Occult Academy Review
Warning: The following review will contain spoilers for Occult Academy. If you want to stay clear of what happens in this show's story, please exit the tab and join me once you've watched said show. Or you can take that warning with a grain of salt and read on. Whatever floats your boat.
With that said:
An original anime project brims with possibility. It gives a team creative control to come up with whatever they want and the potential to create something they're proud of. For a viewer, it's a chance to see a familiar concept reimagined or a world unlike they've seen before. These projects go one of two ways: They either swim, making graceful laps around its streaming competition, or sink, becoming a disgrace to anime history and an audience flop.
In 2010, A-1 Pictures, TV Tokyo's anime department, and Aniplex partnered up to develop Anime no Chikara, "the strength of anime." Their goal was to allow creators to make new stories to be animated. Three series came from this project: Sound of the Sky, Night Raid 1931, and Occult Academy.
I briefly caught a glimpse of Occult Academy's key visual when I was young, but that was it. Back when NIS America was still licensing and distributing anime, the show was released stateside in 2012, then petered out of existence. I completely forgot about it until I was compiling a list of available shows on Crunchyroll for my college's Anime Club last year. It looked fun, so I added it to the schedule for first semester. We ended up deciding to follow this along with My Next Life as a Villainess, watching the first half before we had winter break.
The minute I saw Maya Kumashiro swing a chair at her father's spirit, I knew this show was going to capture my heart. It had many elements I was drawn to, but its immersive story and effective comedy made me hungry for more. I wanted to see these characters grow and laugh at Occult Academy's bizarre sprinkles of humor. Better yet, I wanted to uncover the secrets the writers were building, especially around the organization tasked with finding Nostradamus's Key and the Key itself.
Since we were busy with Sailor Moon for the entirety of last school year, Luke and I didn't get to this series in time for Crunchyroll to announce they were pulling several titles produced by Aniplex by the end of May. Wanting the opportunity to watch this show legally before it continued its descent into anime obscurity on the deep net and not wanting to throw over a hundred dollars at the nearest eBay seller to obtain a copy of NIS America's release yet, I asked Luke if I could watch this ahead of him. He gave me his blessing, saying he'd get to it eventually. Note to self: Always ask before you go ahead and watch a show we were planning on watching together.
I'm happy I did. Occult Academy is not only my favorite anime of the year so far, but it's now one of my all-time favorites. It's a lost gem that takes its fascinating premise and utilizes it to its utmost potential. The cases will keep viewers intrigued, the main character arcs feel earned and go in unexpected directions, the plot twists are genuinely surprising, and the ending ties everything together in a surprisingly perfect way. The animation, score, and voice acting also hold their own weight. Despite having more cooks in the kitchen than a usual cour-length show, Occult Academy is an anime that shouldn't be forgotten. It's fresh, it's funny, but most of all, it's memorable where other original projects aren't.
It's 2012. A group of men are getting a call from an agent in the past, asking them for help so he can teleport back to the future. Right before he can return, a monster attacks him, only part of his body making the trip. Why was this man in the past, you ask? Well, Earth in Occult Academy has gone to shit. On July 21st, 1999, aliens invaded, wiping out most of humanity and leaving nations in shambles. In order to reverse this, young men are being sent to the past to retrieve Nostradamus's Key, an object believed to be the cause of the invasion. Since they've exhausted all their other options, #6 will be their last agent.
Cut to June 1999, where Maya Kumashiro is traveling to Waldstein Academy in Matsushiro, a school her father established to share the love of the occult with his students. Two flaws with this logic: Junichiro is dead, and Maya despises the occult. After her father's research drove a wedge into their relationship, Maya is back at Waldstein to attend her father's funeral. But after a recording from her father casts a spell, a spirit resembling her father is unleashed and wrecks havoc in the school. Reuniting with her childhood best friend and meeting a few eccentric students, Maya comes face to face with her anger and grief as she defeats the spirit and decides to destroy what her father built to make peace with her childhood.
