Little Witch Academia (I+ II) – more than Harry Potter: The Anime

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Studio Trigger
Genres Action, Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
Source Original
Episodes 1+1 (both OVAs or films, or whatever)
Season Winter 2013 + Autumn 2015
Director Yoh Yoshinari
Music Michiru Oshima

     My case with Trigger anime has been quite a weird one. At first  I was very annoyed by the countless ads of World Trigger anime on Crunchyroll – at some point it seemed that there were virtually no other ads out there. It’s quite a shame that I managed to confuse a name of an anime with an entirely unconnected name of a studio. The ads certainly didn’t pique my attention, but then I learned of Kill la Kill, and that did. Yet, I researched it rather poorly (at first confusing it with Akame ga Kill, dammit) and stopped after quite quickly getting an idea that it’s only a weird ecchi show that doesn’t interest me at all. Knowing that Trigger branched of Gainax did give some brownie points but experiencing a short by Hiroyuki Imaishi in Nihon Animator Mihonichi (ep. 14) I was just disgusted by the sheer vulgarity of it. Despite all these things eventually I decided to try some rather neutral Trigger stuff, as Little Witch Academia has been praised by a lot of people and it seemed no way that it could be a hentai. Yet…

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     Just kidding. It’s definitely not a hentai (though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has made some hentai after LWA). Stupid jokes aside, to clear some points, this post concerns only the original LWA as well as its successor LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade and not the (currently airing) TV series. Now fairly popular franchise began with “Young Animator Training Project” (aka “Anime Mirai” at some point), which also was the reason for Death Billiards (and consequently Death Parade) among other stuff to come into being. As it was a success, a launched Kickstarter project – pretty unusual for an anime, eh? – became funded in no time (to be more precise under 6 hours) and so we got a sequel to the first OVA. And even later came the TV series, but that’s not the topic today. Why is LWA interesting? For starters, there aren’t many anime whose stories have so little in common with anything Japanese. Name the heroine otherwise and you have a script for a Disney production. Well, if you can imagine the world of Harry Potter genderbendered and made into an anime, you would get the general atmosphere pretty well. To be frank, even some story elements have similarities – for example the adversary of the good kids is a white-haired person from a family with a long lineage. It’s not only that. Near the end of the second LWA there is something straight from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The creators themselves acknowledged that they had various influences that made LWA what it is. Should it bother a random viewer? Definitely not, as even if LWA isn’t the most original piece of art (though such a story in anime is pretty novel), it was made with love and watching it is nothing but fun.

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What is it about then? A young girl Akko after seeing a really impressive (no kidding) performance of magic by one particular witch, becomes infatuated with the stuff you can do and energetically (as always) decides to go to a magic school. Her problem is that she has no knowledge and obviously isn’t as skilled in all of the witch-y things. Getting a protagonist to overcome such problems is a basic premise of many shounen anime, but what makes LWA stand out is the execution. Especially the first OVA is incredibly tight paced – every single frame is thought out and couldn’t be removed by any means. The creators already confessed having to cut lots of stuff due to the expected limited length. Still, the OVA doesn’t last even half an hour (which passes in an instant) but you feel that the material could have been spread out into a full feature film using a more relaxed and therefore probably less charming approach. The second film continues the doings of Akko and her friends, expands the universe, but isn’t as entertaining as the first one. The story becomes less tight, there are fewer new exciting locations, the characters start some inter-conflicts and that slows down everything quite a bit. After all, it’s almost inevitable that a sequel isn’t as unique as the original material. Still, even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of the first LWA, for every fan of the franchise (and not only) it’s much recommended.

