Sunday, 1 January 2017

A Teen Witch Fights a Tank: A Review of 'Izetta: The Last Witch' (2016 Anime)

I doubt any of the staff of Izetta: The Last Witch’s thought they were making art. They aimed as high as the best of trash, and got damn close. Expect no deeply explored themes, expect no round characters, but do expect a teenage witch riding a rifle as a broom. Expect camp, WW2, action trash, with little on its mind.

In an ersatz-WW2, the Germanian Empire fights for world dominion. Hope falls to Archduchess Ortfiné, ruler of the miniscule nation of Elystadt. While fleeing Germanian agents, she finds a young witch. With the help of Izetta the last witch, Ortfiné escapes her pursuers, before taking on the Germanian Empire. 

All alternate-history stories ask what-if questions. What if Imperial Germany survived past the First World War? What if magic existed in WW2? How would warfare and culture react? What if a teen witch fought a tank? Hiroyuki Yoshino, the screenwriter, is most interested in that last question. You get the sense he wanted to make a straight WW2 show, but couldn’t be bothered with history books. What we get is a greatest hits collection of WW2 iconography. You get the dog fights, the tanks, and the fashion, but unbound by pesky chronology and facts. Probably for the best. It’s tricky making WW2 popcorn entertainment, because the audience knows there’s genocide in the background. With an alt-WW2, you can look at all the vintage stuff without worrying about disrespecting the dead. 

(Spoilers for the finale.)
Unfortunately, even Yoshino’s superficial what-ifs dissolve by the series' end. In the final episodes, the question is not ‘What if a teen witch fought a tank?’ but ‘What if a witch fought another witch?’ squandering the show’s WW2 setting. The atom bomb does come up in the climax, but it's secondary to the ‘Which witch is stronger’ conflict.
(End, spoilers for the finale.)

(Non-spoiler version: the show squanders the WW2 setting's potential in the climax.)

With respect owed to Yoshino, I will call the show’s superficial treatment of history an artistic choice rather than laziness. Izetta is alternate history not to explore the war, but to avoid exploring the war. Any plot threads which Yoshino might have mined for thematic depth, he leaves as mere narrative conceits. The Elystadt high-command makes a big deal of Izetta’s propaganda potential. They advertise to the world they’ve the silver bullet against Germania’s technological might. Had Yoshino wanted to explore wartime propaganda, he could have shown its abhorrent side. When Elystadt proclaims, ‘Our witch is mightier than the Germanian Empire,’ the Empire opts only to discredit the claim, and say, ‘No, we are stronger.’ What they do not say is: ‘Not only is the witch weak, but she is a genetically inferior, heathen whore for a crushed people.’ As witches are a hated minority, the real-world parallels are obvious. That Yoshino does not pastiche Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda cannot be an oversight, but rather a choice. The conspicuous dearth of racism depicted (towards witches and actual ethnic groups) also must be a choice. The series shows us bigotry against witches, but very quickly downplays this. As soon as Izetta bolsters the war effort, what must be centuries of prejudice vanish.  

Although Izetta has few themes, its central conceit is an interesting, if not probing, parallel with reality. How the show answers ‘What if a witch fought in WW2?’ is not so fantastical as it sounds. Izetta symbolises new martial technology, a mighty force who invalidates all previous weapons. She is like the atom bomb, when only one nation held it. (Though, she is more discriminate in her targets than the bomb.) Elystadt wields her, and it doesn’t matter how many troops you deploy, nor what weapons you fire, Izetta is an unstoppable force.

(SPOILERS, in this paragraph)
Yoshino muddles this parallel when he puts, side-by-side, the symbol and the symbolised. The climatic ticking time bomb is a literal atom bomb (or at least a magic version almost identical to it). This is unnecessary, especially considering the Germanians clone their own witch. They could even clone more, which neatly allegorises nuclear proliferation. Why Yoshino didn’t roll the bombs destructive potential into the Germanians’ witch and/or witch cloning potential, I don’t know. I just wish he had.
(SPOILERS, end) 

(Non-spoiler version: the show muddles its central metaphors.)       

