Magics and wonder, tragedies and yearning.
To finish the week I want to discuss a manga that I am happy to say actually exists. This is a fantasy manga that pays no homage to video games or, nay, any particular popular franchise, story, or media. This is a manga drawing inspiration from very traditional magic, while crafting its own original rules at the same time. This is a manga void of romance or even the teasing of such (at least so far: October, 2017), focused instead purely on the characters, their world, and their story. This is Witch Hat Atelier, and it might, objectively speaking, be the best among the manga I’ve written about this week (which is saying a LOT).
Witch Hat Atelier (とんがり帽子のアトリエ, Tongari Boushi no Atorie, lit “Pointed Hat Atelier”, tagged Δ帽子) is a manga series by Shirahama Kamome (白浜鴎), a woman who has surprisingly few manga in her portfolio given the astounding excellence of this one. Guess I’ll have to check out her other stuff. Nevertheless, apparently she has a lot of experience as a professional artist (for instance drawing variant American comic covers), and as should be obvious from looking it really shows.
Witch Hat Atelier is a story about a naive commoner learning about a society of magic as well as learning how to perform magic herself. At a glance it’s a pretty typical premise, but in truth there’s an interesting twist on magic in this setting. Furthermore, like Yurucamp this series subverts expectations. The way I’d put it very succinctly would be something like… The series could be called “Witch Hat Atelier – Or: Everyone’s a Jerk Except Coco“. Now that’s not entirely true, but unlike most stories where an adorable and/or eager protagonist enters a mysterious magic world, in this one instead of becoming fast friends with several people (or even ONE person) she seriously has a rough time. She seriously has a rough time. What’s more the people around her are more complex than they initially appeared to be, with deep and winding motivations pushing them, and all this is surrounding her while she unknowingly operates as the key player in a grand plot to overturn world order. Damn, this series is a page turner. It’s mean, too; when a chapter ends, you’re gonna want to read the next one immediately. Thank God they sell the magazine it runs in in ebook form, because I couldn’t find Morning Two in a bookstore for the LIFE of me.
This manga starts very oddly. After mentioning real life things (athletes, astronauts, idols), we’re introduced to the story itself as if it’s a storybook.
That said the series doesn’t feel like a storybook at all. I’ll just take it as a stylistic choice for an opener. It definitely looks great.
Chapter 1 introduces us to the setting and to Coco (ココ). The world is full of magic in and around everything, but only a few people (called “witches”…though technically the very literal translation is “magic users” or “magicians”) can actually wield it. From what we’re told at the start, you can only be a witch if you’re born with the innate ability. Still, Coco wishes to fully embrace this world of fantasy.
For the most part, it’s just a nice introduction. Coco’s a little country girl with large, magical dreams. She lives with her mom, who’s her only parent after her father died, and she helps out with tailoring and dressmaking. She’s really rather good at it, too.
Now then, this is Qifrey (キーフリー). Witch Hat Atelier likes traditions, and in terms of storyline, its is one that generally follows the classic hero’s journey. Qifrey serves as both the “call to adventure” and “meeting the mentor”. Although he doesn’t say so immediately, this strangely dressed man is a witch, and when a magical carriage breaks down nearby, he beseeches Coco to keep people away from the area while he fixes the broken spell on it. He urges that absolutely no one should see him performing magic, so of course Coco spies on him doing magic (one thing about Qifrey: quite ironically, as we’ll learn, he doesn’t really understand kids).
Here we discover that to perform magic you need to draw something specific. It seems to be an entirely glyph and rune-based magic system. Basically, you draw your spells on paper, clothing, items, whatever (but not living things!!) and can change their function, enchant them, move air or water around, and so on (with the symbols indicating what spell will be crafted, and its specific effects). Coco, who revealed early in the chapter that she’d purchased a picture book of magics when she was even younger from a strange man (but couldn’t use it), naturally wishes to try it out immediately now that she knows what the contents of the book “mean”. She’s not sure if she can do it, but as the opening pages of this article indicate, she actually “casts a spell” as it were. Then, she draws a whole bunch.
Now everything to this point can be seen as Coco finding and fiddling with Chekhov’s gun (where the gun is the book of magic spells that Qifrey was strangely curious about), but sooner or later messing with such a gun will cause it to fire.
