There are moments you remember watching anime season-by-season. Guillotine Gorilla. The magic of Rolling Girls’s premiere. Waiting in anguish after the tenth episode of Madoka Magica for the series finale, fearing the worst. As I’ve written on this blog before, you remember these moments precisely because watching anime as it comes out can be tedious and disappointing. It’s far healthier to check out shows you’ve been recommended once they’ve finished airing, rather than waiting on tenterhooks to see whether a series you like will successfully cash its check. But then watching anime along with friends as it airs is exactly how you get sucker-punched by shows like Deca-Dence. You begin an episode expecting tedium (or something else: the second episode of a seemingly pretty good show) only to scream like a banshee by minute three.
There was something off about Deca-Dence from the jump. The first episode begins with buried relics and secrets. It ends with a sudden leap from its Attack on Titan-by-way-of-Ghibli setting to a bustling metropolis of weird little beings drawn in a completely different style from the rest of the show. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Could it be that this show that appears to be about a young girl joining the military to defend her home from monsters, really be about hunters and gatherers obtaining monster flesh for rampant capitalists?” Most anime would drop that kind of bombshell in the third episode, or even wait until the last minute before raising the curtain. According to staff interviews, the team of Deca-Dence planned to drop the hammer around episode four or so, leaving you to question Kaburagi’s motivations for the first third of the series. But they couldn’t find a way to make it work dramatically: who would like or trust Kaburagi if you didn’t know his deal? So Deca-Dence does something risky. Just a few minutes into the second episode, a mysterious narrator blindsides you with the truth of the show’s setting and turns the whole story on its head.
It’s an incredible moment. Partly because it’s so underplayed, giving you information purposefully hidden by the marketing as if it was a key part of the story all along. Partly because the new elements the shift introduces are radically different aesthetically from what we’ve seen so far. Before directing Deca-Dence, Tachikawa and a team of incredible animators at Bones produced Mob Psycho 100, an action series that could change technique and style at the drop of a hat to fit the needs of an episode. While made by a very different team of creators, Deca-Dence reads to me as an attempt to apply that philosophy to world design: rather than integrating two worlds into a whole, Tachikawa’s varied team of artists at Studio NUT strive to make each visual element as distinctive as possible without breaking the series.
The result is that every time I’ve had the privilege to watch other folks experience the second episode table flip, the moment has played like gangbusters. Several weeks ago, some friends of mine in an anime club took it upon themselves, unspoiled, to watch Deca-Dence. They were enthusiastic about the first episode, with its fun characters and action scenes, but the very next week they sat through the opening credits to the second episode in stunned silence. Every time this happens there’s a person who thinks “oh, they have to be bluffing, right? The main character can’t really look like that? This can’t be it?” It is. It’s beautiful.
The best part, which some folks have pointed out, is how little The Twist in Deca-Dence actually changes things. A series about a courageous young woman who teams up with a bitter older man to challenge the machine is still exactly that. But suddenly, the machine is real! If Deca-Dence ends as something more explicable than what the second episode promised, a relentlessly imaginative pastiche of the good Pixar films and classic 2000s Madhouse series, I’ll always remember the moment the show pranked its audience live on television. Yuzuru Tachikawa is truly a director to be reckoned with. Now, if only he’d admit that Deca-Dence takes place in the Heybot multiverse. Then we’d be getting somewhere…