The Summer 2020 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Deca-Dence is an original anime. It's available streaming on Funimation, Wednesdays at 10:30 am EDT.
How was the first episode?
As an anime-original work by Yuzuru Tachikawa, the director of Death Parade and Mob Psycho 100, Deca-Dence was one of my top prospects coming into the summer season. Tachikawa has been developing this project for years, drawing together an incredibly talented team at Studio NuT (Saga of Tanya the Evil), and Deca-Dence's trailers all promised a story as grand in scope as it was beautiful in motion. I'm happy to confirm that the promise of those trailers is completely realized in this production; Deca-Dence is far and away the best premiere of the season so far, and the summer's first must- watch production.
Deca-Dence presents a world where humans survive in giant metal fortresses like the show's namesake, where a military force known as “The Power” defends them against the attacks of giant beasts known as Gadoll. The larger beats of Deca-Dence's narrative will likely feel somewhat familiar: a young, plucky orphan named Natsume, a dream of fighting against humanity's mysterious foes, a larger-than-life scale and suite of mysteries promising we know less than we think. Deca-Dence is dealing in epic, archetypal storytelling, meaning its premiere sticks pretty close to the classic hero's journey template.
That template persists because it works, and in Tachikawa's hands, Natsume's journey is a parade of wonders. This premiere moves rapidly through setup in order to cover Natsume's whole life up until her first battle, relying on its detailed, evocative backgrounds to imply the day-to-day experience of life on Deca-Dence. Speckled with graffiti, with sheet-metal homes stacked in waves and rusting, ever- rising walls, Deca-Dence feels faded yet beautiful, bearing tangible traces of its thousands of occupants. And outside the walls, the Deca-Dence rises like a challenge against the forbidding wasteland, frequently blotting out the sun with its mighty frame. Deca-Dence is certainly beautiful, but it always feels both beautiful and purposeful at once - its interiors speak to the scrappy vitality of its human protagonists, and its landscapes to the immense scale of the conflicts they face. “Scale” is perhaps the best world to describe Deca-Dence, and I could likely go on for pages about the various ways this episode manages to feel “big,” from the ways its storyboards use negative space to… no, you're right, on to the animation. Deca-Dence's animation is terrific, to put it briefly, and Natsume is largely sold as a heroine through her energetic and highly amusing variety of expressions. Rather than focusing on fluidity of character movement, Deca-Dence's character acting leans into the angular nature of Shinichi Kurita's designs, presenting wild jumps in posing reminiscent of a Trigger production.
Deca-Dence's battle scenes are even more impressive, making clever, carefully limited use of CG models in order to maintain perpetually active camerawork, diving and swooping along with the show's jet-propelled characters. As with all elements of this show's storyboarding, Deca-Dence's choices here are both visually dazzling and dramatically purposeful - the audience feels as overwhelmed by the high-speed movement and violent chaos as Natsume herself, but the careful action choreography (reminiscent of NUT's excellent Tanya fights) keeps the overall flow of the battle clear. And in the end,
Deca-Dence's inspired style of action and massive scale come together, with this episode ending on a staggering exchange between the fortress and a whale-shaped kaiju. In short, Deca-Dence's premiere excels in basically all aspects, and earns my highest recommendation. Building off a sturdy adventure template, the show offers a consistent array of dazzling sights and alluring worldbuilding details, with its inspired layouts and detailed compositions presenting a visual feast from start to finish. Whether you're here for the charming heroine, energetic grand narrative, or awe-inspiring world, don't miss out on this impressive production.
Let me take you on the journey of Deca-Dence's first episode. We start out with a childhood prologue to introduce us to our heroine, Natsume, during a tragic monster attack that took both her father and her right arm. We're then dropped into a very familiar setup of school children reciting the history of their dystopia setting where a whole lot of capital P Proper Nouns are rattled off to just barely keep the audience up to speed. At this point I felt my skepticism riling up. Efficient storytelling sometimes requires frontloading things for the sake of getting to the good part, but the combination of obtuse exposition and a roving fortress city were giving me serious DARLING in the FRANXX vibes and anyone who finished that tire fire can tell you that's not a good sign.
After that, though, the episode quickly transitions into the daily life of Natsume as she learns the art of cleaning monster entrails off the side of the titular mobile city, with tons of vibrant and expressive character animation to immediately endear her to the viewer. She builds a rapport with her stoic boss Kaburagi and it starts to feel like there might be something to follow after all, as the two argue about the risks of following dangerous – even hopeless – dreams vs accepting a menial place in the world to survive in. Plus they bond over Kabugari's secret monster puppy he keeps as a pet, what's not to like?
Following that is the requisite action climax, where our heroes literally fall into a big old outdoor fight between a horde of monsters and the Mad Max-esque soldiers who hunt them. It's here where all of the earlier issues with exposition fall away as we see a number of the show's mechanical concepts – the antigravity fields, monster blood as harvested fuel, etc – all communicated with barely a word of explanation. Everything we need to know is expressed through fast, thrillingly animated action that gives us some insight into the mysterious Kaburagi while also letting us figure out for ourselves how all the sci-fi concepts operate. It's just really good visual storytelling and left me hopeful that Deca-Dence actually does know what it's doing and can deliver on its heady premise without bogging down in tedious worldbuilding.
