Winter 2022 was stuffed to bursting with more banger anime than any person could reasonably watch. The obvious heavy hitters got their time to shine: Attack on Titan is the biggest show in the world, Demon Slayer redefined how good TV anime can look, and My Dress-Up Darling’s Marin Kitagawa is in the fight of her life with Spy x Family’s Yor Forger for Best Girl of the Year.
I really enjoyed shows like Salaryman’s Club and the second season of The Case Study of Vanitas, while I tolerated the fall from grace of once potentially peak fiction Sabikui Bisco. Then for laughs, I watched crap like Orient or Requiem of the Rose King fail to get off the ground, even as my favorite anime of the last season got ignored.
With fewer than 50,000 viewers on MAL and a score of 6.37 as of writing this, I feel like I’ve gone crazy, but Tokyo 24th Ward is brilliant. I don’t even like using MAL as a reference, but no one I know is talking about the show, and that doesn’t make sense. In a perfect world, an original anime from Cloverworks and long-time JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure director Naokatsu Tsuda would be doing numbers in the anime community; instead, it barely made a splash and disappeared.
But allow me to make myself clear; Tokyo 24th Ward isn’t good, it’s phenomenal. It’s one of the best-written anime of the last few years, executes several tremendously difficult concepts, and wraps it in a satisfying, character-driven story. I’m not crazy, everyone else is for not watching it in the first place.
So I’m more than happy to die on this particular hill. I’ll make my case, and by the end you’ll be asking too why you haven’t watched Tokyo 24th Ward.
Tokyo 24th Ward first grabbed my attention because I love to hear about projects like this. Original anime lack the same built-in fanbase of manga and light novel adaptations, so they have to be passion products, and with names like Tsuda attached, I was intrigued. I had no information to go off of, but hey, that’s what reviewers are for, and I don’t let initial audience reaction get to me. I mean, the anime community hyped up Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie, and then turned on that masterpiece the next week, so I will not trust these Philistines.
After the second world war, a special administrative region in Tokyo Bay was created outside of the Japanese government’s jurisdiction, like a Japanese Hong Kong. The 24th Ward is a haven of technological advancements and quality of life thanks to the Hazard Cast, a system of surveillance cameras and information processing that eliminates crime before it happens. The ward is drawing closer to the day they’re formally integrated into Japan, and tensions run high as advocates of the system attempt to prove its validity before that day comes.
But Aoi Shuta doesn’t care much about the Hazard Cast, and he shouldn’t have much to do with the overarching plot. He spends his free time after graduating high school kicking around his hometown feeling useless (vibe, though). Growing up, he only ever wanted to be a hero, spurred on by his friends Ran and Kouki, known as RGB collectively for their hair, and Kouki’s sister Asumi. However, a year prior, Asumi perished in a fire, for which he blames himself.
Shu’s just drifting through life, away from his friends. He’s forced back to confront what he went through on the anniversary of the fire, and after the memorial reunites RGB, they receive a phone call from Asumi. The dead girl’s voice offers a vision of their friend Mari, about to be struck by a train, and the three boys are given the choice to either save her by derailing the train, or let her die to protect the passengers who would die in the derailment.
This literal trolley problem gets a shake-up in the form of Asumi’s interference majorly buffing RGB’s natural abilities. Shu’s athleticism becomes superhuman feats of strength. Ran’s tech wizardry evolves into hacking the city’s elite tech with ease. Kouki’s charisma ramps up to convince important people that a disaster is imminent and how to avert it. Thanks to their enhanced skills and coordination, they save both Mari and the passengers.
If only every trolley problem were so easy. Asumi’s death is now in question as the calls keep coming, and RGB is about to learn that not every dilemma is so simple as refusing to make a choice. They’re going to grapple with the ever-encroaching security state they live in, how it pushes out those living in the margins of society, what they can do to fight that, and what they should do to fight that. Tokyo 24th Ward wears its politics on its sleeve, in the best sort of way.
The discourse around politics in media, especially anime, has always been a dumpster fire. Obviously, not every anime is and should be political; sometimes media exists to entertain or comfort, and political media is not known for its relaxing qualities. However, people who say “get politics out of my anime” usually go on to say they love Death Note and Fullmetal Alchemist.
People don’t dislike politics and social commentary in anime; the most popular anime in the world is Attack on Titan. Rather, these people confuse political themes in anime with anime that’s preachy. There are ways to present inherently political, social, and cultural concepts without being self-righteous or aggrandizing.
I never got to talk about The Northman because it’s out of my otaku niche, but I loved it. It’s a grand story with profound themes on war, revenge, and tribalism, but it never felt like the creators expected me to have one takeaway, or that any character within the story is somehow wrong or their beliefs are illegitimate. The characters all have strong convictions that were molded by their backgrounds and experiences, and if you believe one or the other is wrong, that’s your valid interpretation. Each is a different way to live, and the person living that life has to make the decision for themselves.
Tokyo 24th Ward navigates the precarious valley of offering two conflicting sides without granting one undue credit, primarily through its use of tritagonists. Ran is an activist and a ruffian, a graffiti artist who bends rules because self-expression is tantamount to what he sees as human. Kouki lost his mother and sister in disasters that could have been avoided, so he’d gladly sacrifice his privacy to keep people safe. Shuta represents the common ground between them; he feels Asumi’s loss keenly like Kouki, but he sees that it isn’t easy living a life inside the lines, as Ran and his friends do.
