“Luna Nova is reaching the end of its usefulness anyway. All I want is to collect on it before its value drops to nothing.”
-Fafnir to Akko Kagari, Little Witch Academia, Episode 5
How many times have we heard the phrase, “anime is dying?”
How many times have we heard its sister phrase, “anime was a mistake?”
Both of these memetic sayings have been repeated ad nauseam, accompanied by the latest screencaps or bits of dialogue from currently airing series, across various forms of social media. The latter is a misattributed quote to legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki, subtitled over scenes from the 2013 documentary on Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
Although “anime is a mistake” is a false line, Miyazaki has continuously and cantankerously expressed derision towards the modern anime industry — among many other things — in interviews and his own memoirs. His attitude is not a recent shift, but an opinion reiterated and repeated over time. “Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know,” he said in an interview for Golden Time (translated here on rocketnews24). “It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku!”
Yet the inspiration of so-called lowbrow anime to a fledgling animator is what Little Witch Academia is all about. “There is the story about Hayao Miyazaki entering the anime industry because he was moved by Panda and the Magic Serpent,” Little Witch Academia director Yoh Yoshinari said in an interview about the original OVA. Then he watched the movie again afterwards and was disappointed by how bad it was (laugh). Yet, even if it’s actually not enjoyable at all, it can be irreplaceable for that person. What’s important is the feelings you got from watching it, and the fact that you had admiration for it. That’s the theme we were looking for.”
This will be a bit of a stretch for some, but another framework through which to view Little Witch Academia is a continuing celebration of the anime fan.
Before Studio Trigger, there was GAINAX. GAINAX was the otaku animation studio, founded by anime fans. From their initial Daicon animation shorts to Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, GAINAX has marketed itself — rightfully so — as the studio that gets you, the anime fan.
As one of my favorite anime bloggers once said in this love letter to GAINAX, aptly titled It Takes a Fanboy, “When Gainax formed, they enabled similar otaku factories to start up in Japan as well. Many of today’s most-beloved studios and their products owe a debt to the fanboys who could.”
One such studio is Studio Trigger, a direct offshoot of GAINAX that carries on the otaku spirit of its predecessor. Founded by GAINAX alumni Hiroyuki Imaishi (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) and Masahiko Otsuka (FLCL), Trigger continues the GAINAX tradition of staying close to, and celebrating, their otaku fanbase.
“We were able to create titles with a lot of creative freedom while at Gainax.” Otsuka and Yoshinari said in a 2013 interview with AnimeNewsNetwork. “However, we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to do things surrounding our titles, such as communicating directly with fans in the way that we want, then we shouldn’t rely on the studio. We concluded that we had to take responsibility for such things ourselves.” In the years that have followed, Studio Trigger has become a studio dedicated to reaching out to fans both in Japan and abroad.
Episode 5 of Little Witch Academia brings a small but significant detail of the series’ universe to the forefront. Interest in magic is dying.
Despite its prestige and tradition, Luna Nova Academy’s enrollment figures are at an all-time low. Akko Kagari’s own acceptance into Luna Nova was prompted not by any sort of magical prowess — Akko doesn’t come from a magical family, nor is she adept at magic in any way — but the school’s desperate need of money. There’s an easy parallel between Akko’s magical world and the present-day anime industry, especially with director Yoshinari’s likening of Akko to a young, naive, and passionate animator. When the Sorcerer’s Stone — the source of Luna Nova’s magical power — is seemingly stolen by dragons, Akko and fellow impulsive witch Amanda O’Neill immediately spring to action without research, dragging their friends along with them.
Akko and Amanda’s actions are rarely rewarded outright, but are given merit through the commentary of other characters. We’re supposed to cheer for them, despite the fact that they’re idiots who jump into things too quickly without thought.
When they rush to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone, they’re met by elderly dragon Fafnir, who is concerned with little but receiving his overdue loan payments — with interest, of course — from Luna Nova. They, and the unwitting Luna Nova faculty, are rescued by young prodigy Diana Cavendish and her ability to read the dragon’s language. Diana discovers that Fafnir’s contract has been taking advantage of the fact that no one at Luna Nova could read his notice. The school has been paying him interest for years that he didn’t initially request. She confronts him and not only secures the Sorcerer’s Stone but forces Fafnir to terminate the contract with the promise of returning the overpaid interest to the school’s coffers.
Diana is almost too perfect — and will certainly grate on a lot of viewers in this episode for her convenience to the narrative — but her existence is another slight jab at those presumably in charge. Continuing true GAINAX tradition, the ones ruling the world are often blinded by their own adherence to tradition or appearance of power. The incompetence of Luna Nova’s staff in Episode 5 is a bit like Commander Amarao’s eyebrows coming off in FLCL — the teachers only appear competent until they’re exposed by the younger generation. Diana is a foil to Akko’s blundering, but is prone to her own brand of blindness, as shown in Episode 2. She too, was inspired by Shiny Chariot, even if she doesn’t wear her love of the lowbrow witch on her sleeve like Akko.
“You’ll learn soon enough that no man can live on dreams alone.”
-Fafnir to Akko Kagari, Little Witch Academia, Episode 5
Diana saves the day, but it’s Akko who gives the curmudgeonly and skeptical Fafnir a small glimmer of hope for magic’s future. Fafnir snorts at her naivety but after a long look around his many glowing computer screens, admits that he didn’t think that there were humans left with the determination present in Akko’s eyes.
Magic, in the case of Little Witch Academia, will not die as long as people like Akko and Diana are around to continue the tradition. Similarly, anime will not die, despite inevitable ebbs and flows in monetary investment, studio formations, and even a declining television viewership. At least, not while the animators at Studio Trigger, and other animators like them, are around.