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Little Witch Academia

Growing up, I was an avid fan of the Harry Potter novels. The concept of a wizarding school was unique at the time and I bet every 11-year-old wished they could receive the acceptance letter from Hogwarts. I even pre-ordered the final volume of the series and blazed through all 600-odd pages on the day it was released. Since then, I have not read or watched anything detailing the lives of aspiring witches and wizards, till Studio Trigger's Little Witch Academia came along earlier this year. 

My expectations were lofty, seeing that Trigger was the very studio that produced Kill la Kill and Space Patrol Luluco, among other successful projects. The OVAs that preceded the two-cour television anime generated much buzz as well, with the first one being part of the Anime Mirai project back in 2013 and the second film having an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign. It managed to meet its US$150,000 in a few hours. One might even suspect that the production team actually knew magic.

Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed from the first episode was the simplicity of the art. By now, I'm used to photorealistic backgrounds and seeing minute details such as the creases on a shirt and individual strands of hair. Although the actual animation itself was fluid, the simplicity of the art and character designs were jarring. However, the voice acting and humour made up for this flaw, but it didn't always work. For example, episodes with more exposition and still frames left me thinking whether I was watching a show on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon circa 2000. Similarly, the humour had a decidedly 'western' feel, utilising gags and tricks I recognised from cartoons I watched when I was a child. Looney Tunes, anyone?

On the flip side, there is an attention to detail that rewards the more observant viewers. There are a chock full of references, be it to professional gaming, popular culture or even famous characters. Managed to spot Hellboy's hand, Mjolnir and Batman's utility belt in the image above? Studio Trigger even recreated common household items like a Kitchen Aid mixer and a Staedtler pencil. These mundane tools were actually important in highlighting how industrious and precise a particular character was.

The cast expands quickly as the series progresses. At first, there are three. The clumsy but energetic Kagari Atsuko (or Akko for short), the stereotypical bookworm Lotte Jansson and finally, the eccentric Sucy Manbavaran. The latter resembles a typical witch the most, concocting dangerous potions in her free time and pranking Akko on a regular basis. Soon, the student body, teaching staff and even general staff members are introduced through the course of the season. Each character has a distinct personality and members from the supporting cast do have their moments; plenty in fact, with whole episodes being dedicated to them. The artwork may not be the most detailed but the same can't be said for character development.

Although an overarching plot is revealed at the start of the second cour, the pacing of the first half nearly killed my interest. It used an episodic format, common in both western cartoons and comedy anime. Unfortunately, the jokes felt stale and formulaic. It usually involved Akko resolving a problem she caused in the first place, with a few missteps along the way due to how inept she was as a witch. I feel that the backstories and motivations of the characters should've been explored more instead. This was where the second cour came in, improving the pace and making Little Witch Academia something to look forward to, week in and week out. Perhaps my judgement would be less harsh if I binge watch it in a month's time instead.

Little Witch Academia is a late bloomer, much like its main character. It might not have the prettiest artwork and funniest jokes but the characters and attention to detail more than make up for those flows, along with an impressive second cour. It might just inspire other studios to take a crack at producing or adapting Harry Potter-esque anime too. I'm a sucker for student wizards and witches slipping up and getting tongue-tied while chanting spells. When done right, they are much more charming than the finished product slinging spells left and right with little to no effort.

Written by ET

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