Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions, Occult Academy > Occult Academy Episode 1 – I Want to Believe

Occult Academy Episode 1 – I Want to Believe

Both shows that have aired in TV Tokyo’s Anime no Chikara time slot, created to showcase original anime not based on manga, games or books, has so far failed to grab me.

Both Sora no Oto and Senkou no Night Raid have been original, but only in the sense that they took familiar anime premises to strange new places. Sora no Oto was (from my admittedly brief viewing) a slice of life moe anime set in a brutal alternate-reality World War 2, and Senkou no Night Raid is, as you may know, a superhero conspiracy show set in one of the more controversial periods of Japanese history.

Occult Academy is a period piece too, taking place in the unfamiliar and alien world of 1999. It’s a great time period for mysticism and the supernatural, with hysteria about the year 2000, the last spasms of the New Age movement and the general undercurrent of weirdness and belief in the occult.

The grumpy Maya is this show's heroine and probably the strongest main character of the season so far

It’s this unique 90s take on the paranormal that forms the setting for Occult Academy. The school itself was founded by a man named Junichiro Kumashiro, who based it off the occult teachings of Gustav Waldstein, an occult master who seems evocative of English mystic Alastair Crowley or Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of Theosophy.

But Kamashiro’s take on the occult isn’t as scholarly as it sounds. It’s basically a mishmash of all the paranormal and supernatural ideas swirling around in the 90s, as his daughter, Maya, will readily attest. She seems to be the protagonist in this show, returning to the academy after her father’s suspiciously untimely death on a mission: to destroy it.

By the time the opening movie ends, it should be very clear: this show is weird

Maya hates the occult, even though she’s clearly well-educated in it. At the end of the episode, she predicts that man will someday destroy himself with it, although it’s not clear whether she’s metaphorically alluding to the broad societal danger of man’s tendency to fall into escapist fantasies that appeal to his own preconceptions rather than admit to the harsh, often seemingly cruel reality of existence, or is more plainly referring to the various spirits, ghosts and other supernatural phenomena that exist in this show’s world.

Being an anime, the supernatural is of course very real in this show. The episode doesn’t really begin until Maya’s father, the principal, summons a spirit to possess his decaying corpse from beyond the grave at his own funeral using a tape recorded ritual. But the students act surprised, and seem to believe Maya when she tells them, presumably to calm them down, that it was all just a hoax.

A-1 Pictures might be owned by Sony, but that apparently doesn't mean they can use the real Vaio logo

So it seems like, even though the occult subjects the students are supposedly studying do have actual effects in the real world, even people studying the occult aren’t aware of that. The idea that the occult is something affecting ordinary people who remain ignorant of its effects is key to the 90s supernatural genre. It makes the supernatural seem immediate enough to be real, but distant enough to maintain its allure of the strange and mysterious.

Using the Sony name on products that haven't been made for 15 years is fine, though

The X-Files is definitely the best example of this, with the interplay between Scully, the skeptic, and Mulder, the true believer. There’s definitely a bit of that dynamic here between Maya, who seems like a skeptic despite her wide knowledge of the occult, and friend of a friend Kozue Naruse (who looks like a beaver). Maya’s not a skeptic in the sense that she doesn’t think the stuff is real—it’s pretty clear she knows it is—but in her disbelief that the power and knowledge the occult offer are worth the price you pay for it. Kozue is young and idealistic, idolizing Maya’s father and eager to know the hidden secrets of the occult.

Kozue really looks like a beaver, right? I can't be the only one who sees the resemblance

I see I forgot to mention somewhere up there that, while it takes itself pretty seriously, Occult Academy is also a low-brow comedy. The first indication of this comes when a tearful Vice Principal takes Maya’s luggage with the hand she had used to wipe her snotty nose just seconds before, and the humor stays at about the same episode throughout, climaxing with the lead male being beamed down, seemingly on a beam of light from Heaven, wearing nothing but a pair of swim goggles.

From the humor and the massive amount of green, ectoplasmic blood that oozes out of everyone possessed by the spirit, it seems like Occult Academy is going for the feel of something like Ghostbusters. Which is a good target to aim for if you’re a supernatural comedy set in the 90s. But, so far at least, Occult Academy doesn’t have the characters or the clever writing to pull it off more than Ghostbusters 2-level humor.

Waldstein Academy was built on a remote hilltop. There's an escalator to the top, though

To be fair, this episode is too plot heavy to introduce anyone other than Maya. We don’t even meet the other main character until the very end of the episode. On the other hand, though, it’s a really bad sign that a show as goofy as Occult Academy isn’t funny from the get go. If you start out serious, it’s hard to lead into wacky antics from there without being a bit of a let-down (to me, at least), which seems to be the direction it’s heading in.

The secondary cast is underwhelming so far. When Maya's childhood friend (center) needs help, she turns to the school's mechanic and a fat goth with dowsing rods

Overall, Occult Academy doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It takes itself pretty seriously, with Maya’s issues with her abusive father and her views on the occult coming to the forefront in this episode. She’s an interesting, well-written character with enough mystery to make her a compelling character. The way she takes charge of the situation once it goes bad and the lengths she’s willing to go to in order to stop the spirit—including cutting off her reanimated father’s head—remind me of the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another 90s supernatural staple.

We haven’t met the lead male character or been introduced to the main plot (which he seems closely tied to), but from the foreshadowing in this episode, both will likely shape up to be equally complex.

Maya has no problem decapitating the spirit-possessed corpse of her father

There’s the appearance of a lot of depth to just about every level of Occult Academy. The characters seems complex and well-written, the art design fits the mood of the show perfectly, and everything about the show captures the atmosphere of the period and genre perfectly (which, admittedly, shouldn’t be too hard, since it was only eleven years ago). It seems to be referencing the right sources to show that it gets its subject matter and style, and knows where it’s going.

What I don’t know is whether or not it can pull it off. The lame humor is a bad sign; one that shows a lack of focus weirdly out of the place with the care taken everywhere else. Hopefully the show focuses more on its characters and plot and less on its slapstick.

You can tell it's 1999 because of the cell phones, mostly. Other than that, not much is different

What the humor does do is give the show a very, very odd tone. The way it alternates between creating kooky situations for laughs and serious drama, as well as its bizarre art design (particularly in the school’s ornate, byzantine architecture, which gives everything an alien feel) and irreverent attitude, make this one of the weirdest anime I’ve ever seen. It’s not the exhausting, nonsensical silliness of most anime weirdness, but a surreal eeriness laid on top of its schlocky gross-out humor.

It sure has a lot of promise, as a bizarre curiosity, if nothing else. I just hope Occult Academy can figure out what kind of show it wants to be and not collapse under the weight of its influences.

If you look closely, you'll be able to understand Maya's reaction to seeing Fumiaki in all his glory

Watch the first episode here.

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