Little Witch Academia: Making Magic Transnational

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This post mainly references Little Witch Academia: “A New Beginning” and general elements and specific moments in the narratives of the Harry Potter franchise. 

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There were a number of things that I grew up on that I still look at fondly today whenever I’m feeling particularly nostalgic. The fact that I didn’t need to work, the first anime that I didn’t know was anime that really gripped me, and the Harry Potter franchise. I always thought that it was neat that the books became lengthier, featured more complex plots, and progressed into something that took increasingly higher language chops to read through with each installment. As Harry grew up, so did his readers. Say what you will about the literary quality of these children to young adult novels (the epilogue admittedly reads like cheesy fanfiction), I remember reading and re-reading each volume, voraciously, from front to back. The paperbacks of the volumes I owned began falling apart, and some of them did (like that monster of the fifth book). I got into heated debates with myself and other fans about a number of franchise-related controversies, like how the books were better than the movies and about which character should be romantically paired with who. I laughed, cried, got embarrassed and smiled widely. The world and its characters brought me a sense of immersive pleasure that couldn’t compare to anything else at the time.

It was a magical experience for me, and judging by the multimedia commercial empire this Wizarding World spawned, it was a magical experience for tens and, I daresay, hundreds of millions of people too. But then you experience life a little more and notice some things that you didn’t before, little idiosyncrasies that stem from the British author who wrote these things in. People engage with media in different ways, after all. These idiosyncrasies were even more apparent to me when comparing the Harry Potter franchise to a Harry Potter-inspired series like Little Witch Academia. It didn’t take away from what joy I felt when I first read the novels or watched the films. Nor did it reframe the stories that I cherished as a child and adolescent as this grossly insidious thing in lurking in the bowels that I now needed to purge from my system lest I be and remain an awful person deep down. And bear in mind, Little Witch Academia is just full of love for all things Harry Potter, and it illustrates that love through its numerous callbacks to its world and characters.

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While the Harry Potter franchise has been a wild international success, at the very end of the day, Harry Potter is a groundedly British product whose limited depictions of non-British cultures is marked by some exotic stereotypes. By contrast, Little Witch Academia is more reflective of the transnational nature of both the Potter and anime fandoms. The identity of its content is neither solely British or Japanese, nor does it treat the audience’s initial impressions of its non-British and non-Japanese elements as anything particularly special. That’s more uncommon in my line of entertainment experiences than I’d prefer.

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There isn’t a whole diversity in the Harry Potter franchise’s main character roster that isn’t white and British. It makes sense that Harry Potter’s main characters are white British, as the vast majority — close to if not over 90% — of people living in Britain are white and British. There are non-white British characters present — of African, Chinese, and Indian descent — throughout the movies and especially the books that possess speaking roles and may even serve as plot drivers. They are nonetheless British, and they are British for two reasons.

(1) There are multiple schools of magic in the Wizarding World that conform to a regional character on the basis on where they are, well, based. For example, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry caters mainly to British pupils, Beauxbatons Academy of Magic to European French-speakers and Iberians, and Durmstrang to European peoples up north and east. There is some overlap in the ethnicities and nationalities of the student bodies, but their composition nonetheless seems to reflect the area in which they are established in. Harry Potter takes place most often Hogwarts and, as such, follows a mainly British cast.

(2) Britain was once an empire, and a slaving one at that. At its height British Empire penetrated into the African continent, China, and the Indian subcontinent. Like the historical ties between Filipino migrants and its former metropole in America, the British motherland has historically attracted immigrants from those parts of the former dominion for reasons of education and commerce coupled with a sense of familiarity reinforced by shared languages and sensibilities — this notion of a special relationship between individual immigrants that hasn’t totally soured from unpleasant memories of colonial subjugation. Thus, it’s not totally out-of-place to see characters of African, Chinese, and Indian descent like Dean Thomas, Cho Chang, and the Patil Twins, respectively.

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There are a number of reasons why I prefer the books over the movies, and one of is that it contains the time and space to chart out the contours of British but non-white characters. Owing, no doubt in part, to the necessity of having to condense hundreds to thousands of pages of small font story text into limited run film times, narrative focus was understandably redirected to the main characters… who happen to be white and British.  I mean, I also enjoy anime with full awareness that most anime are produced for the Japanese market and not the international one, for instance. It makes sense that most of them deal in Japanese main characters and reference aspects of Japanese culture. By extension, it’s fine for transnational audiences to enjoy a primarily British cultural product. The movies, after all, don’t really make a big deal about it textually.