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    About the characters of LWA I have written a bit here. To think about them in a broader scale, they don’t really stand out. Especially in the first film, when the pacing lefts almost no space for a breather, the girls are presented really quick and then only their actions speak for them.  You have the enthusiastic Akko, who loves magic with every cell in her body but often screws up only because, being from a non-magician family, she has no idea how things work. Akko’s sidekicks Lotte and Sucy, being a normal girl and a pretty typical witch respectively, provide some character dynamics and catalyze some drama in the second film. Diana, whose family is apparently very proud of their ancestry with many generations of witches, acts as an antagonist in the first film, but sadly doesn’t retain any more prominent role in the second, which is a shame. The second film also introduces three more girls that have some minimal impact on the story, but don’t do anything special. When you think about it, the character aspect of both shows may be a bit lacking, but after so much that happens you just don’t care about it. Also, another perspective was provided by the director himself – Akko symbolizes a new animator coming into the business, without a clear vision of the real work he has to do, and that not always is as interesting and easy as he thinks. Everyone, with Diana acting as an embodiment for them, despises such a carefree attitude, but ultimately Akko finds her place in the community. Sure, this allegory isn’t apparent if you don’t know about it, but it‘s a nice little touch, giving the franchise a new meaning.

Excerpt from LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade; animation by Yuuto Kaneko

    Doubtless the animation is the most enjoyable part of both of the films. You can only wonder how much passionate work was put into every single scene and how effectively everything came out to be. The director Yoh Yoshinari is known for being a perfectionist to the bone so working under him probably wasn’t the least stressful work on Earth, but despite that the end result is nothing but gorgeous. It’s easy to recognize Studio Trigger behind the work because of the character designs and especially character animation. Such exaggerations in it not always work well with me, but this time I was only astounded how well it reflected the characters and their emotions. Forget the usual anime trend of only lips flapping – there everything is moving and characters are as expressive and dynamic as anywhere. You can probably make a whole sakuga guidebook just from the first LWA. The animation wasn’t the only thing to stand out in the department of visuals – Studio Pablo did a wonderful job (as always) providing backgrounds – vibrant, colorful, and beautiful beyond any doubt.

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     The soundtrack is another aspect linking LWA to the Disney productions very tightly, and at the same time being close to Ghibli soundtracks. That’s no wonder since the composer is Michiru Oshima, who usually handles orchestral music very effectively. Just look at her portfolio that contains FMA (the first one), Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (that is Tatami Galaxy) or Akagami no Shirayuki hime. Orchestral pieces provide an airy atmosphere with enough quirks to mirror the misadventures of Akko. Having a full orchestration also gives a feeling of something removed from your daily life, just like a fantastic fairy tale with a usual “once upon a time”. A more minimalistic soundtrack (maybe just usual piano and strings) would have made everything look way more familiar, but now there’s a sense of wonder and also curiousness how anime girls can be mixed with classical Disney atmosphere, and the most important thing is that the mix really works.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Chariot's Theme' by Michiru Oshima

    At this moment the new TV series is still ongoing but I think it’s safe to say that the short length of the previous installments to the franchise was a positive attribute. Of course, there have been many anime shorts that waste the time they’re given, but LWA is not the case. When the creators have thought out the universe and the story that they want to tell really well, and it turns out to be longer than intended, as painful as it might be, generally cutting some material works way better than having to stretch everything out. Also it’s notable that TV series has a whole different timetable so not very satisfying strategies as outsourcing become inevitable. I guess it’s just my slight concern that the TV LWA so far isn’t doing anything more impressive than its predecessors (though it also has its moments). Knowing that the first and second LWAs look even more beautiful, full of freedom and devoid of limitations makes them a really enjoyable experience.

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 I believe, this anime is

 3
Good

     I think that for any anime fan LWA (especially the first one) is a must watch. I can’t remember when was the last time that so much fun was so tightly packed and delivered with amazing animation. Well, it’s Trigger at its best. If you have been burned out because of too many boring anime or just want to reignite your love for the “Chinese cartoons”, LWA is as good an option as you are ever going to find.