Having carelessly fiddled with magic for too long (and not realizing that that picture book she bought way back when was actually probably a forbidden grimoire), Coco sets off magic that petrifies her entire house, some area surrounding it, and her mother. Qifrey then explains to us that anyone can use magic with the right tools as long as they draw the correct glyphs and symbols, and that’s precisely why it’s been kept secret. While magic can be useful, it can also be dangerous, and prior to a worldwide alteration of memories, magic had been used for anything from the mundane to murder. Now a closely guarded secret, the remaining society of witches have deemed it so others cannot come to know the truth of magic, and those that do must have their memories erased.
To avoid being forced to do this in Coco’s case, Qifrey proposes that Coco become one of his students so that she can study magic and hopefully one day learn what it was that petrified her mother, and how to potentially reverse it. There’s another reason for this proposal, but let’s save that for later.
With this, Coco enters apprenticeship to become a witch, and the series properly begins. Now we meet the rest of the cast, Coco begins to learn, and the overall plot of the series starts to reveal itself.
There are three other students studying under Qifrey at his atelier. They are:
Tetia (テティア), Riche (リチェ), and Agathe (アガット). I’m providing the Japanese pronunciations because it may not be obvious how these names are meant to be said at a glance (they weren’t for me, and originally people were rendering Agathe’s name as Agete so I dunno; nowadays it’s Agott). Anyway, I’ll go through the cast one at a time.
Tetia is the first student Coco meets, and she’s definitely friendLY with Coco from the getgo, but I’d say it takes a bit for the two of them to really become what I’d call friends. Tetia is happy and cute. Of the four students apprenticing under Qifrey she seems to be the most “normal” so far, not necessarily having a complicated past or a disagreeable personality. She’s fun, and she’s got this silly quirk of thanking people who thank her, as she loves to be thanked. That said she’s believable, not endlessly accepting and nice, which is noticeable in her introduction. That divergence from the norm is a great thing.
Next is Riche. I can’t actually say much about Riche because she’s yet to receive much focus and she’s rather quiet. As of the latest chapters we’ve learned that, like with several characters in Witch Hat, there’s more to her than there seemed to be at first. For now, think of her as a deadpan funny one, though she has something of a disagreeable personality. Not the most, though. That honor belongs to…
Reading Witch Hat Atelier has made me realize something about myself: I’m kind of a sucker. “For what?”, you ask? For broody dark characters who warm up to others extremely slowly. Oh yeah. Just like Mei from citrus. Now, Agathe isn’t actually like Mei; she’s a just plain better character, so much so that implying similarity between the two is probably a bit insulting. However, she still is what she is: dark, hardly what you’d call tsundere, and very, very mean. Though with some reason!
Putting it less kindly, Agathe is a bitch. She’s introduced as Coco’s workshop roommate and she immediately becomes antagonistic toward the newcomer. She doesn’t feel like a bully, she’s just very prickly and extremely driven. She doesn’t like that Coco is entering this world of hard work and practice simply due to circumstance, and she makes it clear that she has no qualms with stating that what happened to Coco’s mother is entirely her own fault. Over time we see the extent of her contempt and nature. She actually sets Coco up for serious injury or even death very early on despite knowing that Coco is untrained, the situation she’s being thrown into is more dangerous than usual, and she wasn’t actually given permission to do it. If you don’t like Agathe, I don’t blame you.
…But as I implied, I’m quite fond of her. I don’t know, this sort of character always hooks me due to the inherent promise of eventually softening up. And do note: this only works for me when it’s more like Vegeta and less like Sasuke (it’s pretty clear that Sasuke is going to be an asshole until the end of the manga, basically). You can probably figure it out quickly if you read closely, but in volume 2 it becomes fairly obvious that Agathe has an inferiority complex stemming majorly from her past (though we still don’t know the exact details behind her younger days). It doesn’t excuse her actions and behavior, but it does a good amount to explain it. Also, irritable as she is she’s still very admirable for her (deserved) confidence and skill, something Coco has noticed (and I’ve noticed she’s noticed, and am already deluding myself into seeing potential yuri). Basically, to me at least, Agathe is incredibly interesting and incredibly cute. Wait what
I can also kind of understand her being pissy to an extent. The magic in this world is based 100% on study and practice. Like, maybe some skill can come down to it for penmanship, but for the most part you only improve through mental and practical effort. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to cut Coco some slack. After all, she’s really just an unwitting pawn in a grand chess game.