Lo and behold, a cell phone falls from the sky, followed by a naked man in a gold glitter beam. Enter #6, otherwise known as Minoru Abe, AKA Fumiaki Uchida. In 1999, Fumiaki was known as Bunmei, a boy who used psychic abilities to bend metal spoons. Fast forward thirteen years, and that ability is long gone. Now considered a fake and humanity's last hope, Fumiaki is back in the past to teach at Waldstein Academy while also looking for the Key. Unfortunately, he's not skilled enough to take on this task on his own because of his little experience and getting easily distracted by Mikaze, a local diner worker. This is where Maya comes in.
After their rough start, Maya begrudgingly decides to work with Fumiaki after they find her father's old diary with spells to protect them from vengeful monsters. It comes in handy after a mysterious spirit breaks into Maya's new home (her father's old place) and almost kills her. Realizing there's more to her father's death than meets the eye, Maya not only decides to play both principal and student but offers her help just as long as the occult stays out of it, please and thank you.
It's then that different phenomena start showing their faces around town. From mothmen, a stimulated near-death experience, Chupacabra, and even a ghost, Maya and Fumiaki investigate along with the former's newly minted friends. Maya soon discovers Fumiaki's more similar to her than she thought, and she learns to accept the occult for what it is and the joy it gave her as a kid. But why are all these supernatural creatures running amok? Who is responsible for this? What secrets is Waldstein's vice principal hiding? And can Maya and Fumiaki find Nostradamus's Key in time in order to save the world?
Right away, what sticks out in Occult Academy the most are its successful tonal shifts. I've talked in the past how anime with both comedic and dramatic material don't handle them in the best way, especially if the show has gone in a particular route or an episode starts off innocent enough but then leans toward darker territory. Occult Academy never struggles with this. The show does have its sinister and unsettling moments, but the gags find a way to brighten it up. My favorites ended up being Chihiro's crush on Fumiaki. While she's suspicious about him at first, she falls head-over-heels for him when he compliments her on her signature hair style (two buns positioned vertically in the middle of her head). She starts a diary and writes love poems, and both times we hear these poems in the first half, they're placed in situations that contrast the language. It's incredibly entertaining and absurd to the point where a couple Anime Club members wondered if the show was on something.
There are a few more character-specific quirks (Fumiaki can't do his job; Kozue loses her glasses and is villain bait for most of the arcs), but that's not all the show has going for it. The comedic timing is impeccable. There are well-placed music cuts and lines that break tension in the best possible way. Thinking about it now brings me back to the slice-of-life and comedy shows, along with all the funny moment compilations, I watched when I started getting into anime. Those did such a great job balancing everyday life or supernatural action with a twist of humor or a punchy joke that made me laugh. Occult Academy shouldn't be as successful with its humor as it is, but there's a lot of material here comedy fans will appreciate, regardless of exposure.
I was also surprised that Occult Academy's arcs worked as well as they did. Despite the show having five writers (with two only writing two episodes a piece), each one helps move the story along and allows the team to flesh out the characters, especially Maya and Fumiaki. You could argue that they're filler. You could argue they have nothing to do with the main plot of Nostradamus's Key. However, I don't think this is true. Maya and Fumiaki's partnership grows so much from how it initially starts. We get background on Ami and Maya's friendship from when they were kids and see them go through a rough patch when Ami's father tries to get Maya to see the excitement she used to feel with the occult as a child. We see Kozue lose a distinguishing part of herself when she volunteers to experience death and the sadness that can't be drawn to the surface because of this. We also have Maya grapple with the loss of her dad and how she never gave him a chance to work on their relationship after he withdrew into his work. It may not be at the pace people are used to seeing in other shows, but stuff still happens.
