August 05, 2008

Tweeny Witches

Yes, I've beaten this dead horse before, but Harry Potter strikes me as the teacher's pet, BMOC, sports jock, and trust fund baby all rolled into one. All the reasons I was glad to get out of high school and never look back. Frankly, Malfoy is only there to make Harry look less insufferable by comparison.

Not to mention that I never detected anything admirable about his principles, except that whatever is good for Harry Potter is good for Hogwarts (the Nietzschean "Superman," kiddy version). By the time the business with the house elves rolled around (cue Randy Newman's "Sail Away"), I tossed in the towel.

If Voldemort was what it took to shred that corrupt society to ribbons, so be it. You know, breaking a few eggs to make the omelette. And I just can't enjoy a fantasy series that's turning me into an unrepentant Marxist.

Granted, the nice thing about stories that take place "once upon a time" in historical romances and period dramas or in a "galaxy far, far away" is that we can filter from our minds the actual state of affairs on the ground.

Hence we worry about Darcy and Elizabeth and not about how the landed gentry got so landed, or the permanent underclass that served them, or the perverse incentives of primogeniture. Watching 300, we happily ignore the fact that the Spartans could enjoy be manly and Spartan 24/7 because of the (invisible in the audience) slaves.

But inject a contemporary observer into the mix and that suspension of disbelief becomes problematic. No sane democratic soul can believe for a second that the world of Gone with the Wind didn't deserve to get crushed under the heel of the Union Army.

I say this all as a long preamble to this declaration: Tweeny Witches is the un-Harry Potter, getting right everything it gets wrong. I don't doubt that Harry Potter figured into writer/creator Keita Amemiya's thinking, but in this case he took a good idea poorly executed and made it great.

As the title suggests, the heroine is a sixth grader who literally falls (though not down a rabbit hole) into a parallel, magical world. After accidentally wreaking a good deal of havoc that gets her and her new friends into big trouble with the authorities, she deduces that this world is the source of the Magic Book her father once gave her.

After which she goes about wreaking a good deal more havoc. On purpose. You see, Alice has principles. Not very sophisticated principles--she's only eleven--but ones worth sticking to, and ones that actually mean something. And ones that cost her dearly.

The most important rule in science fiction and fantasy is the Second Law of Magic Thermodynamics: there's no free lunch. You don't get to be a great witch or wizard (or Quidditch player) just because you won the genetic lottery and your parents were loaded (as Warren Buffett would put it).

And power comes from something, not out of nothing. Mumbo-jumbo, hot air, and waving wands are not enough to make the world go around. The fossil fuel running the magical engines in this case is mined from faeries and sprites. Cornering the faerie and sprite market is how the people in charge remain in charge.

The faeries and sprites are an odd and ugly bunch, but Alice finds the tradeoff disagreeable from the start. A natural resource being ugly doesn't make it any more harvestable than the pretty ones.

To be sure, the most gouge-your-eyes-out-with-a-spoon annoying Hollywood trope ever is the one about the cute kid who decides that squids are adorable and squid-eaters are EVIL and so by the end of the movie the entire calamari business goes bankrupt so the little twerp can feel all self-righteous about herself.

Yeah, right.

Alice's idealism more realistically traps her between one rock and a hard place after another. No, she can't have her cake and eat it too. Clinging to a guileless outlook on life doesn't automatically mean life will conveniently distill itself into an oil and water mix of good versus evil.

Yes, there are cardboard bad guys, but they're mostly there to chew on the scenery and tie faeries to the metaphorical railroad tracks. And they're also there to remind us that there are "bad" guys, and then there are even worse guys—but whose goals, under close examination, could be as worthy as yours.

Both sides are pursuing utopian, zero-sum solutions to a real problem that is only exacerbated by their implacable sense of rightness.

Alice's true antagonist is Head Witch Ateria, a close analogue to Pullman's Mrs. Coulter, with ulterior motives piled high. And while Ateria is willing to let the ends justify the means, she's not a blithering, jack-booted idiot (which, be honest, Voldemort is). She knows that you keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.

As C.L. Hanson puts it, "If there's anything more boring than the hero who's perfect, it would be the villain who delights in evil just because he's pure evil."

