Yuzuru Tachikawa’s DECA-DENCE is one of the most unique action anime in ages, but its ambition, scale, and the coherence between themes and design philosophy make a whole lot more sense once you examine the long road behind the production we see now. So let’s do that!
Although it’s true of many titles, DECA-DENCE becomes much easier to grasp once you look at it as the result of many paths crossing throughout the years rather than exclusively as a 2020 TV series. Not only has it been in the making for longer than anime productions already take normally, but its background also happens to explain why this group of people would want and be able to make a show as unique as DECA-DENCE.
The first of those important crossing paths brings us back to the mid 00s: around 15 years ago, at the time where series director Yuzuru Tachikawa and chief producer Takuya Tsunoki joined studio Madhouse. While both their careers took off quickly, with Tachikawa quickly earning directorial positions and Tsunoki climbing the management ranks, their careers didn’t intertwine much until both of them became regular fixtures on Kobato. You might think that Tachikawa becoming a freelance director immediately afterward—a decision that led to viewers worldwide noticing him thanks to his dazzling and spatially-aware contributions to the likes of BLEACH—would put an end to that relationship, but he still showed up back home on Tsunoki projects like Chihayafuru.
Whether it was due to these sporadic meetings between contemporaries or just as a product of chance, the two of them found themselves working on an entry in 2013’s rather magical lineup for the Young Animators Training Project. Death Billiards was nothing short of a passion project for Tachikawa, who wrote, directed, and storyboarded it all. It was his opportunity to make a stance. To prove he wasn’t just a great ally for other creators, or even a suitable second in command, but rather someone deserving of helming his own titles as he pleased. In his second showing as director—the one fan of the 2012 multimedia project Arata-naru Sekai happens to be a friend of mine and he’ll kill me if I don’t mention it—Tachikawa held nothing back. Death Billiards’ exploration of ambiguity and moral failings that had always intrigued Tachikawa stuck with people all around the world too, and its presentation was so stylish that not even Yoh Yoshinari’s dazzling LWA managed to overshadow it. The OVA immediately put Tachikawa on the map, but truth to the told, that’s far from the extent of its success.
It truly can’t be overstated how much DECA-DENCE owes to Death Billiards accomplishing everything it set out to do. For starters, there’s the obvious consequence: its acclaim allowed the team captained by Tachikawa and Tsunoki to reunite and expand that concept into the TV series Death Parade. Although that project was also well received, that experience convinced Tsunoki that if he wanted to make more positively crazy works like that, he was better off departing from Madhouse and creating his own studio—something that ended up being quite relevant to DECA-DENCE.
Beyond these changes on a macro level, Death Billiards also set the foundations when it comes to the up-and-coming talent currently carrying DECA-DENCE on their shoulders. As we’ve mentioned, Death Billiards was part of the Young Animators Training Project. And young animation training it did; more specifically, it trained Tachikawa’s and soon-to-be studio NUT’s own army.
So, who were they? The young artists mentored during Death Billiards include DECA-DENCE’s assistant character designer Ayu Ogata, the show’s concept artist Izumi Murakami, regular members of its animation direction rotation like Eiko Mishima and Naoko Minai, animation aces such as Boya Liang, and even the likes of Kazuto Wakayama: an in-betweener during that project who’s grown to be an animation director capable of handling big episodes on DECA-DENCE. And of course, supervising all their work was character designer Shinichi Kurita; an acquaintance of Tachikawa from his BLEACH days, who’s now occupying that same position in DECA-DENCE as an actual employee of Tsunoki’s studio. Though I understand why fans were looking forward to Tachikawa tapping onto Mob Psycho 100’s tremendous talent pool, seeing how well connected this team is should tell you why that wasn’t considered a priority.
Another Death Billiards youngster who went on to become an important member at NUT is Satoshi Miura, who acted as production assistant back then and now is one of the regular directors at the studio. Besides his contributions to DECA-DENCE, you might know him for having handled Tanya’s ending sequence—not a particularly hard job for him, but Los! Los! Los! is a cool song I won’t miss a chance to link.
As tightly knit as the team already was, though, something of DECA-DENCE’s scale and complexity can’t be put together in a short span of time. Back in 2016, the main ingredients were already prepared, but the slow cooking process had only just begun. Tsunoki wanted to create a truly unique original work to prove to the world that his new studio NUT could live up to its name; he chose it as an equivalent to the MADhouse he’d grown up at, before you get funny ideas. He had both the support of producers to get it funded—Kadokawa’s Sho Tanaka was very interested in working with him, and so he did—and of course the right person to lead the project, as Tachikawa also wanted to create an original work with him. A pitch about a story set in an inconceivably huge moving fortress where humans hid in between their fights for survival against giant beasts was quickly accepted.
