The Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Izetta: The Last Witch
How would you rate episode 1 of
Izetta: The Last Witch ?
What is this?
Europe, 1940: the empire of Germania has begun its conquest of the continent, kicking off World War II. After invading Livonia and other nations, Germania has set its sights on the small Alpine country of Eylstadt. With its Archduke unwell, it is up to the throne's heir, Princess Finé, to do what she can to defend her country. Armed only with her country's legend of the Weisse Hexe, or White Witch, and her memory of a strange encounter with a magical young girl named Izetta in her childhood, Finé sets out to meet the British ambassador in a neutral country. Despite her best efforts, she is captured by the Germanians, but just as they are about to kill her, something magical happens. Perhaps Eylstadt's legend isn't the fiction people have assumed. Izetta: The Last Witch is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 11:45 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the first A-list title of the season. Izetta: The Last Witch looks like it has something for everyone: sweeping wartime drama, action with a supernatural twist, a compelling heroine, and the technical strength to keep it all afloat. With its western setting and approachable storyline, it also has a low barrier of entry for new anime fans. If it plays its cards right, this series could be a real winner.
This episode works in large part because of Fine's immediate charisma as the protagonist. She's courageous and resourceful, but not to an unreasonable extent; it's clear that she's in way over her head, and she doesn't have any big master plan for defeating the bad guys. The impression that she's making it up as she goes makes it easy to root for her, and it lends an added sense of danger and adventure to the episode. The show seems to be treating her well for the most part, neither putting her on a pedestal nor setting her up for failure. Her magic-wielding ally Izetta doesn't make an appearance until late in the episode, but it looks like the two of them will make for a strong leading duo.
If I have a complaint thus far, it's with the show's Totally Not World War II setting. It feels strange to be taking issue with this, especially since I'm the kind of military history dork who signs up to do episode reviews for shows like Kancolle and High School Fleet. The reason I'm not quite sold on this is that while I enjoy playing games like Spot The Historical Reference and Name That Tank, this period in history comes with a lot of baggage. It wouldn't be as big a deal in a less serious title, but I worry that all the store-brand German baddies could be an unnecessary distraction in a show with loftier ambitions. Given that the story thus far would work even without the real-world connections, it's a risk that doesn't yet appear to be worth taking.
I hope that I'm worrying over nothing here, because Izetta: The Last Witch has the makings of a really enjoyable series. It's got at least one and potentially two good main characters, and the story should be ready to take off running now that it's gotten a fair amount of exposition out of the way. Unless something really spectacular comes along, I'm parking it at the top of my streaming queue for the foreseeable future.
Izetta: The Last Witch may not technically be based on anything, but it's pretty easy to see where this show came from. Series creator Hiroyuki Yoshino is back to spin the same old tricks he played in Code Geass, Guilty Crown, and a handful of other series (it's even possible that Izetta takes place in the same universe as Code Geass given they share the same name for Not-Britain). There's a magical mcguffin girl in a can. There's a royal chosen one with untapped power set to take down the bad guys against impossible odds. There's a not-so-subtle military fetishism that mostly takes a backseat to the other more human clichés at play. But based on its enjoyable first episode alone, Izetta might be able to muster more class than its predecessors and deliver a humble yet engaging story. Maybe.
First of all, it's pretty obvious that Yoshino saw his director comrade Goro Taniguchi's work on Maria the Virgin Witch and thought, "Hey, that's what my story was missing!" when coming up with Izetta. This isn't alternate-history WWII so much as just Literally WWII with the names swapped and a platoon-destroying WMD thrown into the mix. (That's witch of mass destruction, of course.) The Not-zis start off by invading Not-Poland, so the princess of Not-Austria flees to Not-Switzerland to negotiate with Not-Britain for support, but it's (not) too late, because even though she's been kidnapped with her country under siege, the princess has the White Witch on her side! Bedroom eyes and railgun-riding ensue.
On the surface, it's a pleasant concept for a historical fantasy show, and the production design is engrossing throughout this episode, even if the substance underneath the grounded style is pretty basic. You've heard all this dialogue before, you've seen these plot beats a thousand times, you just may not have seen them combined in this specific way, which is all a show really needs these days to stand out. Pleasing production values have only gone so far in redeeming Yoshino's weird writing tangents in the past, so if Izetta really wants to stand out above the crowd, it should probably ease up on the potentially labyrinthine plotting and focus more on the love story between these two girls.
