When I think of witches, the first thing that pops into my head is the skit in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It still perplexes me a woman would weigh the same as a duck, but who am I to argue against the scientific method?
As with other forms of media, anime and manga have a subset of authors and creators dedicated to making artistic and critically acclaimed works rather than popular works. Generally, those works are thematically interesting or have a unique artistic style and I feel they add a great deal to the medium. Though one could argue Studio Ghibli falls into the category of an artistic studio, and I wouldn’t argue against that, the studio has also created many lucrative properties. On the manga production side of the industry, there are a number of publications that focus on artistic works as well. I feel the most well known, in Japan at least, are Shogakukan’s Monthly Ikki Comics and Monthly Big Comics and Kodansha’s Monthly Morning Comics and Monthly Evening Comics. There have been some interesting titles from all four of these publications over the years and they arguably provide more content to the medium than their weekly shonen publication counterparts. Granted, many of the works are short and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a majority never see publication outside of a magazine. It’s a shame, too, because I would love to see these works in an accessible form. Thankfully, there are some works that manage to break the mold and find themselves in the hands of the general public.
One such work that wasn’t relegated to the abyss of magazine publication was Daisuke Igarashi’s Witches (魔女 Majyo). Like other artistic endeavors, this manga series seemed less about a cohesive narrative than atmosphere. That’s not to say there wasn’t any sort of narrative within the two volume series, but rather the series was more of an anthology surrounding a single theme. As such, each story focused on the idea of witches in different social contexts, while the series itself was a critique of our society as a whole. While this created a surreal narrative in the stories, it actually benefited the overall theme of the series. That surreal narrative also bled into the artwork and there were plenty of instances where that surreal quality truly came through.
I admit works that are thought of as artistic—be it film, theater, dance, television programs, and so on—do seem pretentious. That doesn’t mean they don’t add to our collective understanding of the medium in which they reside, but it certainly makes them difficult for most people to digest. This is why we are consistently bombarded with entertainment that has questionable longevity in the modern world. Yet, through an examination of the limitations of a medium, we are able to expand on how works are created. For example, without the techniques pioneered in artistic films we wouldn’t have the massive blockbusters we have today. The same could be said about literature, paintings, dance, and even manga and anime. So, as much as I may not enjoy artistic manga and anime, without them we would still be reading poorly paneled manga with little to no narrative depth. It really is a gamble creating an artistic work because sometimes the ideas the author is trying to convey aren’t always clearly defined. Thus, I commend publishing houses for taking a risk with works such as Witches.
When looking at Witches it’s not a traditional narrative of one cohesive story throughout the two volumes, but rather an anthology of stories revolving around a single idea. It’s rather obvious what that theme is, it’s in the title after all, but the author used it effectively in four long stories and two short stories. In fact, there is little overlap other than the central focus being the idea of witches and their connection to nature. However, through those themes we were given stories that examined our understanding of the world and even critiqued it. The four long stories did this exceptionally well, but the middle two stories conveyed their themes and critiques far better than the others. We’ll examine two long stories to understand why this is so.
The first of the two long stories, Kuarupu, was less about witches and more focused on modern colonialism. What I mean by this is we tend to think about colonialism from the nineteenth century perspective of large nations and empires expanding their influence to less technologically advanced regions and exploiting their resources. While a certain amount of this is still true with modern colonialism, it seems as though it’s brought about through multinational corporations trying to lower their costs while increasing their profits and developed nations wanting to maintain a high standard of living. What, then, does this have to do with the story at hand? Simply put, the story focused on a small tribe in the Amazon fighting against the assimilation and destruction of their culture. Some may argue because assimilation is the path of least resistance, the lives of the tribe’s members would improve because of it. Yet, I feel the counterargument that not all indigenous cultures that move towards assimilation benefit from such a move is more accurate. While I can’t say with certainty that observation is true about the tribe in this particular story, the idea they were trying to preserve their way of life meshed well with the theme of the series. This was seen through the motif of consumption via a spiritual force throughout the story.
For instance, a few pages into Kuarupu an army squad experienced hallucinations of being devoured in different forms. It’s a wonderful little scene and it emphasized the concepts of the supernatural, nature, and witches seen in Witches. Yet, Kuarupu went much further than one scene to reinforce this motif. Not more than halfway through the story it was explained to readers how the witch, Kumari, was fighting against those colonizers. It’s rather interesting in that it played with the idea of forest spirits feeding on her but in return protecting and obeying her. However, it was actually the final two pages that cemented the theme of the story. Generally I don’t enjoy discussing the end of a story, but it’s warranted here because of how it was thematically appropriate and critiqued modern society. To be blunt, we saw children in a fast food restaurant ordering and eating hamburgers. Yet, the final images of the story were the forest spirits reaching out from the hamburger and begging not to be eaten. The thought we are eating the spirits of a vibrant culture and ecosystem is disturbing to say the least, but consider the social critique here. We often don’t reflect on where our food comes from and how we, in developed nations, affect indigenous cultures through our consumption habits. It’s rather profound and I felt it was suburb writing.
