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Not what I was expecting! Based only on the title, I had figured this would likely be set in a Japanese high school where students displayed 'decadent' behavior, but it was nothing of the kind. Why this particular word was chosen as both the title and the name of the amazing mobile fortress is not revealed. Nevertheless, Deca-Dence got off to a bad start. It seemed pretty stereotypical: a spunky main character who has a handicap and is is looked down upon; an odd (but not all that novel) post-apocalyptic scenario; an elite unit that fights bizarre monsters; a freaky but harmless creature; flamboyantly dressed fighters; fantastic, too-good-to-be-true acrobatics--but nothing that surprised or intrigued me. I guess what turned me off was that the whole premise was hard to take seriously. A mobile fortress, which is normally taller than the clouds but can transform into a sort of jet-powered punching device to splatter large Gadoll? And people who are thousands of feet above ground apparently feel no noticeable vibration from the motion as the fortress moves? And the techniques of hunting Gadoll, which seemed like a high-tech variation of harpooning a whale in Moby Dick? It all seemed kind of ridiculous. Natsume seems likable, and Kaburagi, her supervisor at her first job, has some definite secrets. But the course the story was taking was pretty predictable--except, that is, when things so bizarre that I could not suspend disbelief happened--like Natsume and Kaburagi falling thousands of feet towards certain death and being saved by some unexplained technology and a fantastic stroke of luck. Lots of weird stuff with little explanation. What's with this SD animated, brightly-colored alternate reality where 'profit' seems to matter a lot? Are these people being 'used' somehow? But even if they are, I didn't really care all that much. Right from the start this was seeming like a pretty conventional anime and nothing happened in the initial episode to change that impression.
This problem was not entirely my imagination: during a later ANN interview with the makers of Deca-Dence, director Yuzuru Tachikawa was asked what had made him decide to reveal the setting of the anime in episode 2, instead of episode 1 or towards the end of the series. He said the original plan had been to reveal it in episode 4, and admitted that he had had "some uncertainties" about whether that unusual technique "would be well-received by the audience". Fortunately, I watched episode two and that was where things got unconventional and intriguing. Apparently, this is all so bizarre and outlandish because it's a sort of MMORPG, sort of like Sword Art Online. The funny thing is that the most realistic imagery is the game while the whimsical, brightly colored dimension seems to be a sort of intermediate step between the real world and this game where players mingle using their bizarre avatars. One problem with Deca-Dence is that it doesn't explain its premise all that well. Episode three gives us a few hints which clarify things a little. It sounds like this is all happening in a future world where corporation-created 'Cyborgs' have taken over and humans are subordinate. Indeed, somewhat later the ANN interviewer summarized the situation as "In the current world of Deca-Dence, most of humanity is gone and the planet's resources have been destroyed. A corporation has purchased humanity and controls the robot players". This desolate world is all a source of entertainment for the profit-obsessed Cyborgs, who live somewhere safe and comfortable. Perhaps they gamble on how various players will score in Gadoll Hunts. 'Tankers' seem to be humans who are ignorant of the power structure--they don't even know that the Cyborgs exist. The Cyborgs apparently want the war between humans and Gadoll to continue indefinitely, since that keeps the humans busy and ignorant of who's really calling the shots. Tachikawa said "humans are treated as commodities in an entertainment complex", which had been vaguely suggested but not made clear. At first I thought Players were Cyborgs, and were just having fun in a virtual reality; then I thought they were humans, and these fights were quite real and anybody who gets killed in them is indeed quite dead. The ANN interview later described the Cyborgs as basically immortal, so I have switched back to my first impression. Needless to say, it was confusing. According to Tachikawa the brightly colored, superdeformed dimension which is only available to Cyborgs exists so that they could be depicted in a cute, whimsical manner--otherwise it was feared that viewers would automatically come to despise them, including main character Kaburagi. I wish this had been explained better. Anyone or thing that doesn't comply with orders from the Cyborg leaders is a 'Bug' (I think). Kaburagi is supposed to hunt down bugs and turn them in, but he takes pity on Natsume (who did something I didn't quite catch that made her one). Where did the Gadoll originate? Did the Cyborgs invent them, or did they come about in the apocalypse and the Cyborgs are just exploiting them now? Kind of confusing, but intriguing nevertheless.
I guess the most confusing thing about Deca-Dence is this: where is the line between flesh-and-blood reality and virtual reality? How could anyone cross such a line without knowing it? The Deca-Dence fortress operates like a vast computer program; but is this program manipulating the physical world itself? How else would Tankers be trapped within it, and their actual lives be in danger? Wouldn't they (including Natsume) have to be Non-Player Characters (NPCs)? How do Players take a form that you can touch and feel, in order to interact with Tankers? It doesn't make sense (but perhaps most people don't worry about that as much as I do). Near the end it even turns out that the realistic, muted characters and the brightly colored, superdeformed ones can somehow see and touch each other. In episode five what happens after a major (and unexpected) accomplishment is achieved suggested that this is all a virtual reality being propagated by the Cyborgs. The mention of a 'storyline' which events were supposed to cling to seemed to indicate that the Cyborgs had been carefully shepherding humans along a path that they had chosen for them.
Kabu is severely punished for his disobedience of the Cyborg leader, but not executed as he at first seemed to have been. The hard labor sentence he is given sends him to a place which reveals the origins of the Gadoll. He earns the right to log on to the Decadence game again, which reminds us of how confusing things are--what (and who) is real and what is virtual? Was there ever really an Apocalypse and Cyborgs in real life, or do they only exist within the game? Again, this show is a mix of the intriguing and the confusing. Kabu needs to keep secret the fact that he has re-logged in with a new (but similar) avatar, presumably because it would blow Natsume's mind if she learned that what's reality to her is just a game to the people in power. Despite this problem, I got a feeling in episode seven that Deca-Dence was doing something that many anime fail to do, namely making clear what the basic conflict is and how it will be fixed. After paying a visit to Natsume with his new avatar, Kabu resolves to put an end to this system of deception and exploitation once and for all. As a result we know just what's at stake and have an idea of what will be required to solve the problem. Many shows never make these things clear--or perhaps they never have a truly gripping and intriguing conflict to begin with.
In episode eight Kabu and his friends (sort of) in the virtual prison come up with an idea for how to carry his scheme out. They infiltrate Decadence and steal a precious piece of virtual equipment. As always, exactly what's going on is impossible to say, but we know enough to enjoy ourselves greatly. Episode nine felt sort of strange because it seemed like the climax of the entire series, even though it surely has at least two episodes to go. Despite some unexpected hitches, Kabu's plan seems to be a success. It turns out that it wasn't a complete success, however, and more work is needed to keep the Cyborgs from returning things to usual. And a major new problem emerges, one which neither the Tankers nor the Cyborgs expected. Natsume is freaked out by the mind-blowing realizations she undergoes. The climax was exciting and rewarding and felt like one from a multi-million dollar motion picture. It's a happy ending which is justified because it largely makes sense. For all it's problems, Deca-Dence was my favorite anime of the Summer 2020 season--I would say it was the only show of the season which was truly ambitious and original. The way it ended cemented its ranking in place.
Last updated Friday, October 09 2020. Created Sunday, July 12 2020.