Since Kiki’s Delivery Service was already taken, I decided to review something that appeared to be similar in concept. Back in 2013, Studio Trigger—who you may know from their work on series like Kill La Kill, Kiznaiver, or the Steven Universe episode “Mindful Education”—released a short film that bloomed across Tumblr in gif form. This film was Little Witch Academia. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the film itself; sure, I could glean some things from the images I saw floating around, but that says nothing for plot and given the twenty-six minute length I was a little dubious on if Academia would be more than just fluff and cool animation. To my surprise, while a lot of it was really cool animation, Academia also managed to have a pretty cool plot and created a universe where no girl is punished for pursuing magic, no matter what she believes in.
Spoiler warning if you haven’t seen it yet!
All her life Akko has been enthralled with magic, especially the witch Shiny Chariot. It’s after seeing one of Chariot’s shows that Akko decides to be a witch. However, several years later after enrolling in the Luna Nova Magical Academy, Akko is completely bored. She whines to her friends Sucy and Lotte that she doesn’t want to be like those old witches who do boring things like talk about the history of magic—she wants to be a cool witch like Chariot! However, upon hearing this, Diana, one of the more skilled and respected witches in the academy, chastises Akko. Chariot is not deserving of Akko’s respect, according to her and the entire witch community, it seems. Lotte and Sucy go on to explain later that many witches don’t even consider Chariot a witch, rather an illusionist or a straight up fraud who only appeals to children.
Though Akko continues to believe that every other witch is just wrong, she doesn’t have much time to seethe over this insult to Chariot, for the next day the girls of Luna Nova are given a special assignment. They must traverse deep into a labyrinth within the school in order to find treasures—the more rare the treasure is, the more points they get on the assignment. This labyrinth is, of course, also filled with potentially dangerous monsters, but Akko is much more concerned with finding a rarer treasure than Diana than with her own safety. As Akko’s crew mostly finds trash, Diana’s crew stumbles upon an ancient iron maiden. Hoping to find something rare within, Diana dispels the charms keeping the device closed only to be disappointed when a sad looking lizard rolls out. Diana’s friends attempt to defeat the creature. However, it only grows stronger with each magical attack used against it. Having grown into an insurmountably powerful dragon, it breaks free of the labyrinth and heads off to devour the sorcerer’s stone, the source of all the witches’ powers. Akko and her friends fly off to secure the stone, but eventually Akko ends up forced into a showdown with the dragon, wielding the only tool at her disposal: the treasure she found in the labyrinth, Shiny Chariot’s magic wand. Though she struggles, Akko remembers the words she heard the day she watched Chariot’s show—“Believing is magic”—and with that, she regains confidence in herself and defeats the dragon, saving everyone.
While Academia does have the typical conflict of the outcast wanting to show up the popular kid, I think its main conflict is somewhat more interesting and that’s the topical conflict of lightheartedness versus grimdarkness. Often when media is either retooled or created to capture a wide audience nowadays, there’s an element of over-the-top darkness to it. A hopelessness that dares its audience to believe in the stereotypical “happy ending”—just look at Puella Magi Madoka Magica or any recent fairy tale re-imagining. While Academia’s narrative itself doesn’t present this conflict, its characters do. Akko simply adores Shiny Chariot, a witch who is essentially an adult magical girl (like Sailor Moon). Chariot is flashy and endlessly positive, telling her audience to believe in themselves and defeating her enemies with fireworks. Akko herself isn’t quite so cheery, but at the end of the day she really does base her entire magical framework around Chariot’s positivity and aims to be like her. However, within the witch community at large, both of them are admonished for this. Chariot is decried as a fraud, as someone no respectable witch should ever look up to, and Akko is teased as being “childish” for holding onto Chariot as an idol.
On the other hand, Diana—who is at the forefront of telling Akko to essentially grow up—presents herself in a much more adult manner: she’s put together in class, doesn’t brag about how powerful she is but also doesn’t deny it, and uses much more formal language than Akko. Diana also believes that witches are to be feared. While it’s never elaborated on if she means feared as in respected or feared as in “boo scary”, given the general perception of witches around the world, I think it’s safe to say a little of both. Even Sucy, one of Akko’s friends, believes that Chariot is a fraud. Sucy herself is the epitome of a creepy witch, looking like she hasn’t slept in a month and utilizing all sorts of mysterious potions with strange ingredients for her magic. While Sucy tries to comfort Akko about Chariot, her comfort comes off more as “you can like whatever you want even though it’s stupid” rather than actual support, which again reeks of the thought process of “you can like happy endings, but they’re not as meaningful”. However, Academia never debases the audience for any way of thinking: Akko succeeds in defeating the dragon because of her faith in Chariot and Diana is never embarrassed or de-powered because she thinks witches should be feared. Academia believes there’s room enough in the world for both sets of values, and that they are both important to different types of people. Furthermore, these values are not shown to be black and white—Akko is much more violent and volatile than Diana, and Diana turns out to actually be a fan of Chariot herself.
If there’s one thing I really have to applaud Academia on—and how sad is the state of anime that I even have to say this—it’s that at no time at all during the film is a panty shot shown. I worried about it, because Chariot’s outfit was kind of edging on fanservice-y, but though Academia is littered with shots of Akko falling from high places, she is never taken advantage of by the artists. Furthermore, none of these young girls are ever sexualized; the relief is indescribable.
With interesting aspects of Academia’s world still floating around in my head (Akko isn’t from a magical family, so does she face prejudice because of this? How many other witches aren’t from magical families?), I’m more than excited to check out Academia’s 2015 sequel, The Enchanted Parade, and hopeful that the newly announced anime series spin-off will keep everything I love about the original film while expanding on everything else. If you have around half an hour to spare, I’d absolutely recommend sitting down and watching this refreshingly bright short on magical girls.