Manga Review: Witch Hat Atelier

Title: Witch Hat Atelier

Mangaka: Kamome Shirahama

US Publisher: Kodansha

Status: Ongoing

Age Relevance: Middle School and Up (Upper Elementary can assess on a school by school basis because of content in volume 9)

How Essential Is It?: Must Have

Curricular Connections?: Could be used in art curriculum, or for independent reading.

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Fantasy, Art, Harry Potter Replacements, Manga with Diverse Casts, Seinen

Anime: In production. The announcement can be viewed HERE.

Content Warnings: Some magical horror, peril, and later volumes allude to sexual assault of children.

Publisher Synopsis: A beautifully-illustrated story about a girl who longs for magic in her life and learns that, on the inside, she already is what she wishes she could be. Reminiscent of Studio Ghibli, this lushly drawn story was voted one of the Top 10 manga of the year in 2018 by the Japanese manga industry. In a world where everyone takes wonders like magic spells and dragons for granted, Coco is a girl with a simple dream: she wants to be a witch. But everybody knows magicians are born, not made, and Coco was not born with a gift for magic. Resigned to her un-magical life, Coco is about to give up on her dream to become a witch … until the day she meets Qifrey, a mysterious, traveling magician. After secretly seeing Qifrey perform magic in a way she’s never seen before, Coco soon learns what everybody “knows” might not be the truth, and discovers that her magical dream may not be as far away as it may seem …

Witch Hat Atelier is a magical story about a young girl whose life is turned upside down when she learns the secret of how magic is performed in her world- not through wand waving or incantations, but through drawing and purposeful study. This gorgeous allegory for the creation of art doubles as Shirahama-sensei’s own magnificent spell, because you cannot help but be enchanted by the world and characters of Witch Hat Atelier.

Coco realizes the secret of magic in her world by spying on Qifrey.

What sets Witch Hat Atelier apart from other manga is not only the magnificent art, which is illustrated so gorgeously and with attention to detail, but also the fact that Shirahama-sensei has populated her world with a plethora of fascinating characters with a variety of backgrounds without leaning on stereotypes. While the story begins as Coco’s story, it expands outward to encompass that of other witches and apprentices, as well as the ordinary people who request their help. A common criticism of manga is that it lacks diversity in race and bodytypes, and that is not necessarily an unfounded criticism for all of manga. That said, Witch Hat Atelier is proof that this cannot be uniformly applied across the genre.

Jujy is a young apprentice who appears in later volumes.
Various rulers of the world show diversity in age and body types.

What Shirahama-sensei also does, while still maintaining a sense of wonder about her world’s magic, is to show that magic cannot necessarily solve everything. Magic does not solve disability or make the world perfect- in fact, when everyone in the world could use magic, it led to constant struggle and war, and the current system is actually to prevent such strife. The characters are trying to help others to ther best of their ability. Having magic doesn’t wipe away every issue of the world, and in fact makes the world more complex. Witches have to carefully weigh their creations before setting them out into the world, considering all possible impacts.

Qifrey explain’s why Olruggio’s invention cannot be shared.

In more recent volumes, the series has been delving more into the pasts of various characters, which serves not only to expand the plot (which hinges on seeds of corruption and discord planted in the past), but also to delve more deeply into various social issues. Luluci, a leading member of the Knights Moralis, has a flashback in volume nine that reveals that she and another apprentice were victims of sexual assault.

This moment of injustice was a defining moment for Luluci, and presents a narrative that is all too familiar. Many people like to claim that Japan doesn’t have such problems, but that’s a completely nationalistic falsehood that can be totally disproven. I highly recommend Black Box by Shiori Ito for anyone who wishes to know more about the difficulties that sexual assault victims face in Japan when reporting their assaults. This chapter was clearly informed by Japanese women’s experiences.

Luluci’s memories show how her teacher did not believe her about what she and her fellow apprentice had undergone fuel her ire.

Notably, the reason why Luluci is now a member of the Knights Moralis is because they were the ones who validated that she was in the right. And this is one of the great strengths of Witch Hat Atelier, that the characters go through struggles and find strength in each other. Friendships and bonds are given the space to really bloom in this series, and to help characters overcome their traumas.

Qifrey’s atelier is really a place of misfits- all of his students come to him after having been discarded or shunned by their previous schools of magic. And that’s the real beauty of this series. It’s ultimately about finding belonging and redemption for past mistakes. It’s about the beauty of learning and art.

That’s why I believe this series is an absolutely essential series for a school library. There is empathy and grace in this series that is special and beautiful.

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