities continue.
ACCA feels like it's gearing up to something much bigger than this first episode. This almost lazily paced episode introduces us to the strangely bird-shaped nation of Dowa, where the king has just celebrated his 99th birthday and no one can remember the last time there was any conflict in the kingdom. The government is beginning to think that maybe the Inspection Department isn't so necessary anymore…Or are they? There's a strange undercurrent here that's tied up in a government that seems interested in political pissing contests. The ACCA is apparently headed by five Officers with differing opinions on what's needed, and some of that appears to revolve around suspicion of Jean Otus, the main character. (That's “Gene” in pronunciation, despite the French spelling.) Jean and his sister Lotta live in a fancy apartment building in a ritzy part of town, and Jean has a very expensive smoking habit, which definitely creates suspicion among the others. We know that his family manages the building; to everyone else, he seems like a rich boy slumming it in the bureau.
At this point it isn't clear how many detractors Jean has, and most of his supporters seem to be his subordinates, as well as a mysterious figure named Nino. Just who Nino is will apparently become clear next week, which is what makes me think that we've barely scratched the surface of what's actually going on in this show. Presumably there have been a lot of small hints dropped as well that we'll come to understand going forward. I'm highly suspicious of Mauve, the indigo-tressed woman who coincidentally shows up to conduct and audit at the same time and place as Jean (her mother had naturally blowy hair), and of whom everyone seems at odds with her, but is passing it off as respect. There are a lot of layers here; how long it takes to unpack them will likely determine how much of a hold on viewers’ attention this will be able to maintain. If it continues at this pace, it really stands to lose some, because there were about four places where I was convinced the episode had ended only to have it keep going.
The art also risks turning some people off, as Natsume Ono's droopy and rail-thin artwork doesn't translate particularly well in this case. (For a chance to see it work, check out House of Five Leaves.) There are a lot of scenes where it looks far too simplified as well, which doesn't help. The opening and ending themes are nice surprises, with the opening having a jazzy feel that helps with the implication that there's more going on here. The ending theme, scenes of a woman dancing in sketchy animation, is wonderful, not because it looks so good, but because it feels so free – she's not dancing professionally or beautifully, she's dancing out her emotions. It's what dance feels like when it takes hold of your feet, and if nothing else, it's what makes me think that maybe this show is worth giving another episode.
“A character drama about bureaucracy in a made-up country” sure doesn't sound like the most thrilling premise for a show. And ACCA seems to understand that - this first episode is evenly split between portraying the humdrum daily routine of inspector Jean's life and imbuing that life with a sense of captivating style. In this first episode, Jean conducts an inspection of an agriculture-focused district that hinges on him noticing a five minute discrepancy in the delivery time of a minor daily report. That discrepancy ultimately leads to him sniffing out a few agents complicit in tobacco smuggling, before he returns home and begins a series of territorial audits.
All of these events hammer in how Jean is both good at his job and supremely bored by it. He likes the individuality of the districts, and thinks his own division doesn't really need to exist. His coworkers celebrate the ten o'clock bell with regular snacktimes, and Jean himself is happy to clock out at four to go drinking with friends. But ACCA's mundane narrative movements hide some very strong, understated worldbuilding, along with great hints of future conflict.
First off, the base nature of the Dowa kingdom is sold remarkably well across this episode. By focusing on the most routine elements of this world's bureaucracy, ACCA is able to sell it at as a living place through our natural familiarity with these sorts of systems. There's a small bit of direct exposition early on, but most of this episode presents the reality of life in this world and the fault lines in Dowa's government at the pace the characters experience them. The winding storytelling also enforces this sense of a lived reality - we experience this world not at the pace of narrative drama, but at the pace Jean lives through it. And because Dowa and the people within it seem real, this episode's building hints of drama to come actually feel enticing, because we're already sold on the world as it is.
It also helps that ACCA has a wonderful sense of style. The show seems determined to come off as effortlessly cool, and while I can't say it succeeds on the “effortless” part, it certainly is cool. Classic tics like Jean's cigarette holder aside, the show's character designs have a natural grace to them born of original creator Natsume Ono's consistently great designs. The show's animation is limited, and some of the many shots in the show's various office environments can feel a little flat, but all of the exterior scenes are blessed with wonderful watercolor backgrounds (no surprise there, given art director Seiko Yoshioka is a veteran of the terrific Studio Pablo). The direction is also strong - carrying over from his work on Space Dandy and One Punch Man, director Shingo Natsume brings a sense of dynamic energy to Jean's travels through stark angular layouts and shots framed to create a sense of depth in the environment. And that's before we get to the excellent, funk-heavy soundtrack.
Overall, ACCA presents one of the most promising premieres of the season so far. I like the show's slow pacing, I like the way it's establishing its world, and I like basically all of its aesthetic choices. ACCA's very understated approach to worldbuilding makes me feel far more invested in its drama than a show which starts mid-turmoil. Dowa and Jean already feel real, and I'm eager to see where this story takes them.
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