The Master of Illusion; Deca-dence Episodes 1-2

The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was… it was the look on their faces.

The Prestige

A flip of the coin. A body levitating in the air. Procuring a card from the sleeve. For decades, magic tricks have consistently impressed us, allowing us to suspend our disbelief for a glimmer of a second, and making us reconsider the laws of how things work. There is no greater surprise than an effective illusion, and no greater disappointment than one that fails. It’s precisely why when shows utilize a magic trick – also known as bait and switch – that it’s either met with applause or scathing criticism. After all, unlike a magic show, a show has only so many tricks it can pull from its sleeve before the audience gets bored and can quite literally, exit the series.

Deca-dence‘s first two episodes is much like a wondrous magic trick; it deceives us, lures us into a genre of comfort, only to switch the gears and flip us into a different narrative completely. It’s nothing short of wondrous, and the way it does it is very clever, but it also serves a solemn purpose: the current affairs of the world are miserable, exhausting, and depressing. We all want something more to believe in. Maybe magic tricks are all we have to escape.

Deca-dence starts off with a quick dive into its setting, much like an RPG prologue chapter: we’re introduced to Deca-dence, a giant metal fortress that is a harbor for humans and non-humans alike, from the monsters named Gadoll. Our heroine, Natsume, has a shonen-like dream of becoming a fighter (Gear) for her people, but is physically hindered by having a prosthetic arm and thus is assigned to armor repairing (Tanker). However, her attempts to apply to this career fail as she’s rejected, and is instead sent to the lowest of the barracks, where she helps lone wolf Kaburagi clean the outside surface of the fortress.

Without the backdrop of the second episode, much of the first episode seems like genuine establishment of setting. It clearly grounds the main two characters, provides a tight but not overwhelming exposition dump, and even provides the audience with some exciting action. All of these motions signal to a comfortable action-fantasy genre, and as a result, we, as the audience, settle in quickly.

Deca-dence‘s first episode is tightly shot, weaving in “grinding” phases of development with quick cuts of Natsume and Kaburagi’s interactions. It expects us to fill in the gaps, having been acquainted with their base personalities and multitudes of stories that feature the same kind of protagonists and relationships.

This is important, and not just for the twist that appears in episode 2. Pilot episodes of any series are historically known to be the “attention grabber”; not on just an explanatory level, but as the hook for retaining an audience and determining whether a show is to succeed. Deca-dence‘s first episode must succeed on two narrative levels – hooking us as an audience engaged with this kind of action, but also of its own ambition; an ambition that we’re not exposed to until the second episode. (We’ll get to that later)

One of the clearest ways Deca-dence hooks its viewer is through immersion, or visual storytelling. Scale is something that’s often been used to really entrap the audience, emotionally and aesthetically. We’ve seen this before in works like Made in Abyss, and Deca-dence utilizes similar tools: a contrast in scale, and detailed background paintings to give life to the setting. The first episode is already chock full of information, so much of the setting, atmosphere, and details regarding the environment are often left to this technique. Ironically, these elements are very similar to how RPGs immerse us in their fantasy worlds. Environmental set pieces, lush backgrounds, swelling music, first POV action scenes; Deca-dence takes no time in making sure that this is a setting that the audience is able to feel enveloped by.

And what better than to familiarize the audience with the world and system than with a “starter” character, none other than the charming and naive Natsume? Not only is Natsume appealing in personality – she’s sassy, bold, fun, and gregarious – but she’s also lacking in skills and thus is the perfect underdog to introduce the world to us and root for in terms of her situation. Deca-dence realizes this, and it’s why so much of the first episode is about setting up her character, as someone to root for, but also as someone that shows the faults of the system she lives in.

This is important, because its these ties that lead to the second episode’s identity: performing the bait and switch and flip flopping much of those concepts we were introduced to in the first epiosde. It’s worth pointing out that these tricks don’t come out of nowhere, or appear as shock value: episode 1 creates a bread crumb trail of herrings and hints, and even lands on the cliffhanger of “what’s going on here, really?”

The most crucial and blatant switch that Deca-dence‘s second episode creates, is the fact that Deca-dence is not the world that its main protagonist fundamentally occupies. Deca-dence is rather, an entertainment system, not simulated or virtual, but as virtual as an MMO can get for its citizens – cyborgs, that “log in” to this real world, play as characters that fight against Gadoll, and rack up experience points to become better players. In reality, humans are an “endangered species” to interact with, and Deca-dence serves as much as a prison as a safe house to protect them from being wiped out. The world the cyborgs inhabit is run by a capitalistic entertainment system, implanting chips in humans, and secretly running tests to eliminate any “faulty” bugs that may endanger this system in the first place.

