Every year the Japanese government holds the Young Animator Training Project, subsidising anime studios to produce a number of "Anime Mirai" - short films on which new animators arriving into the industry can cut their teeth. The free government bung gives studios the liberty to experiment with formats and try new stories outside of the regular-and-reliable high school rom-com shenanigans of most other anime, and while these experimental pieces don't often have the popular strength to carry over to full-length projects - to date only one, 2013's Death Billiards, has been extended to a series as this year's Death Parade - the Young Animator Training Project nonetheless treats us each year to an eclectic and fascinating anime quartet.
One of Death Billiards' companion pieces in 2013 was the movie Little Witch Academia, produced by the fledgeling studio Trigger. There was already a considerable amount of interest in Trigger given that it was formed by a group of GAINAX alumni, including big names like Hiroyuki Imaishi (director of fan-favourite Gurren Lagann and the ribald Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt) and Masahiko Otsuka (who's AD'd on shows as diverse as Neon Genesis Evangelion to Mahoromantic), but the release of Little Witch Academia reassured us that Trigger was not to be dismissed as a the lead singer abandoning the band and making an ill-advised decision to go solo, but instead coming into their own as a real act to follow. Bright, cheerful and invested with a sense of childlike wonder and bouncy cartoony vitality, it was an unexpected and delightful treat. Its wide-ranging appeal was clearly demonstrated when Trigger began a Kickstarter later in July that year: when they announced that they had some money left over from the Young Animator Training Project but needed a bit more to produce a sequel animation, the response was truly incredible - the Kickstarter went viral, the initial target of $150,000 was hit in just five hours and viewers ultimately pledged $625,518, more than quadruple what was asked for!
Not only was the Kickstarter drive a huge success for Trigger and Little Witch Academia, it's likely that it opened the floodgates for Under the Dog (which after a plug from Hideo Kojima overtook Little Witch Academia and exceeded $800,000 in pledges), Robert Woodhead's AnimEigo re-releases, and a host of other anime Kickstarters good and bad that followed. There's even now a marketing company, Awesome Japan, which exists to promote Japanese Kickstarters in the West, and which recently hit the big time with the huge multi-million Shenmue III Kickstarter drive. There were only two other anime Kickstarts before Little Witch Academia: the modest and small-scale project Kick Heart and the Blu-ray edition of Time of Eve, which while proportionately a bigger achievement (pledged $215,433 on a $18,000 target) was still relatively low-key and 'indie'; Trigger on the other hand was a big name making a big splash that got everyone wet. This show about magic has conjured up quite a storm!
The thing about Kickstarters though is that once the initial hubbub of excitement has passed there's a long period of awkward-cough silence until the products emerge. While Little Witch Academia's production plodded along quietly and hasn't had nearly so troubled a development as Under the Dog, it's nonetheless been two full years from the day I handed over my own pledge until the results came out. Earlier this summer though Trigger finally revealed what has been bubbling in their black cauldron at the Anime Expo in Los Angeles with a special preview showing of Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade, also privately streamed on Vimeo for all backers. Anticipation is certainly high, and now that the Kickstarter rewards are being delivered and packages are appearing in our mailboxes for the final release, have Trigger pulled the rabbit out of the hat, or have they fumbled out the card deck all over the floor?
Akko is continuing her studies at the Luna Nova witchcraft school. Some time has passed since defeating the dragon in the first episode and unfortunately any kudos Akko accumulated from saving the day then has long been spent on excusing her clumsy bumbling now. Her long-suffering roommates - the bookish Lotte and the winnowy Suzy (sorry, SUCY) - often find themselves as collateral damage in her misadventures and when Akko creates another explosive catastrophe in the alchemy lab the three of them once again get a carpet parade. However, the punishment this time isn't a rap across the knuckles with the headmistress's wand but something a bit peculiar - they're assigned the task of organising the witchcraft culture parade at the neighbouring town's annual festival. This is strange - why is Akko, a seemingly congenital magical screw-up, being given such a big task?
