Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Occult Academy (2010)

Original title: Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin

1999. The Waldstein Academy is a peculiar school teaching its students not only from the usual academic curriculum, but also everything there is to know about the occult (where "the occult" in the parlance of this show is everything from magic to aliens to cryptozoology). Obviously, strange happenings are a daily occurrence at the place, but things get even more strange when the Academy's principal and owner dies. His alienated daughter Maya returns to the Academy for his funeral, and after cleaning up a bit of possession trouble with her Dad's corpse, takes over as the place's new principal - which later on won't dissuade her from also becoming a student of the place she owns - planning to close it down as soon as possible. Maya faults the Academy and the occult for her parents' divorce and the distance between herself and her Dad.

Closing the Academy down and hating on the occult becomes a much lower priority to Maya soon enough, though, for episode two finds her witnessing a naked guy descending from the heavens. Fumiaki Uchida, as he will later turn out to be called, is supposedly a new teacher at the school, but, as he explains, is in truth a time agent from the far-flung future of 2012. In 2012, just as Nostradamus foresaw, humanity will have been nearly destroyed by an invasion of aliens from another dimension. Fortunately, Nostradamus's prophecies make also clear that the alien trouble began with a dimensional gate opening at the Waldstein Academy in 1999, so the future resistance has sent Uchida to destroy the one element - known as Nostradamus' key - that will cause the rift to open. Alas, Uchida isn't the first time agent they send. His five predecessors all found horrible ends, and Uchida - a former kid spoon-bender turned spoon-bending fake - really is the dregs when it comes to saviours of the world. He's cowardly, an idiot, and will soon enough turn into Maya's favourite punching bag. Still, Uchida and Maya will pool their talents (his: being ineffectual and running away; hers: being dominant and hitting things with spiky or sharp things). And if you think this all sounds rather ridiculous and completely random, then it's just because you haven't heard about the side plots and single episode stories I've left out here to preserve my sanity - those are even more ridiculous and random.

Occult Academy is as complete of a mess in structure as any 13-part anime show could ever hope to be. For most of the time, the show even seems to be unsure to what genre it belongs. Is it soft teen horror? A high school comedy? A harem comedy? Tear-jerking melodrama? Time-travel SF? A romantic comedy? Well, it's everything, usually all at once or in very uncomfortable or just very silly combinations that make no dramatic sense whatsoever, as if "structure" were a word the show's lead writer Seishi Minakami (whom you might know from the more coherent Paranoia Agent) had never heard before. Occult Academy is the sort of show that doesn't see any reason not to have the usual pubescent sex jokes in a tear-jerking episode about a dead little girl finding peace through a Christmas party in July (complete with guilt-ridden Dad dressing up as Santa Claus), or to have high melodrama about childhood trauma next to magic duels right out of Final Fantasy. Heaping lots of stuff that shouldn't belong together on is of course not an atypical anime technique, but most of the better shows doing this actually have a plan and a reason for it. Occult Academy is just random.

Of course, I would not have watched the whole show if its randomness weren't often pretty enjoyable. A lot of the show's jokes are actually quite funny in their innocent low-brow way (yeah, sorry to puritans, but the childish sex jokes are innocent too), which is a plus in something that's at least in part a comedy. Though the show's randomness usually means that scenes that should have emotional punch just reduce me to giggles, it also makes the show exciting in so far as you'll never guess what bizarre nonsense it will pull off next. From time to time, Minakami even has fun with slightly subverting the same clichés he's just been wallowing in for half a dozen episodes - for example, the horrible moe character is in truth an evil witch. Which is neither all that original nor very clever, but I'll take what I can get.

If you're planning on only watching one anime show this year, Occult Academy shouldn't be it at all, but if you're looking for an entertaining distraction with an identity crisis and copious amounts of very weird and very Japanese crap, this should fit your needs.


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