The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina
How would you rate episode 1 of
Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina ?
What is this?
Once upon a time, there was a witch named Elaina who set off on a journey across the world. Along the way she would meet all kinds of people, from a country full of witches to a giant in love with his own muscles—but with each meeting, Elaina would become a small part of their story, and her own world would get a little bit bigger.
How was the first episode?
Perhaps my biggest issue with the now half-decade-long trend of isekai anime is that they've all but totally displaced more traditional fantasy series in the landscape. There are certainly good stories to be found in the subgenre, but even the best can't quite scratch the itch for a whimsical fantasy story that doesn't need to make off-hand video game references to explain its own lore. Thus I was absolutely jazzed to see Wandering Witch, which (heh) promised not only that, but a coming-of-age travelogue starring a young witch as she travels that magical world and encounters new places, people, and experiences.
We haven't quite arrived at the “Journey” part of that, but that's just fine because Elaina's tale of her Witch apprenticeship is so charming and well-crafted that it's become my premiere to beat this season. Elaina herself is a charming, endearing protagonist who dreams of becoming a Witch so she can travel the world like her favorite story book characters, and sets herself to that goal with admirable determination. What sets this episode apart is that it appreciates that aspect of her, but recognizes she's still a young person who could get too attached to her dream. Thus enters her mentor, the Stardust Witch, who sets up a test to teach Elaina the importance of of valuing herself too, and to not place her eventual goal before her own wellbeing and dignity. It's a surprisingly nuanced moral for just the first episode, and it proved to me that Wandering Witch can have something to chew on along with its fanciful setting and artistry.
It's also just drop-dead gorgeous. Elaina's world is rendered in loving detail, from the cobbled streets of her hometown to the enchanted bird-cage/tree Miss Fran inhabits, and there were multiple shots of landscapes and/or backgrounds that nearly made me tear up. The animation is no slouch either, with the central spar between Elaina and Fran being some of the most fun I've had watching a magic fight in ages, with every spell blast or wand swish accentuated by the Witches' flowing robes and flopping hats. On aesthetic alone I'd be locked in to watching more of this, so the fact that it's paired with great writing and characters is practically gravy. If you're at all a fan of fantasy or magic, Wandering Witch will warm your watchlist wonderfully.
My favorite anime to cover during any season's Preview Guide are the ones that take me by complete surprise. I had never heard of the light novel series that Wandering Witch is adapting, and I will fully admit to being just a little bit over the whole “pastoral Europe with pointy-hatted witches” aesthetic. My gradual reception to this premiere went a little something like this:
Phase 1: “This seems fine. I like the look of the art and animation a lot more than that one volleyball show that Toshiyuki Kubooka made with C2C awhile back. I don't know how much I'm in the mood for a fantasy slice-of-life, though.”
Phase 2: “Hm. Well, I like that Elaina is a preternaturally talented heroine that still encounters setbacks. I wonder why all of these other witches are giving her the cold shoulder? Can't a girl just be a witch's apprentice? And man, this show is really pretty…”
Phase 3: “Okay, this Fran lady is a lot of fun. I dig the dynamic she's establishing with Elaina. Is Fran giving Elaina the Mr. Miyagi treatment? Oh damn, is Wandering Witch just casually dropping in some surprisingly well-directed action like it's no big deal? You had my interest, Wandering Witch, but now you have my attention…”
Phase 4: “And all of this character development! Elaina needing to learn not to put up with rest of the world's nonsense is a great angle to frame her growth from. Fran is totally right, too! When you've got the smarts, and the talent, and the ability to blow shit up with magic, then you don't have to ask permission to fight for the respect you deserve! And is Elaina's mom one of the coolest anime parents…ever!?”
Phase 5: “HELL. YES. The Ashen Witch is coming for all of you non-believers! Get me the merch, show me how to donate to her Patreon, give me every one of Elaina's social media handles. Just plug this show right into my veins, already, I'm begging you!”