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Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda – Mari Okada, obsessed with eggs

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Alternative title The Anthem of the Heart
Studio A-1 Pictures
Genres Drama, Romance
Source Original
Episodes 1  –  it’s a film after all
Season Summer 2015
Director Tatsuyuki Nagai
Music Masaru Yokoyama and Mito

     Probably anyone who considers watching anime a hobby has heard of Mari Okada or at least of her more famous written shows like AnoHana or Toradora!. These and some others tend to bring division between the viewers as Okada’s style or just some similarities among the shows she’s worked with aren’t something that everyone could have the same opinion about. Personally I can’t say much as I haven’t seen that many of Okada’s works but I find the melodrama element (especially when it’s teen problems we are dealing with) to be a bit too exaggerated for my taste. Anyway, Okada justly is one of the most prominent anime writers and anything she’s attached to is fated (pun intended since she also wrote the script for Deen’s Fate/stay night) to receive some attention. Especially when some key staff members of the production of AnoHana (and some of them also having worked with Toradora!) are involved, the project they all decided to work on is bound to be waited for and thought to be at least decent. The film Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda (which I’d rather call by its English name The Anthem of the Heart because the Japanese title was already difficult to write only once) manages just that – it’s certainly above mediocrity but if it achieves more than being decent is probably up to the enjoyment of the style Mari Okada is famous for.

Excerpt from the film

   The film wastes no time and introduces Jun, a girl living a colorful and happy life. Everything looked very shiny and cheerful until, well, it didn’t. Frankly it was my problem for not reading the synopsis of the film properly beforehand so the events of the first few minutes looked quite shocking and unexpected, so in other words it was done well. All in all, Jun got burned so much because of her loose tongue that an imaginary egg (a bit random, isn’t it?) helped her to close her mouth (literally) almost permanently. Some years later, Jun, now known as a girl who can’t mutter a single word, and three other kids – a good girl Natsuki, pretty bland Takumi and a baseball ace Daiki – are forced to start organizing an event for the local community. The event ends up being a musical so every little detail has to be prepared for and worked out from scratch. Cooperation is a must and all the four are forced to organize everything together and become more open between themselves, some more willingly than others.  Of course there evolves an element of romance in the film – the writer was Mari Okada after all.

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     Now, as random (and spoiler-y) as it is, let’s talk about eggs. In itself, an egg is a perfect symbol and in this case it represents all the things that Jun locked inside herself so she wouldn’t make any more mistakes by talking too much. The continuous cracking of the egg accompanies Jun’s efforts to speak and slowly grow her relationships. Eggs also appear as something Takumi encounters on the day of forming of the group of four and work as a catalyst of Jun’s infatuation with him. Also, in retrospect the scene near the start when Jun’s mother tries to silence her by feeding her a bit of an egg gains some symbolic significance – it was mainly the mother’s influence that lead towards Jun’s closing off – it’s as if the mother herself started growing an egg-shell around her daughter’s expression of emotions. Everything’s so far all good and well but let’s think about how actually the symbol of an egg connects with the story. Why it was namely an egg Jun imagined that closed her lips? Why this story should feature eggs at all? To me it feels like the story was written and then someone just randomly thought about adding some symbolism. Symbolism and metaphors are an excellent thing in storytelling but I believe they should flow from the story, be an integral part of it. In this case the story barely changes if we omit the egg element.

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     Moving on, the ending wasn’t to my liking. The climax was as emotional as it should be but after that things got a bit out of hand. I still think that the main point of the film was to show Jun’s transformation and other aspects should just accompany it. Yet, the ending featured implied romantic futures for all the characters and I doubt the film would have lost much without it. Especially one pair felt very forced as the characters got only one scene in which they were alone and the scene itself hardly hinted any future developments between the two. Yes, some character growth can happen outside the scenes we see but the goal of pretty much any film is to show some developments happening and the viewer, seeing gradual journey of the characters, can be rewarded by the payback when the journey, whose vague direction was visible beforehand, finally reaches its end. Seeing something like two people having a conversation and then starting dating after a while isn’t going to bring any joy of accomplishment.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Tsunagatteiku' by Masaru Yokoyama

