The Semi;Colon meta-franchise is back with Occultic;Nine, and this time it’s seemingly openly embracing the paranormal instead of going full-on science! The drama and conspiracies haven’t gone anywhere, mind you, and it’s far from a rejection of the pseudo-science that defines the meta-franchise.
256 corpses appear in a nearby lake; Yuuta Gamon, a high school student who runs a blog on the paranormal (with the aim of making a living off the ad revenue), sees it as a golden opportunity for his site. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in something far bigger and far more mysterious – along with 8 other individuals across all stripes.
In a first for the Semi;Colon ‘franchise’, Occultic;Nine started life as a light novel, not a visual novel. This, in tandem with a premise rooted in the supernatural and otherworldly, very clearly sets it apart from its predecessors. So how does it stack up?
The first and most immediate thing anyone will notice when they start watching Occultic;Nine is the pace. Or should I just say speed? While it slows down a small amount after the first couple of episodes, it still proceeds at a mile-a-minute. Dialog, scenes, plot, everything seems to go as fast as it possibly can with few to no breaks or pauses. It creates a bit of a disorienting effect – not necessarily undesirable given the nature of the story – and during certain scenes the pace massively boosts the intensity, but the overall effect is not good.
Occultic;Nine’s story is not straight-forward. Understandably; the characters are caught in a web of conspiracy with a confusing trail of obscure clues to lead the way, and that’s not even including the subplots, red herrings, and nonlinear manner the big picture comes together. Further to that, it absolutely loves to bombard you with detailed information about all manner of things. It is very easy to lose track of what’s going on, to miss crucial plot points or to just get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything thrown at you in such short periods of time. And it doesn’t even give you an opportunity to digest or contextualise it! Keeping up with the story is made way too hard, and it becomes less engaging and more of an exercise in frustration as a result.
Personalities get crushed by it too – everyone speaks incredibly quickly (I think natural pauses in delivery get edited out) denying them the time or opportunity to really stand out in small and subtle ways. ‘Fast-talking’ is everyone’s dominant character trait, homogenising the cast.
The lack of downtime also means there’s no opportunity to build drama, take in the atmosphere, or let emotions come through – it just washes over you in a blur of info and noise. Many, many moments that were meant to be affecting left zero impact.
I mentioned that it loves handing out information like its candy, and this too hurts Occultic;Nine badly. Putting aside the difficulty in actually catching it all, it goes into way too much detail about things that either don’t matter or should never have been detailed in the first place. As a minor-ish spoiler, some ‘paranormal’ events are given ‘scientific’ explanations, and the show is not satisfied in vague, hand-wavey ones – we are given 5 minutes of technobabble at a time to justify what is frankly nonsense. It is a complete waste of time, and the patent ridiculousness of the explanations stops them from being taken even slightly seriously.
And then you’ve got the mysterious, evil conspiracy group, operating in the shadows, their motives hostile and unknowable… except that their intentions and plans are laid out in explicit and excruciating detail with everyone’s faces on full show. The only way they could be clearer was if they handed out the employee benefits program to the audience. Unsurprisingly, they cease to be sinister or threatening pretty damn quickly, and don’t take that long to look pretty silly too.
Compare this to Steins;Gate. In that, the explanation for time travel more or less amounted to “we stuck a phone on a microwave and made it spin the other way”. Because it didn’t matter. And SERN’s motives are never revealed, their organisation never shown, they are completely, perfectly unknowable, which made them far better antagonists as a result.
Ironically, Occultic;Nine also suffers from a lack of focus. There are so many plot details and characters that I remember happening or existing but can’t for the life of me really say why they are relevant to the overall story; certainly not to an extent that justified the time spent on them. I mean, when what is relevant is already confusing and disparate enough, adding in irrelevant nonsense doesn’t help!
Take Aria Kurenaino for example. Now, her existence does provide a way for certain plot elements crucial for the end to be introduced in a natural and low-key way, but beyond that her actual narrative relevance is minimal at best. Her subplot is by no means bad or unenjoyable, but when time is so clearly limited why deal with her at all? Can’t the important bits be introduced another way?
Character-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Gamon is a pretty lame main character: he’s just an obnoxious teenage otaku voiced by Yuki Kaji. Need I say more? Ryouka is better than initial episodes make her seem, but that doesn’t excuse the awful character design. Namely, her impossibly huge breasts. It doesn’t fit the tone or style of the series and her personality makes her a lot more childlike than her age indicates, so the net effect is seriously off-putting, being majorly out of place and creepy. And then you have Izumi, who is just another one of those Japanese/anime gay stereotypes – it ain’t great.
Putting them aside, and the fact that personalities don’t get to really distinguish themselves thanks to the absurd speed everyone talks at, the rest of the cast are generally pretty great. Each character stands out and is charismatic with good designs, and it’s enough to make me wish they had been handled properly. There are a few flashes of a brilliant character-driven show under the surface here, and I would have really liked to have seen a lot more of that.
While the ridiculous pace is everyone’s big takeaway, the second one really should be the fantastic direction, presentation and visual fidelity. Occultic;Nine is a very distinct and ambitious show with its style, which it manages to marry with the atmosphere and ‘feel’ of the narrative very well. There’s a constant sense of things not being quite right, not in focus, with detailed but vague things going on in the background, a lot of commotion that doesn’t necessarily create a clearer picture, and so on and so forth – and the visuals work with and add to this a lot.
It does sometimes get a bit overboard and you get episodes that look like they were filmed by a drunk Spiderman, but then you also get episodes directed by Masashi Ishihama. On the whole, it’s good stuff.
And it’s thanks to this that we get some excellent moments of rich atmosphere, tension and horror. The intense, frantic tooth-pulling scene, the white-haired boy and his ‘hobby’, Kisaki’s ‘dives’, there are a lot of scenes that stand out and make a big impression, even if the story would rather them be over with ASAP.
Before the story necessitated revealing (most) everything about the grand conspiracy, it sustained interest in the central mystery on an episode to episode basis fairly well. Sure, a lot of it was based off of cliffhangers that promised to dramatically change how you saw everything that was going on – and to its credit, it usually delivered on that front – so the hooks were a bit cheap and obvious, opting for bait rather than real engagement, but it still kept me watching even during the weaker moments. And it does lead to some fairly cool and dramatic twists as well, so the payoff for sticking with it is at rewarded, even if it does get bogged down trying to explain it and any possible nitpicky question someone could ask.
Embracing the pulpy nature of its story and the very concept of paranormal, pseudo-science conspiracy theories helped, for sure. It is all rather silly and implausible, and it wears that on its sleeve – it never gets too deathly serious or stone-faced, and in doing so manages to work in some particularly goofy story elements that raise the stakes and add a bit of extra conceptual foundation. Every mention of Nikola Tesla springs to mind…
There is definitely a good, if not great, series buried in Occultic;Nine. It’s an ambitious story that’s clearly had a lot of thought put into it, has a clutch of characters that could have been wonderful, and sported a stylistic flair that would be the envy of so many others, but trying to cram as much as it did into 12 episodes hurt it badly. It blitzed through absolutely everything and also wasted time on inconsequential bullshit, and as a result characterisation suffered, emotional resonance was crushed, mystery dispelled and atmosphere ruined. With more breathing room or a willingness to streamline and focus the story during adaptation it could have been so much stronger. Nonetheless, it is better than the very earliest episodes paint it, but the problems seen then aren’t fixed, only reduced.