Rarely does a show come along that makes me rethink what I want from a story. Across any number of genres I’m interested in, there is an expectation of how the story will explore “drama. The numerous action shows I watch explore their drama through physical interchange, be it spectacular or grounded in realism.
Even adult dramas with a sparse number of action scenes will present other, more personal forms of violence as well as confrontation through dialog. Slice of life dramas or comedies may have lighter tones, but they may culminate in some dramatic climax where the tone changes.
This week, I’m exploring a show that approaches its story in a far more relaxed manner. It presents its political theater in a captivating way unlike any other show I’ve watched, and made me reassess how I look at what makes a drama “mature.” From director Shingo Natsume and Studio Madhouse, this is ACCA 13 – Territory Inspection Dept.
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In the island kingdom of Dowa, there are 13 states, each one a unique zone with its own traditions, practices, and philosophies. Providing public services to each of these districts is ACCA, the national body that keeps the peace as an intermediary between all of the states. 100 years after a revolt created the necessity for ACCA, the kingdom is at peace.
However, that peace is being tested. The king is growing old and the public is wary of the prince who is next in line. Rumors of a coup d’état are spreading through the government. That’s where Jean Otus comes in. Jean is the second-in-command of the Inspection Department of ACCA. After he uncovers some corruption during an audit, the five Chief Officers decide he’s the best man to investigate the coup.
Jean is assigned to audit all 13 districts to find out more about the coup. Along the way, he crosses paths with headstrong higher-ups, scheming royalty, and plenty of others who want to get him on their side or get rid of him. Suspicions arise at every corner, and everyone has their eyes set on Jean, the one stuck in the middle of a conspiracy that could threaten Dowa’s peace.
Despite how high-stakes the premise sounds, ACCA is one of the most relaxed and aesthetically pleasing political dramas I’ve ever watched. Part of the why is that the setting is a country that has known unprecedented peace and prosperity for a long time. The show relishes in that fact and still manages to create a mystery around it.
The threat is the prospect of that peace going away, but there is no forced tension or a constant state of conflict that would contradict the premise. Thus, a lot of the show is bolstered by a light, chill tone that comfortably sees the protagonist explore the diverse kingdom of Dowa.
Inherent to the idea of the world is that each state was given individuality to make their mark on the nation with their own specialties. Each new audit introduces the viewer to new cultures, new norms, and new industries that stand as the signature of the states in question. The degree and character of these distinctions give the show an almost fantasy feel, despite how modern and grounded it all feels.
The district of Jumoku, for example, is known for its unusually large produce and thusly the natural growth of its citizens, who are much taller and bigger than people from other states. There is also the district of Suitsu, a closed-off part of the nation where technology and communication are limited. Walking through the district is tantamount to traveling back in time, with no phones or cars in sight. And these are just a few examples.
Every time Jean left headquarters on another series of audits, I got excited to see what new lifestyles existed in each district. Some are more explored than others, but the effort that went into making each state unique and feel lived in is clear to see.
Those who watch ACCA joke that it is a show about bread and smoking and that’s not far from the truth. Something that often goes unappreciated is how filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino bring characters together through food. In the same way, a lot of the context surrounding characters’ being together in ACCA is defined by food.
It’s a symbol of the nation’s prosperity and the people’s. Jean’s sister Lotta, young and unaware of the political tensions rising, delights in the cuisine of her home. Jean and his lifelong friend Nino go out drinking. Jean himself is a lover of bread. Bread, especially, is constantly a plot device for drawing people closer together.
Much of the political drama is grounded, believable, and approached with a centered, mature attitude. That said, I would describe the philosophy behind it all to be rather optimistic. The story is very much about coexistence or at least collaboration. ACCA is an organization that facilitates multiple ways of life to thrive under one nation. It’s complicated and filled with bloated systems of bureaucracy, but it’s something worth defending.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not Dowa will become an autocracy under the new king or whether a coup will put ACCA in complete control. Is only one necessary? If a coup happens, will the nation become divided? Does the nation need to have a symbol to look up to in addition to a system that makes it all work?
Having the story told from a third-person perspective allows the tale to keep you guessing, wondering who’s behind the coup. It also makes Jean an even more interesting protagonist. He is a talented and insightful man who is perfect for his line of work, yet he harbors some feelings of fatigue and indifference towards the job early on. He would love to transfer, but his requests keep getting denied, or so he says. Regardless, he takes his job seriously.
