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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Flying Witch – the brilliance of Slice of Life

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Studio J.C.Staff
Genres Slice of Life, Supernatural
Source Manga
Episodes 12
Season Spring 2016
Director Katsushi Sakurabi
Music Yoshiaki Dewa

     An anime that belongs to slice of life genre is difficult to make. It sounds very easy – just tell what happens every day and that’s it, right? Nevertheless, not every show has that special something that makes seemingly boring or just not that inspiring things into a spectacle you want to watch and enjoy. Sad as it is, our usual lives tend not to be comprised of stuff that is worth telling as a story and something memorable happens only rarely. What to do then? Many great slice of life shows that don’t pursue any continuing narrative either build colorful characters or manage to include some particular quirks to their stories, something that make them stand above their counterparts. The real mastery then is to mix those quirks within mundane activities of the characters. This way we have ridiculous situations of Nichijou, multitude of wondrous youkai in Natsume Yuujinchou, parental learning moments in Usagi DropFlying Witch, though probably not able to boast the perfection of some of the greatest anime, stands near enough and wastes no time telling what its special quirk is.

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    As with most of slice of life anime, the set-up of Flying Witch isn’t anything complicated – Makoto with her cat Chito-san arrives to live with her cousins Kei and Chinatsu and their parents in the snowy Aomori prefecture. The unusual thing is that Makoto practices to become a witch but this part of the set-up isn’t remembered as often as you would think looking at the title of the show.  Not that I complain since there’s lots and lots of things to do in Aomori apart from witching. Makoto with Chito-san explore the surroundings and, as her relatives live pretty close to nature which means a bit of farming and stuff, she wholeheartedly takes up every opportunity to enjoy her staying and experience things she hadn’t before, even if they are such small and forgettable like tasting some random vegetable found by a roadside. Of course, cooked.

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     Things changed a bit when the Fire Nation attacked, I mean, Makoto’s sister Akane began visiting her. Akane being a professional witch (I guess it’s genetics after all with all the witches in the family) didn’t miss opportunities to teach her kouhai about some simple stuff. Of course, when she wasn’t sleeping. Or drinking. Anyway, witchcraft in the anime is only a secondary focus at best so don’t expect any ground breaking or time bending magic tricks. It’s well tuned with the atmosphere of the story – some walking paper cranes, ghosts working in a café and just all around pleasant and friendly stuff that makes you a bit amiably surprised and refreshed (if you ever were) from gardening, farming (talk about using the setting efficiently), cooking, exploring and just slice-of-life-ing. That’s one of the strengths of Flying Witch – the balance between occasional unexpected supernatural incidents and comfortable life at a beautiful place doing whatever the heart’s desire is. The only thing that a bit bothered me is that some of the characters or phenomena of the witch world didn’t receive as much attention as they (I think) would be able to withstand. I don’t say that the composition of the show was lacking – you can only put in so much content into a 12 episode show. Still, there are many things left that I would like to see more and to know more about. I guess this problem can be at least partly attributed to the fact that the anime is an adaptation. The mangaka probably plans her stories so that they would provide just the useful information at a time and wouldn’t leave her with less ideas that are being prepared for the future. To please the thirst for more there’s only two choices – embrace the manga or not that hopefully wait for any news of the possibility of a second season.

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     Usually in any anime you can’t rely only on the setting and the originality of the premise. That’s where the characters come in and even if I can’t claim that Flying Witch has a very memorable cast, the dynamics between the characters and some of their individual quirks make it a good watch. There’s nothing much to say about Makoto herself, only that she is a pretty normal girl, a bit absent minded sometimes (and because of that relying on her cat) but trying to do her best. Chito-san behaves like an ordinary cat with all the catlike mannerisms and that further gives some strength to the realistic part of the show which is balanced by frequent Makoto’s interactions with Chito-san as if she was just another human. Maybe our witch just knows her cat perfectly but that certainly adds some sense of magic to the atmosphere. Other secondary characters worth mentioning are Chinatsu – a kid that behaves like a kid. As weird as it sounds, it’s not that usual in anime with a few exceptions (that are getting more frequent with Amaama to Inazuma and others). You can’t not smile when Chinatsu reacts to something with all her childish soul or just idealistically and enthusiastically tries to pursue something. Makoto’s sister Akane is another character worth mentioning, being totally unlike her sibling – outgoing and energetic (when she’s not sleeping) world class witch full of weirdest ideas. The cast’s strength lies in the interactions between themselves, the strong sense of kinship and mutual reliance, just like you would want to have in an ideal family. Also, it’s remarkable that even if Flying Witch tells episodic stories, the characters, even less prominent ones, retain their memories of recent matters. There’re many instances of episodic shows whose order of episodes you can change without any impact, but this one not only adds just a little bit more to the realism using recurring characters and reminiscences of past events but also makes the grand story more cohesive.

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Excerpts from the anime

    Let’s move to the visuals, where one big part of the greatness of the show lies. Talking about the character designs I just don’t know how to define what actually makes them look very pleasant, but it really does. It was probably the first few seconds of the PV of the show that I, still don’t knowing basically anything about Flying Witch, thought “Hey, I could watch this”. The designs somehow just add much to the soothing, relaxing, comfortable and warm atmosphere that is one of the strengths of the show. Another huge positive comes from the backgrounds. When you watch the anime you can’t not notice that the surroundings seem somehow different from usual cardboard cutout buildings and streets. The reason of this is the hard work of the staff – the town where everything happens actually exists, and that is Shimoyuguchi near the castle town of Hirosaki in Aomori prefecture. There was a series of articles on Crunchyroll (here, here and here) about that which you should definitely check. Of course anime makes every place look way flashier and brighter to accommodate to the general feeling of the show but many actually existing buildings and places enhance the sense of location many times and, even if it’s not the thing you notice very easily, make you far more attached to the show.

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    As with the character designs, I fell in love with the soundtrack from the first glance. I can’t remember how long ago it was that some first notes of the first track paired with the visuals would move me so much. The general mood of the soundtrack remains very light, simple and laid back, as expected of a piano, some strings and woodwinds for the most part. The beautiful main theme reappears at various moments in different arrangements but the lack of complexity isn’t a bad thing. Sure, many people probably won’t be compelled to listen to the soundtrack all the day but as an accompaniment for the story it works well. Still, for me especially the main theme and some other jazzy tempered tracks are some of the more beautiful musical pieces of the year.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Kowata Makoto' by Yoshiaki Dewa

     Flying Witch is an easy anime to miss if you prefer something that has action and high stakes. Still, I highly recommend to dive into the heartwarming greatness of iyashikei and enjoy small beautiful things that happen every day. In this perspective Makoto, who begins her explorations of tiniest joys of a more rural setting than she (and probably the viewers) is accustomed to and Chinatsu who still views the world as a place full of wonder and happiness are the best characters the show could have had. Some little and innocent magic tricks and the queerness of the world of witches renew the enjoyment when you begin to get comfortable with Makoto’s everyday cooking and farming, accompanied by the soundtrack that could compete for the best aspect of the show – it’s very pleasing that all those parts comprising the show really work together to reach one goal – the brilliant atmosphere.

     I believe, this anime is

 3
Good

     Of course it depends on your preferences but if you are not indifferent to the slice of life genre or just want to have a calm and soothing experience, look no further – Flying Witch is just for you.