While the core plot of Witch Hat is “become a witch so you can heal your mother”, in the background (and I’m sure it won’t stay background forever) it’s actually about Coco being used in some mysterious way to possibly forge a rennaissance of magic, returning the world to the way it once was where everyone could use magic and no kinds of it whatsoever were banned (note, apparently that didn’t happen very long ago). The person who sold Coco her book is part of an organization of witches who still remember what it was like when the magic was free and unregulated. And can I mention how I love that this guy’s master plan was explicitly to sell the book? Like, he gives it a sales pitch and everything, rather than just giving it away. That the “antagonist” of this series is quite goofy, yet still foreboding, is something I really love.
Anyway more importantly, these “brimmed hat” (as opposed to “pointed hat”) witches really, really piss of Qifrey. He seems to bear a serious grudge against them, but we don’t know why yet.
So let’s talk about Qifrey. Qifrey is…a (probably) well-intentioned person who does bad things. Well-intentioned because the fact is, I’m really not sure at all that I can call him objectively good. Honestly speaking, he borders on dirtbag tier and that much is actually something you can catch as early as the first chapter.
Basically, I don’t know how much Qifrey actually cares about his students, or anyone for that matter. I’m pretty sure that he has, like, no value for Coco at least. He genuinely doesn’t give a toss about her or her life. What’s valuable about Coco is what she potentially knows. Like, listen, it could be I’m being too harsh on him, but when he thinks stuff like this
after learning his newest student could be dead, I kind of have to stop and go “what the fuck, Qifrey”. Other characters notice how awfully hardheaded he can be about his convictions and goals, and his duplicitous nature shows itself fairly often (like being thankful for Coco enjoying magic outwardly because she’s happy, but truthfully just thinking “thank god I still have a lead here, it’d be a problem if she hated magic”). I wouldn’t say Qifrey is an antagonist, but he’s certainly troubling. There’s probably some very significant reason he stays far outside the society of witches’ eyes for all his work and tutelage. Perhaps he feels that what he intends to do isn’t necessarily what everyone wants. What does he intend to do? It seems to be taking down or finding out more about the brimhat witches, but that’s all I can figure out. Anyway, Qifrey is definitely way into magic, and maybe he even likes his students, but there’s too much suspicious crap associated with him to ignore.
All in all, it’s a really fantastic cast this series has. So, how about the setting?
It probably goes without saying that a fantasy tale is nothing without its setting, but hey look at the isekai genre as a whole (oh boy, oh golly, it’s just like my video games again). The setting in Witch Hat Atelier seems very well-realized, and worldbuilding is dolled out slowly rather than all at once. There are a lot of unusual things about this world in the first place (like weird animals), but when taking into account its magic system things get even weirder.
Basically, magic is only possible through the use of special ink, and this fact alone got me thinking a lotta thoughts. This means that while magic courses through the world regardless of mankind’s intervention, humans can’t do anything with it without this specific ink. My first thought: it must be limited. Second: what’s the economy like? Third: is it really ONLY this ink that works? Many of these questions have yet to be answered, but again information doesn’t come out all at once in this series, just over time. I’m really curious about this, because I feel if the ink didn’t matter from a story perspective, then any ink at all would work. I can already picture an arc focused on a shortage of ink or something. Just neat.
And speaking of arcs, Witch Hat seems to operate on them. The story is made of little arcs, typically involving an ordeal of some kind. During these, the most important characters are consistently Coco (of course) and Agathe, and we are witness to lots of magic used in creative ways. What I’m saying after all this is that this manga is really, really good and there’s a whole fuggin’ lot to like about it.
Want a good old fantasy? Definitely read it. Want to just look at incredible art (and, in case you missed it, fantastic paneling)? Well, it’s there. Read it. READ THIS!
Thankfully there are simple ways to do this. Want to buy the volumes? Check out CDJapan, bookwalker (guide), honto (guide), or ebookjapan. Want to buy the latest issues of Morning Two, which the series runs in? Ebookjapan again. Specifically it comes out on the 21st or 22nd of every month. Also, check out the author’s twitter, @shirahamakamome.
That review certainly took me a while… Thanks for reading. Alright, hope you enjoy the manga. See ya!