It's a really big year for animation. We've already had an outing from Pixar, with Monsters University. Today, Kaze Tachinui, a film by the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, releases in Japan; and later this year, we'll be gifted with another film by Studio Ghibli: an adaption of Tale of the Bamboo Cutter by Isao Takahata. Added to these titles, is the conclusion to the Berserk - The Golden Age Arc trilogy and Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words, both of which I've already reviewed. There are so many big-name titles being released this year, that it's easy for smaller releases to slip into the cracks. But a film slipping through the cracks doesn't mean the film lacks quality, and Little Witch Academia is a strong example of how a little heart can go a long way.
The short film was directed by You Yoshinari, who is best known for his role as a key animator in such acclaimed series as FLCL, Gurren Lagann, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was produced by Trigger for Anime Mirai 2013. The film focuses on a young girl, Akko Kagari, who after attending a magic show, is inspired to become a witch. Akko enrolls in an academy for that very purpose.
Story and Setting
The idea of an academy that trains young witches in the use of magic, from mixing potions to flying on broomsticks, begs for a comparison to the Harry Potter franchise to be made. However, the atmosphere and mood of Little Witch Academia is different enough as to suggest that it draws from a rather different well of ideas. Lighthearted, but with as many nods towards Japanese roleplaying games as references to the western ideas of magic, Little Witch Academia seems far closer to Mana Khemia than anything else. The setting ultimately comes off as somewhat derivative, but I don't feel that this is a setting that has been overused just yet; there's still plenty of design space left to be explored as far as magical academies go, and Little Witch Academia manages to carve out its own little niche in the genre. Plus, the fact that this short clocks in at just twenty-four minutes really keeps it from being stale -- it just doesn't have the time to do so. On the contrary, things actually move along rather quickly, and it's always exciting.
It's hard to discuss the plot of the film, considering how short it is. Almost any detail mentioned would be a spoiler to some extent, but the backbone of the story is that Akko wishes to become a successful witch in the model of her idol, Shiny Chariot (who is looked down upon as a fraud by most of the wizard community.) At the forefront of the story, is a treasure hunt being conducted at the school. In this treasure hunt, each of the witches is instructed to descend into a labyrinth full of creatures and creepy-crawlies, to find the rarest piece of treasure that she can find. In typical fashion, as the film progresses, the plot and theme of the story intertwine, with Akko reaching a feel-good level of self-understanding... Or something like that. Again, the film is only twenty-four minutes long, and it doesn't quite accomplish everything it sets out to accomplish. There's quite a bit left unanswered at the end of the movie. However, as a lighter and fluffier piece of narrative, it's very enjoyable for what it is.
Characters in Little Witch Academiamostly lean towards "mildly likable." As a side-effect of the film's duration, not a great deal of characterization is allowed to occur. Instead, we are given brief insights into Akko's character, with others largely portrayed as stock characters. The snooty blonde with a foreign name? She's here. A quirky goth chick? There's one of those too. Amaganekko? Why wouldn't there be one? She's the main character's best friend, of course. But even though it's kind of fun to rag on the film for employing blatant trope-characters like this, it's not actually something that can be construed as a flaw. There is good synergy amongst the characters, and they are used effectively to tell a pleasant story in a very short amount of time. The characters are not particularly fleshed out, but in this film's case, character archetypes are used as a tool to tell a more focused story.
Art and Sound
"Stylized" is perhaps the best word that can be used to describe the art of Little Witch Academia. Architecture, nature, and objects are all richly detailed, inked, and colored, and suggest a level of quality far above amateur. Even so, it is the living organisms portrayed in the film that cause it to stand out as something special. The fantastical beasts and creatures shown in the film have exaggerated anatomies, which twist and contort in a manner that is greatly overdone, yet seems oddly appropriate. In this manner, it can be compared to FLCL -- an FLCL that has been reeled in to a more acceptable level. The animation is certainly unique, and takes a number of risks, but the end result is a great-looking anime that's a lot of fun to watch.
The one choice in direction that I didn't like, was the decision to go with the almost-superdeformed character design style. Thankfully, characters look a lot better than they do in Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, which Yoshinari also worked on, but facial expressions can still be described as "squishy." Characters can never fairly be described as "ugly," but they definitely stand out among the beautiful monsters and scenery surrounding them.
Music and sound are both generally good. The budget for the project may not have been particularly large, but the film comes across as a labor of love. I don't believe any of the voice actors or actresses are famous, but they are all competent, and give very adequate performances. Music is fitting and pleasing to the ears, if mostly forgettable. Sound effects, typically of the magical, or explosive variety, are also very nice. These effects typically aren't things that one consciously thinks about when watching a movie, but when one one considers how small of a production Little Witch Academia was, it's hard not to be impressed by how tight of a package the film is.
Frankly, Little Witch Academia is a film that every anime fan should watch. No, it's not the next Spirited Away, but it is an extremely solid film from a debut director that I'll need to pay attention to in the future. Moreover, it's actually been made available on Trigger's official YouTube page. You can view it in full, beautiful 1080p, for free. There's no reason not to check it out.
Final Score: 7.0 out of 10.0