A fun, largely light-hearted romp through the Edo Period countryside with a wandering female samurai and a martial artist going by the name of Lady Meow of the Iron Cat Fist. Yeah, I was a bit skeptical too but just go with it.
Let me start by saying there are so, so many ways this could have gone catastrophically wrong. This could have been an out-and-out ecchi series with a ton of cleavage on display, which to be fair is kinda what the premise (and at least half the individual episode titles) make it sound like. It could have equally been one of the most boring shows in existence, given that it generally consists of nothing more than a day-by-day, slice-of-life style account of a soft-spoken samurai and a ninja she keeps accidentally bumping into; this might say martial arts on the cover, but in reality I don’t think it would keep many hardcore actions fans amused. It’s also listed as a historical piece, though I find the idea of two lone women, one of whom is obviously armed, walking about freely during the Edo Period pretty damn ludicrous – as would anyone even a little familiar with how the whole gender thing worked back in the day.
But you know what? I enjoyed this. I watched all 13 episodes in the space of a few days and while some episodes are certainly better than others, I liked all of them to at least some extent. Granted, it’s not the most exciting anime I’ve ever watched, and even at the time of its release I doubt it was overly popular – it doesn’t exactly strike me as a series that’s striving to win any awards for originality or elevated storytelling. That said, it also doesn’t insult anybody’s intelligence and doesn’t give the impression that it’s trying to be anything more than it actually is – both things I particularly prize when it comes to these easygoing, adventure-comedy types of shows. (I imagine it also came as a welcome breath of fresh air for anyone following Daichi Akitaro’s directing career, smack bang as it was between Now and Then, Here and There and Fruits Basket.)
In comparison, Tsukikage Ran goes easy on the drama, so for the most part this is a fairly relaxed show with a very laidback atmosphere. This is greatly helped along by the cast, which is made up solely of two main characters and a bunch of episodic extras who hold little in the way of surprises. Ran, our quiet, katana-wielding hero, is skilled enough that she easily manages to fend off the normal kinds of brigands and save the day without too much trouble – which would probably be quite dull on its own, but her character is spiced up a little thanks to her obsession with saké and an unwillingness to get involved in anything remotely bothersome despite her innate sense of justice. Her habit of skipping out on the bill also adds a bit more uniqueness to her character, insuring that we’re not just getting stuck with a female rip-off of Kenshin. Meow, on the other hand, is a reckless and hyperactive idiot with a heart of gold, though thankfully not anywhere near as annoying as she sounds and can still hold her own in a fight. As a pair they’re just on the right side of crazy, and amusing enough despite their general lack of depth.
And quite honestly, I was okay with that. I don’t always want something deep and complex, and I never want something that attempts to make its characters seem more profound than they’re capable of being. Tsukikage Ran is short and sweet, and every single episode is a self-contained narrative, so it would’ve just felt awkward if it had tried to convince its viewers of any vast hidden depths. Frankly, I was so overjoyed at not being presented with some kind of tits-and-ass show that I probably would have been okay with the series regardless of the characters or plot, but there are some genuinely decent stories here as well. All of them end in some sort of swordfight between Ran (sometimes accompanied by Meow) and the villain of the day, so they’re about as predictable as you’d expect, but in Tsukikage Ran’s case it really is more about the journey than anything else. This definitely suits the overall tone of the piece as well as the main character herself – someone who’s happy to go, as the title suggests, “wherever the wind takes her.”
True to form, there’s nothing special about the production qualities here. The artwork is plain but serviceable and the character designs likable enough without seeming especially appealing or ugly either way. Madhouse studio has produced some impressive-looking shows of late – Chihayafuru, No Game No Life, Death Parade – but even accounting for its age, Tsukikage Ran doesn’t feature anything extraordinary in the visuals department. Much of the music is likewise pretty generic (in fact, I had to go back and listen to the OP and ED to remind myself of exactly what they sounded like), though I can’t deny it’s also very much in keeping with the feel of the series as a whole. Indeed, I doubt anyone could find a better fit for an anime like this; it’s like watching/listening to a dated live-action chanbara drama, minus the awful special effects and terrible acting.
In short, Tsukikage Ran is an enjoyable little title provided you’re not after anything particularly innovating or challenging. It requires little thought but is entertaining without being offensive, and should easily fit with anyone’s preferred pace of viewing.