NOTE: also sometimes spelled ‘Dennou Coil’

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Produced by cult animation studio Madhouse and directed by relative newcomer Mitsuo Iso, Denno Coil first started airing in Japan in May of last year, which is when I first started watching it, courtesy of Ureshii’s sublime fansubs. In fact, I watched the first 8 episodes just days after each one was first broadcast, but with other commitments and time conspiring against me, I criminally left the rest of the series untouched on my hard drive for months, until last week when I had a chance to sit down and try and catch up. I got as far as episode 12, still leaving me with another 14 to watch, and believe me, I’m going to be doing whatever I can to get through them. That new short story I’m working on may just have to wait a little bit longer.

Centred around a group of Japanese elementary school children, the show is at first glance apparently aimed at that age group, but with closer inspection that’s about as useful an assessment as dismissing My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away as just kids’ films. In fact, I wouldn’t be the first critic to make the comparison between Denno Coil and some of Ghibli’s better crafted output, and it is a wholly deserved and justifiable one.

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Set in 2026, it tells the story of young Yūko Okonogi, who moves with her family to the city of Daikoku, the technological centre of an emerging half-virtual world, created after the introduction of internet-connected augmented reality eyeglasses eleven years previously. This new technology has now become as common place as, and in fact replacing the role of, cell phones for Daikoku’s inhabitants. As such it has become massively popular with children, and even before Yūko can start at her new school, she finds herself tied up with a group of kids that spend their whole life in this augmented, half-real digital world, playing with virtual pets, battling each other with over the top (but of course harmless) cartoon weapons, hunting for the gem-like ‘meta-bugs’ and investigating the mysterious computer viruses known as ‘Illegals’.

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From the very first episode the series is enthralling and compelling, for a number of reasons, the most significant of which being the way that the writers and animators have managed to create an all too believable world, with carefully thought out logical rules and systems. As a viewer it is impossible not to believe in the technology it depicts, or to avoid being convinced that something very, very similar lies just around our collective corner. As you watch you quickly start to understand how this augmented world works and behaves, and it starts to feel less like an anime fantasy and more like a description of a futuristic personal operating system, with it’s screen wrapped around you and its icons and interfaces pulled out into three dimensions. As the children play and interact with the colourful, often cartoon like objects and creatures that the glasses insert into their world, it’s clear that each one represents real-world, familiar computer applications; the ‘metatag’ stickers that they stick on traffic lights to change them are in fact hackers’ scripts, the over zealous floating robots that patrol the city are in fact anti-virus software, and the slimy, odious ‘Illegal’ creatures that hide in the shadows are fragments of malicious code. One of my strongest beliefs is that good science fiction always makes social commentary on the time in which it was written, and it is here that Denno Coil excels, presenting a world where children are more in touch with technology than their parents, are obsessed with video games and Pokemon style fads, and where peer pressure and owning the latest gadgets can become almost disturbingly important.

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Visually every episode I’ve watched to date is excellent, as you would expect from a studio of the pedigree of Madhouse behind it. Again character design is reminiscent of Ghibli – especially Yūko’s little sister and the ‘Mojo’ virtual pets, who both reference famous charcaters from Totoro – but it is depiction of the technology and it’s interfaces that really grabs the attention. Everything feels like a slightly warmer, more user friendly versions of the AR tech we’re familiar with from Ghost in the Shell, and again it borrows heavily from video game aesthetics, although this time leaning to the slightly more kawaii, Nintendo style, rather than the dark, violent vibe shown in recent games influenced work like Appleseed. While this is mainly due to the age of the characters and the shows family target demographic in Japan, it works perfectly, referencing fads like Pokemon without ever feeling quite as childish or overly cute. Also impressive is the noise and digital glitching effects subtly employed throughout the show – so subtly in fact that many viewers at first thought they were quality control issues – that remind the viewer that what both they and the characters are experiencing is not always real.

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What ultimately makes Denno Coil such a success for me though, and i’m so pleased to be writing this, is the writing. The dialogue feels natural at all times, even when the characters are talking about technology and concepts that are unfamiliar to the viewer, and the children act in wholly believable ways. The whole series is accessible and friendly, while at the same time having the sort of downbeat atmosphere usually only found in Oshii movies – while at first we seem to be just watching child characters develop, there is constantly the feeling that some sinister mystery is gradually unravelling, and that perhaps some terrible secret will unveil itself before the series ends. Certainly it’s yet another example of how the Japanese have become masters of writing not only for anime, but also TV in general, and is possibly the best example since Planetes I’ve seen of their ability effortlessly fit so plot, humour and real character depth into 25 minutes, leaving you wishing that we took are TV writing, for both adults and children, anywhere near as seriously.

With still 14 more episodes left to watch I can firmly say that, unless it seriously jumps the shark, Denno Coil is set to be a remembered as a true classic in anime TV history. But don’t just take my word for it, go and grab the first episode right now, kick back and just relish in it.

Read the second part of this review here.