Yup, Yoshino has decided to go full yuri for Izetta, which makes me really raise an eyebrow given his track record (this is the creator of The Qwaser of Stigmata we're talking about), but that track record is really my only point of concern when it comes to the show so far. Despite the generic trappings blending its unique whole together, this is a well-produced half-hour that at least promises to be entertaining in the weeks to come, if Yoshino can keep his more fatal writing habits (outlandish sexism, dumb plot twists) in check.
If my rating for Dream Festival is my personal bias showing in a negative way, then my rating for the first episode of this series is my personal bias showing the other direction. I am a big fan of historical fiction not set in Japan, and was especially a big fan of last year's Maria the Virgin Witch, so based on the preview clips this was one of my two most anticipated series of the season. Its debut does not disappoint, as it serves up just about everything that I could have hoped for.
The one slight shortcoming is that while the series looks good, it isn't top-of-the-line sharp. The animation, though pretty good, isn't perfectly smooth that there are some rough spots on the characters. However, Finé is a convincingly capable beauty regardless of how she's dressed and the attention to period detail is fully on display. (Even if this is a fictionalized version of Europe circa 1940, the production is cleaving very close to actual period styles and equipment.) Hence I don't expect the visuals to ever be a distraction. Backgrounds are generally very sharp and well-detailed, and any minor shortcomings don't change the fact that it has some truly beautiful scenes, such as Izetta's emergence in the airplaine. The first episode even manages to find a legitimate purpose for including a couple of fan service shots of Finé in a shower, as knowing that she has a nasty scar on her side is important for developments at the end of the episode.
But there's a lot more to love here than just that. The musical score is awesome and exceptionally well-used, whether it's the opera number (courtesy of Mozart, I think, as his name appears in the credits) or the dramatic numbers backed by airy vocals which highlight the escape scenes at the end. The notion that Izetta uses a rifle as a makeshift broom for purposes of flying was a great touch, one which seems very fitting for the setting, and the strength of the connection between the two young women was immediately apparent. Whether their relationship ever goes in a yuri direction or not, the dynamics between them should be a treat to watch, and I quite well appreciate a female rather than male character coming to the princess's rescue when the chips are down even while giving the sense that the princess can handle herself pretty well. I also like how slickly even some small historical details have been worked in; in our world Hitler was known to have an interest in the occult, so this world's equivalent taking interest in a witch seems entirely fitting. Looks like there will be no shortage of action, either.
Whatever ground the series ultimately covers, it's off to a great start, one which compellingly invites viewers to keep watching.
For a while, essentially all the knowledge we had of Izetta: The Last Witch was its first evocative trailer and its general setting. When more information finally arrived, it wasn't necessarily welcome - series composer Hiroyuki Yoshino is more renowned for disasters like Guilty Crown than successes, and director Masaya Fujimori is a workhorse who's mostly directed children's shows. Fortunately, while Izetta's ultimate fate at their hands may be unclear, this first episode is a winning experience, a rip-roaring adventure that left me eager for more.
The first point in Izetta's favor is its setting. Izetta slightly beats around the bush with names like “Germania” and “Britannia,” but it's clearly set on the verge of World War II, as Germany begins to muscle in on its neighbors and the allied nations wonder at what course to take. Our heroine Fine is the princess of Eylstadt, a small duchy now feeling Germanian pressure, and this episode takes her through a train battle, negotiation with a Britannian official, and ultimate meeting with the titular witch aboard a Germanian plane. Through all these sequences, Fine demonstrates confidence, competency, and compassion - she's a dynamic and capable leader who clearly feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. It was satisfying to watch her actually make the calls for her team as they evaded Germanian soldiers, and perhaps even more compelling to see her negotiation skills, where she seemed equally confident bartering with industrial resources or her own life.
Fine is awesome, and I'm glad for it. I was somewhat worried she'd fall into the “sheltered princess” role relative to the witch, but it seems like they'll make for a very capable pair of co-leads. On top of that, this episode handled all its major setpieces with real aesthetic confidence. The train escape concluded in a classic leap off a bridge, but the way the show built to that moment was excellent - from the blocking of the train car to the smart use of light and quick cuts of Fine opening the door, every element of that sequence demonstrated a firm understanding of dynamic framing. Fine's ultimate confrontation on the airplane was equally well-constructed, and made use of an entertainingly pompous bit character nazi to drive up the tension.
The show's art and sound design are likewise strong. The costumes here are realistic without feeling drab, and the backgrounds are quite pretty. The only real rough spot occurred during the train escape, when Fine and her men climbed on top of the train. At that point, the disconnect between their traditionally animated movements and the CG vehicle felt pretty obtrusive - but outside of that, Izetta is a polished production from top to bottom. This was a very strong premiere, and an easy recommendation to start off the fall season.