The answer is that it's actually a very back-handed sort of compliment. The witches' participation in this memorial of the past witch-hunting era is less an opportunity for them to strut their stuff to the modern world and more a humiliating reminder of the bad old days - the failing pupils who get volunteered for the task by the faculty each year find themselves dressed like crones, locked in the stocks, pelted with rotten fruit and dunked in the pond, indignities they're expected to loyally suffer in the name of Heritage.
This realisation nothing short of outrages Akko - following the inspiration of her adored idol, the dazzling magical showgirl Shiny Chariot, it's Akko's goal in life to make the general public love, respect and be astounded at magic once more. She's determined then to turn this booby prize on its head and make the culture parade something that won't make the townsfolk jeer with contempt but instead make them cry in amazement. You can't fault Akko for her enthusiasm but there's the rather trickier issue of her competence... can she get Lotte, Sucy and the other troublemakers and tearaways of Luna Nova that have been consigned to the parade project to share her vision, and will they put up with her foul-ups long enough for them to see it through?
From the outset Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade looks gorgeous and the visual treats that bedecked the original are also in abundance here. The painterly backgrounds are a pleasure to look at in and of themselves, and they aren't just pretty landscapes but can convey a bit of environmental storytelling too - for instance, Shiny Chariot's not the only celebrity who's got a fan, with posters in the background for "Witch Knight" in the girls' dorm. On top of this background detail the cheerful cartoony style that made the first Little Witch Academia so appealing continues in fine form in The Enchanted Parade. The characters are wonderfully and vividly expressive, the springy and elastic animation bouncing and contorting bodies and faces into a whole range of remarkable reactions. Animation is smooth and fluid (all that Kickstarter money has been spent well!) and there is dynamic use of the camera in action sequences without compromising details, including some chase sequences and quieter sections too as it pans around sumptuously to take in Akko's parade and the well-timed troupe of dancing broomsticks that are an entertaining shout-out to another cartoony magician-in-training in Fantasia. Good camera work even stretches to smaller scenes, such as how a long pan across a row of the girls fumbling around with dancing practice suddenly sweeps to the left to keep us off-balance just like Akko and her two left feet.
The story is simple but sweet. The set-up is great - the passive-aggressive nature of Akko's punishment is actually very English when you think about it (the nation that is ever the master of oblique understatement, until Lord Sugar came along you were never "fired", merely invited to consider your position). Akko's reaction is also honest and heartfelt, and you can feel for her frustrations when her admirable drive hits walls. You can feel for everyone else's exasperation at her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to problem-solving too - they are believable youthful hangups for a cast that are after all still children. There's a good contrast shown in this episode between Akko and Lotte, who back in the first story was a pretty anonymous figure. In redesigning the parade Akko gives Lotte the role of Project Manager because she's struggling to think of how the quiet Lotte stands out with a specific constructive role. Lotte's feeling as though Akko's dragooning her and her desire to find a quiet space where she can exhale into - which a well-meaning but short-sighted Akko blunders into and destroys - is an affecting segment, as is the follow-up when Akko think it's just another pratfall that can be laughed off before she's made to realise that no, it has genuinely hurt someone. The resolution to this arc is a bit pat - Lotte's too good-natured to stay mad, basically - but the reconciliation does still tug the heartstrings.
