Magical Mondays: Flying Witch and Magical Realism

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(screencapped from Crunchyroll)

Flying Witch did for witches what Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid did for dragons: just had them be kinda there, going about their daily business instead of getting wrapped up in some sort of epic fantasy plot. Makoto, the protagonist of Flying Witch, is a young witch completing her training, but is she rollicking along on some sort of Harry Potter-ish adventure attending a haunted magic school and defeating evil incarnate? No, she’s just doing the gardening. Occasionally she unearths a howling mandrake and disturbs her friends and neighbors, but otherwise she lives a relatively conflict-free existence, sitting where she does in the place where the “supernatural” and “slice-of-life” genres meet. Which is, it turns out, pretty near the dreamy land of magical realism.

Spoilers for Flying Witch Episode 11 beyond!

Flying Witch is not a show you watch for conflict and action—it’s quite literally just the day-to-day goings on of a girl’s life in a rural town, including high school cooking classes, vegetable planting, and long conversations about the history of the pancake… oh, with the occasional bit of magic woven in. There’s no overarching plot, no tension, no mysteries or intrigue as we glimpse the magical world. The witches in this universe don’t have a statute of wizarding secrecy so much as just keep to themselves because they like it better that way, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the series’ casual tone and casual acceptance of magic. Apart from some initial shock when Mako floats on her broom for the first time (and some comedic reactions to the yelling plant), the existence of magic is basically accepted by the cast and by the story without anyone batting an eyelid.

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(screencapped from Crunchyroll)

The best example of this is the episode where an ancient flying whale with the ruins of a lost magical civilization on its back appears in the sky over Mako’s town. Yeah, I know right? An ancient flying whale with the ruins of a lost magical civilization on its back. If we were in a high fantasy, or even an urban fantasy, this would surely be a huge plot point or an opportunity taken to worldbuild, maybe with an action sequence in the ruins themselves… not so for Flying Witch.

Mako, her sister, and their little cousin see the whale in the newspaper and plan to go check it out as though they’re planning a picnic, and when they fly up to explore it the scenery is beautiful and they have a little bit of discussion about carvings and ancient civilizations, but… apart from tourist-like glee, there’s not much reaction to the flying whale. It’s simply there, another setting for an episodic day out, the same way the orchard was in the scene about fruit picking.

I mean, it’s a flying whale! Is it sentient? Is it biological or made of enchanted stone or something? Who lived in the ruins on its back? What happened to them? How does this factor into the current society of witches? What does this supposedly massive piece of additional worldbuilding mean? You have these questions, but they are not answered, because Flying Witch has more important things on its mind, like letting the characters bond and enjoy the lushly animated scenery, and then decide what to cook for breakfast. The episode begins with a literal ancient flying whale and uses this as a framing device, but what the episode is actually about is the budding friendship between Mako, her family, and one of the town’s other resident witches. And pancakes. Beautifully, lovingly animated pancakes. They almost look as high-budget as the whale, which perhaps tells you that they’re of equal importance—if not more.

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(screencapped from Crunchyroll)

The knee-jerk reaction is to ask those big questions, and if you can’t get questions like that out of your head—and others like “how does witch society blend so effectively with ordinary human society? Have there ever been any witch hunts of uprisings? Where does magic come from? What are its limits?”—you might not enjoy Flying Witch or other series like it much at all. This lack of worldbuilding, lack of explanation, and lack of treatment of magic as something spectacular and exciting, could end up being quite frustrating. The key to enjoying these types of shows as they are is to take a deep breath, sink back, relax, and think of them as magical realism.

Magical realism is a genre of literature and art that, in essence, treats magic and other fantastical elements as matter-of-fact. Academic Matthew C. Stretcher calls it “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe” and yet the story progresses with the same attitude as though it’s still rooted in reality–for example, the way the flying whale is handled in the story. A key component of magical realism is a contemporary setting recognizable as our own world, and rather than creating a fantasy realm, the author brings elements of the fantastical into our own. This may sound like urban fantasy, but the key difference here is tone: magical realism, especially seminal works like the stories of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, is most often characterized by a dreamlike quality. This is, of course, complementary to the idea of magic simply being there, accepted by the characters and by the story without any pomp and ceremony, the same way you’d accept any strange occurrence in your dreams while dreaming them.

As we’ve talked about before on this site, the use of realistic setting feeds into one of the unique features and strengths of this subgenre: it doesn’t encourage the audience to escape into a fantasy world, but rather brings the fantasy into a world they know and uses it to heighten reality. When the blatantly ordinary pancake breakfast is juxtaposed against the blatantly magical flying whale, but the whale is treated as commonplace and the cooking scene and attached family bonding is treated as something special, it draws the audience’s attention sharply to the more everyday and emotional themes of the story. By framing it this way, the show makes it clear that magic is all very well, but it’s not anything exceptional, and the things that are truly important in the story, the things it wants to stand out to the audience, are the relationships and everyday lives of its cast.

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(screencapped from Crunchyroll)

The juxtaposition between magic and mundaneity, I feel, is key: these slice-of-life moments garner more power from being contrasted against matter-of-fact feats of magic, whereas they might have gotten lost in a show that was entirely slice-of-life moments or entirely high fantasy. Flying Witch is not an allegorical tale like Márquez’s work and seems to have no political motives or even moral message at its core (except perhaps wanting you to fall in love with, and maybe visit, the Japanese countryside), and indeed can’t really be said to have much plot or conflict—it simply wants to roll along through its quiet story, draw your attention to the specialness of everyday life in a small town, and appreciate gentle moments of family bonding and interaction with nature. And what better way to highlight the importance of this than to give the human element all the loving detail and attention, while having magic simply be there in the background?

While a literary genre that began in Latin America in the 1940s may not be the most perfect set of archetypes to lay over a Japanese animation from 2016, you can certainly see plenty of elements of this in Flying Witch and shows like it. Magic is folded into the everyday narrative and the casual slice-of-life tone never shifts to become something more epic, frightening or adventurous because magic is there. This casualness is in a way bizarre, but the show never acknowledges this and simply carries on through its shots of lush rural scenery and scenes of daily life, creating that dreamlike atmosphere characteristic of the literary genre. There isn’t prose and description to set Flying Witch up as a magical realism story, but the animation and use of color, pacing, and camera angle all contribute to a slow, engrossing, colorful world that gradually unfolds and has a similar effect, leaving you floating in a dreamy pool and shrugging off the fact that magic exists too, content to follow the show’s lead and focus on clearly more important things like picking herbs in the mountains.

Flying Witch makes the magical mundane and the mundane magical, and it’s this flip that brings it up to toe the line of magic realism. Perhaps the supernatural/slice-of-life genre crossover is anime’s own emerging equivalent, taking the character focus, soft tone, and gentle pacing of day-to-day stories about ordinary life and weaving in a little bit of magic, creating an effective way to tell character-driven stories that is perhaps not as easy to execute in high fantasy or action-heavy series. These stories emphasize the importance of daily moments in a way that you possibly can’t achieve in a series that’s entirely rooted in reality. Ancient flying whales are nice, Flying Witch supposes, but they’re just a spectacle that passes in a day—what it really wants you to pay attention to is the people and landscape that remain when the flash of magic is gone. Sometimes it takes the framing device and contrast of a little magic to help us appreciate the sense of wonder available in the ordinary.

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5 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Flying Witch and Magical Realism

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