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Maya Kumashiro grew up loving the occult, but she came to hate it instead after her father got so obsessed with it that it ruined his marriage. In 1999, after a lengthy absence, his funeral calls her back to Waldstein Academy, a hilltop school he built specifically to focus on the study of the occult, which has resulted in it being nicknamed “Occult Academy” by the locals of Minakami. Despite her displeasure with the occult, she almost immediately finds herself dealing with it head-on when the corpse of her father becomes possessed by a ghost, so she takes the role of the school's new principal with the intent of driving it into the ground. A much bigger issue comes along shortly thereafter, though: the arrival of a naked man from the sky, who claims to be Fumiaki Uchida (aka “Bunmei”), the adult version of a renowned child spoon-bender who has traveled back in time from 2012 to stop a devastating alien invasion due to happen on July 21st, 1999 – only about a month away. His task is to use a special phone camera to find the Nostradamus Key, which is supposed to create a spatial rift above Waldstein Academy that lets the alien invaders into Earth. Grudgingly at first, Maya teams up with Fumiaki to do so while he becomes a teacher as a cover story. She quickly discovers that Fumiaki is rather less than what he initially appears to be, however, and he is easily distracted by Mikaze, a busty young woman who helps run a local restaurant and seems to be sweet on him. Still, with and without Fumiaki's involvement, Maya finds herself taking on various occult-related cases and threats as she helps Fumiaki look for the Nostradamus Key, often with the help of longtime friend Ami; Ami's clumsy, occult-freak friend Kozue; the Goth dowser JK; and the school mechanic Smile, who is quite handy in a fight. Meanwhile, Assistant Principal Chihiro looks on with possibly-sinister motives – when not writing adoring love poetry about Fumiaki, that is.
This summer 2010 offering is the third of three composing the “Anime no Chikara” project, a joint effort by TV Tokyo and Aniplex to create original series animation. Whereas Sound of the Sky (the first such series) went for a moe take on a post-apocalyptic future and Night Raid 1931 (the second) aimed for an historical drama involving super-powered individuals, Occult Academy lies at the midpoint between the two: it is a basically contemporary tale which mixes supernatural and sci fi elements and tells them in a primarily goofy fashion occasionally flavored with horror and romance. The result is a silly, thoroughly eclectic 13-episode series which rarely fails to entertain but struggles to find a proper balance amongst its diverse elements.
Although Bunmei and Maya are the protagonists of the series, the real star is its assemblage of what it calls “occult” elements. Here the producers have used a very broad interpretation which essentially includes just about anything truly abnormal. Things traditionally thought of as involving the occult, such as ghostly and/or demonic possessions, demonic assassins, séances (as part of a class!), dowsing, protection and banishment spells, a ghostly girl who must be put to rest, and duels between witches are just as likely to occur as encounters with mothmen, chupacabra, other mythical creatures, time travelers, aliens, spoon-bending, and induced near-death experiences that are broadcasted for the rest of the class to see. Some of these, of course, get distinctive anime spins; for instance, both of the witches involved in the duel undergo magical girl-like transformation scenes into witch form even though they're adult women, which just highlights how ridiculous such transformation scenes look when taken out of context. While the series is not based on any previous work, the producers freely borrow from older non-anime productions for some of these “occult” elements, with the alien war machines looking like something right out of War of the Worlds and the near-death-experience scenario being somewhat reminiscent of the American movie Flatliners. Other mysteries, creatures, and occult elements brought up throughout the series are grounded in real-world details that will doubtless have many viewers heading for Google to search out more information about the topic.
The characters are not entirely secondary to the occult elements, however. Maya is a fairly typical tsundere type, one who acts very abusively towards Bunmei early on but softens towards him after seeing that his past has some parallels to her own. Her one claim to originality is the seeming war within her over the reasons she has to now hate the occult versus a love of it so great that she has copious knowledge about occult matters, though she also shows some depth in her conflicted feelings about her father. Bunmei, contrarily, is a more atypical anti-hero, a weak-minded coward who was literally forced into duty, has little willpower when it comes to the temptations of a sexy young woman, and clearly has lingering issues over his former spoon-bending days. Despite that, he can occasionally “man up” (and in a big way) when it really, really counts and has just enough going for him to get the romantic attention of three different women for three entirely different reasons. The supporting cast members typically get little more than surface treatment, although most of them have at least one or two colorful quirks: Kozue is the bumbler who dearly loves the occult but is also often the first to be victimized by anything occult-related, JK is a Goth rocker with a passion for flan and the weird ability to dowse anything occult-related (and fight like a demon with his dowsing rods), Smile is entirely defined by a smily-face button he wears (which changes expressions instead of his face) and by being a mechanic who uses a giant wrench in fights, Chihiro is a normally-stern woman involved in a lot of secret plotting who goes positively gaga over Bunmei and writes love poetry about him, and Mikaze is a cutesy sexpot who seems to be playing up to Bunmei a little too purposely and loves driving aggressively in her recent-model car. The only bland regular is Maya's friend Ami, a tomboyish girl who fills any purpose needed for a long-time friend character, although the occasional appearances by her father make up for her lack of color. Together they make for an entertaining lot which normally keeps things lively.
