Synopsis: Yuko “Yasako” Okonogi and her sister Kyoko have just moved to Daikoku City. After arriving in the city she finds herself getting involved with a group of children who enjoy hacking via use of their “cyber glasses” as well as a mysterious girl who’s also named Yuko but is quickly referred to by everyone as “Isako”. Like most everyone her age, Yasako also enjoys using her cyber glasses, but when she finds herself getting connected to a series of strange incidents involving cyber space, she finds that there may be a lot more to the virtual world than meets the eye…
I’ve been a dedicated anime fan for some 13 odd years now, and in that timespan I’ve consumed far more shows than I’d honestly care to admit. Even with that though, there’s always been that pesky handful of beloved classics that everyone says is a must-watch, and that I keep meaning to get around to, but sadly rarely do. One of those shows happens to be the 2007 Madhouse series, Dennou Coil, which has long been a well regarded sci-fi series. For many years I pushed it to the wayside as something I’d get around to eventually, and even when Maiden Japan licensed the series back in 2016, I still wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pluck down the cash for a blind-buy. Fortunately though, Sentai happened to have a big sale a while ago, and both halves of this show were available for pretty cheap, so I finally decided to bite the bullet and give it shot. Now that I finally have, it’s time to see if this show really does live up to it’s strong reputation.
Dennou Coil’s primary objective is the exploration of how much technology (in particular virtual reality and the internet) has become integrated into our daily lives, and how much of a separation, if any, there should be between the virtual world and the real one. Given that this show was created in 2006, and by extension, well before the popularization of social media, I was a little worried that a lot of its commentary would feel dated but it actually holds up quite well. Rather than going for a direct approach in how it tackles those subjects, there’s a high level of abstraction to the way it presents technology that helps in allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions to the good and bad it presents. On the downside that approach means that its easy to lose track of those thoughts on technology in light of some of the shows other themes, such as coping with loss, but it works much more often than not, and the series manages to keep things consistent on that end.
It helps that all of that abstraction is gazed at through the lens of the show’s cast of kids. From the obnoxious, but ultimately good natured Daichi, to Fumie who often pretends to act more mature than she actually is, all of the children who make up the show’s core group of characters come off as really earnest portrayals of kids, and for the most part, that makes them all the more charming. Centering an ambitious sci-fi narrative around a children might seem like a bit of a strange choice, but it’s one that largely works to the show’s benefit as it allows for the series to forgo any massive infodumps about how its various pieces of tech work, in favor of more natural worldbuilding that helps everything feel really alive. We learn about new information at roughly the same speed Yasako learns them from the other kids, and the way in which they all interact with the virtual world makes the series feel almost more like a hi-fantasy at times than a sci-fi with some of the hacking tools feeling more like magic than technology. It does a lot in helping to make Daikoku City feel like a fun and naturally interesting world to explore, and the sense of wonder and exaggeration that comes from how kids tend to view the world really adds to that effect.
The actual overarching story on the other hand is kind of where things are at its weakest. While many of the show’s early episodes are spent gradually easing the audience into the world of Daikoku City, it evolves into a giant mystery concerning the existence of strange virtual entities known as “Illegals” as well as the dangers of older cyberspaces, before ultimately resulting in a giant conspiracy involving several different factions. It’s perfectly functional, but it can get a little confusing as far as who’s working for who and while it does all come together in the end, I was far less invested in the plot than the characters or any of it’s larger themes. Fortunately the story does manage to tie into the latter pretty effectively and in the end, Dennou Coil’s biggest argument for what role virtual technology should have for us emotionally is that it’s basically up to the individual to decide what’s real to them and what isn’t. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking stance at this point, but it’s neutral enough that audiences can come to their own personal conclusions on that, and it works well enough to still help the series feel relevant. Those are more or less the areas a sci-fi really needs to aim at in order to age gracefully and in that respect, Dennou Coil succeeds in spades.
In addition to having aged pretty well as a sc-fi story, Dennou Coil has also aged quite well visually. The character designs by Takeshi Honda are on the cartoonish side, but in a way that lends themselves very well to animation, helping to make the kids feel expressive and energetic in a way that feels more akin to something like a Studio Ghibli movie than a TV anime production. That child-like animation is well supported by the show’s general art direction which maintains many of the muted colors and quite atmosphere that would be typically expected from a sci-fi story, but close enough in look to the character designs not to make them feel like they’re from completely different shows. Those elements combine together well, and it helps to create an effective contrast between the high energy of the kids, and the much more somber nature of the world around them. Music wise the show is a bit more lacking as the score by Tsuneyoshi Saito is solid but not particularly striking, although the opening theme “Prism” by Ayako Ikeda does a great job of helping to set the mood every episode with its quiet and haunting tone.
I decided to with the English audio when checking out the show, and I have to admit I was really impressed with it. Houston based dubs can be kind of hit or miss for me, but everything here was very smooth. Hillary Hagg and Monica Rial both deliver excellent performances as the leads Yasako and Isako, while others such as Brittney Karbowski and Tiffany Grant do an equally strong job as Fumie and Daichi respectively, with just about everyone in the supporting cast really stepping up to bat for this show. My personal favorite of the bunch though, was Laura Chapman as Specsgranny who had me laughing just about every time she did something wacky while also being able to dial things back whenever the mood got serious. The dub’s script also really helps in setting the tone as a lot of the dialogue is handled in a way that actually feels how younger kids would talk to each other without ever getting to the point where it felt like a distraction, and it did a lot to make the performances from the cast feel more natural where they otherwise might not have. I can’t really speak for how well they compare to the Japanese cast, but if you want to watch the show in English, I imagine you’ll be very satisfied here.
So having finally watched Dennou Coil, I can safely say that it’s reputation is very well deserved. The show has a fantastic sense of atmosphere that really helps to make its sci-fi elements feel wondrous, and its filled with a cast of characters that are all generally pretty fun to hang out with. Although things get a little overly convoluted when it comes to the actual plot, it works well enough that it doesn’t harm any of the other things the series is trying to do, and it does those other things so well that those complaints are more of a nitpick if anything. Even though it’s been long enough that its views on virtual technology could have easily aged terribly, it manages to take a smart enough stance on those views that I’m confident it’ll still feel relevant even after another decade’s passed. I wasn’t really sure what to expect blind-buying this, but needless to say, I feel like I made a pretty smart purchase.
Available for streaming on HiDive