It’s no surprise that I love reading fantasy! However, there’s one series in particular that reminded me how it can be such a multifaceted genre that not only delivers on telling a profound story, but also the whimsy & wonder that comes with the imagination that author’s bring to their fantasy worlds.
The series I am incredibly delighted to be talking about today is the Witch Hat Atelier manga by Kamome Shirahama. The Harvey and Eisner-award winning series (2016) tells the story of Coco a girl whose love for magic, awakened a dream that she hopes to one day become a witch. However, not being born with magic, she’s keenly aware at how impossible that dream is. Until she meets a traveling magician named Qifrey and through certain circumstances, embarks on her journey as an apprentice to become a witch.
Today, not only will there be a detailed list of reasons as to why you need to pick up this manga, but I’ll also showcase some of the masterful artwork that brings so much to the story.
1. The storytelling is in the artwork
If you’ve heard about this manga in any capacity, you’ve most likely seen or gathered that something setting this series apart, is the breathtaking artwork.
Shirahama’s inspirations are clearly influenced from artists like Moebius, in addition to illustrations from 19th & 20th century children’s books which elevates that fairytale-esque quality to how she presents the art across each volume.
Another key element of her artwork is not only in the details, but if you’re familiar with manga layout, you can see throughout her panels, Shirahama delivers a wholly one-of-kind composition to her framing. With every installment, she presents particular points within the plot with gorgeously illustrated frames, representing the current environment or using materials (stone, paper, wooden frames) to showcase a symbolic, personified frame that further illustrates the scene. The same can be said with her beackgrounds of the Zoza Peninsula, from the witch town of Kalhn, famed Great Hall or the mysterious Tower Of Tomes, all of which make the world feel grand, lived-in.
Similar to the drawing-like magic system of the series, the artwork especially within the first few volumes clearly introduce Shirahama’s visual mastery in how she presents her artwork on the page. Paneling or artwork hierarchy was never an element I ever gave much thought to, but after reading this series it’s given me a new, extraordinary perspective to see how it is essential in visual storytelling.
The artwork is never contained exclusively to just the panel boxes, there’s moments throughout the series across its 10 volumes thus far where the illustrations are presented in a stylized panel box, adding this particular feel that they are interacting with the story in real time, treating the artwork as though its a character within her world.
Below are some of the many gorgeously illustrated panels that showcase the way Shirahama treats her artwork as its own character within the WHA universe. She gives them personality, making sure you observe just how essential the artwork is in further bringing the story to life.
2. Innovative Magic System
I continue to be in awe of the the way Shirahama approaches the magic system within this series, a great advantage is the fact that its published as a manga and continues to be updated monthly, where the details can continue to grow & expand across each volume.
But what is the magic system exactly? Well it’s based in drawing, specifically through illustrating the magic in a particular pattern: a sigil in the center which (initially) utilizes the basic elements such as fire, earth, wind and water, followed by markings which further illustrate the particular spell through additional elements as well as strength, completed by the outer ring known as a seal. Through intense learning and application they can be innovative tools for any number of creative spells.
However, a main component of this magic system is that only witches are allowed to see how it’s cast and regular non-magic folk are forbidden from seeing, to protect the safety of magic society (or so it seems upon first glance).
Particularly what makes this magic system within the world such a delight to explore, is the emphasis on the apprentices (Coco, Agott, Tetia and Richeh) who at every step of their journey, learn new skills and embrace their individual talents, which are further fostered through Qifrey’s teachings that enable them to confidently grow as witches.
Creativity becomes essential in the girls training as they encounter obstacles or problems, going outside the basics of their knowledge to utilize their personal skills to innovate and try something new with magic.
Whenever new rules are explored or applied during a particular chapter/arc, it not only critically considers the steps that came before, but expand in ways you never considered. It makes the magic seem as much of an intricate learning process as much as it’s also simply the wonder of art as the initial idea began when the author was told by a friend that “the process of bringing an illustration into the world seemed just like magic.” (Author acknowledgements, WHA 1, 2019).
3. Strong Ensemble Cast of Characters
Every character that gets introduced throughout the series continues to command my attention! Coco, the protagonist, represents this wonder and excitement for magic similar to that of the reader as she is technically an outsider to this part of the world. While across the series continuous run, she is the exceedingly adorable, sympathetic heroine through which we first experience the world, what I particularly love is how Shirahama continues to recognize and reflect Coco’s kindness + youth in how she reacts to tense situations or further allow us to see in-depth reflections of the cast.
Next is Qifrey, a magician who finds himself taking Coco under his wing to train her as a witch, when an accident forces her to leave her home behind. What he represents in a rather subtle way throughout the series is the confidence he has for the students unique talents, ensuring they not only take the time to cultivate or nurture the foundations, but also recognize that their youth doesn’t deter from their intellect as witches, never undermining their knowledge but allowing them to recognize their potential with each new challenge. He is easily one of my favorite characters, not only because of his alluring persona, but also the mystery and deeper threads to his character arc that the mangaka has just delved into. Next are Qifrey’s apprentices Agott, Tetia and Richeh, who each came from a former home or teacher where, for whatever the reason was, their talents were stifled. You see each apprentice gets their moment to shine initially at the start of the series and you learn a bit more about their past. However, as the plot goes on you see there’s still so much more about them to understand.