Speaking of stuff, how the anime resolves its main plot was satisfying. All the loose ends are tied up, there are a couple twists I didn't see coming, and the show ends happily with 2012's Earth being intact and whole. We get misleading villains in Chihiro and her assistant, who actually turn out to be good guys trying to protect Maya from harm. Mikaze ends up being the main antagonist, which, given her role in the show, makes complete sense. Nostadamus's Key ends up not being a literal object at all. And Maya's father, who the show makes you believe is dead, is actually still alive and working with the agents in the future. These reveals are perfectly uncovered one after another and made the last three episodes exhilarating to watch.
Great humor, arcs that successfully moved the story along and developed the main cast, plus the fantastic ending made Occult Academy's plot come together in a way I deeply appreciated. Even though there were a lot of writers and elements that seem like they wouldn't work together, everything does, and that's always better than a show that doesn't deliver or falls short.
What also makes Occult Academy a lot of fun is its great cast. We get a wise range of personalities, gags, and growth here. Even if it's mainly with the main cast, the supporting characters also add their own flair to the show, and I ended up attached to all of them.
I'm going to start with Maya:
Maya Kumashiro is the current Waldstein Academy headmaster. After Episode 2, where she gets attacked by a spirit after moving into her childhood home, she becomes a full time student. Before she became disenchanted with all things occult, she loved hearing stories from her father and Ami's, trying to conjure spirits like Kokkuri-san and believing curses were real (like counting her elementary school's uneven number of steps). Now, she still knows all the things she did as a kid, but her readiness to believe in the occult is slim to none. Maya also refuses to put up with Fumiaki and anyone's bullshit, taking charge to figure out what's going on in Matsushiro and being persistently stubborn about it.
However, once Maya stops denying anything and everything occult, she starts to open up. Not only does she bond with Fumiaki, realizing they had similar childhoods where they were overlooked by their parents, but starts to get close with some of her fellow students. As a group, they help a ghost named Akari have one final Christmas with the help of her distraught father, reeling from her freezing to death waiting for Santa to arrive at her apartment. This helps Maya realize when she moves out (and has the house she lived in demolished) her own wish was for occult lovers to have a place where they felt like they belonged. Hence, her father built Waldstein Academy, and she didn't know or understand why because they pushed each other away. Feeling guilty about not letting her father back in, Maya resolves to find out who killed her father and to protect the school, all while finding and destroying Nostadamus's Key in the process.
When I opened this review, I mentioned this show had an immediate effect on me when Maya slammed a chair into her father's spirit. She was unapologetic, didn't back down from danger without a fight, and put Fumiaki through the ringer on several occasions. They were traits I had seen from time to time from female leads, but never in this kind of show. Maya has so much life and made Occult Academy all the more fun to watch. I could tell the creative team had a lot of fun developing and writing her. Her snark and ability to take charge is a far cry to other characters in this vein, who are often objects of sexual harassment by others around them and writers, along with being objects of someone's affection. While these characters have brief glimmers of this agency, it gets smothered by everything else.
With that presence also comes a great amount of depth. While Maya and Fumiaki's dynamic is similar to other anime with tsundere leads (Aria the Scarlet Ammo immediately comes to mind), what makes it work better is their trust in each other. Once Maya sees that Fumiaki's childhood reminds her of her own, she decides to stop treating him like shit and take him seriously. This allows them to work better together so Maya doesn't constantly have to breathe down Fumiaki's neck. Two moments that stick out to me are Maya running after Fumiaki as they're getting chased by a mothman yelling, "Stay three meters..." in Episode 4 and telling him he doesn't have to leave in the series finale. In Maya's case, letting Fumiaki in gets her to see that he's not a lost cause. His mission is important to him, even if he's a wuss who gets easily distracted. It allows them to foster a deeper connection where Maya not only lets Fumiaki do more but doesn't hound his ass when he doesn't pick up the pace. This also allows her to realize her fault in her decaying relationship with her father, something she would have constantly denied if not for Fumiaki.
