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.