The first 20 minutes of Izetta: The Last Witch play out like a fairly standard World War II thriller with an added veneer of alt-history gently layered over the whole thing, which was honestly pretty OK all on its own. There have been a spate of WWII-themed anime lately and most of them were a little too dry for my taste, but this one struck just the right balance of Adult Drama Political Maneuvering and thrilling action-adventure storytelling, and the result was a snappy, fun first episode I wasn't expecting to like as much as I did. The story moves along at a pretty brisk pace, and I liked how determined and dignified the heroine was – there are a handful of scenes that undermine that (shower fanservice! veiled rape threats by off-brand nazi thugs!) but generally the show seems to respect the lead character.
In general I thought the animation and production design – both fairly handsome if nothing particularly inspired – were both let down by the occasionally pedestrian direction and editing, which occasionally tripped up the flow of an action scene. The entire first half of the episode is a chase on a train, and there are moments of great tension and action and then moments when the whole thing hits a speedbump and you wonder why they placed the camera where they did. The dialogue is pretty often thuddingly expositive, with characters dumping out “as you know” lines by the truckload. They're getting through a ton of setup and exposition in this first episode, so I understand the necessity, but when you hit lines like “But why would Princess Ortfine, heir to the Archduke's throne, be leaving her homeland now?” and the guy he's talking to definitely did not need him to clarify who she was – the show's full of that stuff. It's forgivable but there are some real clunkers in here.
The sudden shift to The Point Of All This at the very end could be seen as jarring, but I liked the gimmick and I appreciated how long they waited to get to the reveal – up until the final moments of this episode it really does play out like a late-period Spielberg WWII thriller, but the end is 100% Studio Ghibli, with a russet-haired magical witch in a hospital gown bursting out of her steampunk capsule prison, riding astride an enormous gun to save a princess plummeting to Earth. It's a really well-directed scene, like they saved up all their best work for this shot (who could blame them – it's an arresting concept).
The highest compliment I can pay to Izetta: The Last Witch is that I'd have kept watching the show even without the witch gimmick in there; well-executed war thrillers are fun and hard to do right, and they had a pretty good one going even before they got to their one really special idea. Let's see where it goes from here!
Alternate earths or not, World War Two is a touchy subject for me, so I did not expect to enjoy this episode as much as I did. Although the war is integral to the story and setting of Izetta: The Last Witch, it isn't so much about the war itself as it is about the people running the nations involved in it, at least so far. This introductory episode focuses on one of my new favorite heroines, Princess Finé of the fictional Alpine kingdom of Eylstadt, and her efforts to stymie the Germanian empire's plans for her country. To that end she is in the middle of a dangerous journey through supposedly neutral territory, but the caveat there is that A) if it's neutral for her, it's also neutral (and thus available) for her enemies, and B) the kind of people who would start a world war aren't likely to care about the fine details. Therefore “neutral” becomes just a word and Finé is forced to use her brains to outwit the Germanian troops.
This makes for a very exciting episode. Finé is neither a damsel in distress nor a delicate flower, and while her two bodyguards do their best to help her, she's ultimately the one with the ideas. Being chased through the train cars? Climb onto the roof. About to fall from the roof? Kick in an air vent and hide in a baggage car. Baggage car invaded? Jump off a bridge. If it were less well done, it's the kind of sequence of events that wouldn't be out of place in Bugs Bunny, but there's never any doubt that the stakes are high enough to merit this kind of nonstop action. That Finé herself is the one who comes up with all of the plans makes her an interesting character, something that is only confirmed when she meets up with the British man she's after, at which point she offers to marry the Prince of Wales, whom she had previously refused, if it means saving her country. Finé is a person who bargains with everything she has, even herself, if it means getting the job done, and that makes her worth paying attention to. The Germanians are partially aware of this, but still consistently underestimate her. They seem genuinely surprised by her forceful beliefs and willingness to take whatever action needs to be taken, even if it means her own death. Their leader keeps saying that he'd heard she was a tomboy, but there's clearly a lot more to her than that word encompassed for him.
But what about the Izetta in the title? Don't worry, she does show up in a very exciting finale to the episode, and I daresay that she and Finé are about to become the bane of the Germanians. There's the potential for a yuri romance in their relationship (at least according to the ending theme's images), but beyond that we don't yet know enough about her to project where this is going to go. I do have some reservations, such as the stale melodrama of juxtaposing an operatic aria with scenes of bombings and some of the head Germanian's over-the-top statements, but on the whole this looks like something that is worth checking out, especially if you're in need of a new heroine.
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