Review: Little Witch Academia

Producer: Yoshihiro Furusawa
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
Writer: Michiru Shimada
Starring: Megumi Han/Erica Mendez & Noriko Hadaka/Alexis Nichols
Distributor: Studio Trigger/Netflix
Genre: Magical Girl, Fantasy, School-Life
Rating: TV-Y7
Those series about academia are popular these days, am I right?  Little Witch Academia has finally finished its Japanese run and jumped over to Netflix so the wider American audience can see what all the hub-bub is about.  With Little Witch Academia riding on the coattails of extravagantly mature series such as Kill la Kill, I’ll admit I was a bit wary when I heard Studio Trigger was broadening their horizons to include a serialization aimed predominantly at children. Wary, but also excited, because I knew if such an undertaking were executed correctly, it could mean good things not only for the young anime studio, but also for the reputation of the industry on a wider scale.
The reports are in and, well, Studio Trigger seems to have succeeded. Also, very mild spoilers ahead.

Content Guide

 
Spiritual Content: As you may have guessed, there’s magic in this series–a very whimsical, all-encompassing magic with fairy-like qualities. How magic works is never explained beyond the notion of “believing,” which is appropriately simple considering the target audience. 
There’s a later episode which light-heartedly emulates the notorious Salem Witch Trials, in which a character is threatened with slapstick torture, but ultimately nothing comes of it and the instigator repents of his actions.
In the first episode, the protagonist prays to a magic sphere, an event which never occurs again. In a later episode, the characters enter the mind of their friend, where the “Good Angel, Bad Angel” trope makes an appearance. After breaking a tombstone, a few characters worry they’ll get cursed. An adversary has the ability to give life to inanimate objects, typically by injecting them with negative emotions, such as anger. Zombies also make an appearance.
Violence: The violence stays inside the lane of a Y7 rating. Any damage, whether from being punched, exploded, burned, or otherwise, is superficial and almost always comical in nature. No blood.
Language/Crude Humor: “D**n” and “h**l” are both uttered a couple of times, and I’m pretty sure these are all said by Amanda, a notorious rebel and potty-mouth. I only watched one episode in English, but reading through forums, it seems there’s quite a few differences between the Netflix version and some you might find online. The script of the dubs and official subs both seem to have been dramatically modified, meaning the profanity count might be nonexistent in the dub.
Sexual Content: Almost none. Even when the animators have a valid opportunity to display an up-skirt shot (such as when characters are tumbling like rag dolls through the air), the only thing visible is their legs. Anything else under their skirt is censored by a sort of red shadow, identical to the lining of their clothing. One male character gets his pants pulled down a little on accident.
One episode involves a “love bug” getting loose and stinging a bunch of people, leading to unnaturally strong attractions between characters in a myriad combinations, including but not limited to a girl being flocked by men, a girl stalking another girl, and a dog falling in love with a person. All of these incidents are treated with comical effect.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Do poisonous vials that turn you into tree-people count?  What about magical energy drinks?
Other Negative Themes: A couple of the preppier girls tend to bully the protagonist and her friends, mostly through insults. There’s a shop the characters visit in one episode which gives off some Diagon Alley vibes, complete with background coffin, skulls, and teeth. A dragon in a later episode is greedy, kind of like Smaug.
Positive Content: Little Witch Academia is absolutely gushing with positive material. There’s a constant sheen of optimism waxed over the whole series, especially in the behaviors of the protagonist. It is reinforced time and again that hard work leads to good things and usually getting what you want (to its credit, the show don’t subscribe to this concept one hundred percent, as demonstrated in a later episode). Friendships are made, tested, and diverse–filled with themes of overcoming differences and learning how those differences make us better, stronger friends and people. Loyalty between comrades is tested and ultimately triumphs. The show makes a point that it’s poor character to judge somebody without trying to learn who they are or why they act the way they do.

Review

To summarize in a few words: Little Witch Academia explores the dreams and adventures of Akko, a bright-spirited girl who aspires to be a witch like her childhood hero, Shiny Chariot. This aspiration leads her to find Lunanova Academy, the same school Chariot attended in her formative years as a witch. Though Akko apparently struggles to wield magic, she still manages to be chosen by the Shiny Rod, a legendary artifact used by Chariot herself.
I think one of my favorite aspects of the entire series is how it handles the identity of Shiny Chariot. As early as the first episode, we suspect one of Akko’s professors to be Chariot in a different guise, with each successive installment driving that point home as we see bits of dramatic irony woven into the narrative. Yet, for as simple and obvious as the connections seem, you still get a sense the writers aren’t revealing their whole hand on the subject, which is fortunately the case, because it means even adult viewers can get caught off-guard by some of the later developments.
That said, Little Witch Academia is a profoundly basic series. Not ordinary, just simple. If you consider yourself well-ventured in anime or general pop culture, don’t expect your mind to be blown by anything that happens in the narrative. Re-emphasizing the fact it’s a TV-Y7 series, this anime features nothing a child wouldn’t be able to follow. Consequently, wearisome tropes that some of us might have seen a million times by now (such as deus ex machina), but are novelties to a child’s mind, are commonplace. Similarly, some plot elements feel sudden and lack development (even if those same elements are set-up for later events of their own). These aspects will inevitably detract from the episodic quality of the series, but by how much is in the mind of the beholder.