The story flows along nicely for the first eight episodes as Bunmei and Maya look for leads on the Nostradamus Key and they and their crew get wrapped up in one crazy set of antics or another. It bogs down during episodes 9 and 10 as it spins the story of a ghostly snow girl. In trying to craft a sentimental story, the writing takes itself seriously enough in those episodes that it throws off the delicate balance of humor, campy horror, and light drama that it has maintained to that point, and that combined with no overall story advancement results in the arc feeling more like a distraction. Such an irrelevant lead-in to the series wrap-up in the final three episodes makes that part feel more forced and rushed, and a considerable ramping up of the action component in these episodes interferes with the series' ability to reestablish its balance (though it does try). The closest the series comes is in its dramatic and completely ridiculous final climax – it has a fairly transparent faux climax before that – though the clever and surprisingly logical way that it reveals what the actual Nostradamus Key is (and why that is the Key) is also satisfying. Whether or not Bunmei and Maya's relationship status at the end of the series is sufficiently justified is more nebulous.
A-1 Pictures delivers a distinctive visual effort on the series without actually using any radical stylistic elements. All of the character designs are at least a little different from the anime norm; the eyes are invariably proportionate-sized and the set of the faces is unusual, even without gimmicks like the way Kozue nearly always seems to have a catlike mouth. Maya is easily the highlight character, primarily because she is given such a wonderful range of interesting expressions (her irritated and perturbed looks are among anime's most memorable) but also because, amusingly, she wears the exact same white dress and headband combo regardless of what age she's shown at. While Maya's look is more crassly wholesome, Mikaze has just the right balance of cutesiness and sex appeal and JK has just the right freaky Goth nut look without being extreme about it. Mikaze is also the prime source of what little fan service the series has, although Maya does have one early shower scene and Bunmei is starkers when he first appears. Despite some shortcuts here and there, the character animation is usually very good.
The real visual stand-out, though, is the background art. This was clearly very carefully researched, to the point that the series could practically double as a travelogue for the region around the real Matsushiro. Even the original creation of the Waldstein Academy, which may have been designed to mimic certain medieval castles, is simply amazing in both quality and detail, both inside and out, including a covered escalator which ascends the hill on which the school is built; this would be a truly fantastic place to visit and tour if it actually existed. The alien invasion is no less visually impressive, as are the renditions of the ruined future (er, present, now).
The musical score, which is credited to Elements Garden, is just as eclectic as the content. It regularly uses variations on the piano pieces “Piano Sonata No. 21” and “la Campanella” to back light-hearted content and Next Episode previews but can quickly shift to hard rock themes for more harrowing scenes, an effect which still usually sounds playful. Opener “Flying Humanoid” is not distinctive musically but does feature a montage on occult-related images and items. The closer is less distinctive. The Japanese voice acting does a solid but not spectacular job.
NIS America still does not dub their releases, and this release doesn't include a DVD option, but otherwise they give this release the deluxe treatment that one has come to expect from them. Both thinpacked discs come in the same kind of double-length artbox seen on Toradora!, complete with a 36 page hardbacked book which includes character profiles, episode summaries, some gorgeous pictures of some of the settings, concept art, and a summary of all of the odd and/or truly occult items which appear in the opener and/or the episode content; some are talked about enough by one of the characters to draw one's intention, but the inclusion of others are more innocuous. (Yes, that really is the Lance of Longinus that Maya attempts to stab Bunmei with at one point.) See if you can identify, without looking, which of the occult items presented in the series is actually an original creation for the series. The release also has some on-disk Extras, including clean opener and closer, a music video, and six 3-3.5 minute omake focusing on Maya and Ami's activities as kids. Also, the subtitles they use have some slight differences compared to the earlier Crunchyroll streaming version, but none of those changes affect any essential meaning.
Despite the problems that it runs into late, Occult Academy is still an overall fun view which comes to the States with an intact story, good visual presentation, and great packaging.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Some great artistic touches, can be a lot of goofy fun, physical presentation of release.
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