Because these ‘Favourite and Forgotten‘ posts are supposed to be about a specific year, in these reviews I’m trying to ground them in that era and compare and contrast them to what else was being produced. Tsukikage Ran was produced by Madhouse and, like basically every other Madhouse anime from this time period, it holds up perfectly. I’m not sure what kind of performance enhancing drugs the folks at Madhouse were taking at this time, but their anime look miles better than absolutely everything else produced, with the possible exceptions of Gainax and Ghibli.
So Tsukikage Ran looks great. It’s about a female samurai and her fellow female martial artist travelling companion in pre-industrial era Japan (Edo period? I’m terrible with the exact dates of these period pieces). It’s a very goofy take on the genre, with everyone acting all cartoony and pulling exaggerated facial expressions and cartoon dust clouds, and the animation plays it suitably free and loose during those areas. However when a fight is going down, suddenly the animation takes this huge jump in quality and every punch and jump and sword swing is meticulously detailed, which makes these scenes far more exhilarating and exciting than the goofy set ups should really allow them to be. I have a sneaking suspicion that they animated the same moves for each fight, but I like the illusion so I never bothered going back to check that. Also the character artwork avoids the issue that plagues other 2000 anime where they don’t do the shading on the face correctly, making it look like they haven’t got any chins. It’s like the 2000 equivalent of noses disappearing in current day anime.
I had Tsukikage Ran described to me as ‘fluff’, and that’s certainly the case. Each episode is a standalone story in which the two lead characters wander into a town in the search of sake and get themselves involved in some sort of local kerfuffle. The stories are usually brain-meltingly black and white. Some kid has gotten themselves involved with the local yakuza in an attempt to earn money for whatever. The head yakuza characters are almost always hilariously slimy evil caricatures. I’m convinced they got the same guy to voice the villain in every single episode, with the same low slimy voice in which he wrung his hands and ate babies using a spork and stuff like that. The reason they’re eating babies and not, say, drinking blood from the caved in skulls of their enemies is because they’re usually totally incompetent losers who get instantly turned over by the main characters when they stroll in, usually just trying to mind their own business.
So it’s not a particularly deep anime, but it works because of how well realised the two lead characters are and how well written their dialogue is. The writing is seriously sharp in this regard, and often caught me off guard with little turns of phrase, such as “that’s not my baby, I’m so pure I make flowers bloom” and other lines like that. I particularly love the hypocrisy the lead samurai girl Ran has when faced with a potential drink of alcohol. She could have her pride shoved into the dirt, the clothes taken off her back, the yazuka hiring her to kill a family of eleventy billion, and she would try to justify to herself that it’s OK and the right thing to do if it was her only method of getting her hands on a bottle of sake. I also love her slightly egotistical side, such as how she refers to herself as ‘beautiful’ whenever she introduces herself. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the all-serious, all-knowing superhuman characters like Captain Harlock or Black Jack, and Ran felt like a subversion of those types of characters. She acted all-knowing and all-serious and usually ended up saving the day, but that hubris she has made her more flawed and therefore more entertaining as a person.
Ultimately though, being as shallow as it is, Tsukikage Ran doesn’t do a huge amount to ever get me too invested in proceedings. Lets do an obvious comparison to another Edo(?) era anime that plays it pretty fast and loose with historical accuracy: Samurai Champloo. Like Champloo, each episode is fairly standalone as the characters travel from place to place. However there is a much stronger character focus in Champloo that gets you more emotionally attached to them. As we learn about their pasts, we learn more about why they’re travelling and who they really are. Tsukikage Ran doesn’t really have that. There were a grand total of 2 episodes where we get to learn about the characters pasts somewhat, and even they tell very little about who they are or why they’re travelling. Now that may indeed be the point. They’re travelling for the sake of travelling. It just doesn’t make them particularly interesting.
Still, Tsukikage Ran is plenty enjoyable. I would have liked an English dub, because although it wouldn’t have gelled with the setting, I would have been able to zone out as I watched it and do other stuff. It’s not a show designed to demand your undivided attention. You have it on in the background, picking up the witty lines here and there, and the plot for each episode is either so simple or so trivial that not picking up on the details will barely affect your enjoyment. In a way, I’m criticising Tsukikage Ran for not being something it was never trying to be, as it was only ever meant to be light entertainment, and it achieves that with flying colours. It just means there’s a limited amount of enjoyment I can get out of it.
So hey, turns out asking my commenters for what obscurer titles from 2000 to watch was a good idea after all.