Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Witch Hat Atelier
GN 1 & 2
Coco has loved magic and yearned to be a witch ever since a strange witch in a brimmed cap gave her a “magic picture book” when she was little. Unfortunately for her, everyone knows that witches are born, not taught, and so it looks as if Coco's dreams are doomed to remain in her heart. All of that changes one day, however, when a witch named Qifrey comes to her mother's tailor shop. Qifrey seems interested in the picture book Coco got years ago, but the real catalyst is when Coco spies on him doing magic and realizes that magic is drawn, not spoken. Playing with her book that night, Coco accidentally casts a spell that turns her mother into stone, and Qifrey tells her that he'll get the rules bent for her so that she can learn magic. In return, Coco must find the picture book again so that the spell she cast on her mother can be reversed. Thus begins Coco's new life as an apprentice witch – something that Qifrey's other apprentices and some of the higher ups in the magic world are very unhappy about.
Witch Hat Atelier is much more Little Witch Academia than Harry Potter, although if you like any story about learning magic there's a good chance that you'll enjoy this one as well. Coco, like LWA's Akko, is a normal girl who had an early encounter with magic, and from that moment on she's dreamed of learning it and becoming a witch herself. The only problem (and the major difference between this story and western works on a similar theme) is that while everyone in Coco's world knows that magic exists they've all been told that only those born to witch families can use it. That means that Coco, as the daughter of a seamstress, is doomed never to live out her dream.
Or at least, that's what the witches want her to think. In an indication that a much darker world lurks beneath the surface of the story, when Coco accidentally learns how to use the magic picture book she was given by a mysterious (and obviously shady) witch at a fair, she uncovers the biggest secret that the world has been keeping from her and all the other children who dream of magic: that anyone can use magic. It's just that no one wants them to.
While there turns out to be a good reason for these laws to have been put into place hundreds of years ago – ages of magical warfare left the world perilously close to smoking ruins – the basic fact that children have been and continue to be fed lies speaks to something decidedly underhanded at play. Essentially it seems that a select few witches determined who was the most trustworthy (presumably themselves and their descendants) and deliberately withheld information from the general population rather than simply enforcing strict rules about what you can and cannot do with magic. Those rules do still exist and they are stringent, as we see in volume two when Coco and Agott (a fellow apprentice) are captured by the witches' police force, the Knights Moralis, for suspected misuse of magic. But there's also a self-righteousness to the world that Coco is put up against, and only Qifrey, the witch who takes her on as his apprentice, appears to be on her side…along with those who oppose the current rules, the renegades known as the “Brimmed Caps” for their use of banned headwear that shades their faces.
This could have made Coco feel like a pawn in a much larger game, and there are plenty of hints in these first two volumes that she still is – the simple fact that Qifrey lobbied for her to be accepted as an apprentice despite not coming from “magical” stock sounds nice of him until you take into consideration that he's also very much invested in finding the picture book the Brimmed Cap gave her, and since the original is now stone in her family's house, only Coco can identify its magically generated duplicate in the witches' library…and to do that, she has to become a witch herself. That definitely makes him look less altruistic, especially since he doesn't seem like he's out there offering to bend the rules for magic-enthused children who can't do something for him in return. On the other hand, he does seem to genuinely like Coco as a person and is impressed by her enthusiasm for magic, something which leads him to defend her to his Watchful Eye (state mandated supervisor), Olruggio, so it will be worth paying attention to his actions as the story unfolds to see how his conflicting feelings influence his treatment of Coco alongside his other three apprentices.
That Olruggio and the Knights Moralis aren't thrilled with Coco's existence is something that we also see bleed over into Coco's homelife at Qifrey's atelier in the form of Aggot, who spends most of the first volume being an absolute brat. She's competitive and mean, hazing an unwitting Coco the minute Qifrey steps out and very nearly getting her killed, something she doesn't get enough punishment for. More than anything, Agott seems to resent Coco for being an outsider – she's clearly drunk the government's Kool-Aid about who can and can't be a witch, and she doesn't believe that Coco has the talent, much less the right, to study magic. While volume two does reveal to us that she has a good reason for her unpleasant behavior, it doesn't excuse her words or actions; instead Kamome Shirahama shows her slowly coming to accept Coco without undergoing any major changes that would make her into a different character. It's impressive, and if Agott ends volume two even just a tiny bit better but still as abrasive as sandpaper, that's actually a good sign for how well-written it is.
That's true of both books as a whole. The world of Witch Hat Atelier is beautifully built, with each new chapter revealing another small piece of the whole that combines with what we already know to make it feel organic. None of the magic systems or history feels out of place or shoehorned in, and all of the characters have layers to their personalities, whether that's Qifrey's conflicting motives or Agott's reasons for being a twit. Coco is perhaps the most one-note of all of them, but that fits with her wide-eyed ingenue persona, and even then Shirahama goes out of their way to make sure that we know that she's got more going for her than her love of magic: Coco's a creative thinker and a problem solver, and the fact that she can hold her own alongside three girls who have been studying magic for their entire twelve(ish) years is very impressive.
This strong writing is ably enhanced by truly beautiful artwork. Shirahama's use of whiplash lines and busy little details can feel overwhelming at times, but largely works to help solidify the world the story takes place in, and numerous small, simple pieces of the whole stand out as places to rest your eyes, such as the brushbuddy (an animal like a combination of a ferret and a snake) Coco brings home or the fact that the witches all wear conical hats of the type we're used to associating with magic users. Characters are all also distinct from each other, which is another major plus, and the drawn symbols that are used for magic have a simplicity that makes them feel feasible.
Witch Hat Atelier's opening volumes introduce us to a world that's both fantastical and grounded. Coco's can-do attitude isn't infallible and she faces plenty of difficulties as she sets out to learn magic. The mixed motivations and attitudes of those around her help make her story more than simple wish fulfillment, and this is one tale you don't want to miss.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Well-built and realized world, characters have layers and are nuanced. Magic system is simple enough to make sense while still feeling complex enough to be “magic.”
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