Image source: KADOKAWAanime on YouTube
The horror/suspense/mystery genre has its fair share of trope visual settings, from the abandoned, derelict log cabin in the woods to the unkempt cemetery with tombstones so eroded the names are no longer legible.
A certain niche within these is the range of imagery related to the Christianity, as can be seen in classic movies such as The Exorcist, blockbusters such as End of Days, and more recently, the “Robert Langdon series” of movies based on Dan Brown novels, such as The Da Vinci Code.
Based on a series of novels itself, Vatican Miracle Examiner seems to be taking its visual cues from these works. Even before the anime adaptation was announced, as novels, the thematic similarities with Brown’s works are clearly noted by readers, as can be seen in blog and Amazon reviews of the various volumes, with Vatican Miracle Examiner being recommended “if you like the Da Vinci Code.” And if there was any doubt of a connection, the addition of Masashi Ebara in the cast (as both Archbishop Saul and the narrator) cements the deal.
Ebara is famous for being the voice actor usually entrusted with playing Tom Hanks in Japanese language dubs of Hollywood movies, and of course, the series of religious iconography adventure mysteries featuring symbologist Professor Langdon is no exception. It almost feels like the producers want you to be aware of the influences, to the point of homage.
Vatican Miracle Examiner, then, with its highly acute attention to architectural details of churches and meticulously-replicated depictions of Vatican art and costumes, has a distinct visual grammar that sets it apart from a lot of current anime, while at the same time perhaps touching on familiar tones to Western viewers. And so, to get the full picture, we need to be aware of not only our accustomed visual representations of the topic of Christianity (in particular Catholicism) itself but also their status in Japan.
Many may see Christian imagery fairly prevalent in many anime, manga, and even tokusatsu shows, where, for example, crucifixion of characters is perhaps alarmingly more frequent than expected. From a Western perspective, many images visually recognizable as religious may trigger a variety of responses depending on the context within which they are presented. When watching a movie like The Blues Brothers, the images of violently strict nuns are played for laughs, while something more morally educational like The Sound of Music plays up the wholesome element of piety to God and, in turn, respect for fellow human beings.
Overall, however, Westerners are very accustomed to religious imagery of this sort and so, in many ways, they are part of everyday life that usually do not warrant a second thought. On the other hand, in Japan, the images of Christianity are rather romanticized in many ways—cathedrals and churches in European cities remain hugely popular tourist spots for Japanese travelers (obviously not exclusively), due partly to their beauty in architecture, but perhaps also because of a more fantasy-like element. It is also fairly common knowledge these days that many young Japanese couples get married at a location that has superficially been made up to look like a chapel, with an altar and crucifixes, perhaps even stained glass windows, and typically the “minister” performing the ritual of the exchange of vows will be a Westerner dressed in the proper attire. These rituals in such locations usually have no religious significance whatsoever.
But that is why Vatican Miracle Examiner gives off an impression that somewhat jars with the common romanticization of Christian imagery in the media—there is often some inherent exotic element from a Japanese perspective, but within the anime, we are playing up the mysterious, and even occult aspects of it. The Vatican landscape is frequently rendered in visually gorgeous panoramic shots, the marble surfaces highlighted in gold hues and the stone pillars extending high in a majestic show of luxury that informs our ideas of the Vatican being a place where devout worship has been embodied to the grandest scale imaginable.
The personification of this element is applicable to the characters, too. The protagonists Hiraga and Roberto are handsome, tall, slender, and almost ethereal in appearance. They typically blend the exotification of the religious with the familiarity of currently en vogue Japanese “ikemen” cool guy idolization.
But notice still how most of the scenes involving the main characters are cast in some dimly-lit ambiance, as if to set a grim, uneasy mood. This style of lighting is rarely broken up, such as when we are slowly gazing at the luscious background art, with the gleaming Christian sculptures and other such artworks, in which case we don’t really focus on the characters. And the only other exemption worth mentioning is when the characters step outside of the Vatican and go halfway across the world to the southern states of the U.S. There, we notice that the outside air seems fresher, the sun seems brighter, and overall the tension in the air has been released with a spring-like wash of color.
But as soon as we are back in the realm of Christian visual cues, we return to our moody blues and greyscale tones, scattered with shiny gleams here and there: beautiful, but somewhat unnerving.
Vatican Miracle Examiner is thus a great example of subtle, atmospheric visual art direction that manages to very carefully manage that oh-so delicate balance of attractive, exotic beauty, with the edge-of-your-seat tense, latent anxiety that saturates almost every scene. It is attractive, yet there is an air of danger, but that also draws us further in. This feeling permeates the entire show. While it may remain questionable whether this balance was achieved with the live-action visualization of the Dan Brown novels, it has certainly been proven possible with Japanese animation, because of the complete and total control of the visuals that animation directors have.
Vatican Miracle Examiner is available to watch through the Amazon Video streaming service.