What’s it about? Natsume lost her arm and her father on the same day when a monster attacked them on an archaeological dig. Now, years later, Natsume is a young woman who has grown up in a world where 90% of the human population was killed by these creatures, called Gadolls. The remaining population lives inside a giant mobile fortress called the Deca-Dence as Tankers, whose job is to support the Gears who fight the monsters. Natsume longs to be a Gear, but her prosthetic arm disqualifies her. Instead, she is assigned to work as an armor repairer, which pretty much means “cleaner” for her first five years on the job.
Well before I knew anything else about the series, the staff for Deca-Dence caught my eye. After all, it was being directed by Tachikawa Yuzuru, and after the visually-striking and often-experimental Mob Psycho 100, and the powerful storytelling of Death Parade, I would follow that man into hell and back. I’m glad I noticed his name attached to the production, because the concept sounds a lot like Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and Darling in the Franxx, to name a few, none of which I cared for. It’s stuffed to the gills with jargon and the early key visuals promised a slightly outdated, steampunk-industrial aesthetic. If I didn’t have whole faith in Tachikawa, I might have not paid attention to Deca-Dence at all.
I’m so glad I did, because this episode was absolutely fucking rad.
Let’s start our plucky heroine, Natsume. Like the concept, she’s pretty typical as the heroine of a science fiction anime. She’s determined and positive that she’s destined for better things, even if life has other ideas. She’s something of a social outcast, but outgoing and determined to break through her gruff male superior Kaburagi’s shell. On paper, she’s really not a particularly interesting or original character…
…But I love her. Okay, yes, part of it is that I’m weak for that character type, but it’s more than just that! Her animation just has so much personality and character that it builds on a fairly stock heroine and makes her feel fun and interesting to follow. Good animation isn’t everything, but it’s great to see the small moments and details given consideration to strengthen a production, rather than just pouring everything into the big fight scenes.
Her disability adds another layer as well. Rather than going with a perfectly lifelike prosthesis that functions just like a real limb a la In/Spectre or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, her prosthetic arm is distinctly clunky and mechanical-looking. Instead of four fingers and a thumb, it has three digits arranged in a triangular formation. It’s unclear whether or not its dexterity can match a natural hand. It does a fine job holding a mop and scraping the sides of the Deca-Dence but it does restrict her opportunities. Gears must be “of sound body,” which apparently precludes artificial limbs. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
Her boss, Kaburagi, is similarly familiar: a gruff, taciturn boss man who is worldly and competent, but burned out. He discourages Natsume from following her dreams, trying to convince her to be content with what life has handed to her. He’s grumpy and doesn’t talk much but has a secret soft side, as demonstrated by his pet Gadoll, a weirdly squishy creature that looks terrifying but moves like an affectionate cat and thus is actually adorable. By the end of the episode, in case you hadn’t figured it out before, it becomes obvious that he’s hiding the secret reason he’s Like This.
When I say Deca-Dence takes well-trod ideas but makes them work through strong execution, I’m not saying it’s all flash and no substance. Yes, there’s a lot of flash, but anime is a visual medium and thus the storytelling should be at least partially visual as well. Every cut, every frame, bursts with information and expressiveness. That’s important, because this first episode is dense. The story it covers could easily been expanded to two or three episodes, but through clever use of environmental storytelling and montage, it doesn’t feel overstuffed or compressed. It feels… perfect.
Deca-Dence is proof-positive that sufficiently powerful execution trumps novelty. I’ve seen plenty of anime with totally original, interesting concepts that didn’t come even close to touching this first episode. I’m excited that, even in a weak season, I have this to watch. I hope you’ll check it out!