Ahem. The point is, Wandering Witch just snuck up out of nowhere to become another early frontrunner for the runaway success of the season. The only drawback for me is the fact that I'm still just not super enthusiastic about the general setting. I'm more of about “crusty cyberpunk witches”, “urban Gothic horror witches”, “retro-futurist underground freedom fighter witches”, or even “Roald Dahl's The Witches witches”.
That's a completely personal quibble, though. Anybody who likes things that are good should probably check out Wandering Witch for themselves, since I can't imagine how anyone could walk away from it without getting a big, goofy grin getting stuck to their face for the rest of the day.
I'm not entirely surprised that Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina opted to start out by animating a chapter from the middle of the book. It is, after all, the story of how she became a witch and began her travels. I am, however, a little disappointed, because while it's good to know how things started, it loses some of the magic of the narrative, which in the source novels begins with Elaina's experiences in a few different countries before going back to how she came to be traveling in the first place. That makes for an experience closer to the fantastical travel narratives of books like Antoine Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince or Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and those parallels are definitely part of the charm of the story.
But decisions were made and, shockingly enough, no one asked me, so here we are opening with Elaina's origin story. Despite my grumbling, it really is still very engaging. Elaina's world is gorgeous in several senses of the word – it's a beautiful blend of mundane and magical in terms of set up but also a feast for the eyes in the way that it's drawn and animated here. The backgrounds are simply spectacular, like picture book illustrations come to life. This is especially apparent in the houses – Elaina's family home should be made into a poster or a puzzle, and the tree house Miss Fran lives in, with its many windows and wooden swing, is the stuff of childhood daydreams. It's all made even better by the sheer level of detail – curtains, family pictures, garden layout…it feels like everything was considered and accounted for, and that is not only wonderful to look at, but also grounds Elaina's story in a world that feels real. Another nice detail is the way that witches ride their brooms – they don't sit on the handle, but rather on a cloth saddle over the bristles, and frankly if you're going to ride a broom sidesaddle, that's the much more logical place to sit. (Not to mention probably a lot more comfortable.) It's like everything has been really thought about.
The story itself is a little more bland, at least at this stage. Elaina's ambition – to be a witch so that she can travel the world like in her favorite book series – is a little bit lackluster, and then to add insult to injury, we don't even see much of her magical training, either before or after she moves in with Fran as her apprentice. We know that Elaina's a prodigy because she tells us, not because we see her interacting with other would-be witches, and that's largely where the decision to open with this chapter of the books fails: we're told so much more than we're shown. While that will be rectified later (and I'm definitely curious which chapter they're going for next), it's not a great trait in an opening episode.
Be that as it may, this is definitely going to be worth giving another episode or two to see how the adaptation progresses. And if it doesn't manage to capture the joy of the books, well, at least we still have those to experience Elaina's story.
This was a lot better than I was expecting. I haven't watched Harukana Receive, so I wasn't familiar with this production team's previous work, but this debut episode was filled with a ton of charm and cute details that pulled me into the world straight away. I was completely charmed by Elaina's character from the moment she brightly declared that she would become a witch, and I even felt a little teary at the end when she parted ways with her parents.
It goes to show that sometimes a simple story is all you need. The plot of this episode is Elaina's humble origin story as a witch's apprentice before she sets out on her journey, but the focus is firmly on the life lessons she learns rather than any particulars concerning magic. She's clearly a talented witch who passed her exams with ease, but instead of making a big song and dance about how she's a chosen one, I really liked how the emphasis was on how Elaina has normal human desires. The scene after her trial where she cries and her master tries to comfort her was a highlight for me, because "If you're upset with something, you don't have to grit your teeth and bear with it" isn't a message that children normally hear from adult figures, but it's an important one nonetheless.
The setting, admittedly, is rather vague. How exactly does one learn magic and what purpose do witches serve in this world are two questions that don't really get answered. But I honestly liked the feeling of whimsy about the setting, so I'll definitely be interested in seeing where Elaina's journey takes her.