     At first glance the main characters couldn’t be more clichéd. Apart from the fact that Jun has a (quite) objective reason to be mute, she basically falls into the category of cute little clumsy moe girls who because of their shyness are able to converse only by sending text messages. By the way, Jun grew attached to her new friends so soon that I began to wonder why she hadn’t started making friends earlier. With her enthusiasm even conversations via text messages seem a pretty possible way to communicate. Natsuki of whom we learn a bit less behaves mostly like a typical tsundere and her other traits like being able to lead people are not that explored. Takumi is just your average protagonist who tends to be dull and reminds me only of Oreki from Hyouka but probably only because of his hair. Only his ability to play the piano gives him a trait that makes him different from any secondary character. Daiki is a usual huge sports guy with a tendency to be blunt and sometimes aggressive. The biggest development throughout the film is seen in Jun as her struggle to convey her feelings (and thus becoming more socially open) through song and word become easier and easier albeit feelings are not that a simple topic. Daiki undergoes a transformation from a hard-headed dude to someone that recognizes others as also having some talents. Also, it was quite unexpected for me to find out that Daiki (as well as all others) was a pretty decent singer – quite unusual for a sports guy unless the things in Japan are really different from over here since when I was at school, I couldn’t expect at least half of my class to be able to or to be bothered to sing not half bad. Takumi and Natsuki achieved far less since the film’s main focus is set on the character arc of Jun.

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     As it’s usual with films, the visuals are way more polished than in your average TV series. Also, it’s A-1 Pictures who despite some people not being content with their working style and the stories they choose to portray keeps a pretty consistent reputation of being good at production. The Anthem of the Heart is no exception. Sometimes during the watch I just had to stop and take some time to appreciate the backgrounds – vibrant colors and many details make every scene outdoors look very alive. Character designs don’t stray much from usual anime material. I only have one nitpick – lower parts of the eyes of the characters have particularly bright light reflection zones so almost any time they seem to be on the verge of bursting into tears no matter what. I guess for a film with drama elements it might be appropriate but at least for the neutral scenes the brightness could have been reduced a little bit as it becomes distracting.

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     The Anthem of the Heart revolves around making a musical so it’s nothing exceptional to have a soundtrack that is a bit different than usual. The parts of the film that doesn’t feature the actual musical performance (or preparation for it) are accompanied by simple and relaxing music, no different from other shows that have some slice of life moments. While watching, everything seems alright as the music works well with the developing story, however, the released tracks are a bit underwhelming – not many of them are long enough or feature something worthy to be constantly listenable. Yes, it’s warm and pleasant but beside its background purpose the majority of the soundtrack is not very distinguishable or far from being serviceable. On the other hand the musical part is far more interesting. The characters decided to choose already composed music and only add their own lyrics. The arrangements ended up being pretty enjoyable. How else if the featured music involves Gershwin’s Summertime or Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique among others.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Hikari no Nai Heya': arranged  by Mito,
originally composed by George Gershwin (Summertime from Porgy and Bess)

     All in all, did I have a good time watching The Anthem of the Heart? Yep, mostly. From the start it’s clear that the main focus of the story will be Jun’s recovery from her muteness and that she will probably overcome it but it’s still worth to experience the journey. Of course there are some drawbacks such as not having enough time to spare for each of the main four characters, a bit forced resolution of all the characters’ relationships or just the egg element, which in itself being very interesting and thought provoking, didn’t blend that organically into the story. Nonetheless, other things like quite well incorporated music elements, Jun’s moe-ness and the emotional payback makes up for that.

     I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

     The Anthem of the Heart isn’t a very exceptional film, though some of its elements are impressive and I believe most of people shouldn’t be very disappointed if they choose to invest their time into watching this anime. Tugging of your heartstrings is not guaranteed though likely enough.