Celebrating one of the greatest fillerepisodes anime has to offer.
The Pokemon Go craze made me think of development of AR/VR, which reminded me of this series, which in turn reminded me of this episode. That’s common; fans of the series would tell you about its fascinating depiction of augmented reality, the technical brilliance of Mitsuo Iso (director and creator, as well as one of the key animator and storyboarder), endearing pre-teen cast, and Densuke (aka Best Anime Dog), but above all, they would likely tell you about this singular unforgettable episode. Before I even watch the series, I was already aware of it—albeit more in vague notion about how great the episode is rather than the actual how’s and why’s.
In a way, it’s unusual. When we’re talking about a series that’s structurally based on an overarching narrative rather than a collection of self-contained episodes (majority of modern anime series, basically), what’s regarded as the best/most noteworthy episode tends to be representative of said series’ dramatic apex and/or culmination point of its main narrative. Whereas, this episode of Dennou Coil is neither of that. It’s a high concept comedy, sandwiched between two other breather episodes where the main plot takes a break for some random fantastical hijinks. Episode 11 and 13 are solid comedic and melancholic episodes respectively, but this one is… something else.
As is customary,we started with a narrator statement that invoke the urban legend/playground rumor in the world of DC. The statement for this episode wouldn’t make any sense until you finish watching the episode, though: “According to the rumors of the “beard people”, it seems that in the age 5550 minutes, Lord Yasako will lead the way to the promised land. “
We then switch to Daichi Sawaguchi, the show’s resident troublemaker and butt monkey. He bellyached about wanting to capture an Illegal (dangerous yet valuable virus in DC’s alt reality game), and we spend the first few minutes of this episode watching quick scenes of him wandering around with the gentle Denpa and the little Kyoko—the latter started following Daichi on a whim, much to his annoyance. I love these mundane moments of practically just DC kids bouncing off each other, and this sequence is no exception. They used plenty of medium and long shots here that accentuate the environment and visual tone around the kids, and I particularly dig these two long shots of Daichi, Denpa, and Kyoko bathed under the warm golden color of the dusk.
In-between the repeated scenes of those three, we got a delightful domestic scene of the Sawaguchi household. Daichi blasted his father for sauntering butt naked after a shower, after which the latter dropped this gem: “A family where you can’t walk around naked is not a real family!” (haha TRUE THAT). Just a delightful banter all around, and the true narrative pivot for the episode is finally provided as Daichi’s father teased him for not growing any hair yet.
By this point, viewers have probably guessed that this episode is heading toward a ‘careful-what-you-wish-for’ style comedy as Daichi inevitably stirs up some big trouble. Some may have grown antsy by this, especially since we just got that kind of exact premise in the previous episode (in which Daichi flooded the entire city—in a virtual sense—after screwing around with a fish-type Illegal). But yeah, we’ve really only gotten to the tip of the iceberg here.
Things started to pick up (and boy, do they escalate fast) as the other kids puzzled around Daichi’s sudden disappearance. Good news: he eventually show up. Bad news: this happened.
Worst news: it’s infectious.
So, Daichi had come across a race of Illegal creatures who took residence on his face and caused him to grow a ‘digital beard’ at a frighteningly rapid rate. Kyoko was also infected, and before long, Yasako, Fumi, Haraken, Denpa, and Yasako’s Grandma joined in on “the fun”. The pitch perfect timing and cutting enhanced the comedic escalation of the conflict, with my favorite part in this whole brouhaha being the constant recurring shot of Daichi maintaining the same catatonic pose (see screencap above) while everyone else were busy freaking out and screaming off their heads.
Comedy tends to maximize its impact by moving things at frenzied (yet controlled) pace, and this sequence benefit a lot by having the visual gags came out fast and strong. This is where the characters’ facial animation truly shined, as the show milked its incredibly amusing repertoire of Wacky Faces for all their worth.
Soon, the endemic expanded to city-scale as practically everyone wearing VR glasses caught on it. If they stopped here at ‘people grow virtual beard’, this would’ve been a remarkably solid episode already. There’s even a sneaky underlying message, as is typical of the show to link back to its pre-adolescence theming: kids always wanted to grow up as soon as possible, but when that actually happened they found it’s pretty damn scary.
However, the episode still has a joker up its sleeve, and it’s one hell of a joker. Grandma eventually discovered that each strand of the beard is a sentient being that has thoughts of their own, converses with each other, and builds an entire freaking civilization on people’s faces. Before long, she pulled off an interface mechanism that enabled them to observe and even interact with these ‘Bearded Ones’ (as Yasako eventually dubbed them). The visual for the interface is a clever bit of design, spoofing old-school simulation/strategy game in a referential joke that would likely left a lot of audience with a nostalgic smirk. I’m not sure if they’re referencing a particular game series (I was kinda reminded of the earliest Romance of The Three Kingdoms games myself), but it’s certainly genre-representative enough to be recognizable.
In a great narrative shift, Yasako’s anxiety over her beard turned into fascination and immersion into this world. Hence, a God Game where Yasako macro-managed the bearded people and is worshipped as their deity. As she played it like a (much more fun) version of Black and White, breathlessly recounted her gaming achievements to friends, and squabbled with Daichi for playing turn, it’s yet another shining example of Dennou Coil’s main forte: the behavioral authenticity of these urban kids. I have no doubt that many viewers were grinning ear to ear throughout this, reminiscing of their own time staying all night for a brand new game.
All good times must end though, and the story took yet another turn as the Bearded Ones launched a civil war—which then became interplanetary war as they shuttled between the kids’ faces. Even tempered by another excellent string of Wacky Faces (Fumi won the prize here for my favorite reaction face), we’re firmly in a dark and heavy territory now. In the remaining five minutes or so, the episode has fully completed its transformation from an entertaining farce into an encapsulation of existentialism and inevitable cycle of self-destruction. So many highlights in this remarkably dense period; the intercuts to the Bearded Ones’ world, showing beautiful and eventually unnerving imagery; the individual nuances of the kids (watch their varying reaction to the whole situation) and the parallel drawn between the Bearded Ones’ turmoil and their relationship; and the bittersweet end, where the kids learned how there’s never a clean solution to everything, no matter what kind of world you’re living in.
I think what makes the episode truly extraordinary isn’t really its conceptual uniqueness. Playing God is an old narrative concept that you can find in a lot of works; in terms of cartoon show there’s God Bender episode from Futurama, and I also recalled a vaguely similar story in Brazilian toon/comic Monica and Friends. However, they executed the hell out of it here, in its own idiosyncratic ways and fully played up to the show’s biggest strengths (world-building, visual ingenuity, character interaction, and wide tonal range). Major props to the showrunners, especially Iso (this was one of the episodes he provided storyboard for) and episode director Nobukage Kimura.
It may not be relevant to the bigger plot at all, but I found this self-contained story to be emblematic of the show at its best. As close to perfection as it could be in every facet of its construct, there’s not a damn thing I would change from it.