Witch Craft Works
Honoka Takamiya sits next to his high school's "Princess," the exceptionally intelligent but seemingly very aloof Ayaka Kagari, and he doesn't know her at all: anybody who gets anywhere near her gets beaten up by her rather overprotective "fan club." One day, he's alerted to something he never would have guessed at: witches exist, there's more than one type of them, and some of them aren't the nicest people in the world. He's attacked by a group who call themselves the "Tower Witches," only to be saved by a "Workshop Witch"...who just happens to be none other than the school princess.
Out of a sense of debt to her, Honoka decides to ask her to let him become her apprentice. She agrees, to his surprise, bringing on the ire of the fan club and, more dangerously, dragging him into a conflict between the different guilds of witches. Not to mention that the two are in fact more connected than they'd thought: it turns out that their mothers were once lovers, plus, it turns out that the reason that Honoka's been targeted by the Tower Witches in the first place is that his body is home to a mysterious, disembodied entity called "Evermillion" that, under the right circumstances, can grant untold power; naturally, people are after him because of this.
I've said this before ad nauseum, but Winter 2014 was a pretty awful anime season. There were three series I really, really liked, and then a lot of shows that, more than just being mediocre or forgettable to me, were just outright bad: it was the season that gave us Recently, my sister is unusual, The Pilot's Love Song, and Magical Warfare, not to mention one of the most infamously screwed up adaptations of all time, and that lineup should speak for itself. This might have been why I stuck around and watched Witch Craft Works through to the end, since it had some pretty great art, animation, and costume design as a big selling point, and there was some potential for its handling of gender roles to make this into more than your run-of-the-mill "magic academy with love triangle elements" show. But at the end, I don't think it lived up to that potential: the relationship between the main characters wasn't compelling to me, and there were too many secondary witches and bit players and too little thought put into why these people would all be fighting over the "power" inside Honoka for this to really be that interesting.
Now according to this show's Wikipedia page, the first volume of this show's source manga has a little blurb saying that our main character, Honoka, was originally written to be a girl, hence why he ended up having the name he did. Knowing this, I'm torn on how I feel. On the one hand, I'm always keen on having more same-sex couples in anime (and I always squee a little bit at cute yuri series), and knowing that the series was "straight-washed" makes me depressed. Not to mention, an important plot point is that the two main characters' mothers were madly in love at one point but gave up on this because "two women can't get married in Japan," and so they married men and promised that if they had a son and daughter, they would get married to "make up" for never being able to be together. This is probably honestly one of the best reasons to legalize gay marriage that I've ever come across: if they'd just been able to live together and not been pressured out of it, whatever children they'd had would never have been dragged into this nonsense. But honestly, if Honoka had still originally been written as a girl, that would add some poignancy to the story, since if the two of them did get together they'd be able to live in the way that their mothers never got to; it's worth noting, also, that you never do meet either of their fathers, and the near-absence of male characters aside from the re-gendered Honoka is another hallmark of yuri anime, something that makes the mangaka's blurb easy to believe. On the other hand, given that Ayaka directly refers to Honoka as her "princess" a few times, regardless of gender, there's some potential for this series to run away with a Steven Universe-like situation where a male character's femininity and occupying a traditionally female role doesn't necessarily make him any less worthwhile of a person, and indeed, the show goes to some length to point out that Honoka, being shorter and of slimmer build than most of his female classmates, is hardly the epitome of buff masculinity.
Of course, the series takes the cheap route and has Honoka be insecure of his masculinity, after all. It doesn't help the show's case that basically all of the other girls besides Ayaka beat him up and push him around for no good reason and fall straight into the horridly misogynistic trope of "irrationally angry girls victimizing helpless effeminate boys;" I spent a lot of this show cringing, because of this. While Ayaka herself never bullies Honoka, her mother Kazane, the school chairwoman (who does have some adorably Sailor Uranus-esque moments with Honoka's own mother, in flashbacks) is very short tempered and perfectly willing to hurt him if it means getting access to his powers, while his younger sister Kasumi pushes him around, a lot, and we quickly learn that she has both a very strong brother complex and the angriest of angry tsundere personalities. Not to mention, Kasumi treats Ayaka as crappily as she does Honoka, making this into an especially painful love triangle to have to deal with. Honestly, most of the side characters in this show are pretty hard to take, and the fan club's behavior takes the cake for cringe-worthiness: even looking past the patronizing, sexist implications of the group trying to protect their princess' "purity," physically assaulting literally anybody who as much as looks at her is nothing short of bullying. So ultimately, this show's gender politics aren't as interesting or as progressive as I'd hoped, plus a lot of the character interactions draw straight from the playbook of harem-comedy tropes and don't develop much beyond that. In fact, both Honoka and Ayaka are pretty badly developed characters, and that unfortunately may stem largely from a plot point that they knew each other at one point but lost all of their memories of this; it's as if Mythos from Princess Tutu, whose role in the show centers around his lost emotions and memories, were at the center of the story without Ahiru and Fakir being around to give the show its personality. Ayaka, also, falls into the archetype of apparently aloof, stoic girls along the lines of Hitagi Senjougahara from Bakemonogatari, who at least had the advantage of also being amusingly snarky, whereas Ayaka is simply said to have "low social IQ" as an explanation for being so apparently emotionless, and while we learn that she's protective of Honoka, I don't really feel like I have that much else to say about her.
