Wandering Witch – Episode 1

Hello everyone, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am going to be attempting the impossible, by watching the first episode of a show while it is still actively airing, and thereby creating an article that might be of interest to anyone outside of hoary anime archivists. I know offering timely, relevant criticism of ongoing media is a little outside my wheelhouse, but I’m gonna try it this week, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Anyway, today’s topic of note is Wandering Witch, one of Fall 2020’s most promising prospects. Running down the key staff, we’ve first got director Toshiyuki Kubooka, who has few overall directorial credits to his name, but plenty of impressive attributions nonetheless: animation director on Gunbuster, storyboards on Giant Robo, and a fair few other notable highlights. Kubooka’s work on Gainax and Mitsuo Iso productions might well have introduced him to the show’s art director, Hiroshi Gouroku; meanwhile, series composer Kazukuyi Fudeyasu has an encouraging sprawl of credits to his name, including JoJo, Monster, and Land of the Lustrous. I don’t really know anything about this property itself beyond its reasonably pleasant previews, so let’s not waste any more time, and see what Wandering Witch is all about!

Episode 1

Opening on our presumed heroine as a young girl, who tells us that she loved reading of the adventures of Nike, a witch who traveled across the land

I am definitely a fan of the sort of travelogue narrative this opening is hinting towards – shows like Mushishi, Kino’s Journey, and Spice and Wolf are some of my favorites, and “every week we explore a new land” strikes me as one of the best structural uses of an episodic narrative

The character art isn’t particularly distinctive, but it’s certainly well-drawn, with convincing composite that makes solid use of blur and other after-effects, altogether making their cottage seem very cozy

It seems witches aren’t persecuted here – in fact, they’re a respected profession, with their own trade schools and everything

Ooh, I like these time-passing cuts of their house; the background art seems strong so far, and the speed of these cuts seems to imply this production has no shortage of resources, given how rapidly it’s willing to cut through these backgrounds

At fourteen years old, she became the youngest person to pass her country’s witch exam. Her “witch uniform” is basically just a sailor school uniform, which feels like a strange choice – like a choice made because that’s a popular design for anime heroines, not because witches in this world would actually dress like that

This show certainly has some nice food shots, which are another key part of a good travelogue

Elaina is wildly overconfident, which I like; she’s a child prodigy, of course she’d consider herself invincible

“To be considered a full-fledged witch, a novice must become an apprentice of an established witch.” Shades of Kiki’s Delivery Service in this witch work study model, as well as the seaborn nordic look of this beautiful city we’re hanging over. I would absolutely be down for a season-length version of Kiki’s Delivery Service; that film might be my favorite of Miyazaki’s

Nobody wants to take her on as an apprentice, because she’s fourteen years old, and who needs that hassle. Another solid story beat

I suppose her outfit is just her actual academy uniform, which she wears with pride, because she’s such a young graduate. So even in-universe, it’s a weird choice that says something about her character, rather than just pandering to seifuku fans

Elaina overhears her parents discussing the mysterious “Stardust Witch,” in what has to be one of the clumsier bits of exposition I’ve seen recently

Our Stardust Witch is running after butterflies while laughing and clapping in her yard. Sick treehouse, though

Extremely “oh shit I’m gay” shot-countershot for Elaina seeing this witch’s face

Oh dang, Stardust Witch has a powerful “arara~”

The witch knows of Elaina, but is still willing to take her on as an apprentice

Their introduction is accompanied by harpsichord trills. Is this show just “Elaina meets twelve cool older girlfriends”?

Fran is the Stardust Witch’s name

Oh wow, this little study in Fran’s treehouse is beautiful. It’s nice just enjoying the architecture in this world; the scenery effectively creates a slice of life-reminiscent tone of tranquility by itself, as you can easily see yourself spending long, lazy days in these surrounding

More gorgeous exterior shots of Fran’s awesome house. This show is pandering heavily to my desire to sneak away to a cottage in the woods and just live there forever

Elaina claims Fran isn’t teaching her anything, but she actually does seem to be picking up some alchemy fundamentals, even if it’s largely on her own time

Elaina Doesn’t Like Mushrooms. Some fine character acting here

Fran might actually just be teaching her patience, but getting a month of free labor can’t hurt, either

