Extracting sorrows to refill a box of curses
Lots of anime characters have taken it upon themselves to take down, collect, or at least catalogue the various monsters and creatures of Japanese lore. Manga-turned-anime Midnight Occult Civil Servants is no different … except the whimsical job is now a government gig and everything that goes with that.
The series is based on the manga of the same name by Yoko Tamotsu, and is replete with handsome boys in suits whose job is to go out late at night and deal with various paranormal creatures. This includes breaking up interspecies fights, keeping an eye on “fixed points” where some legendary beasts have taken up permanent residence, and stepping in if they become a threat to humans.
Enter Arata Miyako, an unassuming new hire to Shinjuku’s “Night Community Exchange” Department, who’s pretty sure his gig is going to involve dealing with the local nightlife rather than literal fairies and ogres. That’s not his only surprise, either. During his first night on the job, he discovers that while he can understand Anothers—the government’s name for paranormal beings—no other humans can.
Oh, and the Anothers keep insisting he’s Abe no Seimei, who was essentially Japan’s version of Merlin. Arata insists he’s not, but the resemblance and his unique “Ears of Sand” ability have convinced the local Another population otherwise. Honestly, the show is doing a fairly good job of convincing us otherwise, too.
On the surface, it’s a bit like a yokai-centric X-Files, or a Japan-centric Supernatural. Every week we get a new case, which may or may not be related to a running investigation of missing girls in the area. While the focus is mainly Japanese folklore, you’ll see stories peek in from other parts of the world. The series kicks off with a Romeo and Juliet love story between an angel and a tengu, for example. Later, the mythical Pandora appears, kidnapping humans and extracting their sorrows to refill her box of curses.
Hovering (quite literally) behind the action is the Aztec trickster god Huehuecóyotl, who was apparently friends with the aforementioned Abe no Seimei. Whether he’s friend, foe, or just there to mess with Arata remains to be seen. He, more than anyone else, seems convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Arata really is the legendary figure.
Midnight Occult Civil Servants doesn’t lean too heavily on an assumption of familiarity with the beasts, which means viewers can learn a little more about yokai and the like as they watch. Arata makes for a good audience-association character, since it’s his job to have pretty much everything explained to him every episode. Plus, he’s absolute catnip for the Anothers, who believe—perhaps rightly?—that he’s their old sorcerer friend.
Impressive amid the show’s various plot threads is its willingness to pull a double bluff. Arata plunges into the world of myth and legend with both ears open, adding context to the Department’s job that was missing before. At first, it looks like it might well be a booster shot for the group, encouraging them to communicate more openly with Anothers rather than nuking every situation from orbit. But comprehension isn’t understanding, Arata learns quickly: knowing what an Another is saying isn’t the same as understanding how they think. Seeing Arata depicted as a character with a lot to learn, rather than an immediate magical fix who changes the department’s whole process with good intentions, was an interesting surprise.
Unfortunately, a lot about the show—its look, its animation, its overall vibe, even its themes—gives it an “also-ran” aesthetic from the get-go. It looks and feels like This Season’s Paranormal Prettyboy show … which, to be fair, it kind of is. It’s not bad or flawed in any particular way, but there’s nothing about it that puts it head and shoulders above other offerings this spring.
If you’re a fan of seeing mythical creatures from Japan and abroad placed in a different style of narrative, it could be worth your time. There are clever blendings of stories, and the characters are overall likable. It’s not a show to watch at the expense of something you’re already enthusiastic about, but it’s a fun watch if the time is there for it.
rating: Not Rated