Ex-Gainax Does Magic School (Also Animator School): Little Witch Academia

Magical academies! Spunky heroines! A big orchestral soundtrack!

…sounds really boring, right? But in the hands of skilled craftsmen, convention can be compelling, and that’s what Little Witch Academia taught me.


Now that all the good people that made up Gainax exist in the form of a studio named Trigger, I was eagerly awaiting their first real deal production for a while now. I know, Inferno Cop exists–I’ve seen one episode, by the way–but that doesn’t really have much in the way of animation, and as such I was interested to see what the studio’s first big work was going to be. When news of Little Witch Academia dropped, I met the promotional material with some degree of trepidation, as it all seemed a bit too safe for the first big bad thing by the mad geniuses from Gainax.

The setting is pretty typical: Following an impressive flashback that opens and establishes the film, we’re flung into a typical scene in a Magic Academy Lecture Hall explaining how magic in this magical world works. Thankfully the film doesn’t dwell on things like this for very long: The good thing about Little Witch Academia is that it only tells you what you need to know. The thing’s only thirty minutes long, after all!

It’s really best not to talk too much about the script, as it’s all quite run-of-the mill. I mean, this is an exercise to train young animators, so I suppose that’s expected to some degree. This film is all about solid execution. The main characters are all familiar archetypes, but there’s an extra bit of energy about them brought out in the exaggerated voice acting and animation. Suushy–the creepy girl–has an especially nasally voice, Diana–the stuck up girl–and her friends go out of their way to pronounce every syllable of their rich-bitch Japanese, and Akko–the main girl–is chatting it up at 110% at all times.

On the animation side, character designs are quite simple, allowing for a wide range of expressions–Akko probably makes every face under the sun within the film’s short run-time. Much like the voice acting, the character movement and facial expressions are all exaggerated, bestowing the film with a rather bold and varied visual vocabulary. It feels less “anime” and more “kids cartoon.” It’s animation that adheres to the traditional principles of animation–something Japanese animation doesn’t usually do–making the film’s look very refreshing on the whole.

While the film’s setting is certainly tried and true, there’s a freshness to the execution–the visuals bring to mind the works of those pixiv fantasy artists put into motion. Backgrounds are given life by way of keen attention to detail, sharp design sense, and atmospheric use of color.

Be it a character’s dorm room or the deep caverns that lurk underneath, backgrounds on the whole are meticulously drawn to sell the viewer on the world. There isn’t much in the way of talking time, so explaining things via visuals is more efficient and makes for rich eye-candy. This attention to detail is enhanced by the film’s constant dynamic style. Everyone and everything is kind of skinny, angular, and pointy. It’s the antithesis to that Kyoto Animation looks-like-it-can-melt-in-your-hands rounded style–even when standing still, characters have a strong visual presence with their skinny limbs and bold facial expressions. Underscoring the piece are wonderfully appropriate color schemes that communicate a convincing sense of place, be it a bedroom lit only by a single lamp before sleep time, or a common room bathed in afternoon light coming through giant windows. There’s also smaller bits of clever design sensibility, such as the Alphonse Mucha inspired Chariot poster that hangs by Akko’s bedside.

One of the film’s biggest visual hits out of the park is probably the three main characters themselves, all boasting very simplistic but expressive designs, which tell the viewer all they need to know about them without having to say too much. I particularly like Akko’s friends, Lotte and Suushy–Lotte’s giant white rounded glasses that only reveal the pupils of her eyes, and Suushy’s one obviously sleep deprived eye poking through her long hair are simple touches that do extremely well to establish what kind of characters they are.

The film is obviously host to a couple of set pieces–one at the beginning and one at the end–that are quite conventional scenes, but like everything else in the film, they’re well executed and have enough creative ideas that make them fun to look at. One particularly fun bit is Chariot’s appearance at the beginning of the film that involves her appearing as a blast of magical power on stage. The final scene with the dragon is simply woven together well, with a few dynamic cuts that keep the action from feeling routine and uninspired. Of course, all these fine visuals can be credited to Yoshinari You, who basically worked on all the visual aspects of the this film save for animating every scene in it. Those trainees need some cuts to draw, right?

All said, Little Witch Academia is a fun way to pass a half-an-hour. While the lightness and conventional nature of the subject matter may keep one off from multiple viewings, it’s a visual trip that’s worth switching on every now and again.

And really, not bad for something thrown together by a bunch of trainees.



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