#1 A “digital” world
The setting for Fractale is an interesting one, though it requires quite a bit of explanation. It’s a futuristic anime ostensibly set in our world, except with the physical and digital worlds unified. The so-called Fractale System is an array of satellites that allow digital info, media, and avatars to remain projected at all times. Something that has thoroughly changed how people live and socialize with each other.
Being able to beam up Spotify anytime you want wherever you are may not sound like sci-fi to us anymore, but Fractale is capable of far more. It’s capable of projecting entire environments that users can then shape. Literal concrete jungles can be made to look like a vibrant metropolis or quaint village. Why build anything yourself ever again if the system can just project it for you?
Most revolutionary of all are the “Doppels” that Fractale can create. Users can transfer their entire consciousness to a digital clone of themselves, which can be made to look any way they want. Some people control their Doppels directly, others just make them and let them loose. Protagonist Clain presents a good example of this. His parents have left him in the care of their Doppels while they are off on exotic travels.
As you might realize from that example, the world of Fractale is one of individualism. People do as they please, have Fractale provide all their needs, and make a Doppel of themselves to do what little work is left. Even if that “work” is raising your actual, real child or spending time with people who are, allegedly, your friends. Human relationships, socializing, even that is too much effort these days.
Rampant selfishness is not the only problem, however. If working in IT has thought me anything, it’s that brilliant inventions will invariably be plagued by a lack of documentation. Fractale is falling apart, literally. Satellites are blowing up one after the other and the organization in charge of maintaining it appears clueless.
In that sense, this anime isn’t just about a futuristic, high-tech concept. It’s also about what happens when the world grows entirely dependent on that invention, only for it to slowly start shutting down.
#2 Goofy characters with actual depth
The actual story revolves around Clain, who lives by the seaside along with the aforementioned Doppels of his family. One day he rescues a girl from unknown assailants, who turns out to be a priestess for the church that keeps Fractale running. He offers to help her, but she mysteriously vanishes the next morning; leaving behind only her pendant.
Sealed within the pendant is the Doppel Nessa, who takes on the form of a seemingly normal—though very energetic—little girl. She is incredibly affectionate, curious, and prone to mischief, but also more than a little stubborn. Together, she and Clain set out to find her owner again, during which they team up with some… strange people.
Fractale does a great job at introducing comedic characters, then steadily revealing them to have significant depth. My favorite characters ended up being this band of bad guys, two dudes in fancy black suits who are led by a small though fiery leader. They are constantly hatching silly schemes to get in Clain’s way, most of which he sees through instantly. Classic Team Rocket-esque shenanigans, but these three turn out to be fascinating characters once Clain actually gets to know them.
The same applies to Nessa. Her bountiful happiness makes her adorable, but there are plenty of hints that there’s more going on with her than immediately apparent. Hints that Fractale nicely expands upon as the series continues. This makes for an anime that offers plenty of laughs and goofiness, without its more serious moments seeming off.
#3 Environmental contrasts
Two of Fractale‘s strongest points are its stellar environments and how these are made to contrast against each other. The artstyle alone already sets the show apart. The use of painterly colors is especially nice. It’s most notable in daylight or dusk, in scenes with many different colors playing off each other. Seeing Nessa with her red twintails in a field, wearing a white dress with an orange sky at her back—It all comes together really well.
Then you got the environments themselves. Much of it is set in rural areas inspired by coastal Ireland. Lots of grassy fields, hills, and steep cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s cozy and warm, but also too perfect. It’s all sanitary and empty, which becomes obvious when Clain reaches places where people reject Fractale. Places where those empty fields are used for farms and where animals roam around.
Fake or not, these rural areas contrast even harsher against other places that Clain visits. Booming, electric cities full of gaudy architecture and bright light for example. There are also cold, industrial areas like the interior of a zeppelin, which themselves contrast against the pure-white, fantastical design of this world’s temples. Plenty of variety, wrapped up in a unique visual style.
#4 High-stakes war
On their journey, Nessa and Clain quickly find themselves embroiled in a serious conflict. Fractale is operated by a religious institution—The Temple—which wields absolute authority. Since everyone is exposed to Fractale at all times, even the fiercest atheists are beholden to The Temple’s rituals. Since they’d be rendered irrelevant without it, The Temple is desperate to keep the system running by any means necessary.
On the other side, there are scrappy resistance groups. People who have discovered how life used to be and embraced it fully, or simply resent how much power the church wields. They live off-the-grid, as it were, by deliberately forsaking the luxuries and convenience that Fractale brings. Obviously, they see its collapse as a good thing. If Fractale were to self-destruct, it’d be an opportunity for all of humanity to reconnect with the old ways.
It doesn’t take long for their conflict to spiral into real violence. Fractale is not exactly an action anime, but skirmishes between rebels and The Temple do make for exciting highs. High-tech priests with laser technology going up against rebels who have recreated military hardware from literal eras ago. Fighting is quick and often gruesome. Lasers blasting straight through people while elderly priests get shredded by machine gun fire.
Fighting escalates even further in later episodes, when entire dogfights unfold high up in the skies. Massive blimps with rocket batteries, going up against the space-age floating citadels of The Temple. All while Clain and Nessa are caught, literally, in the middle of it all.
#5 Flawed protagonist
I haven’t talked about him much, but I really like Clain. He’s a protagonist that I can relate to, in a way. At least when looking back at myself from when I was around his age.
Clain is a nostalgic guy, who doesn’t quite feel alienated by the modern world, but isn’t wholly comfortable with it either. He likes Fractale and the convenience it brings, but everyone he knows is just a Doppel. His relationships feel superfluous, he’s kind of lonely, and this has left him with a lot of time. Time he uses to think critically about the world and compare it to his romanticized views of the past.
His key flaw, as with my own teenage self, is that he overestimates his own intelligence. He is always rushing to form his opinions on everything he sees, especially when it challenges his worldview. He instantly disregards the rebels as mere terrorists, mocks how people choose to live their lives, and involves himself in arguments he has no actual place in. He’s a teenager who thinks he has it figured out, but is slowly learning that the world doesn’t work the way he thinks it does.
I could see why someone wouldn’t like him. There are some very rough moments, where he frankly makes a complete ass of himself. People who eloquently explain why they make certain choices, only for Clain to complain about how that’s ridiculous. Or emotional moments that are interrupted because Clain feels the need to voice his opinions.
But it’s precisely that attitude which makes it interesting to watch him grow. To see him form actual bonds with people—accept that they too have thoughts and opinions about things—and nuance his worldviews accordingly. It’s not always a smooth ride, but I felt very invested in watching it unfold.
More like this…
Castle in the Sky: Adventure story about aviation.
Summer Wars: Society is dependent on a digital world.
Simoun: A religious institution hoards incredible technology.