Then, in the closing minutes of this premiere with the presumed opening theme blaring to life, the titular fortress city transformed into a giant, rocket-powered fist to literally punch a city-sized kaiju into dust. And that was when I decided to devote my life to proselytizing the Good News About Deca-Dence. Call it heresy but any sci-fi series that can give me that much goofiness with that much of a deadpan delivery is a lock for my seasonal viewing. I have to give this an actual number rating, but know that in my heart I rate Deca-Dence a Deculture & a Half.
Deca-Dence's premiere is here to prove that execution trumps novelty nearly every time when it comes to producing flashy, entertaining spectacle. If you have even a passing familiarity with popular anime, then there probably isn't a single element of Deca-Dence you haven't seen before: Evil bug monsters invading Earth and destroying humanity; a super-powered fortress that also transforms into a badass anti-alien weapon; an army of ragtag soldiers that use unique weaponry to combat the alien menace; a plucky heroine that wants to get out there and fight instead of being stuck in the civilian ranks. If you go into new anime seasons looking for fresh and inventive storytelling, then you probably ought to turn back now, because Deca-Dence is perfectly happy to serve as a playlist of sci-fi anime's greatest hits.
To be honest, I'm one of the types that usually finds themselves craving originality and ambition in anime, but Deca-Dence is one of those shows that grabbed my attention purely on account of how much of a blast it is having. “Likeability” is a nebulous but very important factor in determining what kind of art and entertainment you gravitate towards, and gosh darn it, Deca-Dence is likeable as hell. Natusme is a great heroine for this kind of story, smarmy and determined in equal measure, and her interactions with the rest of the cast have a kind of YA-fiction pep to them that keeps the story moving. The art and animation on display is excellent too, featuring loads of colors and kinetic movement despite the post-apocalyptic storyline. The Gadoll themselves are especially neat to behold in action; the crew at Studio NuT do a great job of making the CG-animated aliens stand out on the screen while still feeling physically a part of the action, and the designs are top notch (my favorite was the whale/snail looking giant Gadoll-giland). The anti-gravity devices that the Gears use are kind of silly, but in a way that I found charming, and they facilitate some great action cuts when the ground-level troops are fighting off the Gadoll, too.
Will Deca-Dence blow anyone's minds or change any lives? I highly doubt it, but not every single anime needs to do that. It's harder than it appears to make simple, familiar action-adventure stories like this work so effectively, and I'd say Deca-Dence has nailed its first outing in that regard. Whether or not this solid opening leads to something more ambitious or unique is anyone's guess, but I'll be glad to stick around and find out if the rest of the show is this fun.
It is abundantly clear from Deca-Dence's first episode that someone spent a lot of time planning out the world, its people, and its monsters. While we definitely get a little too much of that information in this first episode (huge amounts of named characters, a conspicuous info-dump at school), it doesn't actually detract all that much from the story itself, which really isn't easy to pull off. That we may not need to know who all of the named characters are going forward is a bit of a warning sign, but when the episode allows us to discover things alongside Natsume, it's really difficult to look away. She may be an almost textbook Plucky Heroine (with bonus orphan status!), but her gripes with the lot assigned to her in life are valid, and that definitely helps to make her more sympathetic as a character. Essentially she's being told that her dreams of joining the Power (the military) won't be realized because she's got an artificial arm and all soldiers must be “of sound body.” It may be true that her arm leaves her vulnerable – we haven't seen that yet, but it may be true – but the way that she is treated as somehow lesser because of it goes right to Natsume's core. She lost the arm sneaking out of Deca-Dence to follow her father as a little girl, and he died soon after fighting the Gadoll, so it seems reasonable to assume that there may some guilt associated with her prosthetic. That of course makes it easy for class mean girl Linmei to target Natsume, and that she chooses that method means that it's likely a known sore spot.
Of course, being assigned to work under Kaburagi in the armor department may very well be a covert way of getting Natsume into a branch of military work. Despite Kaburagi telling Natsume that she only has to clean armor for five years, Kaburagi is right there with her, which seems a bit suspicious. He's also got a pet Gadoll, one about the size of a small dog, which makes us wonder how he acquired something like that if he's just working on armor and not going out of the fortress. Then, of course, there's the scene where he “recovers a chip” from a man who has either passed out or died; the cryptic remark that follows about “finding bugs” makes it seem as if the armor work is merely a cover for something more, especially when he proves adept at using the Gears' special equipment to save Natsume and himself when they fall off the building.
All of this is enough to make this a very intriguing premier, and the fluid animation and creative monster designs definitely help. (That whale with the ragged baleen and growths that look like barnacle- periwinkle hybrids will be in my nightmares.) It looks like a solid post-apocalyptic show could easily grow from this episode, and I'm certainly curious to know what's going to happen next.
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