It was the cigarette detail and others like in the first few episodes of ACCA that first captured my interest. When Lotta tossed Jean his pack of cigarettes in the first episode, I think not only considered it to be a great addition to the show’s aesthetics and setting, but was also elated to discover that it played a crucial role in understanding the show’s world.
A while back Under The Scope Reviews did an excellent video on world building, specifically on the importance of details, and it is details that ACCA specializes in and why I was able to remain interested in the story despite it’s leisurely pace and occasional scenes of exposition.
Let’s start with the cigarette. The first thing I appreciate about this detail is its uniqueness. In the world of ACCA, the cigarette is a symbol of wealth and power because of the outrageously high tobacco tax. If someone is seen smoking it means that either they are wealthy enough to buy their cigarettes or are in a position to have them given to them. In this world, the cigarette serves as a symbol of influence more than clothing, jewelry and other luxuries that we typically associate with wealth and prestige. While the concept is somewhat out there, in the sense that cigarettes are still easy to purchase in the modern world, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine. Perhaps more relevant to the show though is that the outrageously high taxes on fairly common products has had some interesting political and social repercussions throughout history. To echo the words often associated with James Otis, “no taxation without representation”, a slogan that sparked anti-British sentiment in the American Colonies regarding heavy taxation on tea in the 1700s, eventually leading to a full scale revolution, which, incidentally, is what this show is about (and as an off topic note, you’ll never convince me there’s no connection between the names James Otis and Jean Otus).
There’s also the bread, which serves as perhaps the most peculiar yet most emphasized detail of the show’s world. As some of the characters travel between districts they sometimes discover and fall in love with new types of bread they’ve never had before, emphasizing the economic and social independence of each district and their lack of involvement and interaction with each other. Additionally, the different cafes and restaurants that are preferred by each of the characters further makes this world and its society believable. The bread would also seem to be symbolic of the wealth of each of the districts. The wealthier states have a wide variety of bread shops, selling pastries and sweets from all around the nation, and the poorer states have little knowledge of or access to bread at all. In addition to being a great bit of detailed world building, it also serves as subtle foreshadowing to some of the story’s biggest twists.
Another subtle detail that I really appreciate is the development of technology over time. It’s difficult to say exactly how old Jean is, but the age of the prince gives us an idea of how much time has passed between the back stories of the characters and the present era in which the story takes place. When the prince was born, Nino and his father were using physical cameras and typewriters. Roughly eighteen to twenty years later the characters are using cell phone cameras and computers. This subtle indicator of the technological growth of this society is a genius detail that makes this world believable and reinforces the set up that the nation is completely at peace, making such developments possible.
These are just a few of the more obvious ones, but I’m sure upon a rewatch there will be even more to discover, which is why I find it somewhat disappointing that while ACCA’s details are genius, its generalities are, by and large, not as interesting. The explanations of the histories the nation, ACCA, the Inspection Department and some of the story’s plot threads through exposition in dialogue is unfortunate given the genius subtleties of the rest of the show. Additionally, the scale of this world seems to have been too large for the creators to fully develop within twelve episodes while still telling their story. We know that all of the districts are mutually afraid of the prince’s rise to power and its possible repercussions, and we know their distinct characteristics, and that’s about all the information we’re given. Apart from Suitsu and Pranetta, we don’t know the individual reasons for the districts wanting to ignite a coup de’eta, or anything about them for that matter, only that they’re generally afraid of an autocracy.
The high point of the show and one of the best episodes of the whole Winter season is episode four, in which an actual coup de’eta is attempted in the state of Suitsu. The people of the district have extremely specific and rational reasons for attempting to overthrow their government; their incompetent leaders and their isolation from the rest of the world, halting their technological development and sending them into permanent poverty. The idea of isolation from the rest of the world is obviously reminiscent of Japan’s history, and the idea of leaders who were loved and praised during election season only to do nothing for their supporters once in office is an all too familiar concept. Even though the reasoning of the people of Suitsu are explained through exposition, the condition of the state itself is not. It is in this episode that the generalities of ACCA’s world become just as genius as its details.
It seems to me that Madhouse understood that the world they were tasked with creating for this story was simply too large to be fit into a twelve episode series. In an effort to work with the world’s massive scale, it would appear that they decided to focus completely on its subtle details to make up for its broad generalities. So the question is this: did it work? Do genius details make up for less genius generalities?
It would be presumptuous of me to claim that they compensated for ACCA’s shortcomings in totality. However, given the context of the series as a whole, I’d say that yes, they did. Is it the best world building I’ve seen in a single cour series? No. Would I have appreciated the show more if the writers had spent as much time developing the world’s generalities as they did its details? Probably. That being said, I’ve begun to grow weary of series in which the writers seem to put the bare minimum effort into making their world believable and engaging, and seeing a series like this in which the creative team understood their task and limitations and formulated a strategy to compensate for their shortcomings is a breath of fresh air. It’s not the best world building I’ve seen even within the Winter season, but it’s by far the most creative and innovative. So for that, I applaud the creative staff and hope that this show sparks some interesting discussions on the difficulties of world building and possible strategies to make them workable.