With today’s anime industry cranking out more shows per season than ever before, many of which instantly forgettable due to lazy writing, sub par production and generic characters and stories, the fan community is quick to jump at any show that differentiates itself from the norm, praising these rule breakers for being inventive, creative, subversive and even deconstructive in their methods of storytelling. In late 2015, the show was One Punch Man. In Winter 2016, it was Konosuba and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. More recently in Fall 2016, it was Flip Flappers. This season, it looks like it’s Kuzo No Honkai. However, while many fans consider shows like these to be fresh and inventive, there are an equal amount of people ready to jump on them from the opposing point of view, accusing them of being pretentious or pointless. Often, the most hotly debated shows within the community are the ones that are doing things differently, for better or worse.
In the Fall 2016 anime season, no show was more divisive than Occultic;Nine. As a member of the Science Adventure series originally written by Chiyomaru Shikura, the creator of Steins;Gate, it attracted a lot of high expectations prior to its airing. However, after the first episode aired the general reaction seemed to be, more or less, confusion. Structurally speaking, Occultic;Nine is the opposite of Steins;Gate in almost every way. It’s extremely fast paced, its characters are all fairly stereotypical and don’t develop very much throughout the course of the show, and the dialogue is constantly exaggerated, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Most viewers walked away from the first episode with mixed feelings, some dropping it right away and moving on, criticizing it for being pretentious or simply bad.
I don’t really like using the word “pretentious”, but even if I did I don’t think I could apply it to Occultic;Nine because, although it has its weaknesses, it always seems to be aware of itself and what it is and doesn’t attempt to be anything different. In deviating itself so far from the rest of the Science Adventure series, and from its contemporaries in general, it demonstrated that it wasn’t trying to be anything that it wasn’t. However, if anything is clear from the first episode, it’s that this show is wildly ambitious.
The ambition of the production team, particularly of the director, is both an asset and a liability for the show as a whole. There are a lot of things about Occultic;Nine’s directing and production that I can easily praise. Being a mystery story, director Kyohai Ishiguro leaves plenty of subtly hidden clues and references throughout the show that forced me and other viewers to carefully examine and analyze each episode, hoping to pick up on the bread crumbs that were being left behind for us in an attempt to solve the mysteries ourselves. When the answers were finally revealed, we often found that our thorough analysis had paid off. Even so, there were still many details and plot twists that were impossible to predict, giving it a strong shock value as well. Where directors of shows such as Erased make the answers to the mysteries so blatantly obvious that the reveals feel anti-climatic, Ishiguro and his team force us to look carefully to discover the answers, making for a much more satisfying and enjoyable viewing experience. Additionally, a lot of the use of color, camera work, editing and sound design made it visually and audibly stimulating as well. This is the kind of directing style that I would thoroughly enjoy dissecting and analyzing one day.
However, as clever as Kyohai Ishiguro may be in his utilization of the mystery genre, there’s also several aspects of his directing style that I can easily criticize, and many viewers have done so extensively. Towards the end of the show the his knack for cinematic rule breaking seemed to spiral into an obsession. Unfortunately, a lot of it ended up feeling pointless. Breaking cinematic rules of thumb can be done tastefully to enhance the tone or direction of a scene, and Occultic;Nine did this well early on, but as the show neared its conclusion it started to feel purposeless and exaggerated, leaving me confused about what I was meant to take away from many of the scenes. The dutch camera angles during the dialogue scenes are so overplayed that they walk a fine line between unsettling and obnoxious. Basic rules of scene composition such as the 180 degree rule are broken for no obvious reason. The pacing is fairly inconsistent, speeding up and slowing down seemingly at random throughout its run, making some dialogue scenes feel rushed and nearly incomprehensible. Ishiguro plays with a lot of cool tricks and effects in this show. Some of them work well and enhance the show’s mysterious and unsettling nature. Others are simply distracting.
The problem that creators like Ishiguro face is that their ambition doesn’t match up to their skill and experience. If ambition were equal to ability, Occultic;Nine would be a directorial masterpiece. This is just one of many struggles of an ambitious creator. It’s difficult to want to grow as an artist and tell your stories when you’re unable accurately replicate the vision in your head.
Ishiguro isn’t exactly new to the industry, but very few of the projects he’s directed have gained any commercial success, and the one show that did (Your Lie in April) isn’t really known for it’s outstanding direction. With that in mind, Occultic;Nine seems like his attempt to make a name for himself as a director, exploring his talent and ability in an attempt to discover his unique style. This being his first show to direct of this nature is, needless to say, a massive undertaking, and despite the challenges he faced and the areas in which he didn’t have the skill to match his ambition, from watching this show I get the feeling that he genuinely had a lot of fun with it. Should the director’s position and feelings towards the show they’re working on be included in analytical discussions? Perhaps not, but I don’t feel that they should be discarded completely from the perspective of the casual viewer, either. For what it’s worth, Ishiguro puts a really good effort into create something that is equally unique and enjoyable, yet so many reviewers seem quick to address everything he did wrong.
I’m not suggesting that a show be completely exempt from criticism just because it has ambitious creators. I think it’s possible for something to be too ambitious for its own good to the point of meaningless self-indulgence, which is largely how I felt about shows like Nisemonogatari, The Perfect Insider and parts of Shinsekai Yori. Additionally, I’ve seen shows that are wildly ambitious, yet don’t seem to care at all about the quality of their final product, like this season’s Hand Shakers. There’s definitely a line that needs to be drawn between ambition for the sake of itself and creators who genuinely care about their work. It’s well worth discussing and analyzing the areas in which ambitious shows succeed and fail. To the analytical reviewer, the intents and purposes of the creators of a show are irrelevant; all that matters is their product. However, I feel that the real struggles of these bold creators who are trying to make a product that is equally unique and high quality are often lost upon many viewers. The ambition and bravery displayed by Ishiguro, his team and A-1 Pictures in the production of a show like Occultic;Nine that defied the standards of the industry so much so that it nearly flopped in DVD sales (Source) is something that I can respect and support. It’s one thing to see a show with sub par writing and production fail, but when it happens to a show in which the creators seem to take an active interest in their work, even though I’ll happily criticize all their failures, at the same time, I want to buy the DVDs as soon as they came out, because this ambitious spirit is something I want to see more of, not only in anime, but entertainment in general.
The anime industry needs new ambitious creators that aren’t afraid to take risks and attempt to make something unique, even if its something as wild and divisive as Occultic;Nine. Since the anime industry is so large with so many new generic, run of the mill shows every season, it’s ambitious creators like Kyohai Ishiguro that are inevitably going to give us that breath of fresh air we all look for each new season. One day, they may even create a masterpiece.