Unlike the world of Ressentiment, in Dennou Coil you don't have to enter a virtual world as the virtual world has instead entered our reality. Everything has a VR representative of itself which is only visible if you wear special VR goggles or glasses. You can think of it as having a virtual construct of reality laid over and on top of reality itself. Oftentimes the only way to know if something is really there is to lift your glasses and see if it changes or disappears. Also unlikely the world of Ressentiment where pr0n seems to have ridden the technological age to the forefront, in this world it's the children who are more VR savvy, almost all of whom own and use their glasses obsessively. Actually, if you think about it, it's not all that different from our own computer or internet revolution of the past couple decades or so. They're simply looking at different time frames. In the beginning I'm sure one of the main driving forces of any new application of the internet was pr0n, whether it be early BBS's, newsgroups, chat rooms, etc. Then as the technology begins to infiltrate the society, it's always the children and the younger people who pick it up easier and adapt to it while leaving a large chunk of adults behind.
The story in Dennou Coil begins with a girl named Okonogi Yuko moves back to town along with her family. She had grown up there as a child and her grandmother still lives in the same old house. Soon after arriving back, she manages to lose her cyberpet, Densuke, a gift from her grandfather who has since passed away. Many of the children now have cyberpets of one sort or another, some modeled on the classic cats or dogs, along with other more fantastical options. It's funny but it's one side-effect of VR that both Dennou Coil and Ressentiment touch upon. Through VR, you can experience pets or animals without a lot of the mess and fuss and expense that an actual living, breathing creature would require. As a consequence, there are almost no real animals in either world, and one of the plot points of Ressentiment is that the leader of the anarchists trying to destroy humanity is actually a chimp hooked up to a VR set at the local zoo. Because people can now see animals whenever they want through their visors, the zoo was being shut down and Mr monkey was scheduled for a dirt nap, which quite adequately explains his misanthropy and desire to take the entire human race to hell with him. Anyway, Yuko luckily runs into a local girl named Hashimoto Fumie, who just so happens to be a member of a cybernet detective agency and is more than happy to take the case. Densuke is found safe and sound after a bit of a tussle with an 'illegal', an unauthorized computer program, and Yuko ends up being forced into joining the agency which is actually run by her grandmother.
At about the same time, another the same age has also just moved to town and she just happens to have the same first name as Yuko. The thing about Japanese names, which btw is a bit of endless fascination for me along with all asian names, is that there are often many different characters you can use to produce the same word as far as its sound. While English may have a handful of homonyms, it's only a tiny proportion of those found in Chinese and Japanese. It's so incredibly common in fact that Chinese people will often introduce themselves like this, "I'm XYZ. That's the X as in ___, the Y as in ___, and the Z as in ___." Without giving the context of each character, you would have absolutely no clue how to write someone's name since there may be 30 different word combinations that would all produce the exact same sounds. Since in both Chinese and Japanese, there are no words that are considered names only like we have in English where any root meaning is either forgotten or unused. Instead, every name is actually a combination of common words like Haruka for example, which could alternatively mean Spring Flower, four different words all meaning 'Distance' more or less, Spring Fragrance, Sunny Weather Fragrance, or Distance Flower. As you might imagine, names in Asian countries are a complicated business. Think of this the next time you near some American parent stressing over whether to name their kid Dexter or Dylan.
In Dennou Coil, the first Yuko has characters making up her name meaning 'Kind Girl' which can also alternatively be read as Yasako. The other Yuko to move to town has the characters for 'Brave Girl' instead, and it can be read as Isako. I don't think it's actually possible to hang a bigger lampshade on the idea that these two are foil characters. The two are actually in contention for much of the anime, with Yasaka filling the role of the sweet, kindhearted protagonist while Isako is the mysterious determinator on a mission. Isako is an encoder, basically someone who can program on the fly and hack into the VR system to accomplish things that are beyond what should be allowed. This manifests itself as various attacks and defenses which she uses to hunt down Kirabugs which dwell in the oldest illegal programs. Think of Kirabugs as bits and pieces of an old and very rare computer program. These program bits, like their more common counterparts, can be reshaped in the hands of someone with the skill and knowledge, used as raw materials to build new programs and encodes to accomplish the rare or downright impossible. In order to acquire these Kirabugs, Isako is often required to run amok with the local VR system, exacerbating system glitches and basically hacking her way around. This sort of thing is looked down upon by the local authorities who send out repair programs to reformat damage and destroy illegal programing.