Though Ateria could kill you with kindness or crush you with an iron fist, she's not evil. She may even possess the capability of being truly good, which is a whole lot more interesting. This is just as true for the opposing warlocks. When the two sides finally meet, the real enemy, they discover, is in themselves.

A terrible—and yet understandable—betrayal will make this truism literal (a comparison to Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind).

Putting the story's moral complexities to the side, every second of every episode of Tweeny Witches is a visual joy to behold. The artwork and design strike the eye as a quirky combination of Hayao Miyazaki, Charles Addams and Maurice Sendak. A world truly to lose yourself in.

The title sequences and the short "bumper" episodes seemed to have been drawn straight from the mind of Edward Gorey. And listening to the closing theme song ("Dooby Doo Wah") will put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.

It's fun, imaginative, often honestly scary, and a little warped. Alice is the perfect amalgamation of Bart Simpson's brattiness and Lisa Simpson's smarts and Lyra Belacqua's fearlessness—a kindred spirit with such iconic female protagonists as Anne (of Green Gables) and Harriet (the Spy).

Like Claudia (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she learns that there's no point to running away from home unless, as T.S. Eliot put it (and which Alice takes as her motto), "The end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

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# posted by Blogger Nick Istre
8/05/2008 10:28 AM   
Tweeny Witches definitely had me hooked the first time I watched it, and I'm currently on my fourth rewatch of the series (this time, the English dub so the girlfriend can watch it). Perhaps the most important quality of the show for me was that the characters are actually shaped over time by the events occurring around them. You had Alice as the main protagonist, but who her real friends and enemies outside of her main group were never completely clear. And the betrayal was something that completely surprised me, yet made sense on rewatch.

I do have to agree with you. As fun as Harry Potter was to read, Tweeny Witches had much more believable complexity that it in 400 minutes of animation. Thank you for bringing more light onto a deserving anime.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
8/05/2008 1:48 PM   
Well, I'm intrigued with Tweeny Witches, but I have to admit that by page 60 of HP7, I was flat bored.

IMO, "flat bored" is about the worst thing you can say.
# posted by Blogger C. L. Hanson
8/05/2008 4:50 PM   
Re: Hence we worry about Darcy and Elizabeth and not about how the landed gentry got so landed, or the permanent underclass that served them, or the perverse incentives of primogeniture.

I actually wrote about that stuff in my analysis of Pride and Prejudice, but maybe I'm a little weird... ;^)

Good points about Harry Potter. I agree that Voldemort is a blithering, jack-booted idiot. Also, I was just watching the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban (which was my favorite of the books), and felt like it was a smorgasbord of schadenfreude, creating absurdly nasty characters for the heroes to have the joy of getting back at (Harry inflating his aunt, Hermoine punching Malfoy, etc.).

Tweeny Witches sounds great though -- I'll have to check it out!! :D
# posted by Blogger Gourry Gabrief
12/25/2008 11:58 PM   
I wonder why you put so much references to Harry Potter? That's very different from Mahou Shoujo Tai Arusu's world.

However, I didn't exactly understood the serie as you described. I didn't see Ateria as the antagonist of Alice. I didn't even found a real antagonist for Alice (maybe Sheila?). It's more like a bunch of different groups with their own ideals and goals are trying to resolve the coming disaster, common enemy to everyone. And I like when an anime goes like that. Because in fact, if the large view of the scenario is kinda deep and interesting, each episode by itself is pretty naive and boring in my taste.
Also I regret that the final episode with the super saiyan Alice turned to be a suspense dead right at its climax. They could have done it with the same plot but longer and much more elaborated. Maybe they ran out of budget?

About musics, I totally agree that Dudiduwa * Lalala is a very great song, one of the bests from Kotoko. The full version is even worthier to listen. I like also the speechless intro and its variant as a bgm(01. Alice ~Main Title~).

The charadesign is quite... particular, but well designed and animated. And it gives this signature to the serie.

No doubt that Mahou Shoujo Tai Arusu is a very good anime as we don't see often. But still it can be better. For start it can be a little less naive per episode. And maybe also not have a topic per episode, meaning that the 20 firsts seconds shouldn't usually resume the 20 next minutes.