Midnight Occult Civil Servants

5 out of 5

Directed by: Tetsuya Watanabe

Covers season 1

We’ve seen this setup before in books, films, and anime: a naive protagonist starts a new job and is exposed to a world of aliens or spooks or magic that they never knew existed.  This kind of stuff comes in varying degrees of entertaining, but I do think the excessive exposure to a lot more media nowadays has made those varying degrees minimal in their variations, and generally just topping out at “yeah, it’s good.”  This is true of any subgenre that has flourished – zombies being a good example – making exceptions to what becomes the “rule” of that subgenre especially noteworthy.

And so: enter Midnight Occult Civil Servants, in which Arata Miyako starts a new job and is exposed to a world of spooks and magic…  Ah, but wait: spooks and magic aren’t the wrinkle.  We don’t waste time googly-eyed at new creatures, and the show keeps things pretty low key in terms of introducing the “some people can see them, some can’t” dynamic related to its mythological creatures fluttering all around us.  Our civil crew aren’t superheroes; they aren’t thrust into world-saving, death-defying scenarios: they’re mainly just there to keep tabs on various “Anothers,” as they’re called, and make sure things stay copacetic.  This is normally done at arms length, as humans are unable to communicate with Anothers, until it turns out that Miyako is a descendant of a man named Abe no Seimei, who has the “Ears of Sand,” allowing him to understand and speak with the Anothers.  Episodically, then, Miyako and his fellow servants of his ward do their nightly checks, and Miyako’s ears lending sense to behaviors that previously seemed senseless and disruptive.  And that’s fun!

…But the show, slyly, goes deeper.  Another’s aren’t human, and Arata is constantly learning what that means: the different values, the different ’emotions’ – such as they are – the different sense of morality.  Arata makes friends with a god of chaos, for example, but there’s no telling what that means – what that friendship actually means to that god.  He’s constantly warned to not strike any deals with Anothers, but continually finds the information they provide – naturally, through conversation – useful, and struggles with not identifying them as human.  It’s an absolutely fascinating, sharply scripted set of interactions, that the show never dolls up as the meaning of life or anything; we still have our episodic problems to solve, even when some bits and pieces of different events connect to larger events.

I must stress the intelligence of the writing.  Arata is definitely wholesome, but incredibly human.  Later in the season, a character absolutely opposed to working with Anothers is introduced, and he is a “bad guy,” but he’s also treated as a human.  The lightly jazzy score and calm pacing suggests the show will be somewhat toothless, but we’re constantly kept on guard – just as Arata is – regarding what we can and cannot expect of the supernatural.  Liden Films’ animation studio may also have applied the absolute best use of cheaper animation I’ve seen.  It’s pretty stiff, and limited, and so they focus on getting characters and their expressiveness right, and a lot of the rest falls into place.  We don’t need a lot of sound and fury if the story we’re watching is interesting, is acted well, and if those points of focus – the conversations – are well acted (via the visuals), which they are.

Midnight Occult Civil Servants is pretty easily summarizable.  And it doesn’t reveal itself to necessarily be an overly complex show with some huge mythology.  It “simply” nails the basic format for enjoyability in its subgenre, and then respects its audience (and presumably source material) with very sharp, naturalistic writing and a fully fleshed out cast of characters.