One of the biggest problems with anime is that all too often what you're watching just doesn't hit the mark. There are a number of shows that have been great conceptually, but when it comes to execution they simply do not fulfill their potential. This could be due to the oversimplification of the plot, an uninteresting storyline, dull or overly stereotypical characters, or even just pure laziness on the part of the writers (or something else entirely). Whatever the case may be, there are far too many anime out there that simply do not cut the mustard because they don't do enough with what they have.
And then there's the shows like Seikimatsu Occult Gakuen (End of Century Occult Academy).
Originally developed as part of Anime no Chikara, a project run by TV Tokyo's anime department in conjunction with Aniplex, Seikimatsu Occult Gakuen is the third release from that stable (the previous two being Sora no Woto and Senkou no Night Raid), and marks the full directorial debut of Itou Tomohiko.
Set in the fictional Waldstein Academy which sits atop Mount Minakami in Matsushiro, Nagano Prefecture, the story begins with Kumashiro Maya disembarking from the bullet train. She is the daughter of the academy's principal and founder Kumashiro Junichiro, and has returned to the city to attend the funeral of her estranged father. Along the way, her taxi driver tells her about some of the strange rumours surrounding the academy because of its focus on all things supernatural.
On the surface Sekimatsu Occult Academy has a fairly reasonable set up. The plot is, initially, pretty straight forward, and there even seems to be some signs of an intelligent story at certain points during the first episode. Unfortunately, all of that promise quickly goes out of the window during the rest of the series.
For some reason the writers thought there wouldn't be enough going on in an academy that focuses specifically on the supernatural, so they decided to add other things to it. In a sense, Occult Academy has pretty much everything in it that Suzumiya Haruhi wanted, from ghosts and witches, to time travellers and dimensional aliens.
The problem is, it's simply too much for the series to handle.
Occult Academy starts off reasonably well, but the rapid addition of so many threads to an already burgeoning plot ends up giving the series less focus, and it seems that this was simply too much for a rookie series director to handle. The numerous and disparate aspects of the story all begin to come together towards the end of the series though, but the story has an inherent predictability that seems to be an offshoot of adding too much.
In all honesty, if the series had added one or two more supernatural aspects, then it may very well have collapsed under its own weight. The plot has a certain fragility because of the amount of information in the anime, and this makes it difficult to take the story seriously (especially with those little comedy scenes thrown in for good measure). That said, some people may find the show enjoyable because of the oddness surrounding Maya and her crew.
Talking about odd, while the series looks pretty good overall, one can't help but wonder at some of the designs in the show. A-1 Pictures and Xebec have made Occult Academy look pretty good for the most part, but looks are only skin deep. The characters are designed reasonably well and have their own individual attributes, but there's a certain amount of stereotype at play in this department. The short haired girl is a jock, the glasses girl is a geek, etc, etc. It would be nice if the creators put more thought into the character design as personally I'd like to see some of those stereotypes finally put to rest. One other problem is the level of fanservice involved in the show as it really isn’t necessary, and it makes one wonder exactly who the target audience is supposed to be.
That said, the facial expressions are usually pretty well realised (althought it is sometimes difficult to tell if Maya is tense or constipated).
In addition to the design, the animation is of a pretty decent standard as well, except for certain occasions where the character movements seem ... odd. Thankfully these occasions are fairly few and far between, but they are noticeable when they occur. One also has to wonder if Maya likes the short dress she generally wears as she has one with exactly the same design during the flashbacks to her childhood.
Another aspect of the show that's odd is the acting. Hikasa Youko and Mizushima Takahiro are pretty good as Maya and Fumiaki (or Bunmei, whichever name you prefer to call him by), and the rest of the cast deliver some perfectly decent performances throughout. What's odd though, is that even with some decent acting the characters just don't seem to work. The audience is given nothing to sympathise or empathise with, and while some may believe this to be due to poor acting, in actuality its down to a poor script.
The sound quality is decent throughout the series, but one of the problems with Occult Academy is the music, or rather, the choreography. The tracks on offer are well chosen but there are several scenes where they just don't seem to mesh with the on screen action. In addition to this the OP, which is a fairly typical J-rock track called "Flying Humanoid" by Nakagawa Shouko, works well as an opening theme, but the opening sequence itself doesn't seem to work with the music. As for the ED, "Kimi ga Iru Basho" by Takagaki Ayahi is a decent enough song as well, but again the ending sequence makes no sense (unless images of a girl and boy lying in grass are your thing).
It's not that the music itself is bad, but rather its implementation is a bit strange.
As I mentioned before the acting is decent enough, but the characters lack any real depth for the entirety of the series. One of the biggest problems with Occult Academy is that there is simply too much going on at any one time, and because of this the characters seem like nothing more than by-products of the plot. The overly complicated storyline precludes any real growth or characterisation, especially for Maya and Fumiaki, and it's not until the final few episodes that they actually start to develop. Even then the storyline gets in the way, which is a shame as some of the characters, especially Fumiaki, had some very interesting histories which really warranted more of a look.
Sekimatsu Occult Gakuen is a decent enough series that toys with some interesting ideas, but doesn't really go any further than that. The problem is that the story is far too complicated for its own good, and because of this everything else in the show seems to have been thrown off course. It may have seemed like a good idea on paper, but like so many other things like that, the result is nothing more than a decent looking anime with no real substance.
That said, there are several interesting plot points that even I found distracting, but they're not enough to support the weight of an entire series and all its characters. Granted there may be viewers who don't mind that the plot seems to have been hammered together from one of Haruhi's delusions, but it just wasn't enough for me as there is little in the way of justification for anything that happens in Occult Academy.
It's a shame really, but the quality of releases from Anime no Chikara seems to be dropping by degrees, and Sora no Woto remains the best title from that stable so far.