Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 3rd 2010
It takes a funeral to bring Maya Kumashiro back to her hometown. Her father's funeral at that. But the girl who returns isn't the girl who left. Once an innocent lover of the occult, now she's a forbidding authoritarian with a deep-seated hatred of all things supernatural. Which makes her return all the less pleasant for her. When her father died he left her his school, an Academy devoted to every nutty idea that ever drifted through the heads of the befuddled: UFOs, magic, ESP—you name it. And Maya has to run it. The experience is destined to drive her mad, beginning with his funeral, which immediately devolves into a demon-slaying when some body-swapping hellspawn hijacks his corpse. And then there's the naked guy who descends from the sky shortly thereafter, claiming to be a traveler from the future sent back to save the Earth from annihilation by alien forces. Who then takes up residence as a teacher at her school. If she has to help him rescue humanity, he's going to have to pay for it. In pain.
Like Maya's father's beliefs, which embrace every contradictory whackjob idea in the world, Occult Academy is something of a mess. Helmed by a rookie and pushed into existence by Aniplex's Anime no Chikara project, which spurns the adaptation of existing (read: premeditated) stories, it can't seem to settle on a mood, loses its direction and plot threads like an Alzheimer's patient with his keys, and feels suspiciously like its characters were written on the fly. It's also a lot of fun. Go figure.
The series begins in a flurry of horror-geek homage, mostly to the horror of onetime wunderkind Sam Raimi. That should have been a warning. Raimi's horror films are carnival rides in which plot, performance, and logic are second-rate cinematic citizens put to the whip by sheer visual panache and a deeply twisted sense of fun. Occult Academy shoots for something similar, though with a wider supernatural palette and far less of that panache. And in terms of freewheeling fun it gets fairly close. That first episode is a comic thrill ride with a bitter kicker at the end, and the follow-up careens fearlessly from gut-busting sight gags to unsettling supernatural goings-on, all while combining pseudo-science (UFOs), magic (ghosts), and mythology (Nostradamus) in new and weird ways. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it's so fast, so reckless, and so inventive that it hardly matters.
Before long the show settles into a two-episode, one-supernatural-phenomena groove, whereupon it immediately loses its way. The murder of Maya's father, which provided the first two episodes with propulsion and a dark core of substance, is apparently forgotten, and the search for Nostradamus' Key (the item whose destruction will change the alien-invaded future) becomes a de facto Item Search in the classic magical girl mold. The mad energy dissipates and winks to the battle-axes-and-demon-slime school of filmmaking make way for tsunderes, busty airheads and monster-of-the-week plots. The opening may have been insensible, but it was crazed, ingenious insensible. Episodes three and up are wheel-spinning, predictable insensible.
Keeping the series diverting through this time-killing slump is Maya. Even after softening and taking on tsundere traits as the screenwriters tuned her personality on the fly, Maya remains a force of nature. An apocrypha-spouting dominatrix-in-training with a penchant for medieval weaponry and immovable grudges, her master-servant rapport with time-tripping teacher Bunmei and cold fury when in action keep the series alive even at its most moribund. Inventive weirdness may crop up, often in crucial positions—the man-eating moths that anchor one arc come to mind, as does the near-death machine that serves as a literal plot device in another—but only Maya can be relied on for consistent novelty.
Maya is also the series' artistic highlight. She's got real physical presence (beyond the obvious, you perverts), and the animators obviously delight in putting decidedly unladylike expressions on her face. The running gag where the camera zooms in on one bloodshot eye as she blows her stack is a killer, as is her extensive repertoire of disgusted looks. The rest of the cast is sharply drawn and hardly personality-stunted, but to a man they pale in comparison. Unfortunately it isn't just the character designs that can't keep up with her. Nothing in the series can. Oh, the trees, caves, architecture, and other backgrounds are drawn with care and detail—just as the characters are—but first time director Tomohiko Ito can't frame or deploy them consistently or effectively. As a result the series is pretty, but haphazard. Sometimes scenes will sing (the action sequences in the first episode) and other times they'll flop like landed fish (the short-cut reliant action sequences in just about any other episode).
The pedestrian score with its pedestrian usage does nothing to change that either. When a scene crackles, so does the score, usually with rock energy; and when one sags, the music sags with it. And seriously, when will the world learn that silly music won't defibrillate a dead joke?
If you want a break from say, heavy drama or preteen ninjas or sad girls in need of companionship, Occult Academy is your go-to series. It's light, it's fun, and it features a female lead who doesn't knuckle under or play the victim. It sneaks the occasional punch in—a glimpse of the horrors that shaped Bunmei into a weasel, for instance—but by and large it's just strange and silly. If it could recapture the mad energy and cockeyed purpose of its opening episodes it could be more than that—or at least more of it—but each additional episode of standalone goofing makes it ever more likely that this will be one of those series that should have had the middle section chopped out to create a short OVA or film. Still, a fine break.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Cracked horror/action/sci-fi/comedy blessed with an awesome female lead and a spirited sense of fun; occasional shock of substance.
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