War, what is it good for?

On Rail Wars! and Toshokan Sensou

The "dream railway paradise entertainment" story is set in a parallel world where Japan did not privatize its national railways.

I’ll admit I only got through the first sentence of Rail Wars! description before passing judgement on it. I decided to watch it primarily on the strength of illustrator Vania 600’s character designs but without knowing much else. The alternate reality and mention of privatisation of the railways evoked images of different government departments duking it out on trains - it had “wars” in the title after all. As is my brain is wont to do, it pattern-matched this idea to what I’d heard about Toshokan Sensou (Library War) which had a similarly ridiculous sounding premise of library backed paramilitary groups battling with government censorship groups.

he is now part of the thrilling and sexy world of trains

Having not previously seen Toshokan Sensou, I decided to watch the two series in parallel, fully expecting to be equal parts amused and baffled by the surreal alternate histories but otherwise underwhelmed. What I didn’t expect was for Toshokan Sensou to be so serious, and for Rail Wars! to be quite so pants-on-head dumb.

A man’s passion

It should have been obvious really from all the tight clothing and heaving chests that Rail Wars! wasn’t going to be anything but fluff.

In only the second episode of the series, the new recruits to the railway security force get to defuse a bomb that is stored in the bottom of a carrier for a small, yapper-type dog. From there the series lurches from situation to ridiculous situation going from kidnapping, to regicide, to death threats, to organ delivery, all using the spine of Japan’s transport network, the railways. Evidently these are dangerous times: young girls are randomly kidnapped by inept ne’er-do-wells and you can’t move for tripping over people who, for some reason, want to blow up or cause havoc on the trains. They needn’t bother really considering every train featured seems to be close to falling apart the amount of components that fail at the most inopportune but dramatic moments.

It’s fine though because the newly initiated quartet - Naoto, a constantly frightened train nerd; Aoi, a tomboyish gun nut; Shou, whose contribution to the series involves performing one-armed pushups; and Haruka, a meek but intelligent train nerd - will stop anyone and anything from inconveniencing the passengers. At least they will when the women stop shamelessly fawning over Naoto. And not just Aoi and Haruka either, Naoto’s attraction spreads to ultra-popular idol singers and royalty alike, so powerful is his timid personality and voluminous knowledge of trains the series ends with what is sure to be the most awkward orgy ever as they all cram into his room, littered with train paraphernalia.

In short then this takes what is stereotypically thought of as negative otaku pursuits - trains, idols etc. - and shunts their perception towards something more positive. No longer is Naoto quietly genning up on trains and mooning over gaudily dressed manufactured pop princesses, he is now part of the thrilling and sexy world of trains where danger is around every corner and only his knowledge and courage can save the day. How can Naoto help it if that makes him irresistible to all the buxom ladies around him? Take no notice of that guy doing one-armed push-ups, his obliviousness and lack of plot significance means he is non-threatening.

The intelligence of the individual stories match that underlying premise and are similarly married to equally uninspiring visuals. Certainly the characters, especially the females, have a bubbly and shiny quality to them but there is scarcely enough budget left over from the meticulously detailed 3D models of locomotives to maintain that quality. It’s those trains and the short interstitials about them that piqued my interest; but like Upotte’s vignettes on the history of its featured guns, these sections are lost amidst a deluge of absolute nonsense.

So one episode sees Naoto and Haruka running away from a perceived sniper - are things so dangerous in alternate Tokyo that this is a viable worry? - while she gradually loses clothing to everything from fences to amorous cats. That episode also sees Aoi fire a gun in the middle of a public street with no repercussions afterward.

In it’s defence, Rail Wars! doesn’t set out to change the world and is at least unpretentious in who it is aimed at its goals to titillate and simply entertain. It manages, barely, with both and while that doesn’t make it a great series, it at least doesn’t have ideas above its station.

When a good woman goes to war

First released: April 2008
Version reviewed: Blu-Ray

The same can’t be said for Toshokan Sensou which you can think of having the inauspicious tagline: “Not as stupid as you would assume”. Its premise is based on the very real “Statement of Intellectual Freedom in Libraries” that came in the wake of World War 2 but is augmented to suit the series’ more militant slant. Although it takes the majority of its twelve episode runtime to elaborate on it, the core concept is that independent libraries are free to stock whatever materials they want meaning they’ll inevitably come to blows with the stormtrooper-esque “Media Betterment Committee” who try and forcibly censor them. For the good of Japan of course.

