Dennou Coil Anime Review
電脳コイル - Coil A Circle of Children
US Release By
Technological Coming-of-age Sci-fi
26 25-minute episodes
2007-05-12 - 2007-12-01
Yuuko "Yasako" Okonogi is a meek but otherwise average girl just moving to a new city with her parents and younger sister. She, and all the other children in the area, wear the latest generation of internet-connected glasses that overlay a virtual world onto what they see. A place inhabited by virtual pets, digital tools, and--in the case of kids who like to break a few rules in the quest to have fun--some hacked tricks that give them all manner of weapons with which to play pranks on each other. Of course, this activity doesn't go unnoticed by the area's authorities, who created the giant pink Satchi to cheerfully and blindly hunt for kids and their little bags of technically illegal tricks ripe for erasure.
Yuuko's life gets rather more exciting when she gets roped into joining a couple of lively classmates in her grandmother's cyber-detective agency. Even more so when she meets the like-named Yuuko "Isako" Amasawa, also a new student in her class, whose unparalleled cyber-skills make her feared among the school's self-proclaimed Hacker Club.
But this other Yuuko is hunting for odd virtual creatures--"illegals"--for the purpose of unlocking some secret hiding in the shadowy areas of virtual space. Something that seems connected to Yuuko's hazy memories of her late grandfather, and something that becomes increasingly dangerous to those involved.
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Like Ghost in the Shell meets My Neighbor Totoro, Dennou Coil takes place in a near-future world drenched in technology, yet still sunny, well-lit, and pleasantly familiar. Using glasses that overlay a magic-like virtual reality onto the real world, the kids' make-believe games are given visual form and a high-tech facade that is appealing for its blend of nostalgia and wild imagination. The series begins with a variety of slice-of-life episodes ranging from cheerful adventure to brilliantly warped comedy, but as the ghost-in-the-machine moves from urban legend to some fantastically creepy moments the drama builds to a darker and dramatically effective conclusion. Built on creative technology and lavish visuals, driven by a very human emotional core with messages about loss and heartache, and pieced together with satisfyingly solid storytelling and setting, the closest thing it has to a weak point are a handful of somewhat clumsily dramatic episodes early on.
Though appropriate for younger viewers and carrying valuable messages for them, Dennou Coil is substantial, appealing, and intellectually satisfying enough to be of plenty of interest to an older audience. Highly recommended as a near-perfect package of fantasy adventure, science fiction, spine-tingling mystery, and human drama.
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Dennou Coil is something like what you might get if you combined Serial Experiments Lain with Ghost in the Shell, then gave it to Miyazaki to direct. It overlays pervasive technology on a pleasant near-future Japanese town and lets kids run wild with it, resulting in an old-fashioned coming-of-age story that is full of light adventure, seasoned liberally with urban legend folklore, and topped off with some decidedly creepy moments. A tour de force by first-time creator/director/writer Mitsuo Iso, it's simultaneously familiar and completely unique, not to mention enthralling entertainment.
Dennou Coil is nominally a kids show, but like Miyazaki's films it has enough substance that it shouldn't be lumped into that category. The story is pointedly told from the perspective of its likable cast of children--there are no scenes in which at least one kid isn't present. They gradually become involved in something much larger than the game they initially start out playing, but while there is corporate espionage and government malfeasance, they're only dimly aware of it. The audience, likewise, is only informed in overheard bits, which might seem a little unsatisfying but serves to keep you guessing about the big picture. Personally, I found the focus gripping.
The series begins at a leisurely pace, introducing us to the kids with glasses and the augmented reality they inhabit. These episodes are anchored in pleasant small-city settings bathed in warm summer light that evoke a sort of nostalgia. The virtual world overlaid on this setting adds a jarring discontinuity, a sense of technological overload creeping into even the most analog of places.
It's almost disconcerting how readily the kids take to this dual world. The glasses--which are functionally a combination cell phone/augmented-reality web browser with a lot of "fun" features on the side--are used by adults, realistically, but more as a tool than a way of life. The kids, however, see everything--literally--through the filter of their virtual playground.
Interestingly, the series neither glorifies nor condemns this; it is presented as simply the way things are, with kids, basically, having fun with the tools at hand.
