by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 5 of
One aspect I speculated on in last week's episode of Deca-Dence was the question of what motivated the Gears to add Kurenai and her human/Tanker squad into their ranks. There's definitely a component of corporate manipulation to the concept, that is the Solid Quake corporation concocting the rise of Kurenai and those like her as a way to up player engagement in the game. But the core concept then was still based on the idea of endearment to the players: That even if the gamers behind the Gear avatars don't see the Tankers on the same ‘level’ as them, they can still regard them with fondness and treat them with a level of assigned agency. It's amusing in the way it parallels the calculated audience response to the show. Going into this episode I was dreading the strong possibility that Kurenai, as well as others all the way up to Natsume, could be killed off. Within this show, these heroes are fighting for their lives using their own will, but it's still predestined at the whims of the writers and directors. As much as we root for these ‘NPCs’, they're ultimately fictional characters and have no agency. Right?
There are some clever tricks that exceptionally talented writers of fiction can pull off in regards to character action, and many of those are rooted in the idea of precedent. If a character has been defined strongly and consistently enough through how they reacted in previous situations, then they can theoretically be planted into any given situation and ‘write themselves’ based on said strong definition. Deca-Dence is only five episodes long as of this week, but Yuzuru Tachikawa and Hiroshi Seko have already imbued Kaburagi and Natsume with the same power of precedent that consistently governs their choices and actions in this episode. That lends the weight to the choices they make here that allows them to come off so meaningfully.
The team's shortcut in codifying that necessary character context is setting Deca-Dence within a world of ‘fiction’, of predetermined stories itself. Yes, the Gears and the Tankers have agency within the setting, they're acting of their own will, but it's all governed by the corporation pulling the strings, deciding what they can and can't win. It's to the point that there's even the question of whether Natsume's rise to the Gear ranks and deployment on this ‘final’ mission was orchestrated by the system as an unignorable motivator for Kaburagi's return to the front lines. Our heroes are participating in a fabricated narrative within the ‘real’ narrative we enjoy as the audience, and their conscious rebellions against that inner layer of fiction ripple out to influence our own perceptions of the story.
A case in point would be my earlier remarks regarding my fears and ideas about where this plotline would go. Not just in terms of which characters would bite it, but in how the outlined later parts of the planned plot would properly play out. I speculated with friends in the wake of the previous episode how the ‘return’ of the high-ranking Gears would be handled in the plot, predictions being slung about the previously-presumed-to-be-executed members of Kaburagi's old squad returning. In practice, that was as useless as questioning where Deca-Dence would go right after the first episode when we all thought it was a rote post-apocalyptic story. Kaburagi, the alpha bug himself, pulled back the curtain of the show's conceit simply by usurping control of the fictional POV for half an hour, and the way we engaged with this piece of entertainment was totally flipped. So it goes again, that Kaburagi's decisions in this week's episode throw humanity off the rails again, thus we along with them are hurtling through the terrifying freedom of the unknown.
If that's all overly poetic a pondering on the pedestrian pulling-off of plot twists, I think it's appropriate given the Deca-Density of what's done with this episode. Kaburagi is swayed by, from his perspective, an NPC to do the impossible and break the narrative he's in. In the end, it does less for the sake of Natsume and the other humans, beyond saving their lives, than it does for his own will. But the layers of endearment are present all the same: Kaburagi wants Natsume to survive because he can see how her desire to push past the limits imposed on her by the narrative has driven her to such heights already. Similarly, we want Kaburagi to make his system-resisting choice because it's satisfying to us on a storytelling level, and because of the dazzling display it puts on.
The stunning action sequences against multiple big bosses in this episode stand as rewards for our faith in these characters: Kaburagi's training of Natsume reveals some brilliant improvisation on her part against Gadoll Alpha, and even though she doesn't defeat it, our belief in Kaburagi as someone who will do the right thing is rewarded with him successfully doing the impossible and slaying the thing. Tachikawa crafts a beautifully rewarding simple visual arc to this excess, our fears for the humans expressed in the way their bodies hang in the Gadoll's field before dispersing and raining down their blood, but upon Kaburagi's victory, it's the Gadoll's blood performing the same visual trick. Deca-Dence may seem to thrive on shock and subversion, but there's precedent present in all its storytelling language, the storyline itself being as much a setting the characters move through as the blasted Eurasian landscape or the Solid Quake ships' quarters.
This all ends with me right back at contemplating the question of my endearment to these fictitious characters and what will they're able to exert on their own pre-written world. Kaburagi, at this final moment, exists as the most ‘free’ person in the world of Deca-Dence: not momentarily crushed by the expanded revelation of the neverending fight against the Gadoll, nor held back by the limitations the system imposes on him in terms of what he can and can't fight against. But even within that context, he's not immune to the whims of consequences, of narratively-constructed cause and effect. That's what makes his apparent death so tragic here: The possibility that given more time and precedent, he might have been able to come up with his own way out of it. Or could he? He's a character as bound to Seko's writing and Tachikawa's directing as anyone else within Deca-Dence, who set it up so that the most sensible thing for him to do at this moment was be killed. He spurred the growth of a bug like Natsume, but he may have been too much of a gear in the system in the end to escape the precedent himself, ultimately able only to at most die on his own terms. But Natsume can prove necessary for keeping the storyline of this series off those rote, prefabricated rails, reaching new heights as the world is forced to expand independent of the Corporation's plan. It's for that reason, as Kaburagi finally says, 'the world needs bugs.'
Deca-Dence is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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