Without counting sequels, Spring 2019 has been pretty underwhelming in terms of quality, with very few solid series within this seasons catalog. So, as others sometimes do, I entered the uncharted territory, throwing darts in the dark, looking for something good and worthwhile. Most series were definitely in the lower reaches of my expectations but I was hoping that one of my darts hit its target. And that brings us to a series called Mayonaka no Occult Koumuin, a show that completely surprised me in how good it was.
Barely anyone of the Western anime audience is watching it, or know of its existence. One reason why I think this occurred is that production values from Lidenfilms for this series are certainly low-rent. I just wish the production side were a little less pedestrian, just enough so that I didn’t keep noticing how bland the show looks. The animation is choppy and the details a bit spartan, which is a shame because it would be interesting to see this show on a workable budget. It is well-written, competently directed and acted, and presents a genuinely interesting premise. Besides the visuals, I don’t think there’s much else preventing Mayonaka from being fairly exceptional. We have a really interesting recurring plot playing out behind consistently good episodic storylines, and outstanding attention to detail when it comes to the world-building. It’s quite an engaging setup, and I like all the characters—after the premiere episode, I was unexpectedly intrigued.
The premise here is that creatures of fae—and just about every other mythical race and a creature you like – are real and living in Tokyo. It’s the job of the “The Night Time Relations Department” to keep their existences from overlapping with humans too much and causing problems. Newbie Arata Miyako has just joined the office and gets a crash course in his new reality from Seo Himezuka, the science guy, and Kyouichi Sakaki, the team leader. Their beat is a hotbed of midnight activity for the “Another” the collective name given to these fairy creatures both eastern and western. I quite liked how all this played out —the attention to detail for starters, and also the way the exposition only gradually clued us into how this department actually goes about their job. It turns out that no one in the department can understand what the Another is saying, which obviously limits the sort of work they can do.
Except Arata can, as he proves in mediating disputes between different species of Another, as well as those whose acts become a conflict with the humans. The twist here is that Arata is apparently a reincarnation of Abe no Seimei, who certainly turns up in many guises in manga and anime. It allows him to have the ability called the “Ears of Sand” which makes him a master of languages and can understand the words of Another who should not be able to be understood. That places him in a zone that’s unique in this mythology as far as we’ve seen—precariously wedged between the human and Another worlds, in the manner of Ginko or Natsume. Arata and his fellow team are pitted in situations where their moral compass and world views are put to the test when dealing with Another and amongst themselves in the methods that they should handle them. The subplots often reflect on the enormous gap in perception that exists between humans and youkai.
I like the idea that through Arata, the message that Mayonaka is trying to get across is that to sort conflicts, we need to first understand each other and work out solutions through discussion. There are a lot more messages that are contextualized throughout, and moral lessons to take from it. As this series has progressed it’s started to put me in mind of “American Gods” just a bit, for the way it takes the old Gods and places them squarely in the new world. As with Gaiman’s classic, Mayonaka doesn’t play favorites with culture—everybody’s belief system seems to have an equally valid seat at the table. And while the Japanese Shinto traditions have certainly made their appearance, if anything Mayonaka seems more focused on Western mythology than Eastern. I always appreciate it when a series is able to navigate a wide variety of tonal changes. It can be thrilling and suspenseful, emotionally heavy, or lighter and more whimsical. The writing is crisp and intelligent, the continuity between arcs is unbroken, but moods can switch to be dramatically different without whiplash.
The writing of Mayonaka shows a great understanding of conflicts. There are high stakes that really matters whether or not conflicts are resolved. We know the motivations of our protagonists, we know what they are risking in accomplishing their goals, and we learn what are consequences if they fail—and they do fail sometimes with significant consequences that kept me intrigued. All the events within the story (even though it deals heavily with the supernatural), are as realistic as possible, nothing comes easy for our protagonists. Additionally, everything is consistent and every scene contributes to a common goal. There’s an elegance to the writing with Mayonaka that I find to be very rare in anime these days, and a trust in the audience that’s equally so. Series that splice the ancient and mystical into the modern world are not rare in anime, but those that do so as seamlessly as this series certainly are.
It is well-directed too because despite the cast being full of familiar actors, they’re actually acting here rather than simply offering their usual on-screen personas. in terms of writing, it’s the sleeper hit of the season, the quiet workhorse of the Spring. It delivers an awful lot in its unprepossessing package—tonal diversity, smart writing, top-notch acting. It would be so easy to completely miss this show’s existence—as indeed the overwhelming majority of the Western anime audience seems to be doing—but it’s a secret those of us who appreciate it are very happy we’ve discovered.