Although written before it, the story gains an element of poignance in the wake of the legislation passed in Tokyo in 2010, commonly termed Bill 156, which had manga authors and writers alike up in arms. Censorship is rightly a very sensitive issue in many countries, but taking it to the extremes seen in this series, where fully armed conflicts erupt on the steps of the modern architecture of museums and libraries seems absurd.

come in and take a pamphlet just mind the bullet holes and corpses

Absurd in practice, but in concept - where the government tacitly allows the libraries to mount lethal defence against its agents - isn’t too much of a leap and matches the message of maintaining the status quo that runs throughout the series. Whether it’s the administratively dominated and pacifist leaning barracks of the the series’ climax or the snakelike leader of new-agey sounding Library Planning Committee who claims that acquiescing to censorship now would allow for more freedom later, the theme seems to be that change would only bring more harm than good.

Which is why the central character of Iku Kasahara is such good fun. With all those po-faced messages, warning that censorship is just the thin end of the wedge, there’s Iku who’s tall, earnest and clings to her idealism even when the bullets are flying. So whereas Rail Wars! takes pleasure in peeking voyeuristically into the girls’ changing room, here we often see Iku and roommate Asako Shibasaki in their pyjamas, but it serves to humanise rather than sexualise the pair.

Asako especially because when she’s not playing foil to Iku’s righteous sense of justice, she’s the icy centre of intelligence gathering in the Library Defence Force, shrewd and knowledgeable about all the personal happenings on and off base. Exhibiting the familiar sense of camaraderie that combat fatigues engender, the rest of the force’s staff run the gamut from calculating tactician to gorilla commander to naive rich boy. The important part though is that the chemistry between them all is what makes the show enjoyable and acts as a very obvious counterpoint to the portrayal of the Media Betterment Committee: all jackbooted cretins and morally corrupt opportunists. It’s blatant and heavy handed but serves its purpose, especially when all the scuffles between the two forces seem so very… orderly.

There’s a sense of British politeness about the way the MBC announce their plans prior to action and set a time limit for when to cease hostilities, usually about the time the facility that’s under siege opens to the public. No please, come in and take a pamphlet just mind the bullet holes and corpses. If people even really die in the skirmishes that is. Certainly there are snipers and fully automatic weapons but the point always seems to be to deter rather than to murder. It’s thoroughly peculiar and may play into the series’ take on propaganda, but serves its purpose of building tension without abject threat; a visit to the veterans hospital or the haunting story of Iku dealing with PTSD is not the order of business here.

But then really neither is any kind of worthwhile comment on censorship. In that regard it boils down to “censorship bad, idealism good”. No, Toshokan Sensou is about the personal growth of Iku; facing her parents, finding her place in the world and transforming wide-eyed adoration for her “prince” (spoiler: it’s precisely who you think it is) into something pragmatic and beneficial. It’s at times funny, helped along by comic book line work and the wonderfully expressive faces of the protagonist, and other times touching but mostly just the solid story of justice and levity in a time of adversity.

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There really isn’t any meaningful comparison to be drawn between Rail Wars! and Toshokan Sensou other than the fact that they both have “war” in their titles. One is all jelly breasts, train trivia and wish fulfilment while the other is girls, guns and government. Warmongers and pacifists versus otaku and dullard thugs.

I enjoyed Toshokan Sensou more than Rail Wars! because it had more of the things that tickle my interest, namely strong story and characters and an absorbing sense of time and place. However, I still watched both through to completion and though Rail Wars! is unchallenging, that too has its place. For those who appreciate trains and the railways there is perhaps more substance to it but fundamentally the correlation between the two series begins and ends with “they’re both anime”.

Responses to “War, what is it good for?”

Well, there's one way to compare the shows, and that's via the special-interest service: trains vs. books. I can't do that since I have zero interest in trains. However, the chance that Rail Wars comes out on top in this respect is good. I love reading books, but Library Wars was really more about the politics, and, as far as I remember, they never really presented the joy of reading very well. I remember only a single book, and that came across as more iconic than loved. In the end that probably just means you're right: even on the special interest level, they don't have the same goals.

Interestingly, this post made me think of Dog and Scissors (Inu to Hasami wa Tsukaiyou); a sado-maso love comedy about... books. That's one show that did book-service really well, both on the reader and writer side: a book nut ends up saving a girl's life and dies in the process. He gets reborn as a dog, and ends up living with her. She turns out to be his favourite author, but she's not quite what he expected. Standard stuff on the rom-com front (absurdist humour, strong sado-maso elements), but the show has got surprisingly well done book service, whether it's a decent portrayal of writing issues, or the loving design of book spines. A mixed bag, as these shows often are.
You're right on the money about Library War, it never really was about the reading but about being able to read what you want, which isn't such a bad thing. It's certainly no Kawaisou or even the original Read or Die OVAs with Yomiko.

As I've found with a few of the shows you speak about, I've never heard of Dog and Scissors. I'll get it queued up as it does sound interesting.

And now I'm trying to think of other reading positive anime now...