Written by Robert Frazer on 04 Oct 2021
Distributor Kodansha Comics • Author/Artist Kousuke Satake • Price £10.99
The world of The Witch and the Beast is a fictional but modern one of cars and telephones, but also one which where the mundane is threaded through with the magical. Spells as sophisticated as suppressing noise in a private booth to as simple as securing a lock on a jewellery box, and both more and less besides, exist alongside trains and electric lights. Of course, magical solutions bring magical problems, and when mages and monsters run amok, who you gonna call? For The Witch and the Beast, it's The Order of Magical Resonance, a global collective of powerful sorcerers who can be hired as magical troubleshooters and whose impeccable reputation for brisk efficiency and embarrassment-sparing discretion is matched only by their... reassuringly expensive fees.
Two members of the Order of Magical Resonance are professional partners Ashraf and Guideau. Ashraf is a man who's tall, gaunt, and refined - everything the uncouth, loud and slovenly girl Guideau isn't. They're a peculiar pair, but the elegant and mannered metrosexual and the thuggish and belligerent riot grrl do have a reason to stick together, for Guideau has been cursed by the most terrible evil to stalk the land - a witch. Witches are supremely powerful sorceresses and universally cruel and malevolent, and whenever one breaks her cover death and disaster will soon follow. To undo the curse that has afflicted her Guideau needs to find the witch who first set it - and the fastest way to do that is to punch every witch into submission until she happens to smash in the face of the right one. As much as Guideau resents Ashraf curtailing her behaviour, Guideau needs Ashraf's own magical powers to penetrate witches' defences, while Ashraf... well, Guideau's ravenous appetite does give him something on which he can spend his money…?
The latest assignment for Ashraf and Guideau has them tracking down a witch in a big city - but it might be an easier hunt than expected because this witch isn't lurking and skulking and hatching secret plots, but living quite openly among the people. Astonishingly, the citizenry love the witch, praising her as a local heroine and their selfless protector. It must be a trick of some kind... mustn't it?
You can understand the people's possessiveness, though, because the witch does seem to be keeping intact a city that's very pretty. This is the standout feature of The Witch and the Beast - truly gorgeous architecture and scenery. The action of The Witch and the Beast takes place against a backdrop of broad boulevards, landscaped gardens and crystal-palace arboretums, Italianate colonnades, Regency terraces, Versailles chateaus and stately country manors, wrought-iron Victorian railway terminii and diverse other civic splendours. Even the skyscrapers are not just boxes of concrete but highly ornamented with baroque crenellations. Such ostentation is matched by the characters' wardrobes - absolutely noone in this manga is slobbing about in a T-shirt and cargo pants. Everyone is dressed to the nines in sharply-tailored suits and bulled-boot pressed-crease uniforms, and even Guideau can be wrestled into a nice dress when she and Ashraf are pounding the pavement on their investigations. Guideau has a comical overeating habit and poor table manners, but she's not cramming down hamburgers or "omurice" but lobsters and haute cuisine in silver-service restaurants.
This is the gimmick of The Witch and the Beast. It is a manga of pure spectacle, with explosive magical battles (it opens with a giant flying shark smashing through city blocks!) and characters screaming spells at each other to scenery-devastating effect – one which the detailed background art vividly contributes to, providing lots of extra material to be flung about from heaving crushing masonry to shredding blizzards of shattered glass. While sorcerers do not literally grade each other to A-Class, S-Class, or SSSSSSSS**-Class like the excesses of a manga like Tokyo Ghoul, a couple of battles nonetheless come down to one character boasting that she is simply so much more impossibly powerful than the other – in other words, powerlevels! The Witch and the Beast is to all intents and purposes a shonen battle manga – but it is a shonen battle manga which rather than having big-eyed anime heroes in thick-lined ink and white clear space, has instead cloaked itself in a velvet shroud of classiness, sophistication and fashionable style. I can envisage this manga as appealing to an older teenager who really quite enjoys shonen battles but is maybe starting to feel a little self-conscious that he ought to be growing out of cartoony kiddie fighting, or maybe an adult reader who is embarrassed to admit that condescending to shonen titles is beneath him – The Witch and the Beast is his get-out card, letting him enjoy the exhilarating excitement of such carefree manga while successfully disguising it a way to make it seem more detailed and mature.
Despite the implications of “maturity”, The Witch and the Beast is not at all a fanservice manga. In these two volumes there are only a couple of panels of purely anatomical nudity (a victim in a sacrificial pit in an early chapter and later on a body on an autopsy table) and there is pretty much zero sexuality throughout. While there is not any sex, it is compensated for by a surfeit of violence. Battles are incredibly bloody with all sorts of dismemberment and crimson splatter all over the scenery, although panels with particularly extravagant mutilating gore are usually shown in very dark grey tones to cast a discretionary veil over them. The only battle which strikes a bum note is early in Volume Two when Guideau punches out a magician, and that magician’s face swells up to absurdity with puffed-out nose, cheeks and lips – it’s a pure cartoon completely at odds with any of the surrounding pages, but it’s a rare slip-up and the action surrounding it remains intense.
Although the high-quality artwork and style is regarded as punching-up and puffing-up a simple story, it would be entirely unfair to call this manga “pretentious” either. There are some long expository dialogues about the operation of this world’s magical systems (although at least they are made against attractive backdrops, particularly an explanation of necromancy in volume two which is accompanied by a splendid triptych frieze) but there is no half-baked sophomoric meandering over witchery’s moral equivocation either – the sophistication stays confined to the backdrops. The one point where it does try to consider deeper implications is actually not a tedious but actually a fairly interesting one. The undead exist in this world, but they’re not mindless zombies but can look and act entirely like normal people. Someone has to volunteer to become undead, because pulling your soul out of the cycle of reincarnation back into your body means that you’re forever robbed of eternity and have nothing left but the material world for however long magic can make your revived shell last. Trust yourself to natural infinity or risk oblivion by embracing the certainty of the here and now – the choice is actually meaningful.
The Witch and the Beast is a well-balanced manga. It is straightforward, but dances along that path with lots of style. The ostentatious architecture grants the magical combat a stupendous sense of scale that makes its impact all the more impressive, and with both excitement for battle-manga fans and elegance for those just dipping their toes into the genre, you get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.
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