The magical school in anime reflects a long-standing tradition of Japan plucking hidden (or not so hidden) gems from children’s literature. Harry Potter would come to visibly influence Little Witch Academia right from its original 2013 short film, with its quirky students, eccentric teachers and hidden secrets blending so well with the anime gospel of the power of love, friendship and loyalty. Akko Kagiri believes she is heading to Luna Nova Magical Academy to follow in the footsteps of her idol, the megastar witch Shiny Chariot. But in truth she is there to find friendship and a whole new reason to pick herself back up again when she fails—repeatedly.
For Akko, the magic doesn’t come to her naturally. But in the same way a generation of readers and viewers saw Harry use his unique perspective on magic to solve mysteries and defeat evil, Little Witch Academia let its female lead flounder, stumble and take a very human journey to discovering her own sense of worth. Comparing this to Potter, and how Hermione Granger’s ultimate victory was bagging Ron while waving the flag for Harry, it becomes obvious why seeing witches flourish together felt so refreshing as Little Witch Academia came to popularity with its first full TV series in 2017. This was magic made for girls, but not as 90s-esque outsiders in The Craft and Sabrina style. This was young witches certifiably getting ahead, setting themselves up for true power in adult life.
Since the medieval days of Merlin, magic has been a boys’ club. The magic school in anime, and the children’s fiction it draws from, has served us that same constraint for the most part. Before the strains of Potter were seen in Little Witch Academia, Studio Ghibli adapted the first four books in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series as an animated movie released in 2006. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea may be the birthplace of the magical boarding school trope we recognise now, as well as setting up the archetypal wizard as a protagonist in his own right. It sees leading man Ged come to blows with his darker self, as Harry Potter would do later in battle with Lord Voldemort. But it also continued the trope of magic as a man’s realm. Just as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling would come to disappoint her readers in her books’ lack of diversity and empowerment for women and girls, Le Guin has pointed out how her Earthsea failed women, saying “from my own cultural upbringing, I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard”.
The great wizard Merlin has a respected standing in the mind of any young magic-obsessive, and so it’s often the boys who have foremost access to arcane knowledge in the otaku realms. A Certain Magical Index is one such example, where the incredible female entrants into Tohma Kamijou’s life are there for his support. In an alternate human existence where magic is commonplace, whether through scientific intervention, book-smarts or natural ability, it’s not as though he needs these allies to balance his own lacking. In fact, though he is an Esper, one of those magicians born of science, he has one of the most unusual powers in existence – the Imagine Breaker, which negates all other magical abilities and drains his own luck in the process.
In Index, magic school recedes to become part of the drudgery of the everyday once again. When everyone has a special power, the only outstanding person is the one without, i.e. Tohma with his kind of anti-power. It’s an odd kind of imagining which sets the average guy as the downtrodden one, in many ways as ‘normal’ as every single otaku watching his exploits. The magic which has freed so many sets this everyman two steps behind. And yet at no point is he really left wanting of social acceptance, as he gets by on wit, charm and good humour about his own averageness.
Blade Dance of the Elementalers shows us the opposite side of the coin, in which Kamito is the first guy to wield the abilities of an elementalist, where for 1000 years before this privilege has only been granted to girls. Cue harem antics and risqué run-ins as he trains to wield his power alongside droves of schoolgirls at Areishia Spirit Academy. And we see this empowerment of the male magician against all odds again in The Irregular at Magic High School. Tatsuya Shiba accepts his place beneath his sister Mitsuki as a second-rate magic user. Mitsuki is all set up to take over the Yotsuba clan, one of ten which rule over all of Japan’s magicians, and by comparison Tatsuya is inept. However even here the female protagonist is held back from claiming her power. Through his unique abilities and technical learning, Tatsuya is considered an ‘irregular’ in terms of the school’s power rankings, making him yet another powerful wizard by virtue of being special and trying his very best.
As these stories of magical awakening and adventure grow braver in their inclusion of girls, beyond the manic pixie or stick-up-her-backside stereotypes, even weirder and more wonderful stories about magic schools start to appear. In 2014 we were given Cute High Earth Defence Club LOVE!, all about five magical boys who are part of Binan High’s Earth Defence Club. All is going very sweetly for these boys until they are forced to become Battle Lovers and defend the planet against the villainous Earth Conquest Club. And so the struggle between love and hatred rises again, though perhaps never before in such a cute and feminine context.
The gentleness of these magical boys is hardly ever present in magical anime which feature male characters. More often than not, magic is framed as a tool for claiming vast power over others, while in all-girl shows for a young female viewership it’s fluffy and impractical. Little Witch Academia makes magic explosive, dark, powerful and invaluable in finding one’s own strength, as does Mary and the Witch’s Flower. This first feature film from Studio Ponoc, which was founded by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, continues in the Ghibli tradition of cherry-picking from works of young adult and children’s literature. The film is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, and follows the life of a young girl, also called Mary, who finds a flower that grants her a witch’s magic for a night. Where Le Guin was searching for her professional niche as a female writer in a male-dominated genre when she wrote the first Earthsea books, little Mary is the creation of a more personal yearning for adventure and belonging. These sentiments are echoed in so many magical stories up to, including and beyond the Potterverse. But still the school of magic is only just opening its doors for girls to claim their power.
Quite by accident, Mary gets the chance to attend a college for witches among the clouds. But in true fairytale fashion it’s for one night only, and afterwards Mary must use the extraordinary lessons she’s learned to define herself without magic’s convenience. Stories like these show young women learning their place how to use the established power-seeking in magic to find their own way instead. The magical school might always be the boys’ arena, but the witches will always find a third path between ultimate power and ultimate evil.