The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide
Vatican Miracle Examiner
How would you rate episode 1 of
Vatican Miracle Examiner ?
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How was the first episode?
After so many anime have taken the terminology and iconography of the Catholic faith and run with it in wild (and often hilariously entertaining ways), I'll admit that Vatican Miracle Examiner impressed me with the amount of effort that went in to making its Catholic priests and parishioners feel authentic. Don't get me wrong, this is still the Catholic church as filtered through a heavy filter of camp and penny-dreadful schlock, but I'd wager that you could show an English dub of this to a Western audience and they would find it to feel much more familiar than the Catholics of, say, Hellsing. Seeing men of god use sophisticated technology to investigate the unsavory corners of the religious world is a setup I didn't know I was looking for in an anime until I saw it. It isn't realistic or truly accurate, but it's a refreshing take nonetheless.
Really, though, the camp and schlock that makes things entertaining; I think an anime about a couple of priests just going about their lives would get pretty boring if some gory murders and stigmata afflicted schoolgirls didn't show up eventually. I'm already predisposed to enjoy procedurals, so it didn't take much to get me interested in following a pair of theological into the bloody underbelly of a Mexican boarding school. This episode is laden extra helpings of Dutch angles, gothic interiors, ultraviolence, and even brief flashes of sexuality with the nuns at the school. It all gives the show something of a early-70s, exploitation horror vibe, which I could really see myself getting behind if the execution were just a bit less shaky.
In short, the show just isn't spooky enough. There's certainly moment that approach being effectively creepy, but for the most part this episode is more concerned with laying out exposition than unsettling its audience. Josef and Robert also spend too much time speaking in facts and figures, and not enough time being engaging or interesting. A mystery series like this lives or dies on the quality of its core cast; the secondary characters can be as crazy or over-the-top as need be, but if the central investigators get lost in the murk of wild imagery and convoluted storytelling, the whole structure just falls apart.
I can see a version of this story where the atmosphere is a bit tighter and the characters have a bit more personality, one where the campiness and the procedural mystery blend in a way that isn't necessarily good, but is certainly entertaining. Vatican Miracle Examiner isn't that show just yet, but it very well could be in the future. Or it could dissolve into incomprehensible, over- stylized nonsense. We'll just have to see!
Considering that it blends horror and mystery together, the first episode of Vatican Miracle Examiner is pretty dull. It includes a whole bunch of scenes that feel like they ought to be creepy, but the presentation simply isn't strong enough to induce that all-important feeling of supernatural dread. If you take away all the gloomy lighting and heavy-handed visual symbolism, the main characters might as well be a pair of financial auditors.
Whatever their job may be, at least Roberto and Joseph are perfectly tolerable as the show's protagonists. This episode came closest to catching my attention in its early scenes, as the two of them chat before setting out on their mission. At least there's some actual character development going on in those moments, which is something that I can't really say for the majority of the scenes that follow. I'll also give the series points for going all-in on its tone. If you're going to have visions of people casting demonic shadows and grisly murders on top of summoning circles, you might as well lean all the way into it.
Despite all the gloom and doom, my prevailing emotion during this episode was one of mild boredom. Once we get to the second or third room full of named characters, it becomes obvious that this story is far too crowded for its own good. Add in some poor pacing and you end up with a narrative that doesn't feel like it's building up to anything compelling. I had a vague desire to find out the truth behind all of the seemingly supernatural hijinks, but it wasn't nearly enough to make me want to watch more.
Unless it can seriously clean up its act in future episodes, Vatican Miracle Examiner seems like it will be too much of a mess to deliver any properly scary moments. You'd be more likely to get something out of it as a campy horror show, but in that case its slow pacing works against it. It seems odd for a series to simultaneously have too much and not enough going on, but that's the case here. Skip it unless you're desperate for a supernatural thriller.
Vatican Miracle Examiner was one of my vaguely anticipated shows for this season, entirely because the premise sounded interesting. Examining miracles seems like fertile ground for mystery, horror, or even reflections on faith, and I'm always up for more shows with adult casts. Having watched this episode, I don't really feel all that inspired to continue, but I can safely say that I wasn't bored.
Instead of going in a more serious mystery or political direction, Vatican Miracle Examiner has wisely decided to swing for the camp fences. Like the phenomenal Shiki, Vatican Miracle Examiner understands that horror stories tend to be a little silly, and that leaning into that can reap some great dramatic dividends. This episode's best moments are all its most theatrical, offering overwrought shots of women with pierced hands and little brothers with demonic intentions. There's some great use of shadow, plentiful operatic organ music, and a fair number of individually striking visual compositions. At its most melodramatic, Vatican Miracle Examiner is a reasonably entertaining show.
