Friday 30 June 2017

Anime REVIEW: Little Witch Academia (Series)

Little Witch Academia
Little Witch Academia’s first 13 episodes are currently available via Netflix. The remaining 12 episodes are set to follow later this year.

The rise of Little Witch Academia has been one of anime’s great success stories from the past few years. Beginning as a short film produced by the then-new studio Trigger for the 2013 Young Animator Training Project for Anime Mirai, its popularity led to sequel film The Enchanted Parade – where a Kickstarter to extend its running time was funded in a mere six hours. Both OVAs have since been added to Netflix worldwide, and arguably stand as one of the site’s flagship anime offerings. Now four years since its debut Little Witch Academia has returned once again, this time as a full 25-episode television series. Creator Yoh Yoshinari returns once again as director, joining forces once again with Enchanted Parade writer Michiru Shimada.

Akko, Lotte & SucyShiny Chariot

Atsuko “Akko” Kagari has been obsessed with magic and becoming a witch ever since seeing the performing witch Shiny Chariot as a child. Now that she’s old enough, Akko has enrolled at Luna Nova Magical Academy – a prestigious school that Chariot herself once attended. However her non-magical background means Akko struggles with even the simplest of lessons, and her knack for getting into all sorts of mischief with her friends Lotte and Sucy earns her the ire of both her tutors and classmates – including top student Diane Cavendish.

But Akko’s belief in magic and its abilities has led to her becoming the newest owner of the Shiny Rod, the wand once used by Shiny Chariot that has power to restore magic’s waning influence in the world. With the help of her friends and guidance from her teacher Ursula Callistis, Akko is tasked with discovering the seven magic words to unlock the seal and bring back the power of magic. And unknown to Akko, her idol Shiny Chariot might be as far away as she thinks.

Diana CavendishUrsula Callistis

Despite the minimal continuity introduced in the Little Witch Academia OVAs, this series stands completely apart from its predecessors and serves as a fresh entry point for newcomers. Certainly the original OVA and The Enchanted Parade could be fitted into continuity with a little reworking, but as it stands there’s too many inconsistencies for them to be explicitly linked.

Little Witch Academia is a tale of two halves. The show’s first cour is largely made up of standalone episodes, while Akko settles into Luna Nova and the cast can be introduced at a gradual pace. This is when Little Witch Academia is at its most fun, and an absence of ongoing plot is certainly no detriment to just how enjoyable this series can be. It shows its capacity to be bizarre as Akko takes a trip in to Sucy’s mind, heartwarming when the trio inadvertently resurrect a soldier who broke a promise to his daughter, and displays a knack for parody when they discover Lotte’s favourite book is Night Fall – an obvious pastiche of the Twilight series. Due to the minimal continuity between the two OVAs I’ve always argued Little Witch Academia could work as a series of wholly standalone adventures, so it’s nice to see Trigger toy with that idea for half of the runtime.

Akko dives into Sucy's mindThe cast are joined by the girls of The Enchanted Parade

If you’re familiar with the OVAs then you’ll probably have already fallen in love with the cast, however the series brings about some minor tweaks that even existing fans may need to take a moment to adjust to. This mainly affects Sucy more than anyone else, whose cynical personality can often come across as downright mean-spirited. Admittedly Akko isn’t the easiest person to get along with at times, but early episodes really don’t paint her as a particularly likable person. However all the characters have their good traits as well as bad, and that’s what makes them believable not only as characters, but friends as well. The main trio all have very different personalities that bounce off each other wonderfully, and it’s great to see that circle once again opened to Amanda, Constantze and Jasminka – the three new girls introduced in The Enchanted Parade. Diana is just as curt as ever, but her development is a significant part of the show’s latter half.

Outside of the pupils there’s of course Professor Ursula, who to no surprise to anyone other than the actual cast of the show is of course Chariot. Why Chariot has gone into hiding under the guise of a teacher is a painfully slow burn, but unlike the OVAs at least here everything is both explained and heavily tied to the plot. It may take a while to see Ursula shed her disguise (and even longer for her to tell Akko), but when she finally does the wait is well worth it. A more interesting addition to the cast is Andrew Hanbridge, who not only acts as the witches’ main connection to the regular human world but also the show’s token male character.

Andrew HanbridgeCroix Merides

A new opening signifies the beginning of the second half, which is where the plot really begins to kick in. These episodes draw upon the little bits of lore peppered into the more standalone adventures, building upon them to create a more serialised adventure with minimal diversion from the main story. Even when the hunt for the magic words is sidelined, there’s usually something going on that contributes towards the show’s climax. The major turning point is the introduction of Croix Merides, a new teacher at Luna Nova who serves as the show’s “antagonist”. Croix is the perfect foil to both Akko/Chariot’s ideals and the tradition Luna Nova represents – striving for progress with technology-based magic with various inventions and appliances. This idea of tradition versus progress is at the very core of Little Witch Academia, and while it might be somewhat biased in its argument presents a lot of good ideas and takes the story in an unexpected direction.

The introduction of plot does come with a few downsides though, the main one being the story becomes more tightly focused around only a handful of the cast. As well as the unlocking of the seven words the plot hinges around Akko’s relationships with Ursula and Croix, as well as the turbulent history the two teachers share with each other. It isn’t just the Akko show though, as much of Diana’s development comes in these later episodes – taking her far beyond just a predictably stuck up student and elevating her easily the show’s best developed character. Amanda and Constanze both get a moment in the spotlight too, with the latter's episode even giving the Trigger staff the opportunity to revisit the mecha prowess they've largely shied away from since leaving Gainax. The others aren't so lucky though, with even the episode taking place in Lotte's home village having a greater focus on Akko. Poor Jasminka doesn't even get a focus episode! Even in the finale when the seven girls are united properly for the first time they slowly peel away to leave Akko and Diana, left to provide moral support (and magical energy) with the rest of the extended cast. The ending strives to create a strong sense of unity between the cast, but arguably could have gone about it a whole lot better.

Ursula sheds her disguiseThe shiny arc

Animation-wise it would be foolish to expect a full series to live up to the high quality of the OVAs, but even with the budget stretched thinner Trigger have done a brilliant job at keeping flow and aesthetic that made them so captivating. Naturally there are a few dips every now and again, but there’s certainly nothing that truly stands out from the norm. With most of the main cast having previously appeared in the OVAs the character design is immediately on good standing, but newer additions like Croix and Andrew fit in just as well. Background characters can seem a little odd at times (there’s one particular girl with solid black eyes who stands out like a sore thumb every time), but if there’s one thing Trigger have succeeded at doing here it’s making the world of Little Witch Academia feel big. From its European-influenced scenery to the multiple ethnicities of its cast, the show has a rich, worldly feel that has so much more to offer beyond that what we see on screen.

Little Witch Academia was a title crying out for more than just two OVAs, and while it may stumble a little along the way the series is a more than worthy continuation of their legacy. What it lacks in even development it makes up for in Trigger’s usual level of gusto, combining colour and character into an enchanting world that taps into nostalgic memories of childhood cartoons. It may not be perfect, but if you’re looking for a show that stands out from the crowd and will give you a smile on your face then Little Witch Academic is the dose of magic you need.


DP said...

I would be thrilled if they decided to continue the story with another season. To be sure, I wouldn't want all anime to be like LWA, but it would be refreshing to have at least a few more shows take some cues from it.

Alex said...

I agree - the world could certainly do with more shows like this!