Seasons of the witch: the changing nature of witchcraft in anime

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.


Three tsukimono-suji in Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East

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.

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17 Comments on Seasons of the witch: the changing nature of witchcraft in anime

  1. Great post, and a great overview of the witch in Anime. A few months back I saw the Anime Brynhildr in the Darkness, which also did something a bit different with witches. I don’t know if you have seen the show, so I am going to avoid spoilers, but it was also something pretty unique. The show itself had it’s flaws (you can find a review for it on my blog), but was an okay watch in my book.
    Really liked reading this post (then again I always enjoy the posts on this blog lol), but it definitely told me a few things I did not know. I’m still waiting for Izetta to finish (I usually start shows after they are completed), but looking forward to it all the same. The show is getting mixed reviews, so I’m honestly not really knowing what to expect from it 😀 Keep up the great work !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 10, 2016 at 3:35 pm // Reply

      Yeah, we reviewed Brynhildr in the Darkness too! I liked its take on witches well enough, but for me that anime was just okay too. Watching Elfen Lied at the moment, that’s a far superior Lynn Okamoto adaptation. So schlocky, I love it 😆

      Aww, you 😚 Izetta has been a slow goer, but halfway through it started to pick up a bit more. Still keeps us coming back every week.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cool, that’s good to hear, because I really liked the storyline for that one. Glad to know it is still good enough yo watch. I’m currently in the middle of Alderamin on the Sky, and than (finally) it’s time for Psycho Pass 😀)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I was expecting to see the dimensional witch in here somewhere from Tsubasa Chronicles.
    I hadn’t really thought about how many witches there were in anime until reading this. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 10, 2016 at 3:45 pm // Reply

      Thanks 😊 That is an interesting example, one I didn’t even think to include. But I could easily have sat writing about witches till the cows came home if I’d let myself 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post makes me smile. It’s nice seeing witches portrayed in a positive way in shows like Flying Witch.The old green skinned, big hat, evil-spell-in-a-cauldron thing has been so overdone in the west.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 10, 2016 at 3:49 pm // Reply

      Totally, I’m sick of seeing wicked witches in our media. Even bloody Willow in Buffy had to ruin it and go dark to sex her character up. Flying Witch was the perfect relaxing Sunday anime, with just the right touch of wacky. It’s definitely one I’ll revisit if it doesn’t end up getting another season.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aye. I’m only half way through it thus far, but it’s been a wonderful ride thus far. Given the awareness around Paganism these days, you’d think here would be more representations of a similar nature by now.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 13, 2016 at 12:32 pm // Reply

          You certainly would, as it’s become even more of a widespread community in and of itself. Even if they don’t identify as Pagan, witchcraft is hot with so many people right now, those who practice it and those who don’t. I think part of the special mood of Flying Witch is that it’s in touch with that feeling of ritual, going about the everyday and finding something special within it.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for writing this! I have never really learned much about Eastern witches, so this was very informative and interesting!

    I actually plan to write a piece on witchcraft and Izetta. I want to compare Izetta and her powers to the actual, real religion of Western witchcraft, not the devil-worshiping stereotype.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Quite the informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loved reading this! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! I noticed this trend, too, but didn’t really give it much notice until you pointed it out in this post. Thank you! Others might see this trend as a romanticization of witches, in the same way we currently romanticize those hot and gorgeous vampires in this past decade. However, I think it’s for the good as it veers away from the black and white, good and evil portrayals, like you said. Anyway, I enjoyed this post. Thank you for submitting it to my blog carnival. Keep up the great work. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 19, 2016 at 4:53 pm // Reply

      Thank you! It’s great to see anything typecast explored in greater depth and more shades of grey, anime is especially wonderful for that. Glad you enjoyed, and it’s no problem. Like I said, it seemed silly not to as I happened to publish it during Carnival week.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I liked this post especially because it made me interested in Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, an anime series that was for me just another “boring overhyped harem” until then. I was wrong. It seems that popular harem anime nowadays are so much better (as in, deeper and with more of an actual story) than harem anime from ten years ago, how peculiar.
    Anyway, meanwhile, mahou shoujo is more geared towards men nowadays but then there’s this renewal of witch anime in a genre that’s not quite mahou shoujo, where the first witches anime emerged back in the 70s (maybe 60s?). I really enjoy these SoL about witch, like the ones you mentioned and Majokko Shimai no Yoyo to Nene. Funny that for me the mahou shoujo genre ended with Princess Tutu (because everything that came after was either too fetishist or too childish, and I say that as someone who likes Shugo Chara but I know it’s not for me). But I really like these “witches SoL” and I feel that it’s not odd for me, technically a josei, to enjoy these. I know nothing about witches but I find it really funny how Japan, as a country with a very developed non-christian culture, avails them. ^_^
    Thanks for this insightful post and best regards!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 31, 2016 at 1:17 pm // Reply

      Yamada-kun is definitely worth a watch, especially if you’re looking for a genuinely sweet and touching romance. I wasn’t expecting it to explore love and sexuality in such depth when I started watching, so it was a wonderful surprise. It does seem like these kinds of shows are making more of an effort to be inclusive for their audience, which naturally leads to more interesting stories. I’ve been happy to see that much more in recent anime.

      Besides Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I certainly haven’t found many new maho shojo series I’m interested in, but you’re right, it seems the witch is coming in to spark the revival of a more empowering magical girl. Flying Witch was one of my absolute favourites from this year, partly because I love how real Makoto is. It’s something special when you meet a character you could see yourself hanging out with and learning from. She’s brilliant.

      That’s why I wanted to look into it, I was wondering how the western idea of the witch was taken to heart by Japanese pop culture. Considering the surprising amount of crossover between the separate witch myths, and the more modern kawaii factor witches have taken on in the west, it’s really not all that strange.

      You’re so welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed reading!


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