Reviewby Theron Martin,
Blu-Ray - Collection 1
In 2015, glasses that allow for semi-immersive augmented reality were released. 11 years later, Daikoku City has become a test case for city-wide virtual infrastructure, a place where people can use glasses to view an overlap of “e-spaces” onto reality anywhere in the city. This has made free-roaming virtual pets possible, as well as an open black market which sells (illegal) virtual equipment and talisman-like metatags, while constructs called Globies and Searchies patrol the city, looking to delete illegal items, glitches, and outdated e-spaces. It has also seemingly given rise to mysterious virtual creatures called Illegals. 6th grader Yuko Okonogi moves to Daikoku City with her family due to her father's job transfer, and she and her younger sister quickly get involved with other kids who are already deeply immersed in this new environment. Unexpected adventures abound, including rivalries between competing school clubs, detective work on missing pets, and another new transfer student who seems to have her own agenda. While it all seems to be fun and games at first, some major secrets seem to be lurking below the virtual surface.
Den-noh Coil is an original anime production and the brainchild of Mitsuo Iso, a name that even dedicated anime fans probably aren't familiar with unless they are steeped in knowledge of key animators. (He has done work for important scenes in many landmark titles, including Ghost in the Shell, End of Evangelion, Perfect Blue, and FLCL.) Supposedly nearly a decade in the making, this 26-episode 2007 series is his ultimate creative triumph, an ambitious work which takes what might otherwise be a pure kids' show and transforms it into something much more by mixing in inventive concepts and creative applications of technology. This is readily apparent by the halfway point of the first episode, and perhaps even before the opener is over.
For years, this title languished unlicensed despite the efforts of small but vocal groups of fans to promote it as an undiscovered gem, leading it to make several appearances on fan most-wanted lists. It finally got picked up for U.S. release earlier this year by Maiden Japan (a sister label to Sentai Filmworks that specializes in older titles), who released the first half on dubbed Blu-Ray and DVD at the end of June. That means it came out a mere eight days before Pokémon Go – a game with considerable conceptual overlap to the show – exploded onto the scene. Combine that with the already-existing Google Glass and recent news about Google developing an AR headset, and this series isn't fictional anymore; we actually may be on the cusp of the technology shown in Den-noh Coil. Despite taking nine years to be released in the U.S., this release is timelier than it ever could have been before.
Den-noh Coil emphasizes overlaying virtual space onto real space, instead of just having an alternate virtual reality world. It's the same kind of gimmick that appears in the upcoming Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale, but on an expanded scale, where an entire town has a virtual layer in addition to the real world. That allows for the existence of purely virtual pets, the manipulation of purely virtual objects, virtual keyboards that can pop up wherever you want, and phone calls that can be made as if you were pretending your hand was a phone. It hypothesizes that when “e-spaces” break down, they create an effect equivalent to virtual fog, allowing for magical-seeming effects like familiars, talismans used as both virtual cures and virtual traps, and even walls that can be thrown out to block virtual attacks. Glitches can appear as stationary or mobile electronic ripples, and viruses or other corruptions can appear as black bloblike creatures. Take off your glasses and you see the real world as is; put on the glasses and you see things that unequipped people cannot. In other words, you essentially have a technological version of spirit vision by wearing glasses. Even walking a certain path through town might be the key to accessing an otherwise unavailable e-space, and simple chalk drawings on virtual ground can become codes for hacking.
As you might expect, this overlap of virtual reality causes problems reminiscent of what has been in the news the last couple of years: people getting into accidents because they pay too much attention to the virtual and not enough to the real world, wandering into places they shouldn't, and so forth. (For instance, one scene involves a kid nearly stepping through a hole in the floor of a decrepit bus because its image hadn't been updated to reflect how the bus had rotted.) Of course, glitches are an expected problem in such a situation, and the free-roaming virtual Searchies and Globies are interesting solutions. So are the restrictions placed on them: they can't enter private homes, schools, or religious areas without special permissions, which makes running through a torii gate an easy way to avoid them, especially if you happen to have contraband programs on you.
