Jun 28, 2017
25 of 25 episodes seen
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Disclaimer: the following review/analysis is oriented towards those who finished the series, and as such, there will be spoilers.
Little Witch Academia is Yoh Yoshinari's precious child, who is one of the most important and iconic animators this industry has. It's at the same time, a love letter to it, with clear intent, wanting to be a message of hope to everyone looking to be part of it eventually. Unfortunately, he is an animator, not a writer (though he most likely wasn't alone in this), and said intentions are not backed up by the execution of the piece once examined under the cold eye of the
monocle-wearing critic who thinks too highly of themself despite of their own contradiction-riddled writing, yet far from a complete dreck. This "love letter" has fundamental problems with its setting, plot, pace, characters, and a strangely ambiguous thematic simplicity that I can only attribute to the core idea Yoshinari tried to bring forward getting in the way of the show's story, and that's without touching details like the amounts of redundancy in the dialogue or some poorly paced scenes that end with no momentum. Little Witch Academia is an anime that always finds a way to squander its potential, and I'll proceed to explain myself.
First, lets talk about anime and animators. How is this related to our little witches? The show acts like a metaphor to the journey of the young animator in the industry, an ideal represented by Kagari Atsuko (Akko), where the magic world symbolizes anime and its institutions. Many animators are inspired from a very young age by one piece of animation that resonates with them, which leads them to choose said profession. The world of animation (and anime) is alive as long as there is new people that wants to work in it, and it's also necessary that veterans are able to train them for that.
Besides the obvious Nine Old Men (google it) reference within the show's lore through the Nine Old Witches, there are more nods to this metaphor. The show alludes to3DCG animation with Croix and her technology entering the scene, and the end of the series calls back to the cycle that perpetuates the existance of magic/anime in this world. During the spectacle that the outcome of the final showdown against Croix's mad missile generates, we see people being enchanted again by magic, and then we cut to a close shot of a little girl being amazed by it, symbolizing that Akko has inspired a generation younger than her to pursue the road of magic, same as how Chariot inspired her, in the same way this series and its climatic ending may inspire those who see it. This is why the show is a love letter to anime.
At the same time, Little Witch Academia is without a doubt the most consistently high quality production Trigger has made (Kiznaiver exists, but this is also two cours), with a similar artstyle to western cartoons, mixed with limited animation techniques here and there like heavy use of smearing, and intense focused "sakuga" moments that manage to impress on a technical level. All of this coupled with a brilliant OST composed by Michiru Oshima, that adds in a fantastic way to the tone the series has both in its heavier and lighter moments.
Poetic, isn't it? But the praise stops here.
About pacing, Little Witch Academia starts with Akko finding the broken underexplained McGuffin known as Shiny Rod in her road to Luna Nova, which is followed by a series of western inspired episodic adventures of little importance that will either reveal some detail about the world or a quirk about the characters. We don't get exposition regarding the words plot up until episode 11, and the main antagonist is only introduced by episode 14. What follows during the second half is a weird alternance of proper plot related episodes and episodic content similar to most of the show's first half, making for some jarring contrast between episode and episode. Even then, the show finds its focus again around episode 21, and rushes to the conclusion. It's uneven, and tries to tie things up way too fast, with too little to keep itself interesting in the first half, and too much to cram in the end without forcing it.
There is no inherent problem with an episodic structure, many magical girl anime like Princess Tutu, Full Moon wo Sagashite and Shoujo Kakumei Utena got it right. The problem with Little Witch Academia is that most of these episodes are bland, employ cliché plots, are cheap excuses to force screentime for irrelevant characters, and overall give way too little substance (or have little value) besides spectacle, which again wouldn't be a problem if the series wasn't trying to get you invested in anything else than that. At the same time, the series has a strong tendency to forcefully validate Akko's disruptive and intrusive behaviours, usually through the implementation of some plot device that achieves this (often the Rod) and often resolves the conflict. Then, one other time the show rewrote a character from the opposing side to reach a resolution, during Diana's arc, where after showing her aunt as this one dimensional snake lady, it's revealed that she actually cares about the family's legacy, and will try to keep it up while she follows her dream in Luna Nova. This makes the resolutions idealized and convenient. Little times a conflict is solved by the agency of our characters or an instance of personal growth, and while the series often returns to the status quo, these rare ocasions end up being the best episodes because there's real catharsis to be found in them. These exceptions are episodes 11, 13, 14, and from episode 21 onwards where the show focus on what matters, exploring Akko's relationship with Chariot, the past of the latter, and finally resolving who Akko wants to be. Even then, it takes 21 episodes of justifying everything with passion and simple motivations until something more interesting happens with her character. Finally, this ends up making Akko a character favoured by the plot, result given by the rather low stakes situations the show puts her in, which are resolved with no real growth from her part (see the exceptions). The series hides in Akko, whose story is about maturing and personal growth, someone with a Mary Sue treatment. Akko is rewarded for who she is and what she represents, not for the person she grows to be during her journey, in the same fashion as Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds (but Crowds doesn't pretend that there is a journey for Hajime, who is a stand-in for most of her show's ideas).