Unfortunately, the story being told in between those moments is relatively dry and obvious. Though protagonists Hiraga and Nicholas have one brief, interesting conversation regarding the strength of faith early on, they mostly stick to being vehicles for exploring this episode's mystery drama. Neither of them really stand out yet, and given the show's lack of any visible thematic pretensions, it thus falls to the plot to carry the day. As far as that goes, this episode's tale of an American church with an array of dark secrets is cliche, overly busy, and not particularly gripping. The episode gives away far too many secrets too early, meaning that instead of a slow building dread, it's mostly just a series of provocative images conveyed without any eye for pacing or restraint.
Still, “clumsy and underwritten but visually evocative and charmingly campy” isn't the worst balance. The writing isn't there to keep me watching, but I can always appreciate a show that knows what it is and is having a good time with it. Please continue your melodramatic antics, Vatican Miracle Examiner. I fully support you.
Vatican Miracle Examiner is the second show this season to give me book flashbacks to a totally unrelated novel – in this case Ron Hanson's 1996 novel Mariette in Ecstasy, which uses a similar plot device involving stigmata. I know I've also read a mystery involving a weeping Virgin Mary statue, and the only thing I'm really interested with this episode is finding out if the weeping statue is rigged the same way as in the book. Despite mystery being one of my favorite genres, this episode could probably have benefitted from either trimming down its earlier scenes or introducing fewer suspects until we really need their names, or possibly giving this a double-length episode in order to get further into the story, because this drags.
The base story, about two Catholic priests who investigate reported miracles, is interesting in its way. The idea that a huge religious organization would have such a branch in order to preserve order among their believers, particularly when a second immaculate conception is reported in “South of America,” which is apparently the fancy new way to say Mexico. The havoc that this could cause in the church is foremost in the mind of Father Saul, who sends out the examiners, and cynical me can certainly see why. But there's clearly a lot more going on in Saint Rosario when they get there – along with the purported conception, there's also a group of (excessively pretty) male students who are playing demonic Ouija, a gruesome murder on a demonic symbol, and some kid floating in the air while he bleeds from his palms. In other words, something weird is definitely going on, and it may not be God who's doing the work. It also looks like there may be some hanky-panky going on, because the way Sister Dorothea bit into that sausage when Francesco came into the room is pretty suspicious. That could easily explain the whole pregnancy thing as well; again, there was a similar plot point in another mystery novel I just read.
What I'm getting at here is that Vatican Miracle Examiners isn't all that new and mysterious in terms of its mystery. I'm also not thrilled when the men are all examining images of Sister Dolores' hymen, although in terms of what they're looking into, I do understand it, although the continued existence of the hymen into adulthood, even in virgins, is by no means a certain thing. But at the end of the day, this episode doesn't have a great mystery, it's dark color scheme and orchestral score feel like they're trying too hard, and the plot takes too long to get going. The voices are nice to listen to, but that's about it.
I've heard this series being referred to as “Vatican Scooby-Doo,” and while there's not enough shown in the first episode to fully substantiate that label, neither is there enough to deny it as a possibility. This is, after all, a pure mystery story, one which may or may not have supernatural elements involved but definitely wants you to think that something dramatic is going on here. In fact, the first episode goes above and beyond on that point, to the degree that its dramatic flair becomes obnoxious after a while. There's only so heavily that you can lay on the church music before viewers are going to start rolling their eyes, and this episode definitely crosses that line.
It's not just the music, either, although that is a big factor. The visuals are as subtle as a sledgehammer when it comes to promoting a certain mood: a lot of this episode is poorly-lit and steeped in shadow, images of elaborate church buildings and decorations abound, Josef sees a demonic shadow in the place of an apparent human character in a dream, and so forth. The visuals also play up two scenes involving stigmata with loving visual detail and make bold suggestions that at least one of the nuns is much more than what she appears. (Yeah, nothing at all is being implied by the provocative way she wears lipstick or chows down on a sausage.) The appeal to female audiences is pretty blatant too, as both of the male leads are hot, at least one of the students who may be involved is a classic effeminate bishonen, and there's at least a hint of homoeroticism in the air. It isn't forceful enough that it's likely to be an issue for those who are put off by such elements, however.
Though there's nothing that excitingly compelling about Father Roberto or Father Josef, neither do they represent a problem. This mysterious “Lauren” that Father Josef works with online for advice on cases represents some intriguing possibilities, as does the mystery afoot here and possible secular explanations for all of what has transpired. In fact, that's the main draw for viewers who are not enamored with the hyper-dramatic style and don't care about whether or not the two Fathers might find passion in each other's bodies as well as minds. It's also definitely not for the kiddies, as one scene in it is pretty graphic. However, this first episode just overdoes much of what it tries to do. Guided by a more measured hand, this series might have potential, but not as is.
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