Fantasy, magic, and tea-time with spirits
Welcome back to our impromptu and sporadically scheduled pandemic guide to anime. If you’ve missed any of our earlier entries, you can find them all here:
(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)
That housekeeping out of the way, we’ll quickly get to it. We spent the last two go-rounds looking at animated horror of the ghosts, zombies, and monsters variety. If you aren’t into that, rejoice: we’re done. Now we’re going to go in a completely opposite direction. Today’s topic will be:
Harry Potter and the Kiki’s Delivery Service
Wait, no. Fantasy. The topic of the day is fantasy, specifically of the sort that features magic, witchcraft, and similar goings-on.
Having said that, there is a lot of anime that falls into the realm of swords-and/or-sorcery. With some dedication, we might be able to put together a list of one hundred such shows, depending on how much we were willing to bend the tropes. So we’ll target this list very specifically to people who liked the Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece Kiki’s Delivery Service, the drop-dead gorgeous movie showing the struggles of a 13-year-old apprentice witch who embarks on the witch-traditional rite of passage, leaving home to find a place for herself in the world. It’s got broomsticks, a talking black cat, and if you’ve seen it and thought anything other than wow you are dead inside. So there.
The same goes for Little Witch Academia, a Netflix-available series we’ve mentioned before. It’s got a much different, much looser animation style and, in its academic setting, could be also loosely lumped in with fare like Harry Potter. It’s family-friendly and agonizingly adorable.
American audiences might also be familiar with Sailor Moon, in either older or newer incarnations, but it’s not a sure-fire like. Know that it’s an older series, it’s willfully ridiculous, and one of the exemplars of the now-omnipresent “magical girls save the world” genre, complete with transform-into-my-stylish-superhero-outfit and all accompanying sparkles, stars, and accompanying music. It has a very devoted fanbase that won’t take kindly to you not liking it, but … it’s a more specific taste than the first two.
If any of those are your cup of fantasy tea, you are very well taken care of by the anime industry. But here are a special few that aren’t likely to let you down.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride
The animation and the world evoked by Ancient Magus’ Bride are gorgeous. Chise (CHEE-say) is a young, just-orphaned teen who, in abject despair, sells herself to a secret black market catering to sorcerers. Her own innate magic abilities have made her frail and will, without fail, soon kill her, but the same innate magic makes her enormously valuable on the black market—as parts. She enters the auction knowing full well that the winning bidder is bidding for the right to disassemble her.
But a surprise figure shows up at the auction: A looming seven-foot-tall something who wears an animal skull on his head outbids a crowd that clearly fears him, and Chise finds herself the purchased “apprentice” and bride of a sorcerer who assures her that he will find a cure to her current state. It soon becomes apparent that he is both an extraordinarily powerful sorcerer and … not human. He can pretend at humanity and is seemingly obsessed with learning how to better mimic it, but the creature under the skull is more terrifying than the skull itself.
Borrowing heavily from the folklore of the British Isles, the story takes place in idyllic rural England and features church grims, banshees, fairies, and dragons, and all of it is gorgeous. Like Little Witch Academia, its major flaw is that there’s not enough of it. We could watch another five seasons and get nowhere close to being tired of this one. It’s available on Crunchyroll.
If you’re looking for the closest possible analog to Kiki’s Delivery Service, this would be it. Makoto Kowata takes the same journey required of all apprentice witches, moving to a new town to learn her trade and what, exactly, she wants to make a career of. (In this version, though, she’s sent to live with relatives because the Kiki version of here’s a broom, see ya, try not to die is a bit too brutal for modern witching families.)
Makoto goes to her new high school, makes friends, accidentally spills her witchly status nigh-immediately, and generally leads a quiet, slow-paced life. There is nothing in the world that needs saving; her frequent stumbles on the path to learning new spells or skills lead to more embarrassment than danger. There is a magical cafe for sipping tea and eating sweets; her world-traveling sister Akane gives a glimpse of the sort of adulthood Makoto should probably not aspire towards.
At only 12 episodes, it’s short and sweet. It’s also slow-paced; this is a slice-of-life show, in which nothing major happens and there are no crises, only a slow unveiling of a magical world alongside modern humanity that hides in plain sight. So if you don’t want that sort of slow, meandering trip, you’ll want to give it a pass. Available on Crunchyroll.
