Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 12th 2010
Episodes 8-13 Streaming
Knowing the series' existence depends on it, Nostradamus's Key, wily thing that it is, continues to elude Maya and Bunmei. They investigate a UFO hoax looking for it, to no avail. They take a break from the search to help out a little ghost girl, which naturally doesn't help. They investigate some masks. No dice. Too-good-to-be-true cutie Mikaze tells Bunmei that Maya is the Key. Which turns out to be bogus just as surely as she turns out to be too good to be true. Back to square one, though this time with indestructible granny-demons, a mob's worth of lynch-happy townspeople, and one scary witch on their tails. By this time Maya is pretty sure what Nostradamus's key is, but getting rid of it won't be easy—and not for the reasons she once thought.
The problem with investing every ounce of your script's quality in a single character is that when you violate the integrity of their character you wreck your entire series along with it. Mishandling such a character is tantamount to suicide, which you would think would give Occult Academy's writers pause when laying their ham-hands on Maya. No such luck. By series' end they've quite magnificently cut their own throats.
It isn't all the doing of these six episodes. There've been rumblings since the introduction of Mikaze that all was not well with the series' spirited lead. She's been given to displays of petty jealousy and uncertainty, to say nothing of her progressive acquisition of tsundere baggage. At the time though, they seemed minor chinks in the armor of one of anime's stronger (recent) female leads. Little lapses like that aren't just forgivable, but can actually add charm to a character whose will is steel and whose default attitude is disdain—occasionally punctuated by violence. The problem arises when it becomes obvious that the writers aren't artistically denting her armor but rather testing their axes in preparation for a full-on dismemberment. The exact moment when that becomes obvious will vary, but most will likely notice it around the time when Maya's usual anti-occult slurs in the next-episode previews soften to a saccharine "I'll keep the occult safe." It's just a small step from that to giving her gooey center free reign, after which it's only a matter of time before her once cutting personality falls into squidgy ruin.
Witnessing that transformation, from budding dominatrix to nice normal girl, is among the more awful experiences in recent anime. There's no denying that Maya is less abrasive once she's made the transition, but she's a lot of other things too: clichéd, passive, even boring and, dare I say, pathetic. And the writers are just getting started. The series' sappy last moments, during which the true extent of Maya's devolution is revealed, may be the only time this former horror hybrid genuinely makes your skin crawl.
The shame of it all is that if it weren't for the implosion of Maya's once formidable presence, this wouldn't be a bad stretch of episodes. Not terribly good, mind you, but not bad. The end of the UFO diptych is exceedingly silly (hint: Chupacabras!), but the ghost girl arc is a compact little tearjerker that finds the series finally in control of its extended short-story structure. It is at turns warm, amusing, and sadly beautiful. Never has the series been so focused or (the horror!) sensitive. Naturally it's followed by a three-episode magical apocalypse. Whiplash aside, the finale includes some suitably spectacular action set-pieces, including a running fight between a truckload of students and a pair of goggle-eyed granny demons and an extended duel between a couple of spell-flinging witches. It also squeaks a few real emotions past one's growing disgust at what it is doing to Maya and horns in an excellent little joke about the practical applications of Bunmei's Maya-instigated pain tolerances.
Of course it's also chaotic, periodically incomprehensible, and moodier than a bipolar water buffalo. There's a transition between Bunmei's last date with Mikaze and her surreal seduction of him—amidst a hooded, torch-waving mob—that is positively Ed Wood-esque, after which the series spurns every lesson the ghost girl arc taught it about focus and tone. Over the course of the next three episodes it veers between supercharged magical action, maudlin pseudo-romance, gothic atmospherics, broad physical comedy and clunky sentimentality without so much as a thought for how they complement each other. No cleanly escalated climax is this, with it's fake-out endings and gear-grinding shifts in tone; it's a lumpy mess of mismatched moods that never works as a whole and only occasionally works during discrete scenes.
A-1 Pictures' animation reflects that confusion. Not that it's sloppy; not by any stretch. It has its shortcuts and flaws, of course. A little stillage here, some awkwardness there—few television series are without them. But it maintains superior quality throughout, be it in something as flashy as the CGI fireworks that accompany the aerial spellcasting or as modest as the unusually complex ways that Maya and her compadres' faces and mouths move. The final confrontation between Maya, Bunmei and the Black Witch (who likely borrowed her costume from someone in Witchblade) uses solid animation and rich background artistry to combine visceral action and dark atmosphere with a skill that the rest of the series really could learn from. And the love the animators have of certain things—Maya for instance, or architectural demolition—shows in the care with which they handle them. For all its technical prowess, though, the series never achieves anything approaching stylistic unity. It looks, as well as feels and sounds (thanks to an equally unfocused if periodically rockin' score) like a random collection of stylistic elements.
A slick and sometimes entertaining random collection of stylistic elements though. Which just might have been enough, along with the excellent ghost-girl episodes, to pull the series out of the well o' mediocrity it had fallen into. That is, if its bungling of Maya's characterization hadn't already yanked it out of the well, shot it in the head and buried it in the cemetery o' deceased promise.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C+
+ A pair of episodes about an adorable little ghost-girl with a heartbreaking past; oodles of seriocomic action.
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