Manga of the Month: Atelier of Witch Hat

Atelier of Witch Hat (とんがり帽子のアトリエ ) by Kamome Shirahama

hisui_icon_4040_round Magic can be a tricky element to add to any series. The main problem with magic is that it is a powerful spice that can easily ruin a dish if it added without careful thought. The easy way to ruin the story is to just throw a ton of magic into a series without any careful measurement.

If you just dump MAGIC into a story it can easily unbalance it. There are entertaining stories to be told about what people do with nearly unlimited power but they have to be carefully constructed. If you just add such power to a normal story it can make everything feel arbitrary. When there is no structure to the magic in a series it can feel that obstacles are overcome and conflicts are resolved in a willy-nilly fashion or by deus ex machina. Challenges only exist until the story feels like they need to be removed. It can feel that progress is never earned since the characters can do anything whenever they need to since there are no real well-defined constraints on their powers. Also, characters can feel wildly unbalanced. They might seem untouchable demigods at some points and then flimsy humans then next minute with their exact power merely dictated by whim.

Even series that are fairly strong about balancing magic can fall into this trap. Read any nitpicky review of a Harry Potter story and it will be filled with comments about why did character X not use spell Y at point Z. While most of the time a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief inherent in the genre will smooth things over it is not that hard to spend that goodwill in a more sloppily written story.

The way to overcome this problem is to add restraints to the magic in a story. If magic has boundaries and limits then the more standard story progression can take place. But the problem is that this can also kill the power of magic in a story if it is too harshly applied. I love highly detailed and well-defined magic systems. The problem is these can easily take the magic out of magic for many readers. It can make magic feel like science with an occult paint job. A rigidly defined magic system can avoid the inconsistent feeling of magic but destroy the very essence of its appeal.

The other major way to limit magic is to set things in a low magic world where only a handful of people can use magic and therefore you keep it out of the hands of anyone but secondary characters. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are prime examples of this. The major drawback is that it means you can’t have your protagonist be a magic user which can severely limit your options. Also, you still get Gandalf and the Eagles problems but they are at least contained to side characters.

But these are hardly the only ways of limiting magic for better storytelling. In fact, different solutions to this problem can be the seed for a story in of itself. Atelier of Witch Hat is a great example of this. In the world of the manga magic is the nearly limitless power but it is the witches who practice the craft who limit how it is used. All the constraints on magic are self-imposed by the practitioners. It combines several of the above methods into one which transforms the idea into its own device letting the manga tell a story around the concept.

Coco has dreamed of being a witch since she was very young but magic can only be performed by those who were innately born with the ability to be spellcasters. If fact non-witches cannot even see what happens when a spell is cast. When Coco is able to see a spell being cast by a witch visiting her small town she discovers there is more to magic than most people know.

As my intro made clear magic is an insanely powerful force. The world of Atelier of Witch Hat and the witches in it are all too aware of that fact. Their world was devastated by constant wars and disasters by the mere virtue of letting everyone have access to magical power. It got so bad that a small cabal of witches got to together to erase the memory of magic from everyone else so that only a select few could continue to use magic and with severe restrictions. Now by a self-imposed ban witches cannot use magic on human directly. That includes witches casting spells on themselves. The only exception is memory erasing magic on anyone outside of the conspiracy that discovers the truth. There is also a group of rebel witches who wish to abolish the current system but they are currently purposely kept in the shadows of the narrative at this point.

It is this self-imposed ban that helps restrict the magic of the series. By preventing the witches of the series from casting magic on themselves it helps manage the abilities of the characters within more manageable limits.  At the same time being a voluntary ban it still lets those sorts of spells be used but only in key moments giving magic a full range of powered that is restricted for a legitimate storytelling reason. It also expands the setting while letting the story play with some interesting philosophical and sociological ideas. It also helps sets the world apart from a more generic fantasy setting.

The artwork is worth pointing out for its detailed storybook feeling. It is rather beautiful and adds to the setting at the same time. It also does something that The Ancient Magus’ Bride and Kino’s Journey do so well. They create bright colorfully fantastic worlds filled with danger and darkness. They create bewitching worlds of splendor that capture the majesty and appeal of magic while still having a menacing presence in the background that works as a wonderful contrast to the visuals. It gives a very different feel than an oppressive and dark motif would. While the darker and outwardly cray design would be instantly more effective you get more nuance from a dazzling world that you know in the back of your head is deadly.

But this is not a completely dreary magical political drama. The main center of the story is Coco learning to be a witch. She has an almost Yotsuba like glee in learning about magic which is infectious. She might be trying to uncurse her mother, the locus of a shadow war of witches, and fighting against ingrained prejudices but her exuberance for the wonders of magic counterbalance the underlying sinister undercurrent in a way that enhances both feelings. She really helps their series feel hopeful despite the fact that it could otherwise be rather depressing.

Atelier of Witch Hat is still a fairly new series but I think the mixture of an interesting approach to magic, the evocative art style, and the strong mixture of light and darkness all make a very vibrant series that has a strong draw into 20vast and exciting world.

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