The problem, if it can even be considered one, is that their careers were simply going too well. 2016 was also the year where Tachikawa’s Mob Psycho 100 adaptation earned worldwide acclaim for pushing the boundaries of what an action series can accomplish specifically in an animated canvas. Its success only led to him receiving more high profile offers, so it hardly felt like the right time to push him to focus on DECA-DENCE’s pre-production.
At the same time, NUT were doing well for themselves too. Tsunoki’s studio quickly put together a well-received adaptation of The Saga of Tanya the Evil, showing none of the growing pains that new anime production companies tend to suffer. The project even allowed NUT to widen their creative repertoire, as Studio Chiptune president Masayuki Narai—another ex-Madhouse acquaintance of Tsunoki—suggested him to entrust it to Yutaka Uemura: a Gainax-bred director who loved the studio as much as the studio loved him.
That move not only netted Tsunoki a capable director, but also cascaded into more Gainax talent becoming regular if not outright full-time studio NUT members. The most notable one is of course Hiromi Taniguchi; the most style-savvy Gainax artist, a skill you can tell is valued by her position as character, outfit, and prop designer on both Tanya and DECA-DENCE. Other interesting artists like Moeka Kuga, one of the last major animation prospects to come out of Gainax, have also ended orbiting around NUT projects thanks to her seniors making that move. While this team was always capable, the visual diversity on display in their current project is somewhat owed to that influx of new talent during Tanya.
Since everyone was too busy being successful—we don’t talk about FLCL sequels over here—DECA-DENCE‘s pre-production advanced slowly. Initially, the meetings involved just Tachikawa and Tsunoki, who took their sweet time to flesh out something much more complex than the initial pitch. It wasn’t until they had a solid grasp of the show as it is now that Tachikawa contacted Mob Psycho 100’s series composer Hiroshi Seko to handle the script, and it wasn’t until his work was near completion that key members of the production team like Kurita were formally invited. A long process that, looked back upon, tells us a lot about the who, the why, and the what of DECA-DENCE. Had it been their main project, they might not have been able to let it mature this well. Had it involved different people with different needs… it simply wouldn’t exist.
So, did it all pay off? The first episode certainly showcased many of the points that Tachikawa had obsessed about since the start. The feeling of scale was tremendous, both in intense sequences that emphasize it and more quietly imposing moments; incidentally, Tachikawa talked about adding uneven details to the fortress to avoid having characters standing in front of uniform planks of metal—shouldn’t sacrifice engaging visuals even for a sound goal!
The same can be said about the show’s unique action, which makes its appeal clear since the start. The Gadoll, unknown lifeforms that decimated humanity, are capable of deploying anti-gravity fields as a self-defense mechanism. In response to that, the survivors have had to scrap resources together to create appropriate weaponry. And if that was a struggle within its universe, it wasn’t much easier for the team bringing it to life in reality; hell of a job for various design members, as well as a tough task for battle concept designer Tetsuya Masuda and the team of animators he had to guide. Depicting weightless action while giving satisfying impact to the big hits, showing the sleek movements of the aces while still making it clear that they’re limited and outmatched—it’s all a tricky job to get right. Fortunately, the stars of the production used that first episode to show everyone how it’s done; the aforementioned Masuda directly showcased the effects of the fluctuating physics, while Liang proved how fun the chaos can be.
Add to all that a protagonist as immediately charming as Natsume—the constant expressiveness that Tachikawa asked from the animation team went a long way—and we had a solid start to an adventure. For an original project that had been 4 years in the making to prove the crazy potential of a new studio, though, wasn’t Natsume’s quest to avenge her dead father a somewhat standard premise? That’s something that fools like myself asked themselves at some point.
NUT has also grown to have a particularly strong link with Chinese animators such as Juansheng Shi, who contributed with one of the most exciting cuts in the first episode.
Less than two minutes into the following episode, and right after a solemn introduction lamenting the comrades fallen in battle to make the contrast even starker, a literal in-world commercial greeted us with the truth about DECA-DENCE. As it started being explained there, then later got just as unceremoniously expanded upon in episode #03, humanity is indeed in a bad place… but not in the way the first episode implied. A very real villain known as unregulated capitalism led to levels of pollution that turned the planet into an unlivable wasteland, which the same mega-corporations that caused it saw as an opportunity to seize further control by pumping out cyborgs that could survive in such conditions. The remnants of humanity were eventually purchased by the Solid Quake corporation, who proceeded to build a massive entertainment facility that makes the nastiest zoos look humane. That’s what DECA-DENCE actually is: a mere game for cyborgs who only join the fray through supposedly safe avatars, and a dangerous prison for the remaining humans living a lie.