The slums of Shantytown are a frequent setting, where the poorest citizens of the 24th Ward are losing their homes due to gentrification, and the rampant crime is only worsened by a lack of access to Hazard Cast. Shantytown is an objectively terrible place to live, but it’s no wonder they resist the elite police force SARG trespassing in their neighborhood, or the suffocating Hazard Cast. To contrast, the rest of the 24th Ward is comfortable, but insulated from outsides, and insiders like Kouki’s connected family struggle to wrap their heads around why anyone would live outside the fence after his mayor father already closed the gate.
And the series tackles more than gentrification. You’d think class struggle with a background of future tech would fill the runtime nicely, but the writing is incredibly thorough. Consider Ran’s friend Kunai, who develops an app to monitor brain waves and vitals to to provide feedback and stimulate the user’s health. This novel idea is extrapolated into commentary on drug use and its policing when a morally bankrupt businessman buys the app and tweaks it to become a euphoric and addictive druglike experience.
Kunai was trying to uplift fellow citizens of Shantytown, but when he was offered the money and means to make his home accessible to his grandmother, he was left with little choice. When he realizes what they’ve done, he devises a plan that becomes the center of another trolley problem: force Ran to kill his friend, or allow him to kill dozens in a terrorist attack aboard that businessman’s yacht party…this series is smart, but rarely subtle.
The fact of the matter, though, is that it’s not easy integrating politics into your story. By trying to tackle issues of the day, you wind up dating your themes and reducing its accessibility to people who don’t watch it when it first aired. By arguing one way, the internet has all but guaranteed you will alienate one group or another; it’s almost a matter of choosing which groups to alienate, rather than to not do it at all.
I’d argue it’s wiser to choose your theme as “compromising between extremes”, which Tokyo 24th Ward proves as the safest course. The alternatives of telling people they should give up their privacy or allow preventable deaths to occur are…less than desirable. Even so, you also run the risk of embracing both side’s worst aspects, while not necessarily implementing any of their positives.
To provide a complex view of multiple complex issues, the trolley problems offer different angles to either challenge or affirm a character’s pre-existing beliefs. I won’t spoil any of the conclusions to these conflicts, but the writing doesn’t play favorites. RGB may initially succeed in choosing to not choose, but they don’t always have the luxury.
Sometimes Shuta’s apolitical optimism comes across as bullheaded obstinance. Sometimes Ran or Kouki make the call in spite of what the others want. Sometimes RGB unites, but they act recklessly and lose everything as a result. These hardships temper RGB’s judgment and tests their friendship, leading into a final fight as to determine the fate of the 24th Ward and Asumi herself, in one form or another.
I’m not entirely satisfied with the ending, truth be told, but that may have been unavoidable. It would have benefited from a longer runtime, though I understand that may have not been in the cards; while 13-episode seasons aren’t uncommon, the first episode was double-length, so the demands of broadcast television may have superseded what would have suited the story.
If they’d had that extra episode, or even a little more time, they could have wrapped up the loose ends better and given each development more space to breathe. I remember checking the amount of time left every minute or so, stressing that there was no way for them to clean this all up. Maybe the Blu-Ray fixed it, but I’m speaking purely from the series as it aired.
Despite that, Tokyo 24th Ward managed its ending competently, and a good ending to a great anime is pretty darn nice. It doesn’t ultimately say that Ran or Kouki were wrong, but that they needed to pull the log from their own ideology before wiping the speck from the other’s. They manage to find middle ground by focusing on what they have in common; they loved Asumi, still do, and want to do right by her. It’s by prioritizing our loved ones that we succeed, not by clinging to static ideas of what the world should be.
In my review, I called Shu an apolitical everyman, almost a plot device, but that wasn’t completely accurate. He’s more like an ideal for Kouki and Ran to strive for. He doesn’t lose sight of what’s important, and the only thing that shakes him is failing to protect the people he cares about. Sue me, I like morally upright characters who hold to their values in a world changing around them.
In short, Tokyo 24th Ward is an intelligent yet compassionate approach to social issues. It acknowledges that while our backgrounds inform our beliefs, they aren’t an excuse to change. The world is complicated, and while we shouldn’t bend our values for the sake of that world, our solutions should not be so rigid that they break.
So, please, watch Tokyo 24th Ward. If I get even a couple of people to appreciate this banger because of this essay, I’ll be happy. Give me more anime like this, for all you anime producers reading this. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Make Tokyo 25th Ward, you cowards.
I still refuse to use lame descriptions for anime like underrated, but this is a show that just needs more love. It’s only underrated in the sense that its rate is quite literally under what it should be. 6.37? Are you the same people who gave Steins;Gate a 9.08? Cretins.
When you watch Tokyo 24th Ward, I hope you will not be disappointed. I think it’ll be a pretty good binge, considering how good it was watching it weekly. I didn’t actually spoil that much, particularly because it’s all in the execution, so feel free to tell me I was right in the comments or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.