The second of the two long stories, Petra Genitalix, dealt with similar themes of the supernatural, nature, and witches but not through the lens of modern colonization. Instead it focused on the inception of life and the cycle of life and death. In all honesty, I’ve seen better discussions of the circle of life in other stories, namely Disney’s The Lion King, but how it was handled in this story was unique in its own right. In fact, it was likened to the Roman Mithraic Mysteries of the god Mithras being born from rock. While there were parallels from the Mithras story in Petra Genitalix, rather than retelling the Mithras story, in Petra Genitalix the theme centered more on the cycle of life and death. As such, there was a fascinating discussion between the characters Mila and Father Wid about the creation of life and the cycle of life and death in the middle of the story. Again, I’ve seen better and far simpler discussions of the subjects, but the way in which they were presented in this story was engaging.
However, as interesting as the discussion was it was the underlying commentary on organized religion, in this case Catholicism, that piqued my interest. It’s a very small portion of the story, no more than seven pages, but the musings of the author were thought provoking. To be clear, it didn’t challenge the notion of God or the Church itself, but rather the idea the Church’s world is limited by comparison to the infinite world of witches. This may seem confusing at first, but the author wasn’t referring to their respective worldviews. More precisely, he was expressing how words only provided a limited view of the world and as such the Church used them as a tool to categorize the world as they saw fit. In turn, witches could throw out the conventions of language and observe the world for what it was. As such, in one of the final moments of the story we saw Mila’s apprentice make an intriguing comment on how we need to observe and feel the world, not just describe it.
With each individual story being narratively intriguing, this begs the question of how Witches was also an artistic work rather than a mainstream work. It’s no more than the artwork utilized by Daisuke Igarashi. Surprisingly, his artistic style was a fascinating mix of sketches, detail, and surrealism. The first two descriptions clearly contradict each other, but the sketches comprised his character designs while the detail was reserved for the backgrounds. That’s not to say his character designs were rough sketches, but rather they lacked the polish we might find in popular works. In fact, there was some intricate detail provided for the characters in certain panels. There are certainly a variety of examples strewn about the series and one could comment on each, but I found he tended to emphasize the characters’ lips in ways very few manga authors do. This may seem like a minor detail for manga authors, but to my amazement filling out that area of the characters’ faces added more emotion to their expressions. Those subtle instances of when detail was added to the rough character designs kept the series engaging.
But, I also mentioned the detailed background art as well as the surrealism. The background art functioned much in the same way as the character designs in that while seemingly simple, great care was taken to make each set piece beautiful. The first story, Spindle, exemplified this as it portrayed the majesty of Istanbul on a large scale as well as on a local level. Going even further, there were some wonderful single page spreads where the intricacies of the movement in the backgrounds could be felt. They were few and far between, but they added to the grand nature of the backgrounds. In turn, the surreal effects generally came at the climax of each chapter. Yes, there were some instances where they came much earlier in a story, but for the most part it was during the climax. The final long story exemplified the surreal aspects of the series in three pages by presenting the harmony that existed on an island being broken. It wasn’t all that beautiful compared to the visuals in Spindle, but they were images we could quickly understand.
This surreal aspect of Witches wouldn’t have worked had it not been for the creative ways Daisuke Igarashi portrayed them. To a degree each story fell upon the fantastical to convey its point, but the visuals helped to cement those ideas. It’s similar to the notion in Petra Genitalix where we should feel the experience rather than have it explained to us. As such, some of the plot points were less about delivering a message we could understand, but, more accurately, providing readers with a mesmerizing experience. Think of it in terms of a one of Stanley Kubrick’s films. While there are overarching story elements present in his films, some scenes are meant to be experienced rather than described. One great example is at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a mind bogglingly awesome scene—not in the colloquial use of awesome, but in the literal definition of awe inspiring—and a scene we have to see in context to fully appreciate. The same was true in Witches and as such describing the series is more of a disservice as opposed to being beneficial.
Witches was one of the few artistic manga I’ve read and I’m glad I did. While the different stories were confusing at times, I could forgive this because of the surreal nature of them. That being said though, all four of the long stories were captivating and explored vastly different subjects. This is the strength of an anthology manga as it allows authors to explore the potential in any given story and push the boundaries of the medium. The strength of the series also wasn’t dependent on the themes and narrative. Thanks to the unique vision of Daisuke Igarashi, we receive at the very least three different artistic styles that seemingly contradict each other, but which meshed well in the context of the stories. This was especially true with the surreal nature of the stories and the bold visuals that went along with them. On a more personal note, this series was actually suggested to me by one of my oldest friends. I’m glad he loaned me his copies as they opened a new world of potential for this medium to me. Perhaps this isn’t the best series for every fan of the manga medium. However, if you’re looking for something different and artistic, and that pushes the boundaries of what manga authors can do, Witches is a series you’ll want to read.