White British people aren’t pontificated in the films as the master race. They don’t really represent audiences, especially the non-white ones, outside of the white British ones all that well. It represents aspects of white British culture fairly well, sure — aspects of that culture that international audiences like enough to spend copious amounts of time and money consuming. However fans responsive for the Harry Potter franchise from national bestseller to international stardom are not all British. The majority are probably not British. The Potter fanbase transcends national borders. The fandom is transnational.

Nowhere is this British bias more present — at least in the movies — than during the fourth: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Supposedly the most internationally representative of the movies due to the participation of the other schools of magic in a competition (albeit all of them European), the viewers’ first big impression of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang as their respective students made their way to Hogwart’s Great Hall are the following: a procession of flirty and floaty silk-clad girls with blue butterflies and a march of strong and proud warrior men with fiery sparks. Disregarding the fact that the books have both of these schools featuring student bodies of both men and women, the performances of both schools were organized along historical lines of cultural stereotypes: French femininity and sensuousness, and Viking masculinity and aggression. The books do certain characters — namely Krum and Fleur — from these schools more nuanced justice than the movies. Nonetheless, the books and movies both still exhibit that British bias of a somewhat self-absorbed outsider looking in.

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In contrast, Episode 1 of Little Witch Academia, “A New Beginning” features a roster of characters who make their homes in different parts of the world. The setting is undisputedly Harry Potter inspired, but it avoids making all the main characters British. There’s just one main British character named Diana Cavendish. The show also avoids being saturated by the culture of its Japanese makers. There’s just one main Japanese character named Atsuko “Akko” Kagari. There are other main characters as well that hail from ethnicities and nationalities that the Harry Potter franchise hasn’t bothered acknowledging at all: Lotte Yanson from Finland and Sucy Manbavaran from the Philippines. There’s also nothing about the latter two characters in particular that screams Finnish and Filipino. They don’t say in the show they’re from Finland or the Philippines — at least not yet — but the origins/etymology of their names and the environmental storytelling present in the items that they carry around (salmiakki and  a walis tambo) indicate as such for the viewers’ that already know or suspect something’s up and/or are/become curious enough to dig through the Internet for more information on these characters.

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Little Witch Academia represents both its transnational anime fandom and the transnational Harry Potter fandom better than many anime that are noticed outside of Japan and even the entire Harry Potter franchise. Inadvertently or not, it reflects Studio Trigger’s efforts (the studio behind this anime) to solicit feedback and earn market share from audiences wider than the country that they’re based in. And, again, it’s fine that Little Witch Academia is more transnational and other tales are not. Worldly professional literary and media critics would at the notion that storytelling would better off being always and absolutely less vernacular.

Cosmopolitanism promotes values and arts different to the values and arts of individual cultures, but all parties possess insights that we can learn from and beauties that we can admire — that can enrich our thinking… and thus our lives. Mark Twain’s characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are harder to appreciate without some understanding of what life was like during the American Antebellum. Natsume Soseki’s melancholy in Kokoro is more difficult to empathize with without some understanding of living conditions of Japanese urbanites following the Meiji Restoration. But I do appreciate Little Witch Academia’s efforts to make magic more international.

That appreciation stems from both (1) a simple but compelling argument about diversity and (2) an anecdote from the time I last visited the Philippines.

(1) I’m ethnically Filipino, and Sucy Manbavaran is ethnically Filipino. That Filipino heritage of Sucy’s is subtle enough that many viewers don’t realize it, and instead just treat her like any other main character. The audience treats her, like Lotte and Akko, generally like any other person: by how much they like her or not like her by how she behaves: by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin and the culture that they hailed from. Filipinos, Finnish, British, and Japanese are all human. While they have their differences in how they look, what they carry, and what customs they practice, they are all people. In Little Witch Academia, they are all witches and stars. It’s inspiring enough statement from any liberal context. But of additionally relevant note, there is an embedded strain in Japanese culture that looks down on Filipinos as inferior Asians.

(2) I bought the 7th and final installation of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, from a bookstore in the Philippines as it was released internationally. I sat down in a jazzy classy coffee house inside a  air-conditioned cosmopolitan shopping mall to read through my book alongside the cafe’s other patrons. These patrons happened to be page-turning through the same book. Based on the exchange rate at the time between the Filipino Peso and the American Dollar, the book at the time cost as much in monetary value in the Philippines as it does in the US. I laughed, cried, got embarrassed and smiled widely. We were all Filipinos enjoying a British product. And then a thought crossed my mind while I was reading: “It would be nice if I could be nice if I could be a wizard.” Alas, there I was: a Muggle… and a person of an ethnicity whose existence is largely ignored by the international mediascape.

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So it was that I felt a small pleasure watching Little Witch Academia, basking in the insinuating warmth that my kind was welcome, quite explicitly and now officially, in the world of magic. That goes for other peoples as well: Americans, Germans, and perhaps even freaking Croatians.

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