I don’t know about you, but I much prefer anime’s view of witches to our overriding cynicism towards them here in the west, and boy is it loving them lately. This year alone there’s been Makoto the Flying Witch, then Izetta: The Last Witch, and in the not-quite-a-simulcast camp there’s even been The Ancient Magus’ Bride. Next year, Little Witch Academia is making a comeback too. Within just the three 2016 shows, we’ve been treated to three completely different models and tones of witchcraft. But where did all these visions of the craft come from? The secret seems to be in the overlapping of eastern and western myth, with maybe a hint of each of their respective girl cultures.
In Japanese mythology the duality of a witch’s potential, for good or for evil, is more internalised and up to the witch themselves. This runs opposite to external influences, like the pact with the Devil in European myth, being used to incarcerate troublesome women and girls during the witch hunts. The evil witch we see in anime such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica arises from this western image, but Japan’s original folk figure of the Edo period is split in two. While some witches were believed to keep snakes as familiars, the far more prevalent others made deals with foxes. The fox (or ‘kitsune’) youkai in myth, which can also take the role of a ‘tsukimono’ or “possessing being”, are tricksters familiar even to us, using their shape-shifting powers to make fools of humans, and invariably bringing misfortune to the possessed and those around them. But they’re equally portrayed as faithful guardians and friends to humanity, though once linked with a witch they’re tarred as untrustworthy by proxy. The familiar is the wellspring of magical power here, but nonetheless, the implication in the fox’s nature is that they would act in either manner based on its master’s wishes. The bond would be the same for a kitsune-tsukai, who would feed and care for a fox in return for their gifts, or one from a tsukimono-suji family, whose fox-servants would be passed down through the generations.
Perhaps the most unifying strand in both the European and Japanese witchcraft myths is the presence of a cat. But unlike the morally ambiguous familiar of western witch folklore, it was said in Japan that cats seen near temples were witches in disguise. In this unassuming form, they would lie in wait for their young female prey to visit a temple after sunset. The witch would then become a sweet old woman, and invite the girl home to rest in a warm bed. Once the girl was inside, like the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the witch would take her natural, horrific form and devour her victim.
In certain anime, these various links between witch and familiar have become tangled up together, trickster and friend, cat and fox. While kitsune and tsukimono-suji have become beings of magical happenstance in romantic shows like Kamisama Kiss and Hakkenden, they’ve been largely replaced by the cat in the role of magic conducer, particularly in magical girl anime. Either that, or felines appear as the classic western familiar in the likes of Flying Witch and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In Sailor Moon, Luna awakens the Sailor Senshi to their powers, and provides the tools to channel their abilities. Madoka Magica’s Kyubey, on the other hand, lures vulnerable girls into a sparkly, rainbow-coloured Faustian pact with the promise of granting a wish. They become witch-slayers without a first thought to the origins of the evil they’re fighting, and so discover that the granting of a wish is a responsibility best kept to yourself, or left to the fates.
Perhaps some of the most intriguing witches seen in anime, though, are the entirely neutral ones in Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches. Some of the surprising number of students with witch powers have more selfish motives in their usage: student council vice-president Nene Odagiri, for one, uses her charming kiss to gain more votes in the presidential election. But for the most part, the witches and their investigators are simply going about their lives, using their powers as they will for any youthful obstacles that come their way.
Even though Yamada-kun is a slice-of-life, and therefore not at all fixed on battles between good and evil, the witches have an unintentionally positive influence on Ryuu Yamada as the series goes on. To begin with he’s a delinquent, bored of school and dedicating most of his time to intimidating other students. But when perfect scholar Urara Shiraishi, who harbours a secret crush on him, swaps their bodies with an accidental kiss, she plants in him a new thought; that there might be subtle reasons for how his schoolmates behave or misbehave.
From then on, Yamada starts some quiet consideration of why that might be for him, his lone wolf safeguard swayed as he’s coerced into the search for the witches of school legend. Whether moving around as the opposite gender, or trying the power out on curious guys, though initially reluctant, Yamada learns to accept what life in those bodies is like. It’s an example of wish-fulfillment we could all relate to, whether wanting to know what it would feel like to be somebody else, or to have a childhood enemy walk in your shoes for a day. Besides that, this anime seems one of very few to explore the strictly social powers of being part of a coven.
However the power comes to be, in Sailor Moon, Madoka, Yamada-kun, Izetta, Flying Witch or Magus’ Bride, they all focus on young women as their source, by nature or in their courage to undergo initiation. The emphasis is on the empowerment of (and by) magic and witchcraft, inherent in the ability to be a force for good by your own will. If there is one thing to be agreed upon in why real witches practice the craft, it’s that it makes them feel powerful and puts them in touch with their inner Goddess. The Maiden aspect of the Wiccan Triple Goddess holds as much influence as the Mother and the Crone, and so girls will be as drawn towards its applications as any other person, if not more so. Perhaps as an offshoot of women and girls’ empowerment in cuteness and innocence through kawaii, the white witch in particular is increasingly prevalent in anime as an extension of that power. Our romance with witches in the west, now more widely accepted as having equal potential for good and evil, has crossed over with Japan’s own myth; their intrinsic, innocent power of belief feeding into the purity of the witches we’re seeing gather in anime now.