These duel aspects work in tandem to create one of my favorite anime leads of all time. While Maya may not be as iconic as Ryoko, Grell, or C.C., Occult Academy still gives her plenty to do while making her look like a badass doing it. I think many viewers will enjoy Maya's journey and rightfully acknowledge her for the strong character she is. The series wouldn't have been as strong if the lead character ended up being Fumiaki, who I'll talk about next:
Fumiaki "Bunmei" Uchida was a child legend in 1999. Thanks to his spoon bending skills, he was invited to several talk shows, schools, and events where his proud mother could show Japan just how talented her son was. However, this constant traveling made Fumiaki long for a normal life he couldn't have. His mom felt he didn't need friends because of how popular he was, and as such, he grew up resenting her and eventually lost the abilities he had in the first place.
Fast forward to 2012, and Fumiaki's not doing great. Now living on the street, he spends his life trying to gain money by doing the spoon tricks he can no longer do effectively. It's here the agents recruit him and send him back to the past. Now going under the collective name Minoru Abe, Fumiaki becomes Waldstein Academy's history teacher, armed with an orange flip phone to locate Nostradamus's Key. There's just one catch: Fumiaki sucks at his job.
He paints himself as a badass when he first tells Maya about being recruited, gets distracted easily when trying to do work, and runs away the second anything scares him. As the series goes on, he does gain more confidence after he decides to follow Kozue in the near-death experience machine to try to save her. By the end, he realizes he's never done anything for himself that someone didn't tell him to do. So once the anime reveals what Nostradamus's Key is (the two Fumiakis meeting in the past) and the aliens begin to invade, Fumiaki sacrifices himself in order to stop it. Before he vanishes, he tells Maya to look after his younger self, a promise she keeps.
Fumiaki's the perfect deuteragonist to bounce off of Maya. I was entertained by the fact he was an awful time agent but did care about his job and finding Nostradamus's Key so Earth's not overrun by aliens in 2012. We've all been reluctant to try new things or scared to task risks in our lives at some point; Fumiaki's the comedic representation of that. It's easy to get annoyed at him presenting himself as the hero to Mikaze or not doing the work he's supposed to be doing, but there's also something charming in it because it's immediately relatable.
His growth throughout the show, especially in his partnership with Maya, also feels well-earned. We see Fumiaki at his most vulnerable when he's exposed to some of his repressed memories. Thinking back on it, I think they explain his reluctance towards various aspects of his mission and why he's a wimp. When he and Maya work together, though, you can see him put more effort into investigating Matsushiro's shenanigans, which causes him to gain more confidence and trust in Maya not actually kicking his ass. It's why him deciding to stop the aliens himself resonated with me so much. It was the perfect way to wrap up his arc. He may not be as determined as Maya, but even despite the distractions, he was still able to succeed in his own way.
We first meet Mikaze at the diner she works at. Fumiaki comes in one night, is touched when she refers to his past self by first name, and enjoys the curry she makes, stopping by every night after that. The two don't start dating, but Mikaze's sweet enough to take Fumiaki out sightseeing in Matsushiro (where he learns she's a terrible driver), sell homemade bread at Waldstein once she gets the permission (although Maya's hesitant at first because she sees her as nothing but a distraction), and feel sorrow when touring an underground World War II bunker. She pops in and out throughout the show, and it was enough to make me wonder what her role was. Was she only going to be Fumiaki's love interest? Or was there something larger in store for her?
It turns out the latter was true. Mikaze is a Black Mage who is seeking the spell book written by Maya's father in order to open a permanent entryway into the demon world. She was able to convince people to support her cause under the guise of eliminating Maya, her one obstacle in obtaining said spell book. She almost convinced Fumiaki that Maya was Nostradamus's Key, causing him to doubt what they had learned so far, but once Maya and Chihiro fake her death in order to throw Mikaze off, the truth comes to light. Mikaze was also the one to unleash the supernatural creatures running rampant in Matsushiro and was the spirit who tried to kill Maya in the second episode. She's defeated when Maya and Fumiaki, believing she's Nostradamus's Key, read aloud the spell to seal all negative energy away. They didn't know it at the time, but as singer Jon Bon Jovi crooned, we're halfway there.