If you’re imagining a nationless cyborg society to be a utopia, Tachikawa and company would like you to think back on that some more. Cyborgs only enjoy an illusion of agency, as their entire existence belongs to a corporation they can never go against—do so, whether you’re a human or a cyborg, and you’ll be labeled a bug and be eliminated. Experiencing the nonchalant brutality of such a system led to co-protagonist Kaburagi giving up and thinking a death on his own terms was the only way to escape; he did so by refusing to refuel on Oxyone, the resource that ties together humans, cyborgs, and the Gadoll. By meeting someone like Natsume who glitched out of the system in the near-death experience that cost her an arm, though, Kaburagi finds a new source of hope. That sets the stage for a story about actual choice, as blunt about its themes as a show in 2020 probably needs to be. DECA-DENCE really does feel like a pitch that got sharper the more they revisited it through the last few years. And to be fair: have you tried living through the last few years?
That reveal of the show’s themes was made even more interesting by its visual consequences. Prior to the broadcast, we’d put emphasis on DECA-DENCE’s extraordinarily thorough design team, but it wasn’t until it revealed it true nature that you could truly appreciate how much work has gone into fulfilling Tacikawa’s vision. Although there are some big names involved, it’s his deliberate appointments that make it stand out; reaching outside his already diverse team when necessary, even to artists who don’t normally work in anime if need be. Experienced artists and fresh talent, anime industry folks and completely independent ones, and of course a complete disregard of their nationality: the team didn’t care about anyone’s background as long as they seemed like the right person for the job.
The most interesting duo to come out of that effort was cyborg designer Kiyotaka Oshiyama and the aforementioned concept artist Izumi Murakami, whose pastel dystopia work has been compared to Masaaki Yuasa’s Kaiba—and for good reason at that. Much like in Kaiba, the roundness of the designs and soft colors make for a pleasant aesthetic that’s effectively used to contrast with the heartless brutality of the system. The mismatch has power in and of itself, and it’s always felt particularly effective to me when dealing with these topics considering how corporations often coat their most dangerous practices as benign and family-friendly. There’s even a direct staff connection when it comes to the Kaiba comparisons, as Murakami herself has become one of Yuasa’s most reliable animation allies for the last few years, pretty much acting as his animation ace on the likes of Eizouken.
For all this talk about DECA-DENCE‘s themes and obvious real-life parallels, it’s worth noting that the show has continued being a character-focused affair. Its subtext and visuals are deeply intertwined, but their role has been to reinforce Natsume and Kaburagi’s story rather than moving the spotlight away from them. Despite the early game-changing reveal, DECA-DENCE hasn’t particularly interested in using twists and turns to keep viewers glued to the screen either. New information is dropped without teasing the audience, and future developments can begin to be guessed because they’re tied to that character writing in the first place; it’s to be expected that at some point we’ll find out Natsume’s father was killed by the system for getting too close to learning the truth, not because this is the kind of show that’d use that for shock value, but because it could be a major beat in her character arc. Which is all to say: DECA-DENCE has been a plain ol’ fun action series with a charming and coherently written cast, so even if that’s all you’re here for, I can easily recommend it.
Natsume’s entertaining quest continued without major shakeups… until episode #05, a special one in multiple ways. Not only was it a key moment for Natsume as a character, but it also happened to highlight the last point about the show’s production that I wanted to talk about: the presence of animators from all over the globe. Although that’s always been a thing when it comes to DECA-DENCE, to the point of staffers having publicly taken pride on the international contributions, no episode so far has exemplified it as well as #05. Novice production assistant Shunpei Umemoto is, to put it plainly, a sakuga nerd. But most importantly, one who’s grown up in the current era where social media exposes us to interesting artists all over the world. Armed with machine translators and a sibling who knows English—his joke, not mine—he contacted animators from all over the place, including many who had never contributed to a professional production. The animation credits look like you’re scrolling through a timeline of Twitter artists or certain Discord servers… because that’s exactly what they are. As much as this industry loves to stick to its archaic practices, new generations will always fight against that to do things their own way.
Of course, it helps that the results of that tend to be quite exciting. The animation in that episode was certainly rougher at spots, but even its downsides felt fresh; extraneous body movement and lack of fluidity here and there are a very small price to pay as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t say it felt at odds with the content when we’re talking about a chaotic fight that was rigged to begin with. And at its best, the results spoke for themselves: thought-out choreography, more intensity than ever in the animation, and the feeling of scale that defines the show to top it off. Once again, Tachikawa’s willingness to reach out to whichever creators he thinks will be able to bring his ideas to life paid off. As someone who’s been enjoying the ride so far, I can’t wait to find out exactly how far that daring attitude will take him and the rest of the team.
