Puella Magi Madoka Magica changed the game for magical girl anime. Long associated with cutesy fare like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, Madoka opened the floodgates for dark, deconstructive shows like Yuuki Yuna and Magical Girl Raising Project. To be fair, I love Madoka, and think it’s a nearly perfect show. But there’s only so many times I can watch cute little girls get brutally murdered before my brain short-circuits, especially when so many recent series are just Madoka rip-offs with less clever writing and direction.
That’s why 2017’s Little Witch Academia was such a breath of fresh air, both for Studio Trigger and for the genre as a whole. It’s not the most original story ever – it’s basically just Harry Potter as a magical girl anime. But the charming art and animation, adorable cast of characters, and relentless optimism make it a modern-day classic. Besides, JK’s transphobia ruined Potter for me, so I’m happy to replace it with a series with no tedious relationship drama and a much better ending!
Our unlikely hero is Atsuko “Akko” Kagari, who is basically Deku from My Hero Academia if he were a closeted lesbian with undiagnosed goober-itis. After she sees a magic show by the dazzling Shiny Chariot, she dreams to become a witch and attend the prestigious Luna Nova academy. The problem is, Akko sucks at magic! Her spells constantly backfire, and she can’t even fly on a broom without crashing hilariously. Like Harry, her youthful rebellious streak constantly gets her and her friends into trouble. But Akko has an ace up her sleeve: Chariot’s Shiny Rod, said to hold the secrets to the most powerful magic in the world. And her boundless energy and can-do attitude win over everyone, even the stuffy old teachers at Luna Nova.
We also have our Ron, Hermione, and Draco analogues with Sucy, Lotte, and the pompous Diana respectively. Lotte is the bookish type and moral center of the group, but Sucy steals nearly every scene she’s in with her ridiculous potions and constant experiments on her friends. She’s one of the most chaotic neutral characters in any anime I’ve seen, and I’m here for it. And while Harry and Draco were rivals that became enemies, Akko and Diana eventually get over their differences and become best friends – and, okay, there are some subtle yuri undertones in there. Can you see it?
While the presentation is fairly straightforward, it still has that zany “Trigger-ness” that makes the studio so distinctive. The animation is a fluid mix of anime and Western cartoon styles, and they really let loose for the wacky Tex Avery-style gags. My favorite early episodes are when they go HAM on the weird comedy. Like when Akko takes a surreal mushroom trip inside Sucy’s deranged mind, or a magic “love bee” gets loose inside a fancy party, causing all the guests to spontaneously fall in love with each other.
The second half of the series is ramps up the drama thanks to the heavy, Croix, taking center stage. Her ominous techno-magic makes Luna Nova obsolete by comparison, but it can easily be used to manipulate the ignorant masses. Yup, this series has some weird Black Mirror vibes, of all things! But unlike Trigger’s BNA, it doesn’t let the social/political message take over the story. The best part of Little Witch is still the characters, especially as we find out more about Croix’s relationship with Chariot and Akko’s place in their long, secret chess game.
Magical girl anime has always centered around hope and idealism. Even the darker shows set up that idealism early and crush it with death and despair. But what makes Little Witch Academia great is that it never tries to be anything other than what it is. There is a thematic/meta aspect to it, as the young witches learn to respect their ancient traditions and the older generation realizes they need to change and adapt to survive. But mostly, it’s about the timeless themes of determination and not letting your disadvantages define you. Even if Akko’s unflinching belief in herself is sometimes dumb and gets her into trouble, she’s still a great witch for inspiring her friends to do better. The tagline of the show is “A believing heart is your magic”, and Little Witch does a great job selling it.