Disclaimer:The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, I feel like I’ve been easing in just fine to my new role here on This Week In Anime, you’ve all been wonderfully welcoming to me. And I think I can make a suggestion for how we could improve the process for this cute little column of ours. It’s a brave new digital age after all, so this only makes sense: How about we move all recording for TWIA into the Metaverse?!
What could possibly go wrong?
While a fully interactive digi-scaped TWIA could be appealing, we’ll definitely get censored for having too many anime opinions. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m powerful enough to handle VR chat. So for now, I beg readers to just stick with their imaginations. That’s what the power of anime is all about, right?
Well then, in place of utilizing VR ourselves, we can assess the experience through Yurei Deco, this season’s entry from distinguished studio Science SARU.
Fiction has always been a great way of scrutinizing people’s relationship with technology. Few other mediums are as well suited to presenting the online world where the possibilities seem endless than the unrestricted form of animation. There’s no small number of series that have explored how society morphs around potential advances. As we get deeper and deeper into the digital era, such speculation feels a lot closer to our current age than the far-flung future. I think this description fits Yurei Deco, which premises itself on the people of Tom Sawyer Island staying logged-in 24/7 in both the real and virtual worlds they inhabit.
The folks at Science SARU make the world of Tom Sawyer Island feel colorful, friendly, and modern. It’s a cleaner and much different aesthetic than the more industrialized cyber-cities of Blade Runner or the more recent video game Stray. It’s bright, cute, and pop-ish aesthetics suit the simpler art style and emphasize how commercialized everything is. Every shot is busy with displays of ads and number of Likes. An everyday walk would probably make me feel like my computer got a virus and was being held hostage, but as a viewer it’s really creative!
The people also treat technology casually, like we do today. They take selfies, read their iPads, and rely heavily on technology from everything to scheduling medical appointments to self-expression.
I think my favorite thing about the aesthetic, especially in the opening episodes where the action is contained to the main augmented-reality city, is how clearly artificial its presence is. The riotous colorful holograms are overlaid as a pointed distraction from the dull, grey utilitarian architecture underneath. It’s a neat illustration of Yurei Deco‘s overall tone, its candy-coated aesthetic superficially masking a clearly dire dystopia.
It makes it that much more striking once the action moves to the ‘outskirts’ of the island’s civilization, and these ‘slums’ are more richly-designed and genuinely colorful than the interior of the city.
Going in, I had complicated expectations on the show’s potential due to its lead writer Dai Sato. He’s been around the block, penning episodes on classic series like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. As a lead writer, he’s also worked on the Eureka Seven franchise and MAPPA‘s 2020 rock-music inspired anime Listeners. I’ve always felt that his voice was unique and interesting in how he’s willing to explore topics, but his missteps can be extremely frustrating. I adored about 2/3rds of Listeners as a fun joyride, but the ending completely bombed. Similarly, not all of his speculative opinions as an episode writer have landed. It can be extremely easy to fall into an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” mindset with narratives about tech and trends, but Yurei Deco‘s eccentric trappings, like the references to Mark Twain, really add to the idea that you’re on an adventure.
Yeah, and while we’re only partway through Yurei Deco, there’s a lot of uncertainty in this one as well in terms of where Sato’s ultimately going to go with his explorations and messaging on technology, the internet, and social media . As I mentioned with the setting, from the word “go” the story seems to be taking a very cynical view of tech’s impact on society: The world the characters see is an over-commercialized, artificial hellscape. Our lead viewpoint character Berry is only able to peek at the ‘real’ world because one of her legally-mandated AR contact lenses is glitching out. Social media content moderation has grown to such a degree to be likened to actual government censorship, that sort of thing.
This series is nominally themed after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other Mark Twain works, but there’s also a lot of the baseline societal cautions made popular by 1984 coming through as well. Or maybe the Laughing Man episodes of GITS: SAC if they were run through a Lisa Frank filter.