Key Animation: Hiromatsu Shuu, Fuminori Tsukita, Hiroyuki Horiuchi, Kazunori Ozawa, Izumi Murakami, Kazuto Wakayama, Hiromi Taniguchi, Kumiko Onaga, Hideyuki Sugiura, Takayoshi Watabe, Mitsumi Nakayama, Ayu Ogata, Boya Liang, Eiko Mishima, Moeka Kuga, Naoko Minai, Hiromi Niioka, KILO, Keiichi Honda, Hitoshi Kamata, Ako Kagiyama, Tetsuya Masuda
UZUMAKI (Juansheng Shi), Takashi Hashimoto
2nd KA: Dong Chang, Hiromatsu Shuu, Boya Liang, Ryouta Azuma, Satoshi Kimura, Keiichi Honda
White Fox, Studio Lings, Studio Gram, Kyushu Animation
Key Animation: Kumiko Onaga, Mitsumi Nakayama, Dong Chang, Minoru Morita, Nana Yamaguchi, Ken Arto, Yuusuke Adachi, kazooma, Kazuya Saitou, Kouji Kataoka, Yasunori Aoki, Hitomi Sasaki, Tetsurou Yamada, Kiyoshi Nochi, Shinichirou Minami, Harumi Masuda, Noboru Kawamori, Setsuko Unno, Tetsuya Matsumoto, Eiko Mishima
2nd KA: Zhu Shijie, Yutarou Miyazaki, Naoto Kaneda, Saitama, Zayd Ghassan, Mai Watanabe, Mizuho Ohtani, Kim Nanum
White Fox, Studio Lings, Studio Gram, Nakamura Production
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Hideyuki Satake
Chief Animation Director: Shinichi Kurita
Animation Direction: Naoko Minai
Assistant Animation Director: Eiko Mishima, Mitsumi Nakayama, Ryouta Azuma, Ki Shanghai, Takashi Hashimoto
Key Animation: Hiromi Taniguchi, Tomomi Sugiyama, Boya Liang, Masayuki Mizutani, Serena Koi, Dong Chang, Keiichi Honda, Hiroyasu Oda, Nobutaka Ota, Kaori Ikeda, Kichichi Kikuchi, Kenta Katade, Yuki Itou, Kouichi Takai, Kanako Oyabu, Asuka Kuroda, Shinya Kameyama, Hideo Amemiya, Hideo Maru, Touga Kawajiri, Kazuyuki Ikai, Tomoki Yoshikawa, Satoshi Matsuura, Takashi Hashimoto, Naoko Minai, Hideyuki Satake
2nd KA: Rina Akasaka, Naoto Kaneda, Kanako Awata, Kazuto Wakayama
Kyushu Animation, Nakamura Production, Silver Link, Studio Gram, ENGI, WAO World, BeLoop, Studio Lings, ART BASE BAM, Traumerei Animation Studio
Key Animation: Hiromatsu Shuu, Moeka Kuga, Fuminori Tsukita, Kumiko Onaga, Hiromi Taniguchi, Misa Matsuoka, Mitsumi Nakayama, Dong Chang, Takashi Hirabayashi, Tingmu Yang, Shigeru Uchihara, Ryan White, Hero, Keiichi Honda, Kouichi Takai, Takayoshi Hayashi, Yuusuke Adachi, Yuuya Kishi, Ayu Ogata, Eiko Mishima, Kazuto Wakayama
2nd KA: Dong Chang, Rina Akasaka, Serena Koi, Ryuusuke Tsukamoto, Ryouta Azuma
White Fox, Studio Lings, Studio Gram, Kyushu Animation, Nakamura Production, wish, ENGI
Key Animation: Hiroyuki Horiuchi, Hiromi Taniguchi, Rondeseo, Masayuki Mizutani, Taku Hoshino, Daisuke Uchida, Asumi Katou, Takeshi Noda, Uno, KYE, Oleg Kositsyn (bbwb), Franziska van Wulfen, Karen Inoue, Kahoru Hirata, Iie, Kenbi, Napo, Tsumokki, Kenji Kodama, Maho Takahashi, Vercreek, Lzyboost, Shinobu Ikago, Kou Horio, Yoshi, Michiko Notsu, Yuusuke Kurinishi, Shinya Kameyama, Yousuke Kouzuki, Taiki Etou, Ryouga Fujiwara, Keiji Shigesawa, Daniel Baron, Rina Akasaka, Ryouta Azuma, Mitsumi Nakayama
Takashi Hashimoto, Kazunori Ozawa, Satoshi Sakai
2nd KA: Rina Akasaka, Mizuho Ohtani, Kim Nanum
Kyushu Animation, Studio Gram, Nakamura Production, Studio Lings, Line Farm, Anitus Kobe, ENGI, WAO World, Traumerei Animation Studio