The world of WHA ensures you meet characters from all these different sides, making for a compelling ensemble cast. Olruggio, Qifrey’s childhood friend and watchful eye of the atelier, using his skills to not only assist the students, but also help a myriad of villagers with magical requests involving an invention of some kind. Then there’s Alaira, a skilled high-ranking witch who resides in the Great Hall. She’s a dear friend to Qifrey and Olruggio, lending a hand to their apprentices exams when possible and a representative of the life Qifrey left in the infamous Hall when he decided to train apprentices.
The Knights Moralis, led by Easthies, captain of his squad. The knights are the balance in the world essentially, with their job to erase memories of those who by accident uncover the secrets of magic. Its interesting see how they are perceived as the chapters continue & their overall role in the world. Next are a few particular characters who become friends to the apprentices who’ve become some of my favorites!! There’s Tartah, grandson of Mr. Nolnoa, who runs a magical supply shop called The Starry Sword and becomes a dear friend to Coco. Euini, an apprentice to witch Kukrow, whose failed one of his tests and suffers from severe anxiety, which is showcased in how he carries himself (due to a lack of confidence), performance on tests, but also his master’s lack of support. Then, Custas a traveling preformer whose saved by Coco in an early arc of the series, who becomes a dear friend to Coco & Tartah, but also has his own unique arc as the story progresses.
On the side of antagonists, there’s the Brimmed Caps, a secretive group of witches who dabble in forbidden magic. Stirring up a bit of trouble for the heroes, what makes them compelling is the why in their motivations to continue practicing this type of magic and what exactly their end goal is….and how Coco is involved.
Despite having 10 volumes already, there’s much more to understand about these characters and though the story introduces a myriad of protagonists, antagonists and those in-between, you are left so intrigued as to where their journeys are headed with every new chapter.
4. Themes and Ideas
Though a few of these are presented specifically within the text, many of these themes here can be picked up from interpretation and have been expressed as “canon” by the fandom, but again is up to your own interpretation.
An ever present theme of the world of Witches here is privilege. When the secrets behind magic become clearer to Coco, its more apparent that witch culture has an air of superiority to non-magical folks, as seen by Agott’s initial conversations towards Coco about magic. Where Agott makes clear the ink on her hands is from intense training, which Coco had never endured. There’s an air of pride or “arrogance” (?) from witches who see their craft as something accessible to special few who have the resources or connections, while the “Unknowings” are reliant on the witches for magical know-how or tools when appropriate. This is made apparent when readers realize magic is not some inherit ability, but skill they have the ability master.
From barriers to entry to exclusive knowledge given to those who fit the mold of what an “ideal witch” should be, this series showcases how the opportunity to learn is not given to everyone. For instance like Tartah, who has silver-wash (their world’s version of color blindness), this meant he was forbidden to learn the ways of a witch because he’d be unable to recognize specific colors, etc. This theme woven throughout the world-building, indeed adds an unexplored idea to the magic system and how it influences the characters.
On another note, inclusivity or lack of in this secondary fantasy world is ever present, especially when you see the thread of Witch society impacting those who are both insiders & outsiders. In the world of WHA, its not uncommon to see mobility or accessible aids built with magic being available to the characters. For instance, Wise Witch Beldaruit, uses a sealchair to move around. Additionally, Tartah’s appreciation for magic showcases to the reader how witch society, despite being accessible to select few, there are many who are left outside.
To conclude there’s a lot to be said about the underlying themes and messages within Shirahama’s work within this manga, but highlighting just a few here add further depth to the story than just a world of witches and magic. It makes a point to highlight of course its strengths in being aware to make a world of accessibility, but also the systems faults and inaccessibility to those without the same connections or resources, thus the barriers to entry that leave magic to select few. I recommend reading this fantastic essay which further details these themes from Anime Feminist about WHA in terms of accessibility and education (*though be wary of spoilers).
5. Enchanting Storytelling of Joy, Wonder & Mystery
WHA begins with an easy enough premise, a girl without the gift of magic, embarks on a journey to become a witch and realizes her magical dream is not as far away as she realized. However, its in the execution of the story that the reader is swept away into this enchanting world of fantasy that despite its darker, tense moments, never loses the sense of whimsy or delight. It’s in the balance of these two that the setting, intricate magic system and unique cast of characters woven throughout the plot is much more enthralling with each installment.
Once again, if you have yet to read this masterpiece of a manga, I implore you to do so. You’ll be transported by the ingenious world that Shirahama has created, alongside the emotionally, thoughtful story and the deeper messages that make it a captivating fantasy world for anyone to dive into! ✨
As of April 2022, it was even announced that an anime adaptation is in the works and I was indeed *screaming when this was made official because if you’ve seen the art, you KNOW it would be perfect animated! So if you need another reason to start it…💖
Have you read WHA by Kamome Shirahama? If you have, what’s your favorite part? Whose your favorite character & any chapter which stood out to you so far? If you haven’t read this manga yet, any reasons within my essay have you convinced to start reading ASAP? 📚💫★。＼｜／。★