By contrast to Berry’s technology-controlled life, her counterpart .hack, while an experienced mischief maker, is literally “off-the-grid.” For one, .hack isn’t a registered citizen, the government deems them a ghost. Secondly, an average person like Berry has to use Deco to both perceive and present in their world, .hack uses a pair of cool goggles and wears a tangible outfit compared to everyone’s holographically colored onesie. While Berry is clearly more privileged compared to .hack, it’s hard not to be envious of .hack‘s free spirit. It’s by meeting .hack that she begins to gain perspective and agency. Berry and .hack‘s dynamic deeply emulate that of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, respectively. Berry even has Tom’s red hair and .hack copies Huck’s unrefined speech patterns of silly rhymes. They may come from different worlds, but they’re relying on each other to navigate and have fun with it.
And it’s that last part that I think makes it seem less like I’m being lectured and condescended to about looking at my phone too much.
Part of that is also Berry’s experiences. It’s a bit like grass on the other side with her. Just like how she starts envious of .hack but doesn’t fully perceive all of the risks of her situation when in reality, both ways of living have positives and negatives. Our opening scene tells a story of the network as an all-seeing but ultimately non-malicious giant (based on Argus Panoptes) who was once stigmatized but transformed into the more friendly peacock. I’m constantly wondering how truthful that fable is. Their current state functions by controlling information that would deter the citizen’s happiness. Which even goes as far as brainwashing away negative experiences. It’s hell but it implies that there were once possibly “good intentions.” Even Berry’s parents, who work as mods, know that our treasures can’t simply be dragged to the recycle bin.
It’s an idea the series has been consistent about playing with all the way through: What counts as the ‘truth’, whether it’s as simple as what our eyes show us, or if there’s a deeper understanding needed to validate it, and how that might vary per person. Heck, Berry’s ‘death’, which is achieved by hacking and falsifying online records, is a fake occurrence that nonetheless allows her to start living in the ‘true’ world. And much like Tom and Huck’s false-pretense funeral allowing them to hear what others truly thought of them, this fake event provides an opportunity for Berry to hear some genuine sentiments from her parents, even as information-oppression is literally their job.
Like I said, nuance.
It’s why I think the show has worked better after those initial setup episodes, loaded down as they were with (admittedly necessary) world-building infodumps and “These kids these days with their phones” grumbling.
And because the shift to one-off detective adventures has let the plots stretch their legs a little more.
After being taken in by the traditionally dressed Finn and his strange yet competent team the show definitely feels more balanced. It doesn’t bring them closer to the phantom, the spooky witch they encountered, or the mystery of the disappearing love called the “Zero Phenomenon.” These things are certainly all connected, but it does give the two children a means of engaging with complex social issues themselves.
And with that we get a better look at how other average citizen feels about their lives. Their first client is a guy who lost his VTuber avatar and while it’s kind of creepy, it’s clear his love for his own creation and the happiness he receives from this persona is sincere.
Just think, they could have sold us so much more effectively on unique NFT avatars had they just made them cute anime girls and not gnarly apes.
Seriously though, there’s definitely a point to the idea that Berry, the one in the gang with the most recent connection to Tom Sawyer Island’s capitalist cyber-cornucopia, was the only one who saw value in searching for the avatar even as everyone else blew off the job. But it pays off for the group in the long run because this guy’s story actually happens to intersect with some nuggets of information that are valuable to their overall Zero Phenomenon quest. That’s a thesis that’s only just started emerging in Yurei Deco: Yeah, monetizing your social media feed to pay for microtransactions is stupid, but the collaborative efforts of so many people’s stories being able to connect is a generally worthwhile resource.
The latest episode also emphasizes this line of virtual and real with that of truth and lies, or more closely the nature of reality and fiction. I think that’s exemplified when the science-dedicated professor asks the crew to help him edit his favorite animal’s Wikipedia page to dispel false information.
Only his favorite animal, the Nue, is actually a fictional cryptid and not a real animal at all!
It’s akin to the hard truth those of us living in the modern world have already had to accept: Birds Aren’t Real.
So on one hand, we have a conflict because the control of information means people have no other sources to trust about what’s real and true anymore and on the other hand we have a man dedicated to the facts who loves things that are made-up.
.hack and Berry have a little fight about it and it brings in the theme of having perspective again. I think both are right in that it’s important to trust yourself as much as it is to be able to look outside yourself. The solution is partially reached because the group was able to refer to an old analogue tome, aka another source. But it’s still on the characters to determine what they should believe or what they decide is authentic.