While Yoshino’s refusal to dig deep into themes leaves the show shallow, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Criticising Izetta for superficiality makes a category error. One should judge it not on the metrics of art, but trash, by measuring not its profundity, but its fun. And Izetta surely sacrifices the former for the latter. In the third act, however, the fun drowns in how generic the show becomes, when the show squanders its WW2 setting.

Izetta’s characters are as sure as cogs in the narrative machine. But while all the show’s characters are flat, their variety prevents their being boring. E. M. Forster defined a flat character as one for whom a single sentence can explain all their actions. They may display a multitude of tics and eccentricities, but, at base, all their actions arise from this one motivation. This does not make flat characters boring. (Read any of Dickens’ for proof .) Flat characters get their bad name from those fictioneers who give all their flat characters the same sentence.

Take Yona of the Dawn. Through her quest, Yona has multiple allies. In truth, she has only one, in multiple guises. All her entourage have the same sentence: ‘I will aid Yona, for I like Yona.’ They may wear different clothes, display different tics, and come from different pasts, but these differences merely veil their homogenous motivations.

Yoshino avoids this by giving all Izetta’s characters different sentences. Ortfiné ‘will defend her kingdom’s people above her own life, for she loves her people.’ In a more amateurish work, Izetta’s sentence would have been the same as Ortfiné’s, for, on the surface, they have the same goal, Germania’s defeat. But Izetta’s sentence is: ‘I will serve Ortfiné’s interests above my own, for I love Ortfiné.’ Already, we have two characters worthy of being called ‘two’ characters.

See, even Izetta knows her brief

Unfortunately, Yoshino sometimes forgets the limits of flat characters. As their single sentence often only applies to the main plot, they are as dull as water-starved fish out of it. In one episode, Yoshino gives us a break from the plot, by showing us what our heroines do on their time off. Were either Izetta or Ortfiné round characters, such a digression would allow us to view them from a different angle. But, as with cardboard cut-outs, viewing flat characters from a new angle just confirms how flat they are. What nuggets do we learn about our heroines? Ortfiné adores cakes, and will sneak into town to procure them. This is often how character building goes for flat characters. For lack of a robust personality, writers will bolt on eccentricities to simulate personality. Luckily, this is one episode (not even the whole episode) of twelve. For the majority of the show, they are cogs in the narrative, as they should be.

Izetta and Ortfiné’s flatness does not diminish their love affair. I will not caveat that with ‘subtextual’. While the two never kiss, nor confess their romantic love on screen, there comes a point when circumstantial evidence amounts to a certainty. Any who do not see it fail not just at reading between the lines, but have missed many of the lines themselves.

Well, when you're at a party...

Look at that entirely platonic affection.

You know, I'm beginning to think they're gay.

Their love story is sweet, and has no bumps in its progress (which is fine, as I doubt the characters could sustain a convincing love story). At times, their affection is marred by the show’s leering camera. The show serves the male gaze. No scene is so dramatic it will forgo highlighting a girl’s anatomy. In the heat of battle, on a war-ruined plane, we have a close-up on that most vital visual: Izetta’s arse. When the villains capture a character, the chains binding her do not merely restrain her body, but accentuate it. I could go on, but flick to any episode and you’ll soon find your own evidence. Our heroines’ affection seems a more chaste subject for the male gaze. Although the camera may not frame them for the male audience’s sexual pleasure, it does offer them up for the male audience’s aesthetic pleasures. I am not saying their relationship is a sexist stain, just that it’s not a triumph of representation. If one can ignore that, their love is endearing.

Izetta is good trash that loses steam by the end. I know such faint praise damns a show, but I mean every bit of that faint praise. The show aims only to entertain, not to say anything about war or humanity. If you, too, have asked, ‘What if a teen witch fought a tank?’ give Izetta the Last Witch a go.       

[All screencaps taken from Crunchy Roll's stream:]

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