More interesting is the reason this virtual-reality overlay seems so natural: The glasses essentially give external form to the fantasy worlds kids inhabited before the Internet Era. Fighting battles with toy weapons, playing with imaginary friends, and looking for hidden treasure are, after all, forms of make-believe as old as childhood itself.
This is perhaps why a concept so fundamentally alien seems so familiar and easy to accept. Also, viewed through the lens of a subliminal message to young viewers raised in front of monitors and glued to cell phones, the show depicts kids outside being physically active and interacting directly with other people. Since they're using digital tools in the real world, it's also less a MMORPG and more make-believe with a digital facade.
Though in some ways Dennou Coil uses technology as a stand-in for magic, from a technical perspective it's actually surprisingly concrete and logical. For example, the kids will periodically lift their glasses up, showing them (and us) whether what they're seeing is real or not. Using cues like this it effortlessly establishes the functionality of the world without ever resorting to techno-babble, and only rarely breaks with the logic of how the virtual world interacts--or, rather, doesn't--with the real.
The series is also meticulous about giving visual clues to the unreality of the virtual overlay--small glitches, slightly transparent objects, and error messages abound, particularly when the kids are using their hacked tricks.
On that note, the gorgeous visuals alone (by renowned studio Madhouse) would be enough to make the show worth watching. It offers marvelous contrast of imaginative virtual "magic"--instant brick walls and chalk-drawn digital inscriptions to capture virtual creatures--with the simple, richly-painted beauty of the suburban setting--sunlit parks, weather-worn temples, and winding side streets, often with the giant pink Satchi hovering incongruently past. All of this is presented in lavish high-definition detail and paired with fluid, beautifully expressive character animation. The playful orchestral score, though not quite the masterpiece of the visuals, is an appealing complement to them; a melancholy opening theme sets the tone nicely.
The early episodes about kids being kids with a digital overlay are a tweak on slice-of-life adolescent fun that are interesting and enjoyable on multiple levels, but the adventure slowly escalates into an involved plot with dire consequences to those involved. This is where the series goes from being merely impressive fun to gripping drama.
At first the dark things hiding in the virtual world are only mentioned as urban folklore--ghost-in-the-machine stories and internet rumor. And then, every once in a while, the show will whip out a scene so exceedingly creepy it will send chills down your spine--a few, in fact, that are so marvelously unsettling that they still send chills down my spine weeks later. At its best, it's among the most goosebump-inducing things I've had the pleasure of watching.
As these dark things creep closer to the surface we follow a downward spiral of the three protagonists as they fight to understand what is happening around them and to come to terms with where the boundaries of reality lie.
The increasingly tenuous border between the real and virtual world for them is effective as both mystery and human drama. Further, the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together to form a picture that is entirely satisfying from an intellectual as well as narrative standpoint. The last episode doesn't leave loose ends or abandoned plot threads apart from a few that are intentionally vague due to being out of the kids' sphere of influence (and interest).
The series' only weak point is a couple of episodes surrounding the kids' virtual pets that stretch the logic of the world a little far in an effort to set up somewhat clumsy drama. Even these, though, carry something of a worthwhile message for younger viewers about loss and death.
The core message, in fact, involves coming to terms with loss, told through the meek protagonist's interaction with the other central character, Amasawa, and the most significant secondary lead, Haraken. As Yuuko struggles to remember something important from the time her beloved grandfather died, she tries to crack the shell of the willfully friendless, jaded-beyond-her-years Amasawa, who hides a great deal of pain behind her confident, aloof exterior. In parallel, Haraken is a quiet, intelligent boy whose friend was killed in a car accident possibly related to her glasses, and is trying to make some sense of her death by reconstructing the circumstances that lead to it.
The friction, uneasy cooperation, hints of budding romance, and attempts at friendship between these very different personalities supply plenty of solid emotional drama that is still believably age-appropriate. When they're eventually forced to confront increasingly painful realities about the dark secrets their virtual playground holds, the drama is remarkably effective.
On the flip side, there are a few much less serious episodes that range from merely funny (one of the kids producing virtual thunder to complement ghost stories) to one that is such warped genius that it would've been worth watching the entire series for.
