Episode 4

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Deca-Dence ?

What's the codifying difference between something being a bug or a feature? In Deca-Dence, Natsume is regarded as an outlier from any angle, considered a ‘bug’ even by the man training her with some sense of purpose. But from the plot's perspective, she's the fulcrum the story hinges on so far, her status not actually accidental, but a conscious creation of the writer, director, and studio putting this show together. And a show like Deca-Dence already taught us to question what was and wasn't real in this setting, so how are we really to regard storytelling that informs us that Natsume's place in the system was complete coincidence, even as they're the ones who wrote her there? Between the human portion, the Gear segments, and the crew's ongoing metatextual games, how many shows are we really watching with Deca-Dence, and does it really matter if all of them are entertaining in their own way?

Episode 4 here particularly seems concerned with not letting us get complacent with where the plot's been. No sooner does Natsume get her first big action sequence (the one that provided clips back when we just had the preview for this thing, by the way), but the amazing abilities she's honed catch the eyes of some members of The Power who happily welcome her into their ranks. So that's it, lifelong dream achieved in the fourth episode, where could Natsume go from here? At this point, of course, we're well aware that things aren't even close to what they seem, and Natsume's sudden promotion is mere fuel for the next phase of drama for her and Kaburagi to grapple with. A bug of the story mechanics that ends up working as a feature.

It's wild that Deca-Dence can put its outlandish setting construction up-front and still have us asking compelling questions about how it actually works. Natsume finds herself in Squad 6, headed up by Kurenai (who is awesome, by the way) and seeming to be composed entirely of Tankers, humans, who were allowed to join the ranks of The Power. It begs the question of what kind of mechanical use this setup serves to the Solid Quake corporation running this whole show, who presumably would find no immediate value in single-use soldiers who couldn't even spend their hard-earned Oxyone points on cosmetics and loot boxes. The tales of Kurenai's abilities as The Strongest Tanker clearly spread far and wide in the fortress's society, almost making me wonder if her joining the Gears was an incident of endearment at her moxy, like Player Characters ‘adopting’ their favorite NPC.

But how much of it was set up by the guys at the top? This episode's requisite Big Twist revolving around a false ‘final battle’ that will actually clear out a ton of lower-ranked players and pave the way for big names (like Kaburagi!) to dramatically return makes us question how much of what our heroes are trying to subvert may already be accounted for. Capitalism is an all-controlling system, after all, and there's no more stark metaphor for its existence than being presented as a ‘game’ that can't be won yet we're required to play along with anyway. There's always the possibility that the ‘story’ we've seen so far, even Kaburagi's supposedly secret machinations, is something the corporation has accounted for. Even apart from the rigged event element, it shows in Natsume's immediate experiences upon being accepted into The Power: She has trouble getting on with her new comrades, her old friend is completely blowing her off, and even the mentor that helped her get this far is now being dismissive to her ambitions for reasons she knows nothing about. A lot of us get to an age where we realize “Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life” is an out-and-out lie, and that's bleakly accounted for here with Natsume coming to terms with the fact that simply getting the job she wants won't make her happy with her place in society. That's a feature, not a bug, of the system, and that's before her first official outing turns out to be an actual suicide mission.

What I love about the ensuing conflict between Natsume and Kaburagi is how it's exacerbated by the setting's structure. Natsume thinks Kaburagi is simply being a cynical, hopeless adult who doesn't believe in her, while he's actually got information far beyond her fundamental capacity for understanding at this point. It leaves Kaburagi at a bizarre impasse: To tell Natsume the truth about the world would mark him as much of a ‘bug’ as her and likely doom them both. We can understand Natsume's standard anime-teen desire to better herself and earn confidence by succeeding at the ‘impossible’, but we know through Kaburagi how thoroughly rigged the system is; To him it's like watching one of those NPCs from a role-playing game's doomed hometown try to go up against the Final Boss. These two, like us, feel like they're watching two different shows, that deliberately-designed dissonance hitting as one hell of a feature in Deca-Dence's favor.

Of course we all would want to prove something in a system deliberately designed to hold us back, but how much of it is bugged when those in the know deem it literally impossible? Natsume replays Kaburagi's doubts alongside those of her former classmates and friends, but the key quotational difference is that he regards the exercise of changing the system as something ‘no one’ can do, not specifically doubting Natsume herself. The question at the crux of Deca-Dence at this moment is how cynical it actually intends to be in demonstrating the ruthlessness of the capitalist system it's barely concealing a satire of. In an ordinary show I might respond to this episode's portents with “But Natsume's the main character, no way they'll actually kill her off!” but I hope we all know by now how much this series enjoys screwing with our expectations, and it's wryly aware of this as one of its best features. With how that plays out in flux, that still means we have an anime with little sign of slowing down, delivering another episode that left me desperate for more as soon as it ended. Even dreading as I do what may happen next.


Deca-Dence is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.

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