It’s a revelation that adds underbelly to many of the stylistic and narrative choices the first episode makes. The RPG system that we’re too familiar with in video games doesn’t just become a symbolism for the corrupt capitalist system that Kaburagi and his fellow cyborgs operate under: it’s an extension applied to Natsume and other humans. Much like how humans are conditioned to start from the bottom of the ladder and work their way up, Kaburagi’s “gaming” ranking pits fellow cyborg against fellow cyborg as they hone their skills and rise their way to the top. And just like how RPG’s classify jobs or races based on attributes, the world that Kaburagi lives in too, divides its citizens based on their attributes, assigning them roles that “best” fit their duties. Above it all is the regular complacency and strive to be productive; not just a functional member of society, but to exceed expectations and be rewarded for it. The delusion here is meritocracy; it’s just that in RPGs, it’s seemingly rewarded, and therefore, Natsume’s (and to that extent, Mikey’s) ambition and pleas are even more tragic.

Just like how Natsume truly believes that working hard will let her achieve her dreams, despite not knowing she’s within the confines of a system that denies her opportunities….
Mikey’s delusions of grandeur and fame are propagated by a system that rewards him for being “special” and a top player; ironically, it’s his desperation (often framed as greed) that punish him from the same system that pushed him to be this way.

If Deca-dence‘s second episode uses illusion as a way to reward us and give us opportunities that may not quite exist, it also talks about how illusions can deceive and entrap us. Capitalism often operates under such manipulative deceits; most commonly, that we must give up something in order to reach for greater heights. The RPG narrative also plays with this theme, as the idea of a forbidden “limiter release” is discussed in the second episode, as it gives the trade off of physical pain for increased power. It’s this kind of particular illusion that draws personalities like Mikey’s to becoming nothing but invaluable fodder for excitement and other’s shallow pleasures. We’re told consistently we can be great. Special. Indispensable. The cruelty of Mikey’s death isn’t just a wake up call to Kaburagi; it’s a crushing truth that nearly drives him to suicide.

Kaburagi also follows an illusion from capitalist confines: a janitor by day, a secret agent by night, unwillingly. He couldn’t be more productive to the society he lives in, and yet, couldn’t be unhappier.

This disillusionment is all too often among citizens, and Kaburagi’s apathy towards his surroundings, while something we’ve seen far too often from these kind of stories, is contextually explained. It’s here where Deca-dence plays its second card, in a nuanced and casual way. The setting mismatch isn’t the only switch that Deca-dence integrates. Whereas in episode one, we thought that the main protagonist would be Natsume, in episode two, she is revealed to be more of the experiment that we’ve been looking at via Kaburagi’s point of view. It’s actually Kaburagi who’s the main protagonist, and this is where Deca-dence‘s ambition in the first episode really rewards itself; Deca-dence’s first episode with Natsume is not to just hook us, the audience, but Kaburagi, to her plight, as well. It’s only through “watching” her backstory and ambitions that Kaburagi decides not to throw his life away and use it for something worthwhile: to prove the capitalistic system wrong, and give Natsume a chance to show her true colors not just to herself and others, but to this very system that denies her any chance of success.

Episode 2 elegantly re-frames much of the context from Kaburagi’s point of view. She’s as much of an RPG character to root for and interact from his perspective as much as ours.

This is a magic trick that operates externally, but internally as well; a bait and switch that is step away from shock value but a step forward in narrative culmination of duality: uniting intertwining two structures (RPG, and traditional capitalism) into something greater. In succeeding on both levels, Deca-dence manages to establish wonder in its audience, but also its cynical main protagonist. There is hope. There is more to believe in, even if it seems to be an illusion. Dare we take the leap of faith?

Notes:

  • I’m actually covering this week to week! I hope! Ep 3-4 review and Ep 5-6 review should be out later this week, so fun times ahead, I hope.
  • My flatmate mistakenly assumed this was an Attack on Titan show and boy have I never been happier to prove that kind of statement wrong. Deca-dence seems to have a lot more to say about dualities here and I’m really looking forward to talking about that as much as possible.
  • One of my biggest caveats however, is the use of 3DCG. I talked a little about scale here but while I think the show is effective in using 3DCG to communicate scale and instill immersion, it’s still clunky. Especially coming off shows like Dorohedoro and BBK/BRNK, it’s just like….man, I wish this was more polished, you know?
  • Something I didn’t get to quite say but damn, Deca-dence‘s OST fucking rules. Great mix of Kajiura-inspired Celtic music intertwined with sweeping, RPG-ish adventure vibes.

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