This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. It’s no secret that Japan’s knowledge of Catholicism has been, at times, grossly exaggerated in their media; however, with Vatican Kiseki Chousakan, it’s surprisingly accurate how detailed and accurate the Faith and its externals are shown. To their credit, their lack of exposure to this religion has given them plenty of leeway in depicting it, but also with careful discretion to not go beyond their limits. On the other hand, you have sitcoms like Ireland’s Father Ted, which pretty much lampoons what’s left of the religious influence on the island and turns it into a half-hour long series of misadventures of three Roman Catholic priests. Two different worlds apart, yet somehow trying to make the Church the center of the stage: this is a comparison between Vatican Kiseki Chousakan and Father Ted.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #5: VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN
Sadly, Vatican Kiseki Chousakan is the closest anime has ever gotten to a decent portrayal of Catholicism; aside from A Certain Magical Index or Kaitou Saint Tail, the latter of which I have not seen yet. This series focuses on two priests, Frs. Joseph Kou Hiiraga and Roberto Nicolas, who work for a Vatican-backed organization inspired by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Said priests are given the task of investing alleged miracles, documenting and reporting them, and determining their authenticity – even exposing their fraudulent nature if necessary. Over the course of 12 episodes, the show explores themes such as the importance of faith over emotion, the question of evil, and the purpose of life. Our lead protagonists fight off characters such as a neo-Nazi cult, African snake demon worshippers, “demonic” clowns, and lastly, an international Freemasonic-like organization hellbent on controlling the powers be, as well as situations that push the limits of their faith in God to the test in more ways than one established.
As I’ve explained before in my review, the story follows through different arcs over various episodes, but it’s not something I’d consider a masterpiece. Especially with the short length of the series and the lack of any real depth to the characters, there’s much that could have been improved on the show.
WESTERN COMPETITOR #5: FATHER TED
Father Ted, which aired from 1995 to 1998, is perhaps the most well-known sitcom to have come out of Ireland, and for good reason. It chronicles the story of Fr. Ted Crilly, played by the late Dermot Morgan (ironically, an atheist), who is an un-incardinated Roman Catholic priest who lives in exile at Craggy Island due to a history of bad gambling habits. He lives with his “best friend” Fr. Dougal McGuire, a young priest with a poor grasp on his faith, and Fr. Jack Hackett, an elderly priest with an affinity for alcohol and a fear of nuns. Over the course of 25 episodes, our bumbling trio goes through various sub-stories detailing their exciting life on the island, which involve but are not limited to picketing an openly gay movie, Lenten self-mortification, singing at Eurovision, kicking bishops right up the arse, and participating in soccer competitions involving elderly pre-Vatican II priests, and failing miserably at those. More often than not, their local friends usually consist of other priests, schizophrenic couples, suspect persons and the occasional television host along the way to add to the mix of their wonderful slip-ups.
The show was well-received in Ireland, winning several BAFTA awards in the comedy category, and continues to be a staple of Irish television, with a musical, chronicling Fr. Ted as the Pope set to come out soon this decade. It serves not only as a testament to the country’s media enterprise, but also as a reminder of the sorry state of post-Catholic Ireland, which since Vatican II, has never really been the same as it was before.
Five categories have been selected by me to rank the series, including several ones which are new to the East Meets West list:
- Best Storytelling Format
- Best Use Of Catholicism
- Best Visuals
- Best “Best Episode”
- Best Clerical Group
CATEGORY #1: BEST STORYTELLING FORMAT
If it weren’t obvious by now, both Vatican Kiseki Chousakan and Father Ted come from two completely different genres of storytelling. In the first case, the story almost feels like a mystery thriller, as the priests are often seen investigating instances of macabre actions disguised as miracles, and have to fend off various threats going against them. Meanwhile, in the latter, Frs. Crilly, McGuire and Hackett play off their lives through the lens of a comedy routine, complete with a laugh track in the background as they attempt to survive and make the most of their boring existence on plain old Craggy Island. While it feels like a stretch to compare the two shows to each other given their different material, it’s best to note that they’re treated largely similar to each other, in the sense that none of the stories being told are linked to each other, or lead towards any definitive conclusion. That begs the question though: who did their genre better?
Father Ted episodes operate like your standard sitcom: one episode, one plot, where everything starts and ends within 20 or so minutes. Very rarely does the show drag on its plot over multiple episodes, such as with the Escape From Victory/Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse. Continuity is nowhere to be found as our characters never reference past events, old characters come and go like flies dropping, and running gags are plenty. The comedy largely relies on shticks like characters getting into awkward situations, failing at something that seems simple, or ironic moments; not to mention, short one-liners often quipped by Fr. McGuire.
Meanwhile, Vatican Kiseki Chousakan depicts Fr. Hiiraga and Nicolas’ journey through a story arc – that is, a single plot framed across several episodes. On one hand, this makes sense considering that it keeps things suspenseful, and allows the viewer to play along with the story and see if they can put the pieces together before the story can. It also gives ample room to develop and provide a satisfying conclusion to the mystery at hand. You can expect to see a couple of twists and turns revolving as the story progresses, and you might even be left shocked at the end results.