All of this is layered onto a fairly standard children's slice-of-life tale, though the addition of cutting-edge technology puts a new spin on it. Most of the cast is 12 years old or younger, and many of the antics they engage in would be pretty typical for kids that age. The difference here is that some things which might otherwise be left to the imagination manifest virtually instead. Teasing and bullying get taken to a whole different level when you can flood someone's field of vision with spam, physically harmless virtual battles can take place between combatants, ghost stories can come to life, Searchies can serve as an enemy to be avoided, and so forth. This does occasionally put kids in real danger, but (so far at least), there's nothing too intimidating beyond a background story about one student being hit and killed by a car due to possible virtual problems.
A few definite plot threads underlie all of this, including what mysterious purpose the second Yoko is actually up to, Haraken's investigation into a close friend's death the previous year, and the mysterious meaning of the number 4423, which keeps popping up. There is also a brief intimation that the first Yuko may have been involved in some incident at her previous school (though this is only touched on once) and some odd memories she has. Mixed in with this are a couple of one-off stories which round out the first half, but those are also the weakest points in these 13 episodes. One supposed theme of the series – separations between things – only vaguely manifests in this half, and you have to be deliberately watching to notice it, so presumably that will be built upon more in the second half.
Production comes courtesy of Madhouse, which results in a solid animation effort that makes excellent use of CG animation and effects. (Of course, it helps that the CG parts are supposed to look like CG.) The artistry is probably most distinctive for its use of a restrained, earthy color scheme and its careful portrayal of glitch effects. Background art often looks less carefully defined at a casual glance, but in many places fine detail can be noticed if you look closely. Character designs are simple and more closely resemble Japanese children than anime characters, though they still retain a distinct anime feel. One older female character does spend a fair amount of time dressing in a sexy fashion, but otherwise the artistry is very tame.
The sparsely-used soundtrack primarily employs lighter and subtler numbers done with a mix of orchestration and simpler instrumentation, especially guitar. The overall effect also evokes the whimsical sense of a children's story, but there were several places that I wanted a little more from it. Both the opener and the closer are lighter, adult contemporary-styled numbers by recording artist Ayako Ikeda. The sound and visuals fit the series well, though the opener “Prism” probably sounds better as a full single.
The release by Maiden Japan comes with only minimal extras accompanying the first 13 episodes: just clean opener and closer. Surprisingly for a title that's nine years old, it does have an English dub, featuring a return to the director's chair by Matt Greenfield. Casting choices and performances are mostly great, especially Luci Christian in a virtually unrecognizable rendition of Haraken, Brittney Karbowski in a fully predictable casting as Fumie, and Laura Chapman as Specsgranny, but really, the dub has no weak spots. Monica Rial using her deeper pitch for the “Isako” Yuko is an interesting call, but the Japanese dub also pitches the role lower than might normally be expected, presumably in an effort to emphasize how much more mature she is than the other kids despite being a similar age. The dub also features Tiffany Grant in at least a half-dozen different roles, and you can only clearly tell that it's her in her most prominent role (as Daichi). Other nice additions are on-screen translation notes in a couple of cases where Japanese wordplay does not survive translation.
Few anime titles truly deserve to be considered visionary, but I am tempted to apply that label to this one. The extent of what it does with its use of virtual space might be a bit fanciful, even silly in a couple of places, but it finds a nice balance between wonder and practical detail in portraying the possibilities of technology in a way that I don't believe had been done in anime before. How well it syncs with real-world events cannot be ignored, either. Its many suggestions of a bigger story that connects these seemingly disparate elements also provides a strong hook for continuing into the second half. Forget that the title is a few years old; it's well worthy of a look.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Concepts that are years ahead of their time, engaging characters and story, good use of CG
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