There is also a hilariously entertaining throwback to Gurren Lagaan at one point.

As for pinpoint writing, there’s both good and bad to touch on. Characters often ask questions and get unrelated, whimsical answers, which creates jarring dialogue. Yet, in later episodes when things become more serious, the beat-by-beat phrasing improves. Little Witch Academia also suffers from the usual case of hyper-dramatic expressions, something which is neither an upside nor a downside, but must be mentioned because it can make or break the interest of certain audiences.
The characters are fun and easily distinguishable in gait, tone of voice, attitude, design, and behavior. Amanda, in particular, is a delight to watch. However, character progression isn’t Little Witch Academia’s focus. The fundamental pieces of every character remain the same from beginning to end, with only mild deviations. I can only think of two characters who challenge the mold and grow more than the rest, and it shows, because they seem to be two of the more immediately interesting characters. Also, some of the names are fun odes to external influences/references, such as Diana’s posse of Hanna and Barbera, who are obviously named after “Hanna-Barbera,” the popular American animation studio.
Plot is not the series’ strong point, but it knows where it’s going and takes strides to form the emotional building blocks and necessary foreshadowing to deliver its heavier moments when they arrive. On a self-contained, episode-by-episode basis, none of the conflicts repeat, and each episode makes it a point to focus on at least two different issues, either between characters, in regards to the world, or in moving the story along.
The humor is patchy. I can see how some jokes would be funny to a younger audience, but there was only one bit which I found comically strong. Within the world of Little Witch Academia exists a book series called Night Fall, which is instantly recognizable as a Twilight knockoff and contains three hundred and sixty-four installments. Two major fans of the series start prattling endlessly about the adventures of the main characters and how, after so many entries, the series has covered so many different storylines. They speak of it fondly, while we, as the viewer, see only a digression of lunacy as it goes from being the recognizable vampire love story we all know, to a story involving time travel, going around the world to win the A Capella World Championship, to catching nukes bare-handed, and so on.
The musical director makes strong use of a full orchestra to create triumphant, swinging tracks stuffed to the brim with emotion and the utter nature of the series. Only a handful of songs stand out on their own, but the series is not short on impressively-handled discography. A few of the tracks are remade versions of their beloved movie counterparts.
But if we’re going to talk about music… Holy cow. I think all four of the opening/ending themes, both musically and artistically, are some of my favorite parts of the entire show. The second outro, titled Toumei na Tsubasa,” is perhaps the only outro I’ve ever rewound just so I could watch it again. The fluidity and color engineering of the video is so delicious that, as an illustrator myself, I could not help but be stricken with envy at how beautifully captured the entire product was from start to finish.
On the subject of animation, well, I risk losing my objectivity here, too. For all that the series might lack in a mature story, it leaves nothing behind when it comes to quality animation, despite being a two-cour series.
More than once I found myself floored by the stunts the animation team was pulling for intense aesthetic appeal. I could almost feel their giddiness and enthusiasm behind each character design (which, while simple, perfectly captures each character and utilizes color psychology, especially in the case of Shiny Chariot), their nostalgia-inducing background paintings (the treatment of environment as a character is impressive on its own), and the insane levels of squash-and-stretch effects which allow for movements, angles, and expressions only capable in this medium.
At the end of it all, Little Witch Academia delivers exactly what it promised: an upbeat and optimistic adventure set in a quaint, fantasy world. Whether that’s what you look for in a series is another matter entirely. It might not follow perfectly in step with the original movie and OVA, but that was never the plan, anyway. This series possesses an identity and magnetism lost on the majority of anime, tackling nostalgia in new ways while maintaining the artistic brand of its creators.
Love it, hate it, or introduce your children to anime with it, get used to hearing the name Little Witch Academia, because I suspect even when it leaves the limelight, it’s going to hang onto its momentum for a long time.

The Bottom Line

 

Little Witch Academia is a beautiful and magical adventure that will give your inner child joy, but won't provide much in the way of critically-acclaimed storytelling.

 

Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

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