It’s interesting in how it comes off like Yurei Deco challenging that previous easy espousal of the ‘real’, provable world. The Nue was never ‘real’ in a literal, physical sense. It was a mythological creature passed down by oral tradition whose descriptions necessarily varied and changed across that intergenerational game of telephone. But those stories of it still mattered and affected the people whose lives it came into.
Instead of pushing for the idea that ‘truth’ must always be asserted in all cases, the writing instead posits that jumping into people’s mentions to pedantically correct stories that might offer them comfort, even as they aren’t even hurting anyone else, might not be the best choice for anybody. It’s a bittersweet lesson Berry learns just a couple seconds too late.
I felt so bad for this poor cuddly cryptid and the scientist who loved its made-up ass at the end here.
The professor’s answer to rid his work of falsehoods comes off as extremely melancholic. The silver-lining is his own passionate feelings. Maybe it’s just a bunch of lies but fiction can bring us joy, perspective, and help us arrive at our own conclusions just as much as facts or lived experiences can. Similarly, I predict the virtual and the tangible aren’t inherently more valuable than one another as much as what the individual decides it the most authentic. So just like how Berry turns her hat, it’s on the audience to evaluate based on what we see and how we see them.
And to me, the real conflict within the society of Tom Sawyer island isn’t so much that they rely on technology or integrate it as part of their lives, but rather they’re forcedly co-dependent with no alternatives and therefore have no real choice.
Right, it’s the difference between taking moderated information provided from on-high at face value, versus listening to the accounts of your peers and collating that in-context. In that respect I can see that being an ultimate point Sato might be going for here: That a rigid, corporate-controlled information superhighway is so much more depressing and less valuable than an open, collaborative effort.
And while we’re speaking about collaborate effort, it makes sense that the focus of the series is still this friendship. While I wouldn’t describe myself as some influencer, as an anime fan, I’m obviously extremely plugged-in, so to speak, and that’s because I’ve always found online to be a free space for me to be authentic. Similarly, some of my most intimate friendships are people I’ve found drifting in virtual spaces. Thirdly, I’ve always found a lifeboat in fiction. They’re just a few of many tools but they’ve been there to help me navigate when I needed it. Yurei Deco has a lot of potential to speak to someone like me if it manages to chart it’s course and steer well.
After all, something that becomes such a deep part of our lives, even if it’s just a phone or a twitter account, is undoubtedly intimate. It’s easy to discard if you’ve never felt connected to them, but to a lot of people, that attachment (while not exactly free) is it’s own value.
Particularly since its leads joined the Yurei Detective Club, the series has had that component of showing the ways the modern world can connect people from all walks of life. One of my favorite cast members I sadly didn’t get to mention thus far is the constantly-telecommuting gossiping grandma, after all— The show recognizes the value of electronic extensions to other people, alongside those we connect with in meatspace.
And since it’s not even halfway in yet, I am curious as to where else Yurei Deco will go with its explorations of these ideas. There are definitely going to be some words to be said about the potential for more malicious individuals to spread misinformation online. And given this latest episode’s brief visitation on meme culture, and Sato’s previous work on the aforementioned GITS: SAC, there’s the question of how he might work in theories about the collective unconscious.
But those are possibilities for another time.
Honestly, there’s a lot of places we can go. We’ve barely touched the plot and we’re still getting to know most of the cast. There’s also a lot about how “Love” relates to having a culture of only positive-feedback loops while avoiding the things that are negative. But I think as long as it keeps up its adventurous spirit and stays aware of its messages, I’ll be happy to stick around and ride down wherever the river takes us.
Just the fact that we could put together this many paragraphs on these first five episodes, I think, demonstrates how appreciably meaty the show’s concepts have gotten, even in the parts where I’m not entirely on the same page with how it regards the values of the World Wide Web. Science SARU‘s best shows are as rewarding to chew on as they are unique visual showcases to take in. And Yurei Deco, for as trite as its “This says a lot about our society” opening volleys on the internet are, has proved it can branch out. I can’t be certain I’ll agree with all its takes as it goes on, but even in those dalliances I suspect it will at least be interesting to argue with.
And it’s nice to know I’ll have a social media feed of anime-loving pals I’ve connected with to comment on it alongside.
And isn’t that the most Love-y? ‘Til next time, netizens.