Granted though, the storytelling can be, at times, prone to their own set of faults. For example, in the case of Father Ted sometimes the comedy gags either make no sense (old women invading Fr. Crilly’s house to meet a celebrity), or are poorly managed (such as the rabbit episode and Bishop Brennan’s use of a sarcastic priest in that same flick). However, it’s a far cry from Vatican Kiseki Chousakan, where story arcs can take episodes to resolve; and keep in mind, this is a 12 episode series, meaning that there’s going to be very little room to push other more potentially interesting segments to them. This right here is the killer for me; now, were the series doubled in length, this would be acceptable, but the fact that certain arcs overstayed their stay just make it unbalanced and unacceptable to have. Now, if you thought Father Ted‘s comedy was shifty at times, Vatican Kiseki Chousakan flies off the cliff with some of their setups and resolutions. I mean, how were we supposed to tie in a luminous crucifix to a drug smuggling operation led by Freemasons, or even more outlandishly, associate a staged “immaculate conception miracle” to being the work of an underground Hitler-worshipping cult? At least with Father Ted you know when the story’s going to start and end, how it’s going to conclude, and most importantly won’t attach ludicrous strings to it. Therefore, I’m giving first blood to Father Ted for having a better and sensible storytelling management.
FATHER TED 1, VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN 0
CATEGORY #2: BEST USE OF CATHOLICISM
If there’s one thing that’s completely redeemable about Vatican Kiseki Chousakan, it’s how they use Catholicism – not just as a motif, but have a positive portrayal of its teachings. You have large Gothic churches which tower over villages, and beautifully administered interiors; a solid grasp of theology administered by the priests, and not to mention: St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of the Church, makes an appearance in its entire glory and splendor numerous times in the series. Issues such as demonic possession, the marks of a true believer, the hagiography and canonization of saints, and most especially miracles are treated seriously and respectfully. Unfortunately, we don’t see the priests attempt to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or rather, any of the other six sacraments.
Eslewhere, Father Ted tends to treat Catholicism solely as a motif. References to Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (which is dubbed as outdated by one of the priests), the Lourdes/Fatima apparitions, relations between the church and state are inserted purely for comedic purposes, not so much aesthetic. Twice in the series the Mass was mocked; once with Fr. Crilly rushing a “Mass” in 10 seconds just so he can meet a woman, and again in the Speed 3 episode when he and two other priests “concelebrate” a “Mass” to save Fr. McGuire from his milkman duties. Speaking of which, Fr. McGuire himself fails so much to pass as a priest, that he doesn’t even know what the importance of the Eucharist is. (!!) Quite frankly, it’s for this reason that I highly don’t recommend this series if you’re susceptible to scandal or aren’t strong enough in the Faith.
VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN 1, FATHER TED 1
CATEGORY #3: BEST VISUALS
Father Ted was largely filmed across the rural landscape of Ireland, and to quote The Sound Of Music, the hills are very much alive here. Expect to treat yourself to a lot of natural environments such as the large plains situated around the pariochal house where Fr. Ted and company live and breathe in, the seaside cliffs, and a rocky picnic park. Due to the immense popularity of the series, many of these places have become tourist attractions in their own right; some are even the home of mini-conventions geared towards fans of the show.Vatican Kiseki Chousakan takes the characters across the world: Mexico, Africa and Italy can be seen during Frs. Hiiraga and Nicolas’ travels. Be ready to feast your eyes on massive churches and lush jungles which mostly make up the central locations of the episodes. The depictions of St. Peter’s Basilica and its surroundings are all the more enthralling to watch as they appear in animated form. Watching this show feels somewhat like a walking tour of some of the many bastions of Christianity that have set themselves up over the years. I’ll also give both series credit that their characters were dressed very modestly according to Catholic standards.
Ultimately though, I think Father Ted made the best advantage of the visual component in each of its episodes, while Vatican Kiseki Chousakan at times seemed to try too hard to make the background blend in with the characters, or appear dissonant towards them. On the other hand, despite the simple surroundings and the lack of any extravagant details, that’s part of what made Father Ted‘s characters stand out. The lack of anything makes them easy to be the central focus of the story, and it gives off a relaxing vibe which is what the show aims to produce. Simple story, simple background, and simple cast all make for a perfect score on this category for Father Ted.
FATHER TED 2, VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN 1
CATEGORY 4: BEST “BEST EPISODE”
This is the first time I’ve set up a category to compare the best episodes of the show, so I’m very excited for this. After all, what better way to compare two seemingly dissimilar shows by at least comparing the best things that could come out of them? To start, I’ll describe episode 5 of Vatican Kiseki Chousakan.
