“There is the story about Hayao Miyazaki entering the anime industry because he was moved by Panda and the Magic Serpent. Then he watched the movie again afterwards and was disappointed by how bad it was. 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.”
-Yoh Yoshinari, interview with AnimeStyle (2013)
It’s time to talk about Akko Kagari’s Panda and the Magic Serpent: Shiny Chariot.
Since Akko was a child, Shiny Chariot, a witch who made her name through spectacle and traveling magic show, has been her inspiration. Akko was not born into magic, but decided to become a witch after seeing Chariot perform. To Akko, Chariot is magic — fun, inventive, dazzling, and captivating. When faced with the task of learning magic, Akko is dumbfounded to discover that magic, like any other art, requires hard work and dedication.
Unwittingly, her teacher, Ursula, is Shiny Chariot. Discarding the spectacle and taking on a drab and anxious demeanor, Ursula is nothing like the high-energy Chariot, which is the primary reason, in addition to her general appearance, that Akko doesn’t recognize Ursula as her idol.
As a stand-in for the art of animation — and perhaps commentary on the waning of interest or resources in animation as a practice — Little Witch Academia has been fairly transparent about its narrative themes. Criticism levied at the television series through the weeks includes the complaint that it lacks a true antagonist, and that Akko herself is an unfitting lead due to the fact that she never learns. To address the latter criticism, I’d like to call upon on the words of Shiny Chariot/Ursula herself.
“You may see Miss Kagari as just a poor student unable to use magic if you compare her to her classmates . . . You should not be comparing her to other students, but how she was on the day of her enrollment! Nobody can deny she’s continuing to grow through her failures!”
-Professor Ursula, Little Witch Academia, Episode 7
Although Akko is unaware of who Ursula actually is, she respects Ursula and looks up to her as an authority figure. Tasked with bringing Akko up to speed, Ursula experiences Akko’s struggles firsthand — struggles eerily reminiscent to her own when she was a student but before she became the Shiny Chariot.
A common thing in any traditional art medium — any craft, really — is that an audience or a student will only see the finished product, not the years of dedication and failure that were refined before said product steps into the figurative spotlight. Akko is impetuous, impatient, and, in Yoh Yoshinari’s words, “has an ego centric confidence” that she’ll be able to do impressive, advanced magic before she even learns the basics. Her passion, the very thing that drives her, is also a weakness at times. Thanks to a glimpse into the Fountain of Polaris we, and Akko, learn that this was also Chariot’s weakness.
“That which is dreamed cannot be grasped, but work towards it day after day, and you will find it in your hands.”
-Professor Ursula, Little Witch Academia, Episode 11
When she sees Shiny Chariot, she sees a finished, or at least somewhat polished, product. Akko doesn’t bother to think of Chariot’s weaknesses, or any setbacks Chariot would have had en route to becoming the witch that inspired a young Akko, until the Fountain of Polaris shows her in Episode 6. Doubts resurface in the series’ eleventh episode, and Akko admits her fear of never succeeding to Ursula despite having grown her magical prowess significantly since she arrived as a commoner to Luna Nova.
In this same episode, Akko also fiercely holds on to her own memories and failings. When given the choice between accelerating to become Shiny Chariot immediately, she refuses, quoting Professor Ursula while choosing to take the slow path. When Akko goes to the Fountain of Polaris in Episode 6, it’s to find out her future instantly. Although her Blue Moon excursion that leads her to Professor Woodward is in service of inquiring about her future, it’s given less urgency and framed as more of a reassuring quest rather than an immediate search for a definitive answer. This alone proves that Akko has grown, not only as a witch, but as a person.
Much of Ursula’s past as Shiny Chariot is purposefully obfuscated by the series itself. We’re not meant to know much more than Akko as we accompany this little witch apprentice through her school years at Luna Nova. Little Witch Academia: the Enchanted Parade had a more capricious Ursula, who winked at the viewing audience while framing Akko’s antics as another one of her shows. In Little Witch Academia the television series, Ursula is more worried, and quiet. Her one outburst was in defense of Akko when Professor Finneran wanted Akko expelled — most of the time she is meek, with any questioning of Shiny Chariot’s whereabouts making her nervous rather than cheeky. More intriguing than the Grand Triskelion or any phenomenal cosmic magical power that could potentially save Luna Nova is what exactly happened to Chariot to turn her into Ursula.
As Shiny Chariot, Ursula has been unknowingly teaching Akko for years. Akko is, above all else, driven by passion, and this passion is what ultimately encourages her to buckle down and study magic. It’s also what inspires her to memorize Shiny Chariot’s trading cards as a child. Since Little Witch Academia‘s second episode and the papilliodya chrysalises, the trading cards have proven to each be a guidepost for a specific item, location, or occurrence. Ursula may have only been introduced to Akko recently, but she’s been guiding Akko for years through the words of Shiny Chariot.