Review of Dennou Coil (2007)

Moving picture

Seen in 2017.

Being the site of Megamass corporation headquarters, Daikoku city is the leader in augmented-reality adoption. Local children in particular are avid users, keeping poop-free pets and tracking down interesting glitches in buggy old parts of the municipal software space layered on top of the real world. Anti-virus software from the Ministry of Post is barred from schools—that’s the Ministry of Education’s turf—shrines—that’s the Ministry of Culture—and private property, but you don’t see any of the fun stuff unless you’re wearing megane. The word just means “glasses”; instead of smartphones everybody’s got gesture-sensitive eyewear with an embedded computer over the ear. As shown in episode 13, virtual critters get their own visual information from cameras mounted throughout Daikoku. Self-driving cars use the same ubiquitous computing network, but are not yet common.

Extrapolative near-future soft-SF children’s drama. The first three episodes are practically a short feature, with dramaturgically inappropriate cuts between the episodes. After this the series settles into a serialized funk for a while, with little short subjects that are more interesting than the overarching plot.

For instance, episode 11 features giant flying fish in town, with a little lady beating a mat taking no notice, which is very Oshii Mamoru. Episode 12 explores a Civilization clone for the new medium, giving the infected a virtual beard of tiny figures capable of positive atheism against their host/player/goddess. Their eventual nuclear war is a metaphor for acne.

Episode 12 also has a chat room, but such things are rare. The ways that children would actually be using smartphones 10 years after the production, in 2017, are not predicted. There is no social network, no meme culture, no selfies, no video sites or simulcasting, no VR etc. There is also no creative doodling or redecorating as might be expected with ubiquitous AR. The futurism is very relaxed and humanistic.

Instead of cold, hard extrapolation and prescience, Dennō Coil immediately veers into supernatural suspense and fantasy territory, despite everybody’s ability to simply take off their glasses. The kids hunt for treasure: “metabugs”, a trinket currency that can be consumed in minor effects, such as a (red) black powder variety, or transmuted into a software analogue of Chinese-style magic paper stickers with larger effects comparable to a script-kiddie hack that can only run once per copy and require no knowledge. Treasure hunts happen in abandoned places like a creepy bus graveyard in episode 5. There are more types of magic too, including 暗号 (angou) meaning code or cipher, manifesting visually as writings and geometric shapes akin to chalk marks for a medieval ritual, though it’s not literal pentagrams. Nobody learns to program computers.

Each episode starts by mentioning some urban legend. The one in episode 16 implies there was a mind-reading or magical thinking application for the first glasses, and that this is the source of the metabugs. By the same token the show eventually departs from naturalistic explanations for how the technology works. The central mysteries connect instead to an “other side” directly equivalent to popular notions of a gloomy life after death in an underworld, complete with Japanese-style ghosts holding grudges and affecting the living. There is some talk of quantum phenomena in episode 23 to prop this up, but of course that’s insincere writing.

The slightly sinister Megamass megacorporation runs a cover-up explained in episode 21. It and the actual punks running around using transformative new technology make this about 20% pure cyberpunk. The title, meaning “cyberbrain coil” or “computer coil” in less archaic English, promised more. I would have loved to see a sincerely extrapolative show with the fine visual design, decent animation and plausible child psychology of Dennō Coil.

References here: The Orbital Children (2022).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series cyberpunk