In some of my previous anime reviews I’ve described the current state of the industry as “creatively stagnant”. I think it’s a fair assessment; economic woes in Japan and abroad have pushed studios to cater more and more to a small subset of ultra-devoted hardcore fans who can be counted on to buy Blu Ray and DVD releases and expensive merchandise no matter the cost. It’s also served as an incentive to pander to a series of niche sexual fetishes that effectively torpedo any chance of new series gaining any sort of mainstream appeal. There’s a general sense among long-time fans and pundits that the industry needs a refresh, a creative breath of fresh air. As it turns out, going to back to basics might be the best way to do that.
Produced by Studio Trigger and funded by the Japanese government as part of a program intended to train new animators, Little Witch Academia is a 26 minute long short film set in a Harry Potter-esque world where magic and witches exist alongside mundane humanity. As a child Akko Kagari was a fan of Shiny Chariot, a witch who uses her powers to put on elaborate stage shows for adoring audiences. Now in her teens Akko is enrolled in Luna Academy, a witch school populated by eccentric oddballs where Shiny Chariot isn’t looked on with fondness and Akko’s childish clap-your-hands-and-believe ideas about magic are treated as a joke. After her rival and resident queen-bee Diana bites off more than she can chew during a treasure hunting assignment Akko jumps into action to save the school and prove that her brand of magic is worthwhile after all.
If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie- if you have any familiarity with children’s fiction at all- you can probably write the rest of the plot in your head. It’s the classic story of the plucky underdog who saves the day by holding true to their convictions and beliefs, as long as those beliefs consist of ideas about friendship, believing in yourself and vanilla non-conformity that wouldn’t make the traditional values crowd uncomfortable or expose young audiences to anything challenging or different. Little Witch Academia does not in any way deviate from this formula, but there’s a lot to be said for a cliched premise that’s executed well.
Those 26 minutes are used with exceptional efficiency and elegance to build up the movie’s setting, a cast of shallow but very endearing characters and a complete story arc. There’s no wasted motion here- every line of dialogue pushes the plot forward, reveals something new about the cast or just delivers a smirk-worthy joke. The action is fast and energetic when it comes time for the junior witches to start flinging spells around and Studio Trigger packs every frame with something new and interesting to look at, including background plot details like the location of Luna Academy and shout-outs to the movie’s many fantasy and pop culture influences.
While retaining a distinct anime style, Little Witch Academia’s visuals take some obvious influences from western cartoons. Characters stretch and squash in response to the frequent slapstick humour and several of the action scenes bear an obvious resemblance to classic cartoons from American television (there are even two side character named Hannah and Barbara). I have to wonder whether this may have been an attempt at courting a more widespread international audience. Either way it’s a nice visual breath of fresh air for a medium that tends toward sameness. The actual animation on display isn’t quite theatrical level but is still far superior to a tv series, particularly during the hyper-kinetic action scenes. If this is what we can expect from the next generation of Japanese animators then the industry has a bright future ahead of it.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about Little Witch Academia- it’s short, it’s not all that complex- but If I can indulge in a bit of childish idealism myself its greatest strength is, well, heart. Studio Trigger clearly had a blast making this thing and their enthusiasm for the project shines through in every aspect. It’s a cute, fun watch that I think anyone, regardless of whether they’ve seen anime before, would enjoy. Give it a chance and you, too, will discover that a believing heart is your magic.
Little Witch Academia is currently available to watch for free on Youtube, in 1080p, with an unfortunately not very good English subtitle track. The popularity of the project prompted Studio Trigger to launch a Kickstarter for a second episode which at the time of writing has surpassed its goal by more than $300,000. Hopefully some enterprising production committee will some day open the purse strings for a full tv series or even- dare I hope- a theatrical film.