Without knowing everything he’s thinking, it’s difficult to ascertain if he’s motivated by personal goals or does what he does out of a sense of duty. It’s an intentional choice that paints him as a suspect in the very mystery he’s tasked with solving. He’s an enigma, but he’s also kind, if a bit reserved. He’s a stellar lead with a lot of style.
He’s also a smoker, something that normally I wouldn’t consider cool outside of the traditional filmic aesthetic of smoking. However, even the context surrounding his smoking is a crucial part of his character. In the kingdom of Dowa, smoking is a rare thing that is a sign of status, immediately giving him a strong presence in the setting.
Frankly, everyone in the cast of ACCA 13 has strong visual presence thanks to the work of character designer Kugai Norifumi and Accessory Designer Kai Ikarashi. They both have taken the already unique designs by Creator Natsume Ono and given them a sleek and colorful look. There is a uniquely adult look to the cast, notably in how tall and sharp their designs are, as well as their attire, an assortment of formal suits and royal regalia, peppered with high fashion when they’re off the clock.
The voice cast compliments the striking impression of the designs well. Hiro Shimono as Jean is emotionally reserved, but the occasional smile never felt overlooked in the vocal performance. Nino, Jean’s mysterious friend, became an instant favorite thanks to the character’s mystique as well as the deep, memorable delivery by Kenjirou Tsuda. Even Mamoru Miyano appears, giving a fitting performance as the occasionally scatter-brained Prince Schwan.
Despite his reputation directing Space Dandy or One Punch Man, I feel that Natsume has a talent for directing slower shows like this. In my recent review of Boogiepop and Others, another show directed by him, I found that the show was killed by a lack of consistent quality and poor planning. However, in its brighter moments, I found myself compelled despite slower pacing. ACCA is a great display of Natsume’s directing strength when he isn’t helming ridiculous or bombastic shows like the ones typically associated with him.
I think it is a testament to how well the experience is composed that when there is an escalation in the threat, later on, it feels that much more effective. It achieves this without feeling too sudden or jarring. ACCA is nothing if not consistent and that is certainly true of the visuals, which impress for the beautiful background art and some occasionally complex character animation.
Composer Ryo Takahashi created a small but oh so sweet soundtrack that has stuck in my brain since finishing the show. The music is a major part of what allows the show’s relaxed approach to storytelling to work. Without major action or a constant build of unease and tension, the show was able to hold my interest. The story is pure intrigue and without the music, I can’t say it would have been as effective.
Storytelling is the art that combines the works of the many into one spectacular project. The importance of the music doesn’t mean the story suffers on its own – not in the slightest. Shows like this remind me that these productions are never the sole work of one director, one animator, or one composer. In a way, the production of this show mirrors the story’s message
This slow-burn tale of intrigue and politics is in itself the product of the very kind of collaboration the story espouses to be essential to society. After the season ended, the follow-up OVA, titled “Regards,” capped everything off with a fitting bow that, looking back, feels even more appropriate in the current state of the world.
The OVA, set a while after the end of the show, opens with the implication of something new on the horizon. Younger members of the cast express concern over the future, either what lies in store for their personal lives or what may occur in the political realm. The message of the episode seems to be one of reassurance, telling those who are concerned not to let the fear of the future consume them.
Given that the original show aired in 2017, and the OVA in question released at the beginning of 2020, a year that has been unforgiving as hell, I find ACCA‘s optimism far more endearing. Having graduated in May, I find myself more uncertain about the future than ever before. It was gratifying then to enjoy a story in which the characters delighted in what joy they had in their lives.
They didn’t ignore the problems around them or that lied ahead. Instead, they worked together to hold onto the peace they were so lucky to attain in the first place. And they did it all while enjoying a smoke, or a slice of bread, or a glass of wine. Because at some point, everyone needs to relax and appreciate what we have. ACCA 13 was food for the soul, and I’ve been starving.
ACCA 13 – Territory Inspection Dept is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll and FunimationNow. It’s also available on Blu-ray through Funimation.
Wow. Another hit from 2017 that was right up my alley that I slept on. Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Leave a comment below letting me know what you thought of ACCA 13 and tell me what other animated dramas are worth checking out.
Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!