It’s not uncommon for the anime lovers I follow on Twitter to be talking about this or that new anime; it is, however, unusual for the non-anime fans or former anime fans to start gushing about a new show. Thus, when my Twitter feed started to light up with multiple mentions of a show called Little Witch Academia, I took notice… and when it turned out that it was legally available with English subtitles on YouTube, I knew I had to check it out.
Little Witch Academia is a 26 minute short theatrical film produced by Trigger Studio – a newish studio formed by former Gainax alumni who also worked on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. It was produced as part of Anime Mirai 2013 (current iteration of the Young Animator Training Project), an annual program by the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs to fund studios and have them train new, young animators on the job. So did this mentorship program actually produce something worth watching?
The Witch, The Witcher, The Witchest
The short and fluffy story focuses on Akko, a teenage girl who, as a child, was inspired to become a witch after seeing a performance by celebrity witch Shiny Chariot. To that end, she joins an academy for witches, but struggles with her lessons and magic due to the fact that she is the only student from a non-magical family. Worse still, no one at the school likes or respects Shiny Chariot, as Akko’s friends Sucy and Lotte and her snobby rival Diana constantly remind her. When the class is sent into a dungeon beneath the school tower in search of treasure for an assignment, Akko leaps at the chance to prove herself. Unfortunately, the rivalry between her and Diana, and Diana’s own hubris, soon unleashes a dangerous monster on the school, and Akko may be the only one able to deal with it.
If you are looking for breathtaking originality in your anime, Little Witch Academia may not be the show for you. For better or for worse, it definitely has a “familiar” feel; not only does it slip easily into the common anime scenario of magical fantasy academies for cute, pre-teen girls (e.g. My Otome), it also echoes a lot of other shows and books about kids going to school to become witches or magic users such as The Worst Witch and that little unknown series about some Potter kid. The beats are all here: a genki, underdog protagonist, a supportive duo of friends, a snobby rival student, an opportunity to prove themselves, hints of a “destiny,” a major crisis… you’ve seen this anime before.
However, the good news is that what it does, it does very well; it treads this well-worn path with confidence and style, and even the most jaded of anime fans may find themselves smiling and picking out their favorite elements. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and fluid, and the character designs are distinct and full of character. One common compliment I’ve heard a lot is that the series manages to feature a cast of cute little girls without getting drowned in moe; the art style is a happy medium between wide-eyed cutesy and more mature, so the characters come off not as moeblob fanservice but as likeable child heroes. The show doesn’t really bog down in too much exposition, save possibly around Shiny Chariot; most of the time, the weird quirks of the world are simply thrown out there with a sentence or two to enjoy. There are also a few unusual touches to the story that I appreciated. For example, rather than being lauded and admired by the entire school, Akko’s idol Shiny Chariot is actually derided by the majority of the witch community for either being a fraud or for basically “selling out” by being a flashy entertainer. Diana, the snooty and dismissive queen bee of the school, is actually given more depth than merely, “catty, snobby bitch,” and shows a surprising amount of responsibility when it comes to the consequences of her actions… the ending even hints that she shares more in common with Akko than she’d like to admit. But by far, my favorite surprise gem is Akko’s friend Sucy, an incredibly strange, goth-like student who has a disturbing command of potions, particularly poisons… like one which melts a monster right through the floor! Her design is hilarious – she’s constantly wrapped in her cloak, arms and legs invisible, and just sort of leans in and out in a threatening manner – and her wry sense of humor is definitely an asset (keep an eye out for her video game joke).
Witch Pun Should I Use?
As cute and fun as the short is, however, I find its unique origin to be even more interesting. The Young Animator Training Project was apparently created in response to larger outsourcing of animation in Japan and the resulting concern that Japanese animation techniques would not be passed on or taught within Japan so much. Over $2 million was split between studios that bid on the funding, and as part of the project, the studios would foster a new generation of talent in-house while working together to create an anime short. Little Witch Academia was one of four this year (the others were produced by Gonzo, Zexcs and Madhouse), but it seems to be getting a lot of press, particularly in the West. Of particular interest is Trigger Studio’s move to post up the full short, in HD with English subtitles, on YouTube; that’s certainly one way to get your show out there!
So far, response has been overwhelmingly positive, and a lot of new fans are hoping for an entire series based on this. Perhaps if they have enough demand, Trigger will go for it. In the meantime, if you too want to see this charming little slice of witchy life, check it out on YouTube!
What did you think of Little Witch Academia? What are your favorite “magical school” anime shows?