How much do we really know about the fairies in Humanity Has Declined? These perma-grinning, faintly malevolent beings are a permanent fixture of the series, but there’s not a great deal that we know for sure about them. Let’s start with that which is directly observable. The first thing anyone notices about the ‘present-humans’ is the aforementioned smile, which seems to be part of a curious kind of neoteny. Juvenile features are enhanced and more pronounced in the fairies to suggest a childlike quality; to me they resemble how young children draw people (they also look rather like nendoroid figurines – I smell marketing opportunities).
Watashi tells us that they possess ‘supernatural’ technology, and having seen the FairyCo factory in episodes one and two there is no reason to doubt this. As good as this technology is, however, we see that the fairies are easily bribed with the promise of sweets (another juvenile trait? I know when I was younger the promise of a treat was enough to put a stop to any untoward behaviour), so it clearly has its limits. As we heard from Loaf the suicidal breadbot, the mass production line can synthesise food from anything, even trash, but it tastes worse than the real thing. Stuff sold by the gram is always going to be more exciting than stuff sold by the pound, and so human-produced cake and sweets are like gold dust to the fairies.
That covers the most important matters that the viewer can see, but what can we infer from what we’ve seen thus far? The fairies designation as ‘present-humans’ is (quite rightly, in my opinion) seen as inextricably linking them to the human race in the real world, but there seems to be a little more to it than that. It is tempting to claim that they have evolved from humans in Jintai’s universe, but I see the name as a designation that they are the dominant species on Earth. It’s a curious kind of dehumanisation on the part of the humans, but that’s for another time.
Humanity seems far more dependent on the fairies than they like to admit. In the first episode, Watashi tries to teach villagers how to slaughter a chicken for its meat (Akira makes an interesting point on this note with reference to how children can be ignorant of where their food really comes from). After centuries of humanity being in decline, one would have thought that this sort of knowledge would be passed down from an early age by parents, not by a UN mediator. Once the FairyCo goods are left in the village (admittedly a plot thought up by the human manager of the factory, but still involving fairy technology) the inhabitants thrive. Since that moment we’ve seen nothing to suggest that the village is anything other than flourishing.
So what about the things we are told? Watashi is the major source of exposition on the nature of the fairies, but I wouldn’t be a discerning viewer if I didn’t question what she says. The trope of the unreliable narrator is as old as classical civilisation (Herodotus is often called the Father of Lies for his reporting of fanciful information as fact), and in a show which is almost exclusively framed by the experiences and thoughts of its protagonist one has to call the evidence she provides into question. In episode two, Watashi says that the fairies “reproduce naturally when they have fun”. There has been little to suggest either way whether this is true or false, with only a couple of throwaway lines lending credence to the idea.
Watashi tells us that the fairies like to copy what the humans do. Scholars have argued that imitation is unique in humans, one of the features that distinguish us from other animals. And from an anthropological point of view, cultures tend to imitate the practices of other cultures (a pertinent idea given the prominence of ‘subculture’ in episodes three and four). This rather ties in to the note on dehumanisation from before, in that this behaviour is diametrically opposed – it humanises the fairies. There is no reason to doubt Watashi here, since we see the fairies muse upon the pros and cons of death by starvation when told that humanity faces a similar threat, and we see them producing the derivative yaoi manga once Y becomes successful.
And so finally we turn to this week’s episode – yes, we got there eventually. We got major exposition on the fairies in episode five, but for the first time this information has come from the fairies themselves. Where fairies gather, it seems, those in the vicinity become luckier, rather like the luck virus in Red Dwarf. Accordingly the fairies warn that the humans’ luck is going to run out once the fairies flee Camphorwood Village and its electromagnetic waves. And whaddayaknow, once the fairies leave Watashi and Assistant end up in their most perilous situation yet – running out of food and water, hopelessly lost in a dark, cramped maze. Their luck only begins to change once Watashi’s good luck charm, given to her by the fairies shortly before they fled, transforms into a fairy.
Sure, the fairy led them to metal-corroding, power cord-vomiting slimes and a murderous robot dog who wanted to play fetch with our protagonist’s internal organs, but it was through this that they re-encountered Pion, the cat-eared gynoid that Watashi had met the previous day in Camphorwood village. That faint malevolence I mentioned before means everything the fairies say and do is suspect in my eyes, so whether the fairy led them to this danger on purpose or by chance is a niggling doubt, but for now I can’t say for certain which it was. Having gotten used to the fairies’ presence and tolerating them at the very least (there is too little evidence to claim that the humans and the fairies live anything over than a cooperative coexistence), humanity – or leastways the residents of Camphorwood Village – now has to deal with the reality of the fairies’ absence. You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.