Other of the problems Little Witch Academia has is its handling of the setting. We see some places and factions, but they are vaguely explored or barely important, like witches from other places who appear on one episode and are never brought back again, meaning that there is little to no expansive worldbuilding outside what's relevant inmediately to the story. We learn that the witches had a 1500+ years old debt with a dragon because no one took responsibility to learn/recover dragon language in order to read or translate the damn contract, but then Diana comes with her teenage wisdom to save the day and put the drake on his place, since she DID study/learn dragon language apparently. The "adults are useless" trope is implemented to push this idea of the incomeptence veterans have for training the new generations, drawing a parallel with the anime industry metaphor. In doing so, said execution generates a tonal clash regarding a situation about the world that should be taken more seriously, compared to how the series treats other similar moments, and it's one of the elements that leads the series to validate otherwise questionable developments, for how it makes impossible to take the old witches in charge seriously (and end up being fairly irrelevant to the plot... as expected anime, you can't have people that make sense solving your plots, can you?). For example, there's no ambiguety when Ursula defends Akko from being expelled/suspended from Luna Nova after clearly breaking the rules (Akko avoiding being expelled for Ursula's intervention and instead being suspended would make for a nice moment of self-reflection, that still rewards her efforts in some way, adding complexity to both her character and the outcome of her actions), or that never in the second half the authorities of Luna Nova question or check what Croix is doing in her suspicious omious tower (which is in reality a minor contrivance).
Then there's the faction of british gentlemen, which includes Andrew. It's implied that they finance Croix, but it's never explored why, and out of them "hating witches" (which is also not explored) they don't have an interesting dynamic with the world. Andrew himself is sidelined, and his role in the climax is very small (Gentlemen: -Shut down the cameras! Andrew:-No! I believe in these witches! Gentlemen: -Ok.) but he is more important as an ear to Akko, as well as someone who she inspires the capacity of trusting witches, eventually. He also gives Akko the idea of being herself, by herself, rather than by Chariot.
The rest of the side cast (Diana, Chariot, and Croix are mains) have personalities defined by only one trait or superficial quirk. Jasminka eats a lot, Constanze does tech stuff and doesn't talk, Sucy is sadistic and experiments with mushrooms, Lotte is shy, likes Nightfall and has fairy magic, Diana's minions are just that, and Amanda is a tomboy archetype with nothing else. All of these are characters you can define in half a sentence, that exist to represent how Akko through her forceful behaivour managed to have friends who act later as an emotional cushion for her. It's incredibly basic and boring seeing how Akko instead of building most of these relationships through mutual understanding, she's forced into being accepted by external plot elements. The exception to this is her relationship with Diana, which has its problems, but nontheless it has conflicts, a dynamic, and only when Akko helps her to face her family and understand her problems is when they really become friends, and it make sense that it's Diana the one that puts Akko back on her feet in episode 23 after the twist of episode 22. Which leads us to the next point.
The story between Chariot and Croix, once revealed, destroys Akko emotionally, who eventually gets back on her feet once Diana conforts her. The problem is that besides using a lot of contrived friendships as a reinforcement (note also how little Lotte and Sucy appear during the second half of the show), this makes Diana's character being limited as an emotional support to Akko, and the show in its intent to portray its metaphor, ends up giving more value to her passion above Diana's ethic towards hard work, which she upheld all her childhood (or even more important than Akko's own resolve to work hard and not take shortcuts, since it's never brought up in their exchange!). This leaves a mixed message, almost on some wish-fulfilling tone, extremely simplified and idealistic. Luckily the series doesn't intend to depreciate hard work (scenes like Akko meeting Woodward and Diana's arc suggest this), yet ends up doing it because of its execution.
The revelations themselves during episode 22 (extended to 23) give new meaning to the series in many layers, and make it interesting again in a moment where it was feeling empty. Even then, the series limits its potential again by making Chariot ultimately a victim of Croix's deception, which goes back to a simplistic characterization that doesn't innovate nor is particularly interesting, if not for her burden and regret regarding her negligency (and projection of her wishes on Akko) towards her student. Meanwhile, the show makes its best to paint Croix as a mustache twirling villain (who does unquestionably bad things) to redeem her at the last second when everything goes wrong, without implying that her actions in the end have been punished, since she had "good intentions". But that's probably sadism on my part. The true villain of the series is Woodward and the garbage tier guidance they offered to the girls (Chariot and Croix) which is never genuinely addressed even if it's where Croix's character and misguided actions come from.
The conflict during the last act is based on the antagonist accentuating negative emotions in the population with a fishy football game acting as a cathalyst, to then gather said emotions as magic energy and destroy the seal of Grand Triskellion. Finally, the climax goes from a final boss battle where she finds out that the power she sought wasn't what she thought it was, to said boss (Croix) losing control of her technology, (in the same way Chariot lost control of her magic collection technique) unintentionally releasing a mass destruction missile built by the uncontrolled rage of the mob. With the conflict now not being focused on Croix, everyone is now a good person, and all that's left is convincing the world that magic is cool, which happens. The thing is that this outcome is forced, since Chariot and Croix are suddenly able to livestream and comment the event from thin air (an event that occurs in the stratosphere(!)) which enables people to see it and do the 180° turn from almost starting a war to cheer and give them energy (don't ask how, Grand Triskellion does the trick) so that Diana and Akko can defeat the missile. This is, again, as it's an habit of the series, idealistic and forced plotting because magic is wonderful. Friendship is magic, and passion is what's most important. The major credit I can give to the finale is that it's extremely climatic, features the best bits of animation in the whole show, it's somewhat possible to just take what it presents at face value for that, and closes the meta-text the series has been building with its analogy regarding the anime industry in a clever, subtle way, even if the communicated message is ambiguous without this interpretation.
In summary, Little Witch Academia had good intentions, but not the chops to carry them forward. In its ambition, it leaves blurry many details of its execution, which falls apart analyzing it bit by bit or as a whole, with an extra of mixed, unclear morals. Its intent enters in conflict with what it did, but it at least looked and sounded good. I begin to wonder if this could've been tighter if it was 13 episodes long.