The world is at war. The human realm is battling the demon realm in a conflict that has claimed countless lives. In an act of supreme strength and courage, the human’s Hero finally battles his way to the throne room of the Demon King’s castle, sword in hand, ready for a final confrontation his foe. Bursting into the room, our Hero challenges the evil king and—
Wait, what? The confused Hero finds himself face to face with an attractive young woman who introduces herself as the Demon King and asks him to sit for a cup of tea.
This is the world of Maoyu, and the sword-and-sorcery antics of our hero might, the Demon King explains to him, only be playing into the hands of those on both sides who want war for their own reasons. Instead, she proposes an “alliance” with the Hero, which he takes to be a marriage proposal and it … probably is? Flustered but soon convinced by the logic of her arguments, he agrees; the two then set off under false identities to survey human lands and formulate solutions that will make an end to the war both possible and lasting. She becomes known as the Crimson Scholar, a human noblewoman with a dizzying knowledge of everything from agriculture to finance. He becomes her bodyguard and secret accomplice.
Together, they begin an effort to save the world not with the hero’s magic or the demon realm’s soldiers, but with potatoes. Potatoes, decent farming practices, tax reforms, and a vaccination program because what the hell kind of human society can survive if people aren’t willing to get themselves vaccinated against a deadly pandemic?
This one’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s a shame there are only 12 episodes. The tropes of fantasy are just an overlay, or even a burden, to two societies that have been captured by more mundane but intractable problems.
If you like this you might also like the similarly short-but-sweet Spice and Wolf, in which a mysterious wolf-god appears in human form to a traveling merchant and asks to journey with him. Come for the supernatural entity masquerading as human-with-a-tail, stay for an episodic series of economics lessons as explained by a … supernatural entity masquerading as a human-with-a-tail.
Honestly, they should just teach all economic theory this way. Surely there’s an anime that can explain the prisoner’s dilemma with a bit more dynamism than the usual dull grid that appears in $200 textbooks? Hmm.
For a slight change of fantasy pace, The Beast Player Erin (or simply Erin) has a tone and style that’s not easily comparable to the others. The colors are softer, the character designs and drawn world are soothing—even the theme songs feel pulled from children’s television, and this feels like something you might plop the kids in front of and feel good about it.
The story, though, is darker. Erin is the daughter of a beast-tamer in a small agrarian village. The beasts in question are Tohda, gigantic and vicious carnivorous lizards that are ridden into battle like horses by the nation’s top military force. Erin wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a master caretaker and gets into far-more-dangerous-than-usual childhood mischief while trying. These are not horse stand-ins, though. The giant lizards are, well, giant lizards, and cannot be “tamed.” At best, they can only be constrained.
Her mother dies. That’s all we’ll say about that, in order to keep things mysterious. From then on, the story follows an orphaned Erin as we learn more about the country, about the true nature of the giant pseudo-dragons, about her mother’s true skills, her clan, and about “Royal Beasts,” flying, wolf-headed griffon-like creatures thought to be even more impossible to tame than Tohda. Erin soon proves to be as skilled a beastkeeper as her mother, but also begins to understand her mother’s conflicted feelings about her duties. Erin is equal parts fantasy and mystery. There are secrets here, and potentially dire consequences for unraveling them.
Erin is certainly set in a fantasy realm, but the deviations from fantasy norms give it a welcome freshness. The world leans less on European tropes, borrowing instead from Korean and other Asian culture. The “dragons,” as represented by two separate species, are not so much magical as they are a part of this world’s natural fauna; the translation of animal husbandry practices from the standard fare of goats and horses to enormous man-eating predators is well done and provides a “fantasy” that contemplates details of life usually ignored in more epic-minded tales.
What I’m trying to say here is that for a story about giant murder lizards and gruesome deaths, it’s surprisingly laid-back. As for whether it’s family fare, it depends. If you think your child can handle both the graphic death of Erin’s mother and the very frequent scenes of humans being menaced by creatures that consider them food, sure, go for it. Just don’t be fooled by the gorgeous world and ear-worm closing credits.
And now for something … completely different? This one is also older, formatted for smaller screens—but will be getting one final film release this December, and fans have high hopes for that new entry.