This is the kind of effective twist villain reveal other series wished they could tackle. It didn't feel random or like it was the only thing the writers could pull out of a hat to decide what they should do with her character. Mikaze's presence in Occult Academy allows her to seamlessly worm herself into the narrative without causing much of a stir. The writers sprinkle signs foreshadowing her development by having her randomly vanish, give her looks that may not be meaningful, and have her get closer to Fumiaki as the story moves on. When her group is unveiled in the most unsettling tonal shift of the series, it caught my attention immediately. Why did Maya's defeat matter so much to her if the two barely crossed paths? Once the fake death happened, the pieces started clicking for me. Despite not having much to her character, Mikaze being a Black Mage gives viewers material to look back on should they decide to re-watch the show. The subtle foreshadowing builds until it snaps.
Last but not least for the individual sections, Chihiro:
Chihiro is Waldstein Academy's strict vice principal. With her assistant, she's constantly watching over Maya, hoping she doesn't get close to finding out information about the supernatural oddities in Matsushiro or the real reason behind her father's death. She doesn't like people disobeying her, but underneath all that, she wants someone to love. When Fumiaki compliments her hairstyle, Chihiro immediately becomes infatuated with him. She keeps a diary in her desk where she writes love poems and gets jealous whenever she sees Mikaze with the man she fancies. Occult Academy paints this as a one-sided love triangle for most of its run until we find out Mikaze's real identity.
It's here we also find out Chihiro's. Rather than keeping tabs on Maya to lure her into something insidious, Chihiro was trying to protect her from knowing too much. She was the one who convinced Maya's dad he'd be safer in the future and sent him there with the help of her assistant. In an attempt to thwart Mikaze's plans, the two stage Maya's death at the school after Fumiaki becomes convinced the latter's actually evil and in danger. This doesn't work for long once Fumiaki finds out the truth. Mikaze shows up, freezes Fumiaki in place, and destroys the spell book Maya's father left for her. This causes the other two women to flee. Unable to escape town thanks to the Black Mage's followers, Chihiro has no choice but to transform into her White Mage form. The two mages fight and argue about love's purity and greed. Ultimately, Mikaze defeats Chihiro, and near death, the latter frees Bunmei from Mikaze's spell and tells him one that will seal the former away for good. This reveals the spell book Mikaze destroyed was a fake.
When I started this series, I also knew there was more to Chihiro. But what I didn't expect was for her to end up being someone on Maya's side. Given her suspicious behavior and menacing expressions directed at Waldstein's new principal, you'd think she'd be involved in Maya's father's death. The writers give her a comedic side to balance out those moments, but the thoughts still linger. Is she the enemy the show is building to? In reality, no, but Occult Academy does a great job of misleading its audience before unveiling the truth. It's a surprise reveal, but one that makes sense. She also makes an obvious foil for Mikaze, because if one of them was evil, the other had to be good. It works out nicely.
Other characters include Ami, Maya's childhood friend, Kozue, their fellow classmate who adores the occult, Smile, the janitor/a student who wields a wrench as a weapon, JK, a dowser who dresses in emo fashion and often pairs up with Smile. He's my personal favorite from the main side cast.
We also have the agents in the future (one being Maya's father, Junichiro), Chihiro's assistant who doesn't have a name (he's filed under Black Suit on Anime News Network) and can turn into a black jaguar, Akari Okamoto, a ghost who's accidentally revived during a séance class and is granted her last wish (a Christmas party), her father Kengo, Shige, who is Ami's dad, Fumiaki's mom who overextended her child's prowess, and a couple of townsfolk who turn out to be working under Mikaze.
The animation for this series was produced by A-1 Pictures, who are known for their work on Fairy Tail, Nanatsu no Taizai's first two seasons and the first movie, and the Black Butler franchise.
