June 02, 2021

Little Witch Academia

A good test of artistic talent is being able to faithfully attend to all of the tropes, stereotypes, and conventions of a genre while producing something new and delightfully creative.

Harry Potter wasn't the first story about a school for up and coming magicians (Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci series preceded it by two decades), but it etched in granite our expectations of how a boarding school for witches should work and (thanks to Hollywood's embrace) how it should look.

Little Witch Academia sticks to the formula. Well, there aren't any wicked stepmothers or stepfathers, but there is a nasty aunt and her two disagreeable daughters.

And yet Little Witch Academia really is different. The occasional nastiness aside, it dares to be nice. Frankly, that makes it more realistic. (For a darker tone in a similar setting, I recommend Tweeny Witches.)

Little Witch Academia also makes use of a trope I quite like. Perhaps best depicted in Someday's Dreamers, magic is acknowledged as part of the real world, replete with government oversight and political meddling. In this sense, Luna Nova Magical Academy in Little Witch Academia resembles a specialized vocational school.

Erasing the "muggle divide" not only creates an expanded set of conflicts that are both real and relevant, but also serves as a check against boring big bad dualism. No need here for any Voldemorts. All those ordinary flaws in the human condition create enough problems all by themselves, even before the meddling politicians get involved.

There is, of course, a clique of mean girls at Luna Nova. Queen Bee Diana Cavendish is not only the most privileged but is the smartest and most talented witch to boot. But this is the product of her hard work. Her hangers-on are the bitchy ones. Diana seems mostly annoyed at having to be Diana Cavendish, an attitude made worse by Atsuko Kagari's runaway train approach to life.

Some witches work in the "real" world as entertainers. As a child, Atsuko attended a Las Vegas style magic show put on by Chariot the Witch and was entranced. Thanks to indefatigable reserves of optimism, she got accepted to Luna Nova, despite having zero natural talent as a witch, though she had paradoxically demonstrated evidence of such powers earlier in her life.

Atsuko can't even fly a broom, which every other student masters on her first day. She compensates for her deficiencies with unbounded enthusiasm and a mountain of good intentions, which, of course, the road to heck is paved with. When her first day at school ends in a minor disaster, she and her two inadvertent co-conspirators are stuck in the same dorm room together.

Also roped into their adventures is Andrew, the son of a prominent politician who thinks Luna Nova is a waste of resources. Andrew moves in the same social circles as Diana, so the matchmaking gossip to pair them up. But at the same time, Atsuko's obliviousness to the social and political proprieties that increasingly constrain his life also can't help catch his eye.

Along the way, Atsuko, Diana, and Andrew end up working towards similar objectives. Unbeknownst to the students at Luna Nova, the school—and witches in general—are confronting a slowly looming crisis. Magic is on the wane around the world. Witches and witchcraft are increasingly being shuffled to the sidelines, replaced by science and technology and politics.

For Chariot du Nord, who has literally returned to "old school" magic, the key to reversing this trend is the "Grand Triskelion," established by the Nine Witches who founded Luna Nova. When she was a student at Luna Nova, Chariot discovered six of the seven magical words embedded in the ancient wand that will unseal the Grand Triskelion and restore the ancient powers.

Then she got caught up in her entertainment career, made a grave mistake along the way, and never found the seventh. During Atsuko's disastrous first day of school, the ancient wand—known as "Shiny Rod"—unexpectedly falls into her hands. Now calling herself Ursula and a member of the faculty, Chariot takes it upon herself to coach Atsuko on recovering the seven magical words.

Croix Meridies, an old friend, rival, and classmate of Chariot's, arrives at Luna Nova ready to solve the problem with social media, smartphone apps, a magically supercharged server farm, and an overall lack of scruples. She's the Mark Zuckerberg of magic. She fuels the whole operation by using her network to stir up negative emotions, which are then converted to magical energy.

This plot device resembles the Star Trek episode, "Day of the Dove," and serves as a clever commentary about how media events can be manipulated to serve untoward objectives. Of course, it won't be long before Croix's Rube Goldberg machine spins out of control and it'll be up to Atsuko and Diana to save the day.

The growing friendship between Atsuko and Diane, based on growing mutual respect, is one of the real delights in the series. It never feels forced or contrived. To be sure, Atsuko and Diane aren't going to end up BFFs and Atsuko and Andrew aren't going to turn out to be Elizabeth and Darcy. More Anne and Gilbert. But we see real growth in their intertwining stories.

The most interesting character arc in the series is that shared by Chariot and Croix. The viewer will realize who Chariot is long before Atsuko does. Her journey to fame and fortune and then her fall and retreat to Luna Nova, along with her involvement with Atsuko, is a morally complex one.

The ends divorced from the means made Chariot famous, and the costs of those means drove her back into obscurity in an effort to atone for the damage she caused. There's a good deal of depth here, though the story never gets too caught up in its own self-importance.

Along the way, the series pokes gentle fun at Harry Potter and even more so at Twilight. But at the same time, it defends the fans of those franchises and their beleaguered writers. And has a lot of fun along the way with the related tropes.

Such as the lair of the local dragon filled not with filthy lucre but with computer screens so the dragon can keep track of its stock market investments. I loved the multi-stage, broom-powered rocket. And speaking of speed, the broomstick equivalent of a Shelby Cobra shows up in the first season, the fastest broom a witch can fly, except it has a mind of its own about who can ride it.

Look for it to show up again at a very opportune time.

Little Witch Academia is streaming on Netflix.

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