Two immediate thoughts on seeing the debut of this series:
- Elaina's father may wear the physical pants in her family, but the mother wears the proverbial ones.
- Isn't flying around on a broom while wearing a short skirt a bad idea?
Essentially, Elaina is a prodigy as a witch-to-be, one who dreams of following in the footsteps of a storied witch who went on a journey. The problem is that her talent can be intimidating to other witches, who no doubt heard about her through the grapevine. (Perhaps a bit of arrogance may be mixed in with that as well.) She's also a bit too resilient in pursuing her goals, willing to endure things to get what she wants rather than pushing back when she is being treated unfairly. The Stardust Witch's efforts to force her to a breaking point can thus be looked at two ways: as training for a mental fortitude that she will need if she is going on a journey, and as a form of empowerment in a mental and personality sense. Sometimes a person must bend to the will of others for practical reasons, but like the classic Twisted Sister song preaches, there is a limit to what a person should tolerate. Sometimes resisting or even pushing/fighting back is necessary. That's a potent lesson, and makes me wonder if each encounter might be a “lesson of the day” kind of experience for Elaina.
Other aspects of the first episode show promise. The art design – especially for Elaina's homestead – is quite pretty, though it does make me wonder how well-off her parents have to be to have a home that lavish, especially considering that no hint of their occupation is ever provided. (Something about all of that also makes me suspect that her mother might actually be a retired and settled-down Nike.) The fight scene with the Stardust Witch was partly impressive; the structuring of it was good, but the CG seemed a bit on the weak side. And Elaina certainly has the right outfit for a witch at the end, even if her design is not much of a standout.
Overall, I can see this series being a mild success and a pleasant regular watch.
While Jujutsu Kaisen will probably take home the trophy for the most gorgeously-animated show of the season, The Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina may well be a close second. The designs are gorgeous and bursting with personality, and every character moves fluidly, with distinctive facial expressions and body language that further communicate who they are. The backgrounds are positively sumptuous, from Elaina's cozy family home to Fran's airy treehouse and the lush forest that surrounds it. The food looks delicious, and the characters spend a lot of time eating. It's all so sumptuous, it's borderline pornographic.
That alone is enough to recommend it, but from the perspective of an educator and the product of ten years of “gifted” education, the character writing around Elaina and Fran's relationship is the most interesting part.
Elaina is one of those big-time overachievers who is both gifted and hard-working. At 14, she becomes the youngest person ever to pass the witch's exam, complaining about how weak all the other candidates were. No witch in town wants to take her on as an apprentice, maybe because they're jealous of her power but also maybe because no one wants to deal with an arrogant child who thinks she's better than anyone else.
And so, her parents ask Fran, the Stardust Witch, to take her on and teach her not only magic, but some important life lessons as well.
Fran's approach of first treating her like an indentured servant and then trouncing her in a fight is meant to serve dual purposes: to teach her to value herself and not just accept everything people tell her to do, but also to humble her. These are both important things for children to learn if they are to become balanced adults, and it shows a genuine awareness of Elaina's social-emotional developmental needs. However, Fran is also an inexperienced teacher, so she goes too far and kind of ends up coming across as a bully instead.
The emotional truth of their reconciliation scene, more than anything else, piques my interest for the rest of the series. Fran is a kind person, but flighty and a bit self-centered, so she struggles to figure out what will comfort Elaina. When she pulls her student in for a hug, Elaina tries to fight her off because her trust has been so badly broken by that point. It's a beautiful snapshot of how adults, even teachers and mentors who sincerely want the best for the children they care for, are capable of making mistakes, and how correcting those mistakes takes more than a quick apology.
The episode ends with a lovely little coda about Fran getting ready to go off on her journey, including a reference to the start of Kiki's Delivery Service – where she looks in the mirror and comments how plain her witch's outfit is – that made me smile. Wandering Witch promises to be a lovely character-driven travelogue show, and I'm looking forward to seeing more.
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