Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer 2010: Occult Academy

In 1894, a book was written by Percival Lowell that chronicled some of the first American perceptions of Japanese religion. Lowell referred to his writings as Occult Japan or The Way of the Gods: An Esoteric Study of Japanese Personality and Possession, pointing out some of the mystics behind Shintô, especially its miraculous ritual performances and shamanic possessions. It is a reminder to us that we have barely known Japan for very long and that the country has such distant roots to its own millennial descent into the occult.

Perhaps that has led to the state of personal mysticism that anime has provided. It is that deep-rooted attachment to the pantheism of Shintô that allows for the imagination of the world around the spiritual believer. However, with the gradual attachment to the rest of the world, it could be said that the imagination of the occult in Japan has also been influenced by the Western world's own image of mysticism. Uri Geller's spoon-bending psychokinesis is likely more well-known in Japan than some of the rituals still run in Shintô shrines.

It is this connection to the Western arts of mysticism that brings Occult Academy (Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin) to the television screen. The first shots we get from the third installment of the "Anime no Chikara" partnership between TV Tokyo and Aniplex involve a situation that's more Fringe than Onmyôji—a member of a shadow organization is devoured by a monster before he can be completely transported back to his base, forcing the group to contemplate the transferal of Fumiaki Uchida, their last "Minoru Abe" agent.

Meanwhile, time easily rewinds to 1999 during an uneasy turn of the millennium. At the Waldstein Academy in the mountains of Nagano, the student body are attending the unexpected wake of the academy's founder, only for his daughter, the steely-eyed Maya Kumashiro, to storm the proceedings. When the teaching staff plays his final audio recording, the unintentional incantation from the founder himself ends up being a chant for raising the dead, suddenly reanimating Principal Kumashiro into an undead lamia. Although Maya is quick to label the entire occurrence as a hoax, she is also quite aware of the situation and is determined to shut the Academy down for what it has done to her family.

The intersection between Maya and Fumiaki's existences brings up a very interesting dynamic in Occult Academy. While the series is built on a very solid fear of the unknown through haunting dialogue and well-crafted background animation, the show doesn't appear to be afraid of laughing at itself. Maya is quite the steadfast character one moment with her stonefaced expressions, but her nervous reactions to typically non-comedic situations (especially during the WTF?! moment when Fumiaki appears Terminator-2 style) make the show palpably bipolar.

Occult Academy seems to be happy with turning the idea of the occult on its head. Japan has typically been a country that has either embraced its own appreciation for mysticism or focused on the oddities that come with the more bizarre cults (i.e. the Pana-wave Lab from 2002). By introducing a believer in Maya, who wishes the occult ceased to exist, and combining her with an active member of a secretive organization in Fumiaki, we have a definite Scully/Mulder dynamic in play. While we have yet to see Fumiaki's reactions and role in the show, it definitely could introduce an uneasy alliance between the two.

So far, Anime no Chikara has provided some insight with So Ra No Wo To and a disappointment in Senkô no Night Raid. Judging from the plot and artwork exhibited in Occult Academy, it seems that this trend could change very soon and that the experimental animation is on its way to a clever success. Occult Academy should be pushed as the best of the new anime shows that Crunchyroll has to offer at the moment, and I hope that the show lives up to its billing.

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