This manga came out of nowhere to me – I cannot for the life of me remember where I first saw it, but it definitely sparked a sensation of “where has this gem been hiding!” which is all too scarce these days. It evokes a sense of wonder that I do not often feel, tired out as I am from a seemingly endless parade of isekai and harem anime. But before I slip into my Jaded Anime Fan Spiel (TM) again, I think it would be a better use of your time and mine to talk about exactly what makes this manga so special.
As Harry Potter and its like show us, stories about magic schools are not exactly new, and also not exactly scarce. What sets Witch Hat Atelier apart from its brethren is not just its superb worldbuilding and attention to detail (more about those later) but a charm and earnestness that I am hard-pressed to find in many works, manga or no. Perhaps it’s due to the main characters being children (not even the teenagers that are so common to anime and manga) possessed of innocence that the world has not scoured away from them.
The naivete of youth meets cold, hard reality soon enough though. The main character Coco accidentally turns her mother into stone while searching for a way to cast the spells that she has so admired since young…and then discovers one of the hidden truths of their world – that anyone can use magic, but the magicians in power hide that fact from the general populace so that the mistakes of the past do not repeat themselves. Coco is then whisked away by her teacher, Qifrey, to an atelier of his own where he begins to train her in the arts of magic.
One of the manga’s strong points is definitely its robust plot development. The story moves at a brisk pace from one event to the next, at a pace that leads one to turn the pages avidly. The pacing is solid – at no point did I feel that I wanted the story to move either more slowly or quickly, a rare feat indeed. While story arcs are concluded, the overarching plot points – such as the aforementioned hidden truths of the world – serve as a solid foundation that the rest of the story builds upon.
That alone would not be enough to make WHA stand out, but fortunately, that is far from its only strong point. The worldbuilding is also top-notch, and best of all, it’s done without heavy exposition! The author weaves the details of the world into the story nicely, interspersed through Qifrey’s patient explanations, the interactions of the students, and even the chatter of the townsfolk. The lack of text dumps makes learning about the setting a joy – you feel yourself fall into its world simply by reading the story and taking in the illustrations. The magical textbooks and explanations that the manga has bring to mind the PS3 game Folklore, in which the lore was presented in much the same way, to the same
Which brings me to my next point – the artwork. In a word, it’s great. WHA’s lush visuals evoke comparisons to Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere (Wikipedia says Studio Ghibli, but I can’t
for the life of me see much of a connection there) in being both finely detailed and vibrant. The European influence on the work is evident, with motifs and line work clearly drawn from artists such as the French comics artist Moebius and the Spanish artist Alphonse Mucha (who is also said to have been a powerful influence on CLAMP, among others)
The manga does not shy away from asking hard questions, juxtaposing the innocence of youth with powerful drama. The question of the hidden truth of magic use is central to the series, and keeps being brought up at key intervals. Is it wiser to let people remain in ignorance of magic use (and go through elaborate lengths to maintain the deception) or might there be another, better way? The main antagonists certainly seem to think so, and they have Coco in their sights for reasons as yet unanswered.
Under this overarching theme, other arcs and characters explore issues ranging from authority to independence, the search for meaning and achievement, to creativity and its place in the world. Left unchecked, magic could indeed bring ruin to society, but are such draconian checks and balances really warranted when it could potentially do so much more good? Coco begins to question a system of doing things that she once accepted without thinking, and the other characters have their own journeys to make as they continue to grow as students, magicians and most of all, humans. For someone who loves character development as much as I do, WHA is a treat to read as all the major characters have unique storylines and personalities which become all the more engaging when they interact with each other. From Qifrey’s dark past (to which it is still unknown how he will resolve) to Coco’s innocence and
Agotta’s industry, all of them are fully realized humans living in a fantasy world that is no less real for its fictional nature.
All in all, I cannot recommend this manga highly enough. When writing this review I searched in vain for bad points to counterbalance my glowing review, but I couldn’t find any… except for the fact that the releases are too slow. 🙂 So I’ll just leave it as it. You should do yourself a favor and check it out.
As of this writing, WHA is still ongoing. The author also has a side story focused only on the food and cooking in this universe, Witch Hat Kitchen.