Here, Fr. Hiiraga has a conversation with his hacker ally, Lauren Di Luca, where he aims to help the latter, an avowed atheist, believe in God by telling him a personal story. The story in question is about a man who was given the ability by the devil to have any wish he wanted for. What followed would be a life of strife, difficulty, and anguish – until he meets the love of his life, who also turns out to be an illusion. When asked in the end if he had lost to the devil, Fr. Joseph assures him that, since he used this ability for good, and resisted the temptation to do evil, it was actually the grace of God which helped him to beat the devil back. Why do I like this episode? Because, unlike the other episodes which focus on mystery, not only is it a breath of fresh air but the message echoes St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “If God be for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31) As we humans are bound by the ties of original sin and concupiscence, only by turning to God can He help us turn around and live for the better. It’s a lesson that gives hope, and helps me to keep on living despite the zany put-me-down news that’s always popping up along.
In our Irish counterpart, the bumbling priests’ misadventures take their high point in the episode Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse, from the third season. After having lost a soccer match thanks to the power of rigged games, Fr. Ted has to do exactly what the episode title says. At first, he hesitates, but through some peer pressure he finally does it – with hilarious results. Normally expecting an angered reaction from his superior, instead the latter goes into a catatonic state, just before he leaves to visit the late Pope John Paul II in Rome. What follows are hilarious shenanigans and an even more upstart final confrontation between the bishop and priest, once the former realizes that “He (Fr. Ted) really did kick me up the arse!” Simply put, the delivery of this episode was just great, and what follows suit from the unexpected results of each characters’ involvement is just comedy done right.
I’ll say this – while I liked the message that Fr. Hiiraga came up with in his episode, and was a beautiful story which well-surrounded the context of the series, I found that the result was not too different than what I’ve seen before. I’ve seen St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Francis de Sales and Fr. Thomas a Kempis say the same thing in their works, so it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But who can avoid laughing at Bp. Brennan’s reaction when Fr. Ted kicks him up the arse, and beyond? Especially since those familiar with the show knows how irascible the latter can be, to see this behavior was completely out of the ordinary, which leads to some hilarious results. So points to Father Ted for clinching the competition early.
FATHER TED 3, VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN 1
CATEGORY #5: BEST CLERICAL GROUP
Though Father Ted has won the last three of the four categories, can I really say that their characters complete the show’s formula? I say to that, yes! They absolutely do. Dermot Morgan, Ardal O’Hanlon and Frank Kelly, playing the roles of Frs. Ted, Dougal and Jack respectively were full of personality, wit, and were very developed characters despite the show’s lack of a coherent plot. What started off as a character for a one-time skit eventually unraveled itself into a well-rounded story which continues to charm people these days. When you’re watching an episode of Father Ted, the characters make you feel like you’re part of their lives; their antics make you feel invested in what they’re doing, and moreover, they’re entertaining to watch. My only complaint is that it derides the Faith of a country whose identity was once shaped by it, but despite that the characters, if looking from an objective frame, were well-adapted to the scenarios laid out for them.
It’s a stark contrast to Frs. Hiiraga and Nicolas. Believe me, I had high hopes for this show considering that it’s a show about priests written by Japanese folks. The plot seemed intriguing at first, and I hoped that the characters too would reflect something of how this anime would turn out. Unfortunately, I was right but for all the wrong reasons; they showed just how flat and convoluted the plot could be, with story arcs that drag on for longer than they needed, an unfinished and otherwise unfulfilling conclusion, and numerous room for improvement. Meanwhile, the filler episodes – which number only two – were extremely rushed and failed to develop the characters’ likability or backstory any further. It’s a darn shame, because I didn’t really feel any attachment towards them at all, aside from their devotion to the Catholic Faith and how seriously they take their sacred duties, which was only positive aspect coming out from them. I mean, compared to most anime Catholic priests, they’re a huge step up, and it would have been nice if they could have advanced further to make themselves stand out even further from the crowd; but alas, they just couldn’t square up that far.
With all that said and done, here’s to Father Ted, the winner of this week’s showdown, and the first to bring a blowout victory going for the West.
FINAL SCORE: FATHER TED 4, VATICAN KISEKI CHOUSAKAN 1
I’m sure the legacy of Father Ted will continue for decades to come, even though it’s been over two decades since the show ended – and on a somber note as well, with Dermot Morgan having passed away just months after filming the finale. One can certainly, if not for its takes on a post-Vatican II state of Catholicism, credit its comical getups, the humorous lines, use of irony and its random characters to uplift the show and make each episode get a nice laugh or two out of you. I mean, who would have ever known that the most iconic thing about Irish popular culture would be, behind St. Patrick, a show about a Roman Catholic priest? Whereas Vatican Kiseki Chousakan will probably end up buried among the piles of many other mediocre anime shows, many quips from Father Ted like “Down with this sort of thing – carry on”, will continue to plow on and trigger good memories out of an entire generation who were lucky to have met this character on their television sets.