If Drifters contains too much testosterone in your revisionist war history wish fulfillment for your liking, worry not! Japanese otaku and the Winter 2016 anime season also offer their other most common variant. For, as strange though it is for me to say this, “alternate history World War II anime where a probably lesbian witch who isn’t wearing pants wins the war” is a phrase that describes MULTIPLE anime series over the years. Truth be told, most of them I just avoid entirely. But Izetta: The Last Witch is not only the best of those types of anime, for what that’s worth, it’s one of the most popular anime of the season.
In 1940 Europe, the militaristic empire of “Germania” has begun invading and conquering its smaller neighbors, which has gotten the attention of Western nations such as “Britannia” while the “United States of Atlanta” is electing to keep its distance, and I think you get the idea with the just barely fictionalized countries here so I’ll omit the scare quotes from now on. Cut off from support, the small duchy of Eylstadt in the Alps mountains is in a bind. With the archduke in grave condition, it falls to Princess Finé (“fee-nay”) to maintain her people’s sovereignty. Unfortunately for Finé, the Germanians catch up to her. Unfortunately for them, they don’t realize the other girl they’ve captured and decided to transport right next to Finé is Izetta, her long-lost childhood friend who also happens to have bona fide magical powers capable of blowing their armed forces to smithereens.
If country names like “Britannia” and supposedly smart people doing objectively dumb things for the sake of plot convenience sound familiar, it should. Izetta is written by Hiroyuki Yoshino, who previously worked on titles such as Code Geass, Guilty Crown, and various other such shows that one could charitably describe as “rollercoasters” due to their peaks and valleys in storytelling and sharp turns in narrative tone. But such things don’t dawn on you immediately. The image of a busty flying red-haired girl in a highly impractical dress using a vintage antitank rifle for a witch’s broom as she gazes longingly into the eyes of a blonde fairy tale princess and destroys the “Not”-zis (I’d pat myself on the back for that one if it weren’t the joke everyone else came up with at the same time) is designed to seize one’s attention on a multitude of levels, and key moments are accentuated by sharp animation and direction. But this too varies greatly.
One question I always ask when watching these alternate history fantasy series is, “If you have a character who has such powerful abilities, why not simply end the war immediately?” Fortunately, Izetta’s writing is smart enough to address this; the witch’s powers have limitations, and finding out what those are and how to counter them is what gives the Germanians a fighting chance. Furthermore, if the leaders of a sovereign nation had someone with such capabilities loyal to the state, they’d surely advertise them to the world and use them for propaganda purposes a la Captain America or Superman stories circa the time this series is set. That’s exactly what happens: the people of Eylstadt have a legend of the “Weiss Hexe,” the White Witch, and with Izetta being the last of her kind—the title of the series would certainly never lie to us—Finé elects to present her as the reincarnation of the legend, returned to drive away the would-be conquerors. That the war is covered from the top strategic levels through to the literal battlefield trenches while showing both the local and global political and media effects of what’s going on is where Izetta really shines, and the major cast members on both the Eylstadt and Germania sides are compelling and fleshed out.
But there are cracks in the armor. You can’t expect anything to be perfect, except for Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, but when this much is going right the imperfections stand out that much more. At first glance, the instantly familiar 20th-century European setting and designs combined with the general lack of Japanese names, cultural behaviors, and signage makes it seem like Izetta: The Last Witch would be a prime candidate for a “gateway anime”: something to show to people who aren’t already fans of Japanese animation to make them interested. But the more you watch, the more you realize this is a show for otaku first and foremost. For all the moments of brilliance in characterization and plotting that defy standard conventions, they have a tendency to be undercut by the most cookie-cutter, played-out, derivative “same old, same old” stuff you’ve seen a hundred times that betray a seemingly cynical lack of faith on the parts of the creative staff toward the viewing audience for what’s happening (see sidebar). The first episode opens with Finé barely escaping with her life following a daring train getaway from Germanian agents where comrades lay down their lives for her … and then in the next scene we see her naked in the shower and undressing. On the one hand, “WOO HOO!” On the other hand, is this supposed to keep us from getting bored or tuning out? The scene serves a purpose—to illustrate that Finé has a large scar on her side that will later be explained—but that’s just momentarily shown.
There’s a whole lot to enjoy about Izetta: The Last Witch, from its characters to its storytelling and technical artistry. That’s why it’s so head-scratching that the same show can have its minor exceptions of terrible characters, plot beats, and iffy animation cuts that will almost definitely be reworked before the home video release. Are these lapses a side effect of such a staggering amount of Japanese animation being produced in increasingly shorter periods of time, with no rise in pay or benefits? Animator turned director Masaya Fujimori has primarily worked on titles for young children up until this point, so perhaps he’s just learning the ropes of what goes into making anime for older otaku audiences? One thing is certain: he’s mastered how to draw girls making lovey-dovey “they’re just really good friends, wink wink” faces at one another!
Izetta: The Last Witch is available from Funimation and Crunchyroll.