Yeah, Fran is definitely intentionally testing her patience

The partial closeups and oppressive sound of the rain set an appropriately ominous atmosphere for this test, leading into Fran’s declaration that they are going to battle

Also nice lighting and perspective work for Fran’s casting here. The somewhat exaggerated perspective does an excellent job of creating a sense of three dimensionality within this rocky field

Dang, this wind cutter animation is excellent! Once again, the show is demonstrating a remarkably fluency with post-processing and compositing effects, which fuse neatly with its relatively fluid character acting and dynamic direction. This scene is quite impressive, and it’s not impressive in a generically “cool” way – it feels messy and staggered and dangerous, just the way this scene is supposed to feel

Wow, all sorts of neat shifts in perspective here. I appreciate how well they’re using the rocks of this field to create a consistent sense of depth, even when they shift to actually tossing those rocks at each other as attacks

Oh my god, Fran’s just calling down lightning bolts now. I love how this cut builds tension across Elaina’s slow rise, as the sparking electricity in the background is contrasted against the slow, laborious movement of Elaina getting back on her knees. This show understands visual pacing extremely well; its cuts are always timed for maximum dramatic effect, and there are lots of moments like this, where the pacing of the character movements actually direct the drama

More neat digital overlays for Elaina’s fall, with these cuts actually using the blades of grass scattering around her as a way to create depth in the frame

The scene cuts to partial closeups as we focus on Elaina’s halting breath, and she begins to break down in tears. Fran, what did you think would happen if you completely obliterated this child prodigy’s ego?

Great work by Elaina’s actress, convincingly trying to swallow her tears

At last, Elaina can let it all out, and rage at Fran for mistreating her

I can understand Elaina’s feelings, but this feels too early in a series for this kind of swinging-for-the-fences emotional confession; I don’t know either Elaina or Fran well enough for it to feel particularly impactful

Ah, well, that at least explains Fran’s position: Elaina’s parents asked her to do this, and teach Elaina what failure feels like before she gets too old. That’s one of my favorite smaller moments from Madoka Magica: Madoka’s mother encouraging her to fail early, when the consequences of failure aren’t too high, and you can learn from it and bounce back. Though in this case, “we’re gonna have you tortured for a month” feels like a pretty absurd way to teach that lesson – and it also means we don’t really know Fran as a character, because she’s just been acting as her parents’ hired tormenter

This also explains why her parents loudly directed her towards the Stardust Witch from the other room. They were intentionally being awkward exposition loudspeakers

“You don’t have to endure everything. If you can’t stomach it, fight back.” Crucial advice from Fran. Elaina is competent enough to rise above a great deal of injustice, but she needs to assert herself if she’s going to survive

Oh god, now Elaina is asserting the heck out of herself left and right. She already had plenty of confidence Fran, now you’ve given her a backbone of self-respect, too

And so we rush through a year of training, until Elaina finally wins a fight, and earns her accreditation as a full witch

Elaina, the Ashen Witch

Oh no, her treehouse transformed back into a regular tree! GOODBYE BEAUTIFUL WITCH HOUSE, I LOVED YOU

Elaina’s dad being a big softy is a nice touch

At last, she gets her giant floppy witch hat

And Done

Well, that was a fairly charming premiere. I loved this show’s witchy background design, and that fight scene was unexpectedly impressive in all sorts of ways, from its clever use of digital effects and sound design, to the way it used dynamic camerawork and the uneven, boulder-strewn terrain to create a sense of depth. To be honest, though, I just don’t feel particularly hooked at the moment.

The biggest issue is probably that Elaina herself feels like a character that I’ve seen too many times before, and this episode’s dialogue wasn’t so distinctive as to make up for her familiar feelings – particularly since the big emotional moment hinged on a connection with Fran that had never existed before. Additionally, while the episode was competently executed on all fronts, there was little that felt genuinely inspired – no hook in the narrative or character writing, no novel worldbuilding conceits, and not so much aesthetic flourish that I can forgive it those absences. Wandering Witch seems like a perfectly pleasant show, but unless its writing gets a lot more interesting very quickly, I think this is where my wandering ends.

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