The new characters though are sketched pretty thinly - Amanda for instance is introduced as though she's supposed to be a bit of a riot grrrrl but in practice she's a fairly bland and compliant helper and the gluttonous Jasmineka's only real role in the whole story is to feed Akko a Happy Sweet to get her fired up for a scene. Still, I don't want to judge them too harshly - this is only a short feature after all and they'll probably get more time to establish their distinctiveness if Little Witch Academia ever goes to series as Lotte had the opportunity to here in The Enchanted Parade. Also, these characters do still provide the set-up to more great animation sequences - the taciturn technophile Costanze uses her magic to motivate transformers, Amanda shows off with an attractive gymnastic dance sequence that leads into some more comedy as the other girls fumble around with their broomsticks trying to imitate her, and when Akko does eat that Happy Sweet we get a taste of the same exhilarating emotion as she spins and jumps around the room. Diana's role in this story is also a bit of a disappointment. One of the most charming and delightful features of the original Little Witch Academia was her secret fandom (go back to the opening scene at Shiny Chariot's magic show and see who else is in the audience besides Akko) but here she pretty much reverts to type as a snotty queen-bee with her gaggle of groupies. Well... this is an anime after all, she's also got a bit of tsun-tsun going on too. There's also an error in the dialogue when Suz... Sucy refers to the witch-hunts "of the Middle Ages". Now despite the persistent stereotype of the backwards Middle Ages and enlightened Renaissance, the witch-hunting era was actually more of a modern phenomenon than a medieval one and really got going in the 16th century. That last one is just a bit of a hobby-horse of mine than a real problem though, it's a fantasy story rather than a historical treatise after all.
Speaking of dialogue, the translation of The Enchanted Parade is surprisingly good. I have to admit that as this was coming straight from Japan instead of being localised through a licensing company I was a little anxious about having to decipher the story through a mess of Engrish (although Akko's spelling needs some work, as she writes out posters for the "Prade"!), but as it happens the subtitles are capable and coherent throughout, with even background chatter for additional colour and Lotte's song getting translated. The only issue is that the downloadable version for backers is hardsubbed, which made it a pain to collect screenshots for this review, but the on-disc version has multiple subtitle options for several languages and you can even watch it raw and unsubtitled as well.
As much as I might be reluctant to criticise something that I dropped over a hundred bucks on, it has to be said that The Enchanted Parade isn't perfect. The music in particular is the weakest part of the show - it's a shame, because Trigger established a reputation for great music with the incredible knock-your-socks-off triumph of the Kill la Kill soundtrack (something else that I quite happily spent money importing) and even if their new ONA Ninja Slayer hasn't been setting NicoNicoDouga alight its ending themes are doing alright in the Japanese charts. However, The Enchanted Parade doesn't keep that up - although the light classical music sounds pretty good in isolation on the soundtrack CD that's included with the Kickstarter disc edition and it can be enjoyed in that respect on the actual show there are whole tranches, even dramatic scenes, which are distractingly devoid of music, and where it is present it's just a barely-audible background ambient theme which trills along merrily enough (when you can hear it) but doesn't leave much of an impression - it could have done with some higher levels. Outside the beginning of the parade sequence, which is a jaunty little hornpipe, it doesn't always cohere with the action. That said though while the music doesn't stand out the sound effects are absolutely great at all points, from the twinkling chiming flourishes of waving wands to more subtle environmental details too - for instance, when a teacher praises Diana for casting a difficult spell, there's a sudden rattle of floorboards as Diana's groupies realise they're on-call and hastily rush into position to pose for her magnificence. Other shows might have just done a quick xylophone scale as the bodies slide across the camera, but Little Witch Academia goes further and deeper suggesting character and setting in even the smaller details.
Back when I watched the online version earlier in the summer there was one disappointing feature - Little Witch Academia could be an all-ages show that can be freely shown to younger audiences... if it wasn't for just one badly misjudged shot where Amanda flips the bird at the camera. It's incredibly frustrating - maybe telling someone that they can spin on your digit isn't considered to be so strong an obscenity in Japan but however brief it is many parents I know wouldn't tolerate their children seeing even a glimpse of it. It's such a shame - like the completely unnecessary topless shot of Sonoshee in Redline, less than five seconds of footage taints and excludes over fifty minutes of animation! Fortunately Trigger has responded to criticism here though and in the new disc version Amanda giving the finger has been pixellated over - it's a bit of a clumsy sticking-plaster over the problem and not ideal compared to a redraw, but at least it takes off the edge and makes it more accessible again.