Occult Academy dropped before A-1 had some pretty severe quality drops in their titles outside of a few, so the only problem I noticed was Fumiaki's modeling fluctuating in between frames in the middle of the show. The rest of the animation looks great. I really liked how the color palette shifted depending on the tone, as darker hues came out when the show became unsettling. When Kozue enters the dream world during her near-death experience, she's surrounded by pink light and fluffy clouds. Yellow light is vivid whenever the sun set, painting beautiful shadows on the characters' faces. The monsters look ghoulish, the character designs are cool, and the animators had a lot of fun animating Maya. From her facial expressions to her movements, you can pick up little details that make her stand out from other characters. For the fanservice fans out there, there are a couple of tasteful frames that will appeal to you, too.
I also want to highlight the opening, which had some of my favorite storyboards to date. There were a lot of stylistic and weird choices that represent the show to a T and chock full of references occult fans would be drawn into. You could tell the show's team really cared about what they were doing, because some of that weirdness made the show in great ways.
All in all, Occult Academy had a lot of fun animation, and not just for its humor. There were so many good moments, the characters all looked fantastic, and its use of color was special in a way I'm not going to forget. I'm sure others will enjoy it, too.
The score for this series was composed by the group Elements Garden, who was also known for their work on shows like Uta no Prince Sama, Symphogear, and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.
In the past, I've mentioned Elements Garden's reverse harem scores were good. They fit their respective properties and the arrangements for the solo songs in Uta no Prince Sama and Dance with Devils captivated me at fifteen. Their score for Occult Academy is more in line with their work on the latter show. It's darker, seamlessly blends orchestral arrangements with guitars and synths, and perfectly fits the anime's time period. The genres represented in the OST could make the score feel busy in ways I've critiqued Hiroyuki Swano's work on in the past, but it's not an issue here. Occult Academy's score feels like a product of the show's historical timeframe. It calls back to genres of the past while also looking towards a new millennium. There are several pieces I enjoyed from the OST ("JK's Theme" makes me think of arcade music), and their placements in the show itself were perfect.
The voice acting was also strong. Yoko Hikasa gives Maya the star power a character like hers deserves, with a fantastic emotional range and snarky delivery that made me laugh. It's my favorite role of her career. Seiyu veteran Takahiro Mizushima makes Fumiaki both one to sympathize with and laugh at effectively, Minori Chihara gets to use more of her deeper range when Mikaze's secret is revealed (and did her best to misdirect viewers in the process at the start), and Yu Kobayashi does what she does best with her duel register. Everyone is played well, and the voice work gives these characters life in a fun way.
Other highlights include Ayahi Takagaki (whose tomboyish voice fits Ami's design perfectly), Kana Hanazawa (who I never dislike), Hiroki Takahashi (who I keep on forgetting is Koujaku, but his other voices call me back to it), Takehito Koyasu (who made JK the life of the party), Inori Minase (who I didn't know started earlier in the industry than she did), Masaaki Yajima (who did a great job providing a clear divide between Maya's father and the spirit version of him), Yuu Shimaka (who made Ami's father have a great amount of energy), Sayuri Yahagi (young Bunmei was so full of hope until things changed), Aya Hisakawa (who voiced Yuri from HeartCatch PreCure in the same season), Daisuke Egawa (Black Suit wouldn't have been Black Suit without him), and Yuji Ueda (who made Akari's father immediately sympathetic).
Occult Academy is one of those shows I'm glad I watched. It had all of the aspects I like in a great anime, with fantastic story arcs and entertaining characters that kept me wanting to see more. Its comedy was over-the-top, its reveals were surprising in a great way, and Maya Kumashiro is now one of my favorite anime protagonists of all time. This makes me ecstatic for the other Anime no Chikara properties to see what their premises deliver on. Whether you're an occult fan or randomly stumble on this show on the internet, this is a series you'll get something out of. I highly recommend it.
Cool story with well-executed reveals
Humor that thrives on tonal shifts and comedic timing in clever ways
Great main cast who have fun arcs
Maya Kumashiro is a fantastic protagonist
Nice animation that fits the show's aesthetic
Fun score that blends instrumentation and genres well
Nuanced performances from its cast