So character-wise, Witch Craft Works is something of a mess and a missed opportunity. There are a lot of side players in the series , and if there's something to be said for the various secondary witches, it's that the mangaka did clearly have some fun with the costume design. While the pointed hats, capes, and broomsticks do make them recognizable as Western "Witches" in the sense of the 1933 Wizard of Oz movie, the witches from the different "guilds" all wear different colors, with the Tower Witches (the nominal "bad guys") in particular being decked out in hats and capes with frills and fur linings and, in some cases, animal heads (who appear to somehow be enchanted, alive, and sentient). While I think it's a bit boring that you can tell that everybody's just wearing their school uniforms underneath everything (I don't think you once see any of these characters take their uniforms off), that's a minor complaint; overall, it's a beautifully animated and gorgeously drawn show, with some bizarre touches like the witches' familiars, which tend to resemble monstrous teddy bears or rabbits (with crowns, no less) that seem like something out of a Tim Burton-inspired acid trip. I do have to say that I didn't care much for either the OP or the in-show music, but the ED sequence is....worth a watch for the "what the hell did I just watch" factor, if nothing else, not to mention it's a good run-through of the various torture devices used on Medieval "witches" if you find that weird bit of history interesting. But anyway, I'll stand by my point that the visuals in this show are something like an acid trip in that they don't necessarily add up to accompany something that really means anything. It's marvelously weird and eye-catching, but somewhat empty as well.
And the actual plot of Witch Craft Works is more-or-less a two-way conflict between the aforementioned "Tower Witches" and Ayaka's "Workship Witches" who both desire the very awkwardly phrased "white stuff" inside Honoka, that "white stuff" being the power of the entity known as "Evermillion," who manifests as a Mamiko Noto-voiced female spirit on occasion. Of course, this fast-paced show has a habit of different factions breaking apart and forming on a whim, with these alliances having far more to do with personal feelings than anything; Ayaka and some of the Tower Witches do work together, a few times, to stop Kazane from hurting Honoka (he really can't catch a break, can he). I know that sometimes I can be guilty of spacing out on the politics of a show when I'm starting to lose interest in it, but I do promise that I was trying my hardest to follow the rhyme or reason to any of this, and I struggled hard to really follow it or care, most of the time: the fact that I absolutely hated Kasumi and disliked most of the side characters about as much didn't help, but moreso, the various people fighting over "Evermillion" simply seemed like another simplistic treasure hunt, since it wasn't clear to me what significance Evermillion really had besides being an especially strong power source. I'll also note that a frustrating amount of the action in the final episodes occurs inside a sort of secondary reality, like the imaginary world you see in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which the consequences of the battles occurring in this realm don't exactly have much bearing on what actually happens in the physical world, and the fact that the characters are apparently amazing at performing mass memory charms a la Harry Potter on the non-witches in the town adds to this. Basically, I finished the show feeling that a lot of what had happened was inconsequential: Honoka and Ayaka don't develop as characters, it doesn't really seem to matter why any of these people were fighting each other to gain Evermillion, and the universe seems to return to the status quo after the final battle (at least the final battle of this arc).
So in the end, Witch Craft Works was a pretty disappointing series for me. When I first started writing this review, I was ready to dismiss this as just being generic magic-academy harem schlock with a shiny veneer, since I remember feeling miffed when I finished the show, but in truth, there were some interesting character dynamics here and I was frustrated because the show just didn't really do anything with them, nor did it write much of a compelling story to connect with it. Witch Craft Works is, again, something of an acid trip of an anime series with a bizarrely kooky ED and a hint of interesting gender politics thrown in, but when the trip's over, I feel mostly like I wasted my time.
It's not a completely irredeemable show but it's pretty animation with a weak script, in the end. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The characters searching for "the white stuff" is obviously an innuendo, and there's some mild fanservice in the form of Honoka imagining Ayaka in a nurse outfit, but it's a pretty tame show. There's a lot of fighting and destruction, but very few people (if any) are actually killed as a result of this.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll (Japanese with English subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Witch Craft Works © 2014 Ryuu Mizunagi/Witch Craft Works Production Committee
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