According to some of the supplementary materials surrounding the video the witchcraft school that Akko attends is in England - if Tattun, who operates the Trigger Twitter account, has any authority on these things it's supposedly just outside Bristol - but the girls aren't having their adventures around the Wills Tower or the Corn Street Nails, the general architecture of the town is not at all British but a lot more European in style, and the mayor is flanked by a pair of U.S. Secret Service G-Men, complete with shades and earpieces. Really the only indications of the setting is that Akko uses a Union flag as an improvised parachute during a fall and a couple of the monsters that appear at the climax have grown out of an old red phone booth and pillar-box. I hasten to stress that this stuff isn't a criticism - it doesn't have any negative bearing on the story and it looks great and highly-detailed whatever the style - just an observation.
There are a couple more significant plot holes though. It comes up that the Sorcerer's Stone, the great magical power-source that the dragon tried to eat back in the first movie, only has an effective range of the school grounds and any witch who goes abroad will run out of mana quickly without the stone to replenish it. While this does provide a reason for the Shiny Rod, artefact of Akko's beloved Shiny Chariot, to come back into the story as a fuel source it does limit Trigger's options for future adventures. It makes the study of magic pretty pointless if a witch can only cast enough flame to light a cigarette before her pointy hat starts drooping. I worry that Trigger may be painting themselves into a corner here. Secondly it seems weird and inconsistent that the general public are so flippant about and indifferent to magic when they know it's a fact and feature of the world - problems start when the mayor decides to bulldoze a sealing stone even when he's told that it's holding back an ancient demon.
One of the appeals of Little Witch Academia is its easygoing, light-hearted, refreshing nature without an ounce of bad feeling to sour it. It's a heartwarming and cleansing tonic and the same flavour is shown in The Enchanted Parade, albeit to something of a fault - when the parade is interrupted by a monster attack they don't really spread much terror beyond a blink-and-you'll-miss-it street performer getting singed - there's a mouth growing out of the mayor's teacup and it doesn't even nip his nose. The action is interrupted so the girls can have a bit of a moment together and when the big bad is revealed it literally just stands there - surely it could knock over a couple of chimney pots at least? - and when it's defeated by the Power Of LoveTM you can feel your teeth rotting on all this sugary Pretty Cure schmaltz. All in all they might have over-egged the pudding with the sweetness and light. Still, again it must be emphasised that even if it's not really the most dramatic sort of confrontation it's nonetheless a beautiful one.
Also included in the disc version of The Enchanted Parade is a making-of feature. It's a long film - at 45 minutes it's about the same length as the actual anime - and for the first ten minutes you might think that you're in for a lot of self-congratulatory back-slapping fluff. You have to be fair to them though... when the narrator coos about the level of detail director Yoshinari is putting into a drawing then yes, it is honestly that detailed! Keep watching, and you do actually progress into the properly interesting nitty-gritty of anime creation, for instance watching over Yoshinri's shoulder as he revises storyboards of a climactic scene from something quite different to what you see in the movie to the final product, along with stop-motion sequences comparing the anatomy of body movement between original and revised versions and a producer fuming at a procrastinating director which makes you realise that this year's Shirobako, an anime about the trials and tribulations of an anime studio, was more true-to-life than you'd have thought. "Did you enjoy it?" "Nope... I feel pretty dead inside" is one of the memorable exchanges between the bedraggled staff at crunch time and a stark contrast to the irrepressible magical splendour of the anime itself! In the rush to get the anime out the door in time for the deadline there has been one significant oversight on the disc edition too - while the anime has several chapter markers that you can cycle through with the forward and back buttons as normal, there's no "scene selection" mode on the front menu to let you preview these and start from a specific point.
So once we've seen all the effort that went into making it, has Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade been worth the wait? Most certainly yes. The fresh, happy spirit that made the original so joyful and uplifting carries you on to higher levels here. I don't regret backing The Enchanted Parade - pledging for something sight-unseen might always be a gamble, but gambles can still turn up trumps and this one paid off. Most of my criticisms from the review above are really just small niggles and matters of personal taste than anything really substantive, and with the effort made to smooth out some of the online version's problems of Amanda's hand-gesture and more flexible soft subtitles it's helped elevate it into something truly magical.