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Tokyo 24th Ward Episode 1-3 Review

Some fiction out there that succeeds at feeling cerebral or provoking through its use of thought experiments: Get the audience considering a logistical or ethical dilemma and getting engaged in how the characters in the story seek a solution. It can be an incisive way to approach a plot that a writer wants to use to make statements, to illustrate ideas about our world. It is also a much harder, more complex exercise than all that esotericism might suggest. Writers need to balance the effort of setting up those thought experiments with developing characters and plotlines they can enjoyably occupy. At the intersection of those efforts, we find ourselves here in the Tokyo 24th Ward, as the audience and the characters stare down the potential oncoming train that is this show’s weighty ambition.

The first double-length episode of Tokyo 24th Ward was an affair that was clunky, but buoyed by a lot of effort to its charms. It was able to take its time (some would say too much of it) easing us into its speculative setting housing the old-friends characters it was pushing back together to carry out its plot. And if its climactic deployment of the Actual Trolley Problem was hilariously on-the-nose, it at least made a bold statement about the kinds of questions this show would be asking us for its run. Also, I think I’m just happy that anime finally found a new illustrative paradox to utilize after so many years of Schrödinger’s Cat. Looking forward to a cameo by the Ship of Theseus this season. But much like the intersecting skills of the RGB trio that came together to stop that tragic train accident, the myriad components of Tokyo 24th Ward seemed to be converging in a way that might make for interesting watching moving forward.

That makes it just a bit jarring when the storytelling only gets more disparate in the following episodes of the show. While that first hour-long storyline was firmly rooted in building up to the climax involving the Really Useless Engine, the second and third episodes devote 75% of their runtime to a corrupt outside organization’s attempts to buy out real estate in the Ward by rigging a food festival. Part of this is to provide a comparatively calmer atmosphere to check in on all the established characters and get a handle on some of their feelings and motivations without a major disaster bearing down on them. But it still feels like a step down to go from an overt conceptual metaphor that utilizes the cool-looking new superpowers the boys get via ghost phone calls to something that feels more at home in a mid-range Nickelodeon sitcom. All the dragging out of the intense drama surrounding this taco truck throwdown is resolved in a couple of laughably pedestrian ways, before a tornado pops up out of nowhere in the last fifteen minutes to theoretically put a conceptual capstone on all that energy we just saw expended.

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The problem here is a lack of connective tissue between the thematic parts of the story and the actual beats we see acted out. The first episode’s train plot was rooted in the overarching idea of creeping corporatization and automation of infrastructure in a previously-independent zone like the 24th Ward, illustrating those anxieties and showing how the convergent abilities of the RGB boys could work to mitigate them. But the conflict of the big chili cookoff here is at the behest of simple outside agitators — Mustache-twirling villains seemingly present to provide theme-light antagonism as a framing device. It turns the incidentalism of the problem into a distraction, especially when the RGB team’s input is barely required to actually resolve any of the hilariously low-stakes issues that arise because of it, nor does it seem to factor into the broader lessons they learn for approaching forthcoming threats by the end of the third episode. And that’s without getting into how light those conceptual exercises turn out to be. Three episodes in, and the main characters have only been confronted with a couple different variations on that trolley problem (the second thankfully less hilariously literal), with the takeaways being “We can make this work if we use our powers together” and “We are going to screw up if we don’t coordinate using our powers better”. These are hardly on the level of profound revelations you’d want to arrive at in having these sociologically stimulating discussions.

It means the supreme irony of Tokyo 24th Ward is that it’s at its most enjoyable when it’s not trying to focus on its grand conceptual experiments. The central RGB trio of Shuta, Ran, and Koki make for an effectively-balanced crew, what with their representations of physicality, artistry, and intelligence. There’s a believability to the fractured state of their friendship in the wake of Asumi’s death, and how the flashbacks with her make clear the way they basically needed a guiding force of some sort to unite and direct their abilities effectively. The second episode is at its best when it’s letting us also get to know Mari as she goes around interacting with the boys, provoking those flashbacks and also informing her own feelings on the connection to the group. If the show wanted to focus on the more grounded efforts of these kids choosing between the Law and Chaos factions as the best method to steel their home against cultural assimilation, it might actually work better. But instead it’s saddled itself with the need to try to illustrate Big Questions. And that’s without even getting into SARG, the Minority Report/Psycho-Pass-style setup that oddly hasn’t been all that relevant so far. When you’re playing with heavy ideas like that, you can see why spending an episode and a half on the okonomiyaki place not being able to get their special cabbage for the cook-off might feel a bit undercut.

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Another caveat is also actually one of the show’s current strengths: It does look pretty good…for now. The settings and the characters populating them pop with designs full of color (I mean, the main characters are straight-up nicknamed ‘RGB’), and when the action gets going there’s plenty of dynamism and artistry to it. Just check out the way Shu moves in that first episode, and you’re basically in for a treat any time someone’s onscreen making okonomiyaki. But issues involving reported understaffing on this production at CloverWorks (and just the general crunch in anime these days) is causing concern that you can already justify from looking closer at it; Characters will shift and seem unable to settle on-model from shot-to-shot, or some sequences will come off jumbled in their structure. I love anime as a medium, I would never actually wish for a series to ‘melt down’ or fail in any other way. But I watched too many shows I was enthusiastic about shake themselves to death by their end last year, so I can only earnestly hope that Tokyo 24th Ward tempers its aesthetic ambitions, the same way it should consider doing with its thematic ones, lest it be overwhelmed by them. More than any hypothetical trains, those are the real potential scenarios I’m trying to consider in my mind as I watch through this show.

Rating: 3/5 Stars.

Tokyo 24th Ward is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

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