4 out of 5

Directed by: Yuzuru Tachikawa

Deca-Dence is a series initially defined by its genre shakeups. While I think some viewers had some expectations set by comparisons to Sword Art Online or Attack on Titan, I went into it cold, so defining those shakeups up front would create a different experience than I had, which was one of: “Oh, so it’s this kind of show…” as the first few episodes peeled away at the story, only for that statement to get overwritten by the next one in the next episode. And that’s a positive – I’d say the surprise of shifting from one state to another was one of my greatest of recent viewings – and also a negative, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch some of those shows I thought it was going to be, and it also starts to pile up: by the middle of the show, I had questions to which I felt there weren’t clear answers – questions that weren’t really being treated as such by the story – and the helpful community of “let’s-comment-on-an-episode-as-soon-as-it-airs” online denizens at least helped to confirm that I wasn’t alone in that.

So the show has a learning curve.

Even the “basic” premise of a lower, working class of “tankers” and upper, fighting class of “gears” and their society inside a giant, moving mechanism called “Deca-Dence” which siphons “oxyone” from monstrous “Gadoll” which roam the lands prior to the gears flitting out and about to kick their monstrous arses is a bit much to swallow. What’s the deal with the Gadoll’s zero-gravity “zones” they bubble themselves with when attacked? Why does POV character and tanker Natsume (voiced earnestly by Tomori Kusunoki) have a robotic arm when no one else seems to have robotic appendages? Remember how the first shot of the series was seemingly in some other landscape, with characters we haven’t seen again?

I’m lumping all of this up front because these are the roadblocks in a viewer’s way, Deca-Dence picks and chooses from concepts with which we’re familiar and it’s not clear what we’re supposed to “know” and what we can look forward to being “taught,” and yet: the show is imminently watchable.

The animation, from NUT, helps, with Wit-level fluidity to characters and strong, recognizable character / creature design, and then sudden Masaaki Yuasa affectations (stemming from one of those genre shakeups), giving the series an absolutely unique blend of styles that nonetheless works together seamlessly. The acting and dialogue are also quality, giving us admittedly cookie-cutter characters – Natsume is wholesome and will overcome the limitations of her tanker heritage; her boss Kaburagi (Katsuyuki Konishi) is all stoic father figure hero-type – but writing them with the kind of panache of our top tier Marvel characters: character arcs that are set in stone, with predictable beats of jokes and patter, and then allowing for a sense of personality and humanity to peek through all of that. And the story, for all of its twists and turns, provides easy egress through those roadblocks because, smartly, it never loses sight of Natsume’s and Kaburagi’s travels. All those questions are, actually, background to their experiences, and are mostly answered anyway while you’re enjoying getting to know them, through the expected set of circumstances that allow Natsume to gear up and join the Gears – taught how to fight by Kaburagi, of course – and the montages that follow, and Natsume’s whole-hearted way of encouraging her fellow tankers to butt against their set places in the system…

Yeah, if you look at the corners, there’s still plenty of Whys left littered about, but the Marvel name-check is pretty fitting: this is blockbuster-y stuff, but really well done, with a satisfying trajectory across its twelve episodes and a sense of gravity to the story that gives us appropriate gains and losses along the way and very cheer-worthy good guys who all come together to best the easily-jeered bad guys. There are smarter versions of this that dive into the lore a bit more than the surface level Deca-Dence essentially goes for, but I don’t know if that story can be told with as much fun over a compact single cour.