Boku Satchii! I absolutely loved Satchii for some inexplicable reason. As the main VR enforcement program, this lovable red blob with the smiley face would run around saying 'Me (young boy) Satchii!' and then blasting everything in sight with lasers. Satchii is actually short for Searchmon, which is basically its job to run around searching for illegal programs and problems in the VR world. Of course, Satchii considers just about everything to be illegal, including cyberpets and any personally programmed items, even if they're harmless. Much of the early anime involves the various characters fleeing from Satchii to keep from getting their virtual selves and possessions blasted to oblivion. There's even this cool little flyer telling you that Satchii is your friend which I find to be sort of endearing in a 1984 sort of way.
Despite the cutesy 'bad guys' and all the little kids running around with their virtual pets, we all knew it wasn't going to be roses and sunshine forever. It turns out that our brave new VR world has a dark side. Who would have thunk it? This is also one of those stories where it turns out almost every single urban legend/rumor is true. Every single episode of Dennou Coil begins with Yasako monologuing about some bit of urban folklore concerning the VR world. The original company that developed the technology roamed a bit far afield, developing devices that were meant to help heal psychic trauma but ended up mucking with the human soul. Certain children were able to synch with the devices to such an extent that it went beyond what the technology was supposed to do. They could somehow use their bodies and souls to manipulate the system but this came at the cost of both physical strain in the form of heart ailments and damage to the psyche. It was actually possible for someone's soul to separate from their body through use of the glasses and get trapped on 'the other side', a complete virtual reality. In fact, this is what Isako believes happened to her brother and it's why she's collecting Kirabugs. With enough of them, she can hope to control the opening of the gate to the other side and bring back her brother. This is also the goal of another character who believes that his girlfriend's soul is trapped and suffering beyond the veil. The company who manufacturers the glasses, of course, want to cover up these facts since it's not usually a sound marketing strategy to let people know that your main product can cause soul sucking and dead children.
As much as it would be a nice pat ending to find out an evil corporation was responsible for all the horrors and boogiemen, Dennou Coil goes in a different direction. While the company provided the means for all of this to happen, it's the human heart which ends up as the source of all the pain. As one of the opening monologues puts it: "According to Yuko Amasawa, the path of feelings that connects people is thin and breaks easily." Jealously, misunderstanding, and fear all combine together to create the evil on the other side. You can't help but feel that the links between people are weak enough without the addition of virtual reality and the barriers it places between us. Again, I've left a lot unsaid about the ending so that hopefully it won't spoil it for anyone out there who decides to give Dennou Coil a try. I heartily recommend it. If nothing else, you have to watch the episode with the sentient virtual facial hair and the inter-face nuclear war that breaks out. It has to be seen to be believed.
While Dennou Coil is aimed primarily at children, and there are times I definitely felt like I was outside the target audience, the story is something that anyone can enjoy. The art is also quite spiffy and reminds me a lot of Miyazaki's work. I could easily imagine Dennou Coil as a full length feature film rather than a 26 episode anime series and it probably would have been very well received. In the end, it is interesting that both Dennou Coil and Ressentiment touch upon some of the problems which would result from VR technology. It's not necessarily the complications like soul sucking or hacking, but that it could break down the already fragile bonds that people have with one another. It's already a common complaint that with the internet people are, in some ways, more disconnected then they've ever been. There are just some times when no amount of virtual contact can equal the feel of a real person.