Published by Kodansha Comics, Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier stars one Coco, a young girl with a fascination for the magic that exists within her world. Unfortunately for her, magic is something only possessed by those born with it, and she has not had that privelege. When a witch named Qifrey visits her mother’s shop, Coco discovers that magic might not be nearly as unreachable for her as she was led to believe. But this knowledge comes at a cost, one that may not be worth the value of what she receives…
A central theme throughout this volume is “deserving.” Witches across its medieval world have collectively hidden the fact that magic is usable by anyone with the knowledge of how to do so, supposedly as a result of the conflict which the power led to in past eras. They accomplished this by altering the memories of those not counted within the(and this is a direct quote) “few good souls” who did not use magic for evil. While Qifrey himself is estranged from this order, he maintains some affinity for its teachings, accepting Coco only when necessary for his own aims; similarly, one of the prominent conflicts in the volume is with one of Coco’s fellow apprentices, Agott, who doesn’t believe the outsider should be allowed to join their ranks.
At no point does the story outright rebuke these ideas. That said, there’s a darkness to them which leads to a certain ambiguity. The present-day witches ban any magic which alters the mind-states of other human beings, except memory-erasing magic. It’s quite easy to read this as an attempt to maintain their own power as a class in a very Harry Potter-esque way, one which, while perhaps benevolent in theory, is far more priveleged in practice. The inciting incident of the story, a dangerous spell Coco accidentally casts, was provided to her by a member of a rival witch group, one which seemingly takes issue with the so-called “Great Hall.” Of course, none of this is resolved in this volume, and it would be easy for it to ultimately validate the perspective of the mainstream witches. Even if it did, however, it presents an interesting question of merit, one which enriches Coco and her fellow cast members.
However, while the writing of this manga is certainly interesting, it’s far from the primary draw. No, that’s the art, which is probably what you heard about if you’ve seen this series mentioned at all, and for good reason. Shirahama first became popular in the west for the covers she’s drawn for the Big Two, and that skill more than carries over here. Every frame is meticulous, employing a style which favors small dots and dashes to create shapes, rather than discrete lines, employing a lived in and almost worn effect to the art. The result of this is constant beauty, with everything from the backgrounds to the characters stunning.
Even more impressive, perhaps, is her knowledge of how to bend the rules of comic formatting. Take, for instance, the paneling. Rather than stick to rectangular panels, Shirahame frequently employs the use of rounded boxes. Furthermore, she liberally allows characters to extend beyond these, into the outer frame itself. This helps create a magical feeling, as if this manga genuinely contains things that our world does not. Furthermore, it emphasizes the magic system of the world, which runs on precise drawings of complex runes. Entire pages are regularly made to look like maps or scrolls from some lost medieval monastery. Even when using simpler techniques, the paneling is stellar; it’s incredibly effective when the reader turns to this two-page spread and sees the dragon which extends beyond the frame, threatening our apprentices.
This art is, quite frankly, a strong enough selling point on its own that no narrative or thematic intrigue would be necessary to justify its purchase. Yet, as in all cases, these elements feed into one another, and with a story which contains the potential for fascinating material with time, I can only encourage this purchase more heavily. Witch Hat Atelier’s one-of-a-kind visuals and promising writing make it a necessary pick-up for anyone with even a passing interest in fantasy manga.