In the future, a partially terraformed Mars is being slowly colonized. Above our idyllic waterfront city, giant tethered airships work nonstop to warm the now-breathable air and force the climate to conform to Earth-like seasons; those who work on the ships are called Salamanders, and are held in great regard. Below the Martian surface, the planet’s gravity is altered by sending hyperdense matter hurtling through subterranean channels at relativistic speeds; those responsible for keeping this delicate balance are named Gnomes, and seldom emerge from their underground factory town.
Our city is Neo-Venezia, a waterfront resort town on a once-Mars now renamed Aqua and the backdrop for a just achingly beautiful slice-of-life story about the Undines who row their gondolas softly through Venezian canals, giving tours of the ancient city to vacationers to Earth and honing the singing skills required of the planet’s most exacting artistic profession.
Yep, you heard all that right. Yes, it really is that Venice. Yes, this work by manga artist Kozue Amano takes all that as premise and delivers an absolutely gorgeous, slow-paced, magical new world that at every point makes you wish you lived behind any one of the city’s warmly lit windows, passing through each season and exploring each alley and nook instead of living here, with bills to pay and a job to do and having to shop inside warehouse stores with not a damn canal in sight.
Aria‘s core premise is that a fabulously wealthy philanthropist—we will call this person Future Jeff Bezos—sought to save the historic city of Venice from the rising sea levels that would soon claim it. He purchased the city, as in all of it, carefully cataloged and disassembled it, and sent every last brick and paving stone to Mars to be rebuilt stone-by-stone. Neo-Venezia is already an old city by its own rights when our young apprentice takes a now-mundane commercial flight to Mars-now-Aqua with a dream of joining the best of the city’s all-female Undines. She is hired on as only apprentice at the Aria Company, trained by none other than one of the famous Three Water Fairies.
Akari won’t be allowed to take on customers anytime soon. She first must learn every one of the old city’s quirks, myths, historic tidbits, and canals. She must learn how to row her massive gondola with both grace and speed, gliding through the water without a sound and with no visible effort. And she has to master her singing, because singing is what Aqua’s Undines are known for. At the Aria Company she helps her mentor conduct water tours of the city for tourists who may have only one chance at an Aqua vacation in their lives, able to answer any question, reroute around any obstacle, and cater to any request.
Have I mentioned that the world of Aria is absolutely gorgeous? I’ll mention it again. There is no world to be saved here, and the most omnipresent danger to apprentice Undines is the painful blisters that can make rowing excruciating until you’ve mastered the techniques being taught to you. Our apprentices must only learn their jobs, will only “battle” through friendly competitions, and in their free time row slowly through an untroubled paradise.
What makes this entry “fantasy,” instead of science fiction, is approach. The story of New Venice and duties of the Undines is only our entryway into a city and new planet that has something going on. Not something harmful; definitely something magical. Aria Company is home to a cat mascot who looks conspicuously not like a cat, a creature that is adorable, obviously understands humans, can use tools, wear clothes and respond to questions—and often disappears to do mysterious somethings of its own accord. Out of this strange mischief, we are often led down back allies that may or may not be really there, introduced to seemingly impossible circumstances that may or may not be real.
What is going on, in this ancient city on a brand-new colonized planet? Are the ghosts that Akari sees imaginary, or real? Are the cats of the city really cats? All of them? The lines between real and fantasy repeatedly blur, and while some of it can feel menacing, there is clearly no ill intent behind it all. It’s never explained, but by the end we have enough clues to believe that there is a something to the rebuilt Venice that humans aren’t a part of.
This one is family-friendly and then some. It’s unfortunately old enough that it’s formatted for narrower screens, slightly hampering it compared to the even lusher images of Kozue Amano’s printed masterpiece. But it’s still worth the trip, and the multiple later movies remove that old-screen fuzziness.
If you like Aria, you’ll probably like the author’s newer work quite a bit too. Amanchu! is a similarly slow-paced story about a school scuba diving club, and in episodes here and there the story hits several of the same themes. There are mysterious cats, and blurred boundaries between the real and the fantastical, and above all, of course, lavishly drawn seasides that make it possible to believe that all sorts of magic might be hiding just below the water’s surface.
That’s it for now. We’ll be putting together a few more of these this holiday season, all choosing new and old favorites of specific genres. You can pipe up with your own favorites, too. See you … in a few weeks, probably? Let’s go with that.