Specifically, the episode features an unusual virus that gives nearly everyone a beard that, upon closer examination, is composed of creatures acting out Spore (or Sim Earth, if you're my age). The concept of everyone sporting tiny developing civilizations on their face is funny enough, but the execution takes the idea to its absolute extreme, resulting in a combination of hysterical side effects and unexpectedly poignant musing about religion, progress, and the meaning of life.
The acting is uniformly good, and the large cast of children, voiced by an experienced troupe of actors, sound appropriate for their ages. Amasawa, voiced powerfully by the exceptionally talented Houko Kuwashima, is the only one of the kids who sounds rather older than she should, but this works fine with the character. Fumiko Orikasa (probably best known as the near-opposite Rukia from Bleach) turns in a memorable against-type performance as the meeker Yuuko, with a believable mix of reserve and normal girl.
Dennou Coil covers a broad range of emotional territory over its 26 episodes, and does so with confident aplomb. The lighter slice-of-life sections are entertaining and given a creative twist through the mixing of digital "magic" and real-world charm; the sometimes darker human drama is solid and moving; the humorous sections occasionally touch on a kind of genius; the virtual ghost story is spectacularly spine-tingling; and the plot is logically and structurally satisfying. Simultaneously alien and nostalgic, alternately touching and hilarious, and uniformly enjoyable, Dennou Coil is an absolutely fantastic series with plenty to offer to viewers old and young alike.
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The blend of childhood adventure, comedy, and dark urban folklore is somewhat unique; Serial Experiments Lain has a far more overt, dark, surreal take on technological saturation and urban legend, without any of the comedy. The similar-yet-different, and also very dark, Boogiepop Phantom bears a resemblance in the investigative angle and mystery. Ghibli films are the most similar overall, with the same sense of childhood wonder, coming-of-age reality, everyday magic, and beautiful interpretation of mundane locales; Whisper of the Heart tops that list, followed by My Neighbor Totoro. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex comes at the issue of reality perceived through technology, with a more adult interpretation and heavier philosophy.
Notes and Trivia
Dennou Coil is an original creation for NHK, Japan's public broadcasting equivalent of the BBC, broadcast on their high definition channel. There is a short manga adaptation by Mizuki Kuze, not available in English as of this writing. There is also a series of novels adapted from the story, by the coincidentally-named Yuuko Miyamura; the seventh book was published in December 2008.
The "Dennou" in the title literally means "electronic brain," but the meaning in context is very close to "cyber" in English. "Coil" is written phonetically, so is just the English word; the reason for it is eventually explained in the series. The original also includes the subtitle "Coil A Circle of Children" written in English.
Dennou Coil was conceived, scripted, and directed by animator Mitsuo Iso, new to all those roles apart from scripting one episode each of RahXephon and Evangelion. He has, however, been an animator on a wide variety of well-known projects since the '80s. It's not surprising that he was one of the key animators of Ghibli films Only Yesterday and Porco Rosso, though he's filled the same role in productions as varied as the first Ghost in the Shell movie, Perfect Blue, FLCL, Blood, and Blue Submarine 6. Given his apparent skill as a director and writer, I certainly hope he's put in those roles more often.
The series takes an interesting tack when dealing with money. The penalty for having your glasses erased by the automated authorities is having to restore from a backup, which is consistently referenced as costing as much as an otoshidama. Otoshidama is a relatively large cash gift--currently on the order of US$100--given to kids as a new year's present. Because this is the default measure, meaning "large sum of money for a kid," the series gets its point across to viewers of any age without having to throw numbers around or worry about inflation (or, since it's Japan, possibly deflation).
US DVD Review
There is no official North American release as of this writing.
Though there's no objectionable content, and it is certainly age-appropriate for the middle-school cast, there are some generally mature themes, very scary scenes, and heavy enough drama to warrant a 10-up.
Violence: 2 - Most of the violence is just playful virtual warfare, though later on there is more direct physical conflict with real implications.
Nudity: 1 - Nothing even remotely erotic; just incidental bathing scenes and similar household activities.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Cute childhood romance, and some more general mature themes in later episodes.
Language: 1 - There is no official English translation, but likely quite mild.