Updated: Aug 17
A magic-suffused world where witches live alongside those without magic, simultaneously sworn to secrecy about the true nature of their spells. Under the creases of their cloaks, they meticulously scrawl magic circles and sigils with special enchanted ink to invoke arcane ability. Everyone else believes those abilities are innate, but it is a well-guarded secret meant to avoid the wars and conflicts of days past.
A young girl called Coco is suddenly whisked away into this strange new world after accidentally casting a spell which turned her dear mother to stone. Now a group of wicked mages have their sights set on her for some unknown plot.
This is the premise of the manga series Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama. For those unfamiliar with manga, it is a Japanese form of media which is similar to American comic books and graphic novels. Each manga is typically combined into a series that tells an overarching story. The nature of the medium means that it can be challenging to find the specific volume of a manga that one is looking for due to supply chain reasons.
That problem is what happened to me. Though there are ten in the series, I haven’t been able to locate any past volume 4. I fully intend upon reading it to completion when I am able to do so, but I am awestruck by the level of craftsmanship that was put into these manga from what I have seen thus far.
Firstly, the art follows a conventional manga style. It is cartoonish in the exaggeration of physical features, with large, detailed eyes and hair, as well as longer and more slender proportions. Each manga has their own unique style that is iconic to that series. In the case of Witch Hat Atelier, the linework strikes me as particularly inspired.
There’s a seeming overabundance of strokes and cross-hatching, fine detail woven into the lines of the images. In both the cover art and the black-and-white comic pages, there’s an ombre effect applied to the coloring and grayscale filters that almost seems to resemble a watercolor brush. It reminds me of calligraphy, in a way, and I suppose that was intentional, considering the story.
One of the things that really shines about Witch Hat Atelier is the deep layers of worldbuilding and history that are embroiled into the narrative. It is centered around “the days of the pact,” where certain kinds of magic became forbidden. Memory magic was excluded, because witches will erase the memory of people who encounter any magic, in order to keep it secret.
However, all other body-focused magic, even healing, became forbidden. That leaves magical objects, or “contraptions,” as acceptable, as well as other types, like elemental magic. Witches help the non-magical world, providing the contraptions they create and helping to perform other miscellaneous tasks.
They have been shown to sometimes use their magic to defend outsiders from danger. Each witch undergoes an apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master witch. They must take tests to demonstrate aptitude and become independent witches.
Coco is an apprentice of Master Quifrey. She has internal conflict and struggles over the dark magic she experienced, as well as feelings of loss and grief over her mother. Despite that, she has a deep love for magic and is determined to learn enough magic to undo the petrification.
Though she isn’t particularly skilled overall, she is creative in the way she exercises her magic, finding novel solutions and methods of combining spells. Quifrey has complexity and character flaws that are slowly revealed over time. His goal is to defeat the Brimmed Caps, a group of witches that violate the pact and perform forbidden spells.
To that end, he is willing to do things that defy the laws of the Knights Moralis, the law-enforcing witches that deliver their flawed justice. Quifrey also wishes to glean whatever information about the Brimmed Caps he can from Coco and protect her from them, as well as the Knight Moralis.
Coco’s roommate Aggot is cold and uncaring initially, due to internalized insecurity, but warms up over time. There is also Quifrey’s callous friend Olruggio, and the apprentices Tetia and Richeh. This is a diverse cast of characters which encompasses various tried-and-true tropes.
Overall, the world of Witch Hat Atelier is rich and immersive. One cannot help but see it through Coco’s innocent, wonder-filled eyes as she takes in all the facets and nuances and works exceptionally hard at her studies. It is for this reason that I believe Witch Hat Atelier to be a modern classic, deserving of praise and many people enjoying this fascinating and enchanting story.