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Real Good You Guys: Little Witch Academia

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If you’re into anime, there’s a relatively new series with “Academia” in the title that’s gotten pretty big recently. I’m not talking about that one (though Boku no Hero Academia/My Hero Academia/Macadamia is itself pretty great, or at least as great as any shonen anime can be). There’s another great, recent anime with “Academia” in its name that deserves your attention, and hasn’t gotten nearly the groundswell of Green Naruto.

Little Witch Academia is a 26-episode anime series about a girl named Akko who goes to a school for witches. The premise sounds so light and fluffy that you could immediately write it off as generic bubblegum anime, but you shouldn’t for two reasons. Reason one: It’s produced by Studio Trigger. Reason two: You don’t need a second reason, it’s produced by Studio Trigger.

Studio Trigger is the Platinum Games of anime. They usually don’t have massive successes, but everything they put out is bombastic, insane, and incredibly entertaining. This is the studio that did Kill la Kill, and it’s led by Hiroyuki Imaishi, the Gainax vet who directed Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (and made the key animation for episode 5 of FLCL, which was the best action sequence of the entire series).

Trigger’s style combines clean lines and relatively simple character designs with absurdly energetic animation. Think Gainax’s pastiche, but toning down fanservice jiggle physics and replacing it with Chuck Jones-style cartoon mayhem. Trigger specializes in over-the-top action and comedy, which is unsurprising when you consider it was founded by animators who made a series about a galaxies-high drill mecha powered entirely by how badass you feel.

Which brings us to Little Witch Academia. Yes, it sounds like any Harry Potter rip-off (or The Worst Witch rip-off, if you prefer). Aspiring girl who doesn’t understand magic enrolls in a school for witches. Seems obvious. And thematically it doesn’t really throw a ton of curveballs, though it does play with the premise enough to make it feel interesting. Instead of magic being a half-open secret, it’s simply a part of the world that’s fallen out of fashion. Societies used to rely on witches for protection and prosperity, but technology can get the job done and anyone can use it. So instead of a mysterious force the rest of the world doesn’t know about, magic in Little Witch Academia is seen more as a quaint curiosity, like calligraphy or dial-up.

Magic is a slowly fading art and Lunar Nova Academy is languishing because of it. This doesn’t dissuade Akko, however, whose boundless enthusiasm and nearly flat personal learning curve make her a magic fangirl no matter what society tells her. And since she’s in a school full of aspiring witches who ultimately have their own goals outside of magic for magic’s sake, and who are smart enough to recognize that it’s a fading art, she stands out as a weirdo. Basically, imagine if Mako from Kill la Kill was the main character of her own anime, which is set at a ladies’ Hogwarts.

This could get horribly cloying, but thanks to Studio Trigger’s aesthetic philosophy of hot bloodedness and passion above all things, loads of slapstick humor, and an excellent performance by Erica Mendez (Ryuko in Kill la Kill) in the dub, it never grates. While Akko endlessly cheers on magic because she wants to make people happy with it, she falls flat on her face constantly, and no one around her fails to hesitate to rain on her parade with the actual problems faced by the magic community. Yes, Akko’s bubbly as hell and it’s initially off-putting and annoying, but the performance and execution of that bubbliness makes her grow on you as a character as surely as the grows on the people around her (who also think she’s an absurdly perky weirdo who doesn’t fit there).

So, you have an aspiring witch who has a boundless love for magic but isn’t very good at it, constantly running into walls only to get up again and break through them. This is where the real magic of the series comes into play. It’s the magic of Studio Trigger. Forget the tepid joke of “Character says something weird, beat, all the characters around them fall in one frame of animation with a cymbal crash.” That’s basic. That’s obvious. That isn’t Trigger.

Yes, this is a Silent Hill 2 reference.

How about Akko not being able to fly a broom, so she steals a super-fast legendary broom that sends her flying through time zones at super speed? How about a mushroom harvesting experiment gone awry that sends her into the mind of her roommate while their room gets filled with springy fungus? How about Akko’s other roommate (again, an actual witch) being an obsessive fangirl for a Twilight-analog book series and getting cursed by the pen that writes it? And then there’s Constanze, the generally mute super-genius girl who builds robots in her secret lair under her dorm room (which is accessible through an impossibly long and fast chute directly under her bed). Incidentally, for standard anime fan clarification, Constanze is the series’ Best Girl while mushroom fetishist and serial poisoner Sucy is a close second.

Everyday gags are consistently fun, with spot-on execution in both animation and voice acting in the dub. It’s a really strong presentation, and I don’t just mean that in the context of having watched Neo Yokio right after it. But the really good parts are where Trigger lets loose. Because they let loose hard.

One episode has a mecha fight. The entire sequence is the show screaming “Hey, remember we did Gurren Lagann and think about how sick it was! Just because this is teenage witch funsies doesn’t mean we can’t still do that!” And the finale of the series is a shmup stage. I’m completely serious, and I won’t explain more than that. When it happens, you’ll know.

For all the bombast and energy it has, Little Witch Academia is actually one of Studio Trigger’s most emotionally and narratively grounded series. And yes, I’m saying that in all honesty after mentioning a mecha fight in the last paragraph. The character interactions are natural and often heartwarming, with few of the completely insane, hot-blooded lunatics you might expect after seeing Kill la Kill and Gurren Lagann. Akko’s absurdly cheery, but every other character largely has their own thing going on, and their reactions and interactions feel downright human. Which makes the Trigger-style action and comedy sequences stand out, even more, when they kick into gear.

Little Witch Academia isn’t an epic action anime series or a screwball comedy (and if you want the latter, Trigger’s short-form series like Space Patrol Luluco are right up your alley). But it takes a satisfying dollop of elements from both of those styles and puts them in a simple, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable series. The excellent dub is on Netflix, and it’s an easily consumable 26 episodes